In a painting by Gregorio Vasquez de Arce y Ceballos, Joachim of Fiore shows the portraits of Saint Dominic de Guzmán and Saint Francis of Assisi (Wikimedia Commons).

Even in my undergraduate days—way back in the middle of the last century when JFK, Pope John XXIII, and Elvis Presley were still alive—I was made aware that Joachim of Fiore was one of the bad boys of Western history. Holy as he might have been, the twelfth-century monk and exegete was the Ur-millenarian whose apocalyptic vision, I learned, was responsible for the Jacobin Terror, Lenin’s Marxism, Stalin’s Gulag, and many lesser bloody follies.

Writing on the website of First Things, Robert P. Imbelli recently summarized Henri de Lubac’s no doubt magisterial contribution to this literature and tied it, somehow, to the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for October’s session of the Synod on Synodality. According to Fr. Imbelli, de Lubac “concentrated upon Joachim’s…view that there would be a ‘third age’ of the Spirit,” an age superseding the ages of the Father (the Old Testament) and the Son (the New Testament):

In Joachim's ‘third age,’ the ‘Spirit’ in effect becomes separated from Christ and fuels pseudo-mystical and utopian movements. For without the objective Christological referent and measure, appeal to the Spirit easily falls prey to subjective ideologies and fantasies.

This is certainly in line with all I have read or been told. But what does it have to do with the First Things headline: “What Henri de Lubac Would Think of the Synod on Synodality”? 

Fr. Imbelli tells us that de Lubac took up his massive study of Joachim because, after Vatican II, he discerned “a recrudescence of Joachimite sensibilities and projects” that cast aside the institutional Church for a “celebration of a universal humanity, liberated from the constrictions of law and hierarchical order” and “betraying the Gospel by transforming the search for the kingdom of God into a search for secular social utopias.”

Is that what Henri de Lubac would think of the Synod on Synodality? Or is that what Robert Imbelli thinks of the Synod on Synodality?

That it might be the latter is suggested by a recent column Fr. Imbelli wrote for Sandro Magister’s blog Settimo Cielo, a leading Italian clearinghouse for anti-Francis and anti-Synod polemics. There Imbelli enlisted not de Lubac but Yves Congar, another “founding father” of Vatican II. Congar followed his three-volume work on the Holy Spirit (1979–1980) with the warning that pneumatology and Christology must always be yoked and balanced: “no Christology without pneumatology and no pneumatology without Christology.”

It’s a balance Fr. Imbelli did not find in the Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris. Amid plenty of invocations of the Spirit, Imbelli saw only a “rather pallid Christology.” There was “scant reference” to the Paschal Mystery and none to the Cross. Worst of all, according to Imbelli, was an “egregious omission.” Twice the Instrumentum refers to the “central affirmation” in the first paragraph of Lumen Gentium: “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity.” In both instances, the Synod document left out the words “in Christ.”

Is that what Henri de Lubac would think of the Synod on Synodality? Or is that what Robert Imbelli thinks of the Synod on Synodality?

In introducing this line of critique on his blog, Sandro Magister showed little of Imbelli’s characteristic indirection. Magister did not invoke Congar on the Holy Spirit, but—as Imbelli would later do in First Things—de Lubac on Joachim of Fiore. “It easy to imagine,” Magister wrote, “given how the Synod on Synodality is proceeding, that the great Jesuit theologian” would have associated Pope Francis with Joachim of Fiore and with Joachim’s medieval vision of “an age of the Spirit, with the happy dissolution of the structure and doctrine of the earthly Church.” The Instrumentum Laboris, he continued, in his own blunt preview of Imbelli’s column, is “proof of this reckless process…promoted by Pope Francis…in which the Holy Spirit is assigned a role as enormous as it is vague and smoky, devoid…of criteria that would attest to the authenticity and validity of what is meant to be said and done in his name.” This was Sandro Magister’s view of what Henri de Lubac would think of Pope Francis and the Synod on Synodality. Whether it is also Robert Imbelli’s view is not entirely clear.


I have read the Instrumentum Laboris several times. It is not a good read. It explicitly declares itself “unfinished” and not a work of the Magisterium; it is a committee’s work very much oriented to the organization of an unprecedented kind of synod—and I suspect that it is its unprecedented quality that would earn theological complaints even if it had been dictated directly by Heaven.

Now I am not qualified to judge when exactly the Christology of a document of this nature is “pallid.” Like Fr. Imbelli, I would have welcomed more attention to the Cross. At the same time, I can assure those who have not read the document that it makes multiple references to “Christ,” “Lord,” “Jesus Christ,” “Lord and Master,” “Gospel,” and “Church,” often in proximity to “Holy Spirit,” as well as to “bishops,” “Holy Father,” “Church of Rome,” “Chair of Peter,” “Magisterium,” and so on.

Take, for example, two descriptions of a synodal church from quite early in the document. The first, in Paragraph 7, declares that the way “to become an increasing synodal Church” is “to truly become disciples and friends of that Master and Lord who said of himself: ‘I am the way’ (John 14:6).” The paragraph then quotes a passage in the Book of Revelation:

There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7:9–10).

“This text,” the Instrumentum Laboris says, “gives us the image of a definitively accomplished synodality, in which perfect communion reigns…in the liturgy of praise that from all creatures, through Christ, rises to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.” (My emphasis.)

The second, in Paragraph 20, states:

[A] synodal Church is founded on the recognition of a common dignity deriving from Baptism, which makes all who receive it sons and daughters of God, members of the family of God, and therefore brothers and sisters in Christ, inhabited by the one Spirit and sent to fulfill a common mission. (My emphasis.)

Then, from later in the Instrumentum, a third example: synodal communion is described as “a journey in which we are called to grow, ‘until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’” (Ephesians 4:13). (My emphasis.) This appears in the sentence following one of the two references to Lumen Gentium that Imbelli complains have excised mention of Christ.

While I find his warnings useful, I also find them exaggerated, wanting in evidence, and a distraction from many looming but less explicitly doctrinal threats to the vitality of the Church.

But that is not all there is to be said about the document’s treatment of the de Lubac-like passage from the first paragraph of Lumen Gentium. Did the Instrumentum really omit the “all-important words ‘in Christ’”? Was this an “egregious omission,” as Imbelli wrote in Settimo Cielo, or a very “telling” omission as he wrote later in First Things? He asks whether it was “advertent or inadvertent” but clearly to him that hardly matters; it reveals a mindset.

There is one problem with this critique: the two references to Lumen Gentium cited by Fr. Imbelli (in Paragraphs 46 and 52) are actually brief paraphrases and not quotations omitting “the all-important words ‘in Christ.’” Long before that, in Paragraph 28, the Instrumentum quotes the crucial passage from Lumen Gentium in full—and those “all-important words” are very much included: the Church is to be “in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.”


Fr. Imbelli is an old friend who in recent decades has grown convinced that much of the Catholic Church is in apostasy because of a denial of the centrality and divinity of Jesus Christ as Head of the Church. While I find his warnings useful, I also find them exaggerated, wanting in evidence, and a distraction from many looming but less explicitly doctrinal threats to the vitality of the Church.

When I informed him on August 5 that I was taking issue with his July 11 and July 28 attacks on the Instrumentum, he kindly replied the next day that I should check the “slightly edited” version in First Things. Slightly edited, indeed. Now Paragraph 28 was duly acknowledged—and just as duly dismissed. The “in Christ” in the early and prominent full quotation of Lumen Gentium was apparently insignificant compared to the suspiciously and “conspicuously” missing “in Christ” in the later paraphrases—an omission that “can scarcely be attributed to mere oversight.”

Of course, Fr. Imbelli explained, he had registered Paragraph 28 when he first read the Instrumentum. “But I was so struck by the subsequent telling omissions,” he added, “that I neglected to spell out sufficiently their deviance from the quoted sentence. My effort at clarification appeared within two days (if memory holds) from the initial post.” The same neglect, it might be noted, was reflected in Imbelli’s Settimo Cielo column, still uncorrected, published more than two weeks earlier. But I am happy to highlight Fr. Imbelli’s explanation. The omission of Paragraph 28 was inadvertent; it was mere oversight; it was not at all telling or egregious or symptomatic or reductive or any of the other things the Instrumentum’s omission of “in Christ” was supposed to be.

I am no de Lubac scholar but I have read a good bit of his memoir, At the Service of the Church. I was struck by the generosity of spirit with which he recounted even controversial events. Contrary to Signor Magister, I do not find it at all easy to believe that de Lubac would associate Pope Francis with Joachim of Fiore. And it is wildly preposterous to read the Instrumentum as a Christologically untethered invitation to pseudo-mystical movements and fantasies, let alone a blueprint for transforming the Church’s search for the Kingdom of God into a search for secular social utopias.

There are all sorts of ways that anything as ambitious and unprecedented at the Synod on Synodality can lose its bearings and run aground. Organizational confusion, unrealistic expectations, and the glare of secular and religious media committed to polarized “progressive” and “traditionalist” interpretations loom large. I would have no objection if the synod began all its sessions with the stirring profession of faith from Gaudium et Spes that Fr. Imbelli prescribes. But I doubt that would immunize the proceedings from all these very practical threats.

The Synod on Synodality needs every bit of constructive help it can get. But surely mischaracterizing the Instrumentum is not helpful. Nor is raising the specter of Joachim of Fiore.

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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