If one thing has become abundantly clear over the past several days, it is that the Synod of Bishops is not (even) a debating society. The rules governing proceedings in the full chamber are carefully crafted, and are being enforced to ensure that no actual debate takes place. Rather, there is talking in turns — brief ones, blessedly — and no direct engagement among participants.
That’s nothing new, nor is it anything over which to be particularly alarmed. With all the talk over the past six years, about “synodality” and “synodal” governance of the Church, there grew a certain expectation that things under Francis would be different, that the Synod of Bishops would be empowered to do things, and that the conduct of business inside the synod hall would be as free-wheeling as the man who is master of it.
That never was a realistic hope. If the Vatican message-managers made a great mistake, it was to push the narrative of revolutionary change, when what we were always going to get really was a honing of established practice, with a view to consolidation. It needlessly set people up: for disappointment, on one side; for feverish hysteria on the other. Oh, well. What’s done is done.
That’s not to say the Synod of Bishops is anything like a useless tool. On the contrary, it can be a powerful one for testing the climate of opinion within the episcopate, and even for generating at least the appearance of consensus. Pope Francis has often appeared to govern the Church as though it were his personal Jesuit province. This is one case in which some of that “default setting” may be on display: one in which everyone gets a say, and then the decider decides. If Pope Francis has made one thing absolutely clear, it is that he is the decider.
The one major practical question of ecclesiastical order, discipline, and governance before the synod fathers is the question of mandatory celibacy for priests of the Latin Rite. To hear the synod’s information managers tell it, the issue has received a good deal of attention already, even only two full days into the sessions. “The theme of the criteria for admission to ordained ministry came up in more than one intervention,” reads the synthetic summary of speeches from Tuesday morning, released after the afternoon session.
“There are those who have urged prayer for vocations, asking for the transformation of the Amazon into a great spiritual sanctuary from which to raise prayer to the ‘Lord of the harvest’ to send new workers of the Gospel,” the summary continued.
Nor is the issue one confined to the Amazon. “The numerical insufficiency of presbyters — it has been found — is not only an Amazonian problem, but is one common to the whole Catholic world.” So, the issue is on the table, and the pretense of exceptional steps to address exceptional circumstances appears already well on its way to being completely abandoned.
Pope Francis has said he is personally opposed to relaxing the current discipline, but would like to hear a broad discussion of the question and is willing to make allowance for pastoral necessity. The official summary mentioned also that the synod fathers gave “the call for a serious examination of conscience on how the priestly vocation is lived today.” The summary went on to say, “The lack of holiness is in fact an obstacle to Gospel witness: pastors do not always carry the scent of Christ, and end up driving away the sheep they are called to lead.”
A change in discipline would certainly be a major one, and would bring with it several new challenges. At best, it would be to swap one set of familiar problems for a set of unfamiliar ones, many of which would likely only emerge over time. At worst, it will introduce a host of new problems and resolve none or very few of the old ones. If the change comes, the likely result will be something in the middle, through which the Latin Church will have to muddle, and the muddling will likely take decades if not centuries. Results will be uneven and mileage will vary.
Whether this is the time to have the discussion in the Church or not, is now an academic question: hierarchical leaders are having the conversation among themselves, right now.