Working Document for Synod’s Continental Stage Calls for Reform of Church Structures

NEWS ANALYSIS: Canonists offered a mixed reception to the text released Oct. 27, with some dismissing its call for major reforms as a nonstarter.

Synod on Synodality logo for the working document for the continental stage.
Synod on Synodality logo for the working document for the continental stage. (photo: Courtesy photo /

WASHINGTON — The Vatican’s Synod on Synodality issued a working document designed to set a framework for the second, or “continental,” stage of the three-year global process launched by Pope Francis in 2021. But the text’s explicit call for the transformation of Church structures stirred controversy, raising the stakes for Church leaders in the U.S. and Canada, who will begin their formal deliberations in January for the global synod’s next phase. 

Entitled “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” the document invited Catholic leaders to reflect on demands for a more inclusive, welcoming Church that were voiced during the first phase of the synodal process, when local dioceses sponsored surveys and listening sessions. 

A portion of the text went much further, however. It explicitly called for the transformation of all Church structures through the incorporation of a synodal model of prayerful listening and discernment that would impact Church governance.

“All Church institutions, as fully participatory bodies, are called to consider how they might integrate the call to synodality into the ways in which they exercise their functions and their mission, renewing their structures and procedures,” stated the text, informally called the DCS (“Document for the Continental Stage”), released on Oct. 27.

“The Church also needs to give a synodal form and way of proceeding to its own institutions and structures, particularly with regard to governance. Canon law will need to accompany this process of structural renewal, creating the necessary changes to the arrangements currently in place.” 

U.S. bishops contacted for this story said they did not have sufficient time to digest the 44-page document and consider its ramifications. They will likely discuss the text during their upcoming meeting in Baltimore, Nov. 14-17, which is scheduled about six weeks before the continental stage begins in 2023. 


Mixed Response

Canonists who spoke with the Register offered a mixed response to the document’s framework and priorities.  

Some were disappointed with the authors’ failure to provide a more substantive theological foundation for the continental discussions. Other experts noted that the synodal document held no legislative power to mandate structural change, and some suggested that advisory groups composed of lay experts that already operate within U.S. dioceses and parishes would likely fulfill any future requirement that dioceses and national episcopal conferences incorporate a synodal model of prayerful dialogue with lay leaders.

Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk expressed dismay at the document’s “inward focus” and concluded that it had failed to live up to “Pope Francis’ expressed desire for the path of this Synodal Way.”

The document “indicates that one of the primary focuses of the people of God was mission, yet the report was almost entirely focused on internal matters and disagreements,” said Father Pietrzyk. “Jesus is mentioned a dozen times or so, but the Trinity is never mentioned. Evangelization is mentioned maybe twice, and holiness not at all.” 

“It’s a small point, but I think it is representative of the problem,” said the Dominican priest. “Last year in his homily on the process, Pope Francis insisted that this synodal path must not be merely ‘a Church convention, a study group or a political gathering, a parliament.’ But that is exactly the way this document reads. Where is the discussion on how Christians are called to evangelize, to live more closely to Christ, to worship God in an ever deeper way?” 

The authors of “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” present the 44-page working document as “the privileged instrument through which the dialogue of the local Churches among themselves and with the universal Church can take place during the Continental Stage.”

The text features comments culled from listening sessions and surveys across the world regarding a wide range of issues: the clergy sexual-abuse crisis and Christian unity, outreach to the poor and support for the divorced-and-civilly remarried, better catechesis for youth, and ministry to “LGBTQ Catholics.” 

The text confirms that input from the first stage of the synodal process failed to provide a broad consensus on how these concerns should be addressed by the Church, and the text makes no attempt to ground the discussion in Catholic doctrine, discipline or history. 

During an Oct. 27 Vatican press conference that presented the working document, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, relator general of the Synod on Synodality, acknowledged that the text did not emerge “out of theological writings.” 

“It is the fruit of the lived synodality,” he said, “the lived theology, a dimension of the life in the Church.” Thus, individual testimonies selected from the first stage of the synodal process provide a “frame of reference” for the upcoming discussions. 


Clear Message From Rome

And though the comments defy easy labels, an Oct. 27 Vatican News story sent a clear message: “Voices of Excluded Heard in Document for Continental Phase.” According to the document, the dialogue will be shaped by broad questions that ask delegates to offer their impressions of  the “lived experiences and realities of the Church in your continent,” the “substantial tensions” and “the priorities, recurring themes and calls to action that can be shared with other local Churches around the world.”

With respect to the text’s statement that changes in canon law will need to accompany this process of structural renewal,” Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar of canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, stressed that the text “has no governing significance and is not legislative in character.” 

But he expressed unease with its overt support for structural change.  

“What is being presented is a rather clear effort to make the faithful active participants in the governance of the Church,” Father Fox told the Register. 

“Some may find this quite desirable,” he said. “But Jesus did not found a democratic institution, either generically or specifically, and that must be our point of departure. Whatever happens in this synodality movement, its current form must necessarily be in continuity with [the hierarchical structure] entrusted to us from the beginning by Christ.” 

“There is no alternative,” Father Fox emphasized. “This is his Church.”

Father Fox did not dispute the possibility that legislation will be forthcoming. But he questioned whether it would fulfill the expectations of those yearning for change.

“Unfortunately, being welcoming is not something that can be legislated,” he said. “What things can you require that will achieve the desired result? How do you formulate that in law, which is about the external manifestation that allows us to determine whether we have met our obligations or not? How would this synodal structure be policed?”


Supporters of Changes

Yet some advocates for change would strongly dispute the canonist’s position and identify specific ways the law might pave the way for a more inclusive Church.  

For example, some episcopal leaders, clergy and social activists have already signaled their support for changes to Church law that bars blessings for same-sex unions, and they characterize this proposed reform as a message of welcome to this wounded segment of Catholics.

Cardinal Hollerich himself contended that Church teaching on this issue is “not a settled matter,” during a media interview last month. And he further claimed that young Catholics committed to “nondiscrimination” had left their cradle faith over this issue.

“The kingdom of God is not an exclusive club,” Cardinal Hollerich stated. “It opens its doors to everyone, without discrimination.”

Meanwhile, Susan Mulheron, chancellor for canonical affairs at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, offered a more pragmatic assessment of the document’s likely impact and suggested that the resulting changes would have little impact on U.S. dioceses. 

“My best guess is that we might see consultative structures and procedures become more firmly required than they are now,” Mulheron told the Register, noting that in specific instances, canon law already requires “genuine consultation before decisions are made.”

“Pastoral councils at this point are not required by the universal law at either the diocesan or parish level,” she said. 

Mulheron described this level of change as “low-hanging fruit, but not earth-shattering.”

She did not expect that a diocesan council composed of lay experts would receive “more deliberative authority than it currently has,” mostly because an extended dialogic process would create headaches for the local bishop.

“How would that help the decision-making process?” she asked. “The decision-maker needs to act.”


Synodal Path Concerns

During interviews with the Register, several canonists also pointed to an additional concern that may account for the Catholic hierarchy’s muted support for synodality: the Church in Germany’s multiyear Synodal Path, which has raised fears of schism.

Established in 2018, in response to public backlash over shocking revelations of clergy abuse and episcopal cover-up in Germany, the Synodal Path convened an assembly composed of German bishops, lay leaders and their delegates, and this quasi-legislative body has pressed for changes to Church teaching on women’s ordination and homosexual relationships, prompting the Vatican to issue warnings.

Leaders of the Synodal Path have also attempted to create a permanent body to oversee the Church in Germany. In June, German Cardinal Walter Kasper publicly stated that a “synodal supreme council, as is now envisaged, has no basis in the entire history of the constitution. It would not be a renewal, but an unheard-of innovation.”

Mulheron suggested that the crisis in Germany had cast a shadow on the global synodal process and prompted many Church leaders to be more hard-nosed and cautious. 

“I don’t think anyone working at that level of the Church is surprised by what happened,” she said. “And that is why I do not anticipate major changes as to who is empowered to make decisions.” 


More Robust Dialogue

Still, the Minnesota canonist did not dispute the need for a more robust dialogue between bishops and lay Catholics. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has just completed its own multiyear synodal process, and she has witnessed firsthand its spiritual and practical fruits.

“It is good for the bishop to know what people think, dialogue with them, hear them and help explain Church teaching,” she said. “This is worthy of the bishop’s time, and the synodality process is trying to teach this.”

What matters, the canonists told the Register, is whether a synodal process is firmly anchored in the Church’s own teaching and ecclesial structure. 

“We do not dictate the terms of our being redeemed,” said Father Fox. “Rather, we are offered the possibility of redemption under the terms established by the Savior.” 

“We do not have the liberty to define Church structures at will,” the priest said. “They must reflect the relation of Christ to his Church because the Church is his body, and it is his spirit animating this body.” 

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