He spoke very little, but his remarks caused a bit of a stir. What he had to say, struck at the heart of the Vatican’s own journalists: “How many people does it reach?”
Vatican Radio – under its new moniker of Vatican News – and the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano were the target of the pope’s query. It’s a pertinent question, given the fact the communications arm of the Vatican takes up a significant part of its budget, and it has been argued that the Holy See doesn’t get much bang for its buck.
More interesting was what he later said to the editorial staff of the Dicastery, about institutional paralysis:
Functionalism is lethal. It puts an institution to sleep and kills it. Be careful not to fall into this trap: It doesn’t matter how many places there are, whether the studio is beautiful or not. What matters is that it works, that it is functional, and not a victim of functionalism. Be careful, careful about that. And when something is functional, it helps creativity.
Your work must be creative, always, and go beyond, beyond, beyond: Creative.
That is called functioning. But if a work is too well ordered, it ends up caged and is not useful. This is the only thing that, seeing such a beautiful organisation, so well done, seeing all of you together, I have to say: be careful! No functionalism. Yes, functional to the work, what you have to do. And for a structure to be functional, everyone must have sufficient freedom to function.
That’s important advice to a broadsheet founded in the 19th century and a radio station that’s mission had been defined for most of its history by the Cold War. What is good advice for old institutions can also be good advice for new ones.
Like the Synod of Bishops.
Since his election, Francis has been calling on the Church to be “synodal,” and has used the Synod of Bishops — established by St. Paul VI in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council — as the example par excellence of synodality.
Despite its novelty – 50 years is nothing in Church time – the Synod, too, can fall into “functionalism.”
In his 8 years in charge, Francis has held four synods: Two on the family, one on Youth, and one on the Amazon region.
In early 2020, he announced a Synod for 2022 on Synodality itself. When it was announced, the world was just entering into a pandemic that many hoped would be over by that summer.
Only, it wasn’t over, and the Church had to confront issues with which she hadn’t wrestled since the Spanish flu a century earlier. There were new issues to grapple with, as well: Livestreamed liturgies, problematic cell lines in vaccine development, government-imposed lockdowns, and denial of access to the sacraments, inter alia.
Variously configured, the constellation of issues affected different regions differently: Some places wouldn’t allow churches to be open at all, others for private prayer, others still had no restrictions on worship. Although most Western countries hadn’t dealt with such a deadly pandemic in decades, other places were used to Ebola, malaria, and even bubonic plague.
As the pandemic recedes, at least in parts of the world, other questions are arising: Will people return to Mass? Will governments that closed down churches for the pandemic consider closing them down for other reasons? How can we encourage more ethical vaccine development and a more just distribution of medical resources?
One would think the pandemic, response, and recovery the kinds of issues tailor-made for the Synod of Bishops.
Leaders of the Church could share their experiences and consult experts, while the Vatican could not only ready itself for the post-Covid-19 world, but also prepare for the inevitable next global pandemic.
But when the Vatican announced last week the upcoming synod was being delayed by a year, the topic remained unchanged. In the midst of the most disruptive and transformative event of the 21st century, ecclesiastical leadership at the highest level chose to examine the Church’s own bellybutton.
In other words, functionalism over functioning.
This has been a pattern in the push for “synodality” – pushing through an agenda, no matter what fire is destroying the building.
The use — and non-use — of the Synod of Bishops illustrates this point.
The College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis on a reforming agenda. Specifically, reforming the Curia. He duly appointed his Council of Cardinals to tackle that subject. The Synod of Bishops held two meetings in 2014 and 2015 on the family, where bishops argued over communion for the divorced-and-remarried and same-sex partnerships.
Nothing was really settled.
The Curia reform? Still in progress, since many curial officials and diocesan bishops objected to the draft, but — funnily enough — reform of the Curia is the kind of subject to which a Synod could have turned its attention with some real discernible effect.
The bishops would have said what they needed from the Curia, and Vatican officials would have expressed their concerns. It might have been a bit heated at times, but after three weeks, a basic reform would have been hashed out.
In 2018, the clerical abuse scandal exploded once again around the world, with revelations in Latin America and the United States putting the issue on the world’s front pages.
The 2019 Synod was on the Amazon Region, and mostly had bishops debating married priests and deaconesses for two weeks.
Instead of calling a synod assembly on abuse, Francis instead held a three-day summit on the subject. He called the presidents of the world’s bishops conferences and leaders of religious orders.
In fact, the participants list in that three-day affair was almost identical to the membership of an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which is supposed to be called “when the matters under discussion, pertaining to the good of the universal Church, require urgent consideration.”
As it happened, no synod was called on clerical abuse, and the Synod on the Amazon went ahead as planned.
The upshot of all this?
Part of it is that, for “synodality” to work, the Synod of Bishops needs as much creativity and freedom to function as the Pope wants to see from Vatican Radio and the Vatican newspaper. As Pope Francis says, functionalism is lethal, and not letting the Synod of Bishops tackle the real problems of the Church will make it “caged and … not useful.”