The main difference between this latest meeting of the Synod of Bishops and the last two, is that the ones in 2014/15 suffered some pretty heavy-handed manipulation outside the established rules and with some pretty obvious winking at procedural regularity, while this one came off according to the rules, and smooth as butter by comparison. In the 2014 and 2015 assemblies, the discounting of synod fathers’ voices — certain of them, at any rate — appeared to be a bug in the system. This time, it was the principal feature.
The assemblies in 2014 and 2015 were in essence a trial run of the system that General Secretary Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri was designing (not without a good bit of help) and has now seen fully implemented and running. Historians can sort out whether conducting a trial run in two phases over a broad theme that was also a topic of major contention was part of the plan, or whether it was a miscalculation. In any case, the thing is done.
People can debate whether the last few synod assemblies have been “rigged” or merely “manipulated”. The fact is that synods have always been closely managed affairs, and always will be: there is nothing new under the sun. The difference is that, in the Francis Era, we heard we would be getting transparency, fair dealing, and all manner of reform apt to make the voices of the faithful heard loud and clear from every quarter.
We were told the Church was to be “synodal” and we were given to understand this would mean more participation from bishops in the governance of the Church and more participation from the faithful in the consultations that would precede major decisions.
In fairness to Francis, he’s been clear and fairly consistent with regard to himself and his habits and his tastes, right from the start. From his shoes (he has a guy back in B’Aires) to his decision to live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae (he likes being around people) to his habit of standing in the lunch line and chatting with people (he likes it that way), he’s been frank: he’s an old dog, unable and uninterested in learning new tricks — and as a leader, his established mode of leadership is a mercurial one that flies from extreme micromanagement to extreme laissez faire and rarely pauses anywhere in between.
His lieutenants and mouthpieces, however, promised an almost Aquarian age of transparency, listening, and participation: in a word, that the governance of the Church would finally be horizontal.
When Pope Francis promulgated the Apostolic Constitution, Episcopalis communio — the special law controlling the Synod of Bishops — one thing was clear when it came to the issue of any synod assembly conducted under the new legislation: the Pope would be in charge. As far as any final document on Francis’s watch is concerned, that meant the Synod Fathers would end up saying whatever this Pope will have decided to say they said:
If the new document makes anything clear, it is that Francis — whose “synodal” approach to governance has been the subject of much discussion — meant what he said when he told the participants in the III Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that “synodality” means being with Peter, and that “being with Peter” means being under him. How “synodal” is the Church Francis envisions? One short answer might be: as synodal as Peter says it is.
So, there has been transparency. At any rate, folks have what they were promised. Assured they’d be able to take their place, the bishops have now learned what that place is, and been instructed to assume the position. The vast majority of the laity don’t care much what the Church’s hierarchical leadership have to say about young people anyway, certainly not in the present circumstances of massive and daily burgeoning global crisis that has left the credibility of the worldwide episcopate in tatters, from the Pope down to the last auxiliary.
When it comes to “synodality”, not even the professional Catholic scribbling and chattering class could manage more than perfunctory frustration on behalf of the bishops, who were happy to roll over.
On Friday afternoon, with only a few hours left to read the draft, account for the modi — proposed amendments — and finish the document, the synod fathers repaired to a makeshift theatre to watch a talent show the young people organised for them. As one Vatican official quipped to me on Friday afternoon, “They’re not taking this seriously.”