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Dreams of Dueling Synods

If the German bishops insist on having their “binding synodal process,” why not have the same “process” by the bishops of Africa, France, Sweden, and Iceland?

A group of German bishops in a 2017 file photo. (CNS photo)

I see that the German bishops have embarked on their “binding synodal process.” Who, other than a German, could get excited by a “binding process”? This is like getting all aflutter when the boss announces a new “systems adjustment.”

A new systems adjustment? Will there be committees? And working groups? And multiple planning documents? What supreme ecstasy! Be still my beating heart.

Hearing the words “a binding synodal process” gives me the heebie-jeebies because I have been on too many committees where the leader announced at the end, “It was a good process.” It was a lousy result, of course, but somehow still “a good process.” I never quite get that. [Editor’s note: See Dr. Smith’s essay “Words Meaning Nothing: On the Empty Epidemic of ‘Management Speak'”.]

But, you know, they’re Germans, and they like this sort of thing. Perhaps, like the Council of Trent, they’ll be at it for the next thirty years or so, and we can conveniently forget them. But I worry. It’s just that, unlike the Council of Trent, the German bishops aren’t known for their — how to put this delicately? — diversity. They are pretty much all of one mind, and they have pretty much stacked the deck entirely in their favor. So there is little or no “drama” about what the outcome will be.

Since the number of German Catholics still going to Mass in Germany is down to about two dozen, making it much easier to know how many donuts to buy for after the service, it is not as though the synodal process will, by itself, affect many actual Catholics. The bigger problem is that these Germans still think they’re calling the intellectual shots in the Church the way they did when the big authorities in the Church were men with names like Rahner, Häring, Metz, Vorgrimler, Grabmann, Fuchs, Guardini, and Ratzinger. So they foresee their synodal process as being the leading edge of changes they believe should be embraced by the entire Church.

Not long ago, I argued in print that bishops who show no respect for the authority they are supposed to serve deserve no respect from those under their authority. Now I am wondering whether that’s not enough. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps what we need is more synods.

Right now I am thinking about a “binding synodal process” initiated by the Catholic bishops of Africa under the chairmanship of Cardinal Sarah. (No Germans allowed, due to their troubling history of colonialism in Africa.) That binding synod could decide on no married priests, no gay marriage, no communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and no taking money from government authorities who oppose Church teaching to support churches that are emptying out of actual Catholics.

And then they could condemn the new intellectual colonialism of the white Europeans who are trying to force on them doctrines and practices alien to their faith, when in fact their African churches are full and growing and the white European churches, though rich, are empty. Indeed, if the Germans are eager to pass out their money to other countries and causes, perhaps it’s time for them to pay reparations for their egregious crimes in Africa. Oh, and while they’re at it, perhaps the Germans could spare a moment from all the rest of their important business to employ all that impressive intellectual firepower they possess to make some sort of condemnation of people who cut off the heads of African Christians.

I mean, an African synod might decide those things. I’m not saying they should. I’m just saying that these are the kind of things might emerge from “the process.”

Then we would have something like dueling synods. This wouldn’t be like “Dueling Banjos.” It would more like the problem Muslims sometimes have with dueling fatwas.

“My synod rejects your synod!”

“How dare your synod un-synod our synod! We are going to synod again and un-synod your synod with our new synod.”

“Oh yeah, well your synods are junk!”

“No, your synod was junk, a robber’s synod, a synod of fools, a confederacy of dunces.”

Then, when things are really getting hot, we can expect others, like the French, to get in on the action and to form their own distinctively French synod, to decry the “incivility” and “lack of true Catholic charity” being shown in those other synods, followed by (if these things operate according to form) a long list of anathemas and excommunications. And seeing as how they’re French, they would probably for things like a lack of good taste and too much German in the official documents.

What then? Perhaps the Swedish bishops could have their own “binding synodal process,” in which they demand that every future synod, whatever else they do, should make some comment about the problem of global climate change and that Greta Thunberg should always be invited as a peritus.

Italy could then follow suit and demand in their synod that at least four Italian cardinals henceforth be included in any future “synodal process” anywhere in the world and to ensure that abundant red wine and delicious food are provided.

Then perhaps the Catholic Church in Iceland will commence its own “binding synodal process.” Since there is just one Catholic bishop of Iceland, he would need to meet regularly with himself to decide on issues for the universal Church.

Personally, I am holding out the hope that the considered judgment of his “binding synodal process” will be that there are to be no more binding synodal processes — after his, of course, which would be binding on everyone, including the German bishops, because, come on, who is going to go up against the judgment of the religious authorities of Iceland?

Not me. I mean, when Bishop Dávid Bartimej Tencer of the Diocese of Reykjavík speaks, I listen. I’ve heard he has an amazing process. So shouldn’t his synodal word be final?

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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 44 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."


  1. Great column, Dr. Smith! Fifty or sixty years ago, I used to laugh about the Church a lot. It was strong and stable. During much of that time, it had a beautiful, universal and historically resonant liturgy and was well-respected if not always loved. It was safe to laugh, because it was founded on a Rock. It has become harder to laugh. Who knows, now, what is satire and what is reality?

  2. At the very end, we read that “when Bishop Dávid Bartimej Tencer of the Diocese of Reykjavík speaks, I listen. I’ve heard he has an amazing process. So shouldn’t his synodal word be final?”

    The closure of a final synod CONJURES the Islamic model, and the self-appointed role of Muhammad (or here, Germania or whatever?) as the final prophet. And, with the Qur’an ensconced above all competing sects (or synodal paths?) as the “uncreated” instrument of cloture (a 7th and 9th century invention!).

    (So much, then, for the “eternity” of the Second Person, or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and any re-inclusion of the vanguard “German Church” within the universal Catholic Church.)

    For his part–and consistent with intact collegiality as defined by the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium)–Pope Benedict depicted Church ecclesiology as an integrated ELLIPSE with two focal points, the primacy and the episcopacy, rather than being a mimic of either a political monarchy or a democratic national assembly (God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition and Office [Ignatius Press, 2008], 15-22.)

    But, under the pragmatic manipulations of Cardinal Parolin on the one hand, and of the Germans on the other, we now have Benedict’s TWO DERAILMENTS: the Church under the thumb of Chinese totalitarianism, and a binding German assembly or “synodal path” which simply (as in simple minded) disinters the equally binding 1789 (French!) Tennis Court Oath.

    So, with the prospect now of dueling synodal paths (as Randall Smith has it), the lunatics will likely be in charge of the ASYLUM, all throwing bed pans across the hall at each other. The Church “leadership” is becoming sectarian, flattened and even Islamic but with red hats rather than turbans. All very pluralist (Pachamama and Abu Dhabi?) and fashionably multicultural (in the secularist sense), and amnesiac toward recent history. Yes?

    St. Paul was “all things to all people,” but this is because he was NOT schizophrenic.

  3. All this makes me so in love with the simple straight GOSPEL, and my KING and FRIEND, JESUS. These Germans are making themselves extinct.

  4. It sounds like the German Bishops are trying to jockey among themselves to become the next LUTHER. If so, let them honestly admit they are starting their own denomination with different rules and bar them and their heresy from the Catholic Church.Excommunication sounds like a good idea if Frances has enough gumption to pronounce it.

  5. I note that most of those who hold heterodox religious positions, regardless of denomination, are desperate to have others join and reinforce their beliefs. It is as if they know they need a prop for their rebellion otherwise it would have no validity. Problem with all this is that their own original group becomes quite disunified. Examples are found in all major Protestant denominations which long since their establishment have split into many subgroups. Let these self absorbed clerics have their meeting and call it what they will so it can be ignored in the manner it so richly deserves.

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