The most far-reaching event in the Catholic Church in my lifetime officially gets its start next month. It is Pope Francis’s boldest move yet, the historic shake-up that a Church brought low by sex-abuse scandals badly needs, and potentially the most transformative moment in Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council, which it seeks to embed permanently into the life of the Church. The two-year “synod on synodality,” launched in Rome on October 9 and in dioceses worldwide a week later, is set to mark Christianity forever.
Yet who knows it is even happening? A global process set to mobilize millions and transform the world’s oldest and largest institution has so far registered as no more than a blip on the Catholic radar. Bishops briefed by Rome’s synod secretariat back in May have been mostly quiet about it, hiding behind cautious communiqués buried on websites, awaiting details, fearful of unleashing forces and expectations beyond their command.
So we begin with a paradox. The path to the 2023 Synod in Rome, on the theme “For a Synodal Church: communion, participation and mission,” is designed to engage every diocese, every bishops’ conference, and every continental Church body. It will unleash the biggest popular consultation in history. It will require, as never before, the assembly of the People of God, in mass meetings at parishes and across dioceses around the world, who are being given “the ability to imagine a different future for the Church and her institutions, in keeping with the mission she has received,” in the words of the Preparatory Document released last week.
Yet so far the disengagement has been almost total. (Has your parish priest mentioned anything? I thought so.) For pastoral leaders, as the synod secretariat’s Vademecum puts it, “this consultation process will evoke a range of feelings…from excitement and joy to anxiety, fear, uncertainty or even scepticism.” The anxiety is real. The Catholic Church is already a deeply polarized place. What if, when people speak boldly, it all falls apart?
Into this vacuum of hesitancy step militants of both sides, traditionalists and progressives, adding their hermeneutic of fear and suspicion. On the September 9 edition of Raymond Arroyo’s EWTN show, his acerbic guest, Damian Thompson, declared that synods were “a means of dismantling historic teachings,” a sure route to Protestantism. He was confident “the Holy Spirit won’t be present because the Holy Spirit has better things to do.” The following day a “lay-led” and “inclusive” Root and Branch Synod in England was addressed on September 10 by former Irish president and Church-reform campaigner Mary McAleese, who described the synod as an “absurd process” that was ultimately “pointless” because it failed to recognize “the full equality of all members as Church citizens.” Her proof was that, following the initial consultation and listening phase in the dioceses, the bishops alone would be responsible for taking the process of discernment forward.
Yet this is exactly what a Catholic synod is. Unlike synods in other traditions, the Roman version is consultative. Final responsibility for discernment and the decisions that flow from it lies with the bishops and ultimately the pope, who are assisted in their discernment by the body of believers. Or so the theory goes. In practice, before this pontificate any pre-synod consultation of the People of God was at best perfunctory, and the synods themselves were less exercises in discernment than confirmation of existing belief and practice. That has changed under Francis. Ever since his election, when he announced that he wanted to proceed “gently, but firmly and tenaciously” towards a synodal Church, Francis has been shaking awake this dormant Catholic institution. Synods in Rome (there have been four) are now pastoral, inductive, and dynamic; the discernment is genuine. Conversion happens, and change results, just as in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. But the People of God have so far mostly been passive spectators. That is what this synod sets out to change.