Pope Francis speaks as Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, looks on during a meeting at the Vatican (CNS/Paul Haring).

Fr. Robert Imbelli does himself no favor by replying to my piece about his recent articles on the Synod with an air of aggrieved innocence. He calls my piece “polemical,” suggesting that his two articles were not. He says I failed to inform readers of his loyal citations of Pope Francis. But did his two articles not fail to inform readers of the language of faith throughout the Instrumentum? He says I have an “animus” against Sandro Magister. Apparently, Imbelli submitted his article to Magister’s blog, Settimo Cielo, without regard to Magister’s longstanding animus against Pope Francis, his papacy, and the Synod. Imbelli claims he was taken aback by Magister’s introductory remarks, though he does not quite distance himself from them, and proceeded to take up Magister’s biting evocation of Joachim of Fiore as the theme for his own article in First Things.

Can Fr. Imbelli also be innocent of the well-coordinated campaign being conducted against Francis’s papacy, and the similar campaign against the Synod on Synodality? About the Synod, the message is not simply that there are risks to be set against potential gains—Synod leaders have said as much—and that steps should be taken to minimize the former and promote the latter. No, the message is that the whole venture has been wrongheaded from the start, and the sooner and more loudly that is said the better. When Sandro Magister called the synodal process “reckless,” he spoke for many. I asked whether he also spoke for Imbelli, and Imbelli still hasn’t said.    

What is distinctive about these two campaigns is not that they converge on the fear that the Francis papacy and now the Synod on Synodality might unintentionally undermine the faith—didn’t liberal Catholics entertain parallel fears about aspects of previous papacies?—but that this undermining is being done deliberately and surreptitiously. Since Imbelli posted his column on the First Things website, that journal has published an article portraying the Synod as a farce doomed to end in tragedy, the culminating effort “engineered in advance” by progressive neo-modernist “masterminds” to lead the Church toward a “new totalitarianism” marching “under a rainbow flag.” True friends of Francis will expose this radical agenda “being advanced under cover of his name” and convince him to reject the project the way that Paul VI rejected the findings of his own Birth Control Commission in Humanae vitae.   

Obviously, Fr. Imbelli has no responsibility for that article. But this is the context, clouded with insinuations if not outright accusations of heresy, in which he published his articles and in which this exchange is taking place. I cannot believe he is unaware of that.

Fr. Imbelli claims I disputed his assessment of the Instrumentum’s “Christological inadequacy.” But that’s not in fact what I did. Rather, I disputed the adequacy of his overall characterization of the Instrumentum. By his choice of venue for his critiques, by what he said and what he chose to leave out, by his accusatory tone regarding allegedly missing words that turned out not to be missing, by implied contrasts between the Instrumentum and the robust Christological affirmations of Congar and de Lubac, by the dire prospects of dissolving the Church into secular ideologies and utopian fantasies à la Joachim of Fiore, his articles painted a picture of the Instrumentum that was, to my reading, simply false.

Can Fr. Imbelli also be innocent of the well-coordinated campaign being conducted against Francis’s papacy, and the similar campaign against the Synod on Synodality?

In his response to my critique, he expands on the absence of the word “Cross,” presumably because I too regretted it, though it was the suspicious absence of the words “in Christ” that previously served as his smoking gun. (His First Things article does not mention the Cross.) In regretting the absence of the word, I did not assume the total absence of the idea. Wasn’t it possible that the authors had the Cross in mind in when they referred to the Paschal Mystery, to death and resurrection, to the crucified and risen Jesus, or even, many times, to the Gospel? Here, I guess, I am the innocent.   

I have never come across any Christological report cards of the Instrumenta Laboris for previous synods. Nor would I know how to compare those working documents with one prepared for a radically different kind of Synod. I merely maintain that, read in its totality and with any degree of generosity, the Instrumentum, despite shortcomings, is not the calculated threat to the true faith that anyone reading only Imbelli’s characterization (“can scarcely be attributed to mere oversight”) might well conclude.   

Describing “the heart” of his own complaint, Imbelli quotes a friend: “The Instrumentum reads more like a facilitation manual for a meeting than an invitation to new life in Christ.” I recognize the disdain for a mere “facilitation manual” in the remark, but I cannot accept it. First of all, the Instrumentum does not read like any facilitation manual I’m familiar with. Second, how many of the Instrumenta of past synods does anyone now prize (or even read) for their evangelizing power? Third, and most to the point, how many of those past synods, so often dreary exercises in speechifying, might have benefited from a little more thought to facilitation rather than flawless theology?

In my opinion, Imbelli read the Instrumentum as someone mistrusting Francis’s whole project.

In my opinion, Imbelli read the Instrumentum as someone mistrusting Francis’s whole project and fearing that a synodal Church is more likely to betray the faith than enliven it. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps he is open to the project and only wants to help out. If so, he has had opportunities to make that clear.

But I doubt that’s the case. In 2000, Imbelli declared that “there is abroad a measure of innocent and, sometimes, quite intentional apostasy,” and two decades later he added that he is now “disposed to remove such qualifications as ‘a measure,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘sometimes.’” (“No Decapitated Body,” Nova et Vetera, Summer 2020)

Imbelli devotes more than a third of his reply to challenging my misgivings about his analysis of this Christological crisis. It would be an error to assume that, despite my misgivings, there is not considerable overlap in our views as well as significant differences. In 2003, after all, I published a book about the U.S. Catholic Church with “crisis” in the subtitle, and I cannot imagine any crisis in the Church that is not in some sense Christological. On some other occasion I would be happy to explore these agreements and disagreements at length. In the meantime, I suggest that suspicion of apostasy is not the best way to effectively address either the Synod on Synodality or the Christological crisis.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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