By now, you’ve probably heard that Pope Francis postponed the upcoming synod on synodality for a full year, from October 2022 to October 2023, and ordered every ecclesiastical jurisdiction and single member of the faithful to participate in an expanded “preparatory” process.
If the incongruity of making the Church more synodalitous by papal diktat ever occurred to him, neither he nor his lieutenants and mouthpieces have given any evidence of it.
(Yes, I know “synodalitous” is not a word, but if Cardinal Czerny can pass on giving even a working definition of synodality while also reiterating Pope Francis’s call for the whole Church to be governed by it, then I can play the “let’s make up a word” game, too.)
It isn’t the first time he’s done something like this. He ordered the Italian bishops to have a synod after they offered fairly studied refusal to take his subtler hints. For a guy who’s so frequently down on legalism and legal rigorism, he’s been doing a lot of fiat legislating. He’s issued six letters motu proprio – basically laws the pope makes “of his own initiative” and by decree – in the first four-and-a-half months of 2021.
Some of that has to do with his need to get his ducks in a row before he promulgates his much-ballyhooed Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, but that’s kind of the point. His biggest project right now is reforming the Curia.
Pope Francis, who as Mario Cardinal Bergoglio became a front-runner and eventual winner of the horse race for the See of Peter in 2013 after a stirring speech on how the Church needs to be less-self-referential, has ordered all the faithful everywhere in the world to spend the next two years gazing at their navels.
Pope Francis has talked a great game when it comes to the need for worldwide solidarity in response to the coronavirus emergency. He’s made great gestures, which have genuinely inspired. Now, he is placing a significant burden of time and resources on the faithful and upon the local Churches, just as they’re struggling – some near-desperately – to come out of the ’ronatide pandemic shambles. The faithful can’t hardly go to Mass in many places. Francis wants them to organize synods.
For that reason alone (one could adduce others), contrary to just about everything Francis has been preaching since Day One of his pontificate, the particular Churches in wealthy Western nations will have an outsized influence, while poorer nations and developing countries — especially in the global south — will still have to fight to get their voices heard. That’s if the “consultation” phases mean anything at all.
They may not.
Previous synods have seen consultation via preparatory gatherings, questionnaires, and other means. There were the 300 young people invited to Rome for the “pre-synod” on youth, to name one. There were the questionnaires that went to particular Churches, bishops’ conferences, and Vatican departments ahead of the 2014 assembly on the family. Similar questionnaires have been a pretty regular part of preparations for synod assemblies, as a matter of fact. This isn’t exactly re-inventing the wheel. Neither is it absolute novelty.
It isn’t the first time a Churchman oversold a product, either. Talking about the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Christus vivit, which Francis issued after the youth synod a few years back, then-General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri said the document “will constitute for the near future a Magna Carta of youth and vocational pastoral ministry in the various ecclesial communities.”
Lots of Churches will basically ignore him, which is bad. Many won’t, and that’s worse.
What in heaven’s name is he thinking?
If he’s playing 4-D chess, he’s playing against the German bishops. Their “binding synodal path” is basically a programme for capitulation to the Spirit of the Age. They’ve claimed they want their model of synodality to become a sort of template for the global practice of synodality. Since Francis started governing “synodally” but never bothered to offer a practical explanation of what synodality is qua governance, he’s given their claim a degree of plausibility. He wants it back.
On this reading, he’s using the “synodal process” he just inaugurated in order to bring the German Way into a universal construct. Telling them, in essence: “Ok, you can have your synodal way, but now it’s part of the larger synod.” If this is Solomonic wisdom at work, it’s an interesting way to split the baby.
But we were in a chess metaphor. He’s making the board bigger, in other words. If this were a chess game, it would be fine. It’s not. So, it’s not.
He’s done this sort of thing before, too. He let the hype build around the rather Teutonically-accented proposal to relax the Latin discipline of celibacy that was on the table at the Amazonian synod, only to pooh-pooh the business at the very last. There, too, his main concern was to show people who’s in charge.
He backed the French bishops’ plans for investigating seven decades of abuse and coverup, and rapped the US bishops on the knuckles for daring to make forward-thinking proposals without his placet. Then he brought out Vos estis lux mundi, and hasn’t been thrilled to use it.
Even Friday’s announcement drove the point home: presented as a fait accompli, with pre-packaged videos and infographics, an “interview” with his press flack, but conspicuously sans actual engagement with bishops, faithful, journalists, or anyone else. “The first and greatest innovation is the transformation of the Synod from an event into a process,” Cardinal Grech told Andrea Tornielli. If he says so, I guess.
A process for what?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the Church is exactly as “synodal” as the pope says it is, and that will not change on his watch.