In this month of October, as we begin to “walk together” in synodality, I recall a very favorable experience as a member of an archdiocesan pastoral council during 2001-2004. And yet, momentary pockets of theological and ecclesial abscess were not entirely absent. With only the initial ruminations of a layman, I begin with some questions.
First, for context, we enter this announced synodal facelift with less euphoric optimism than in the heady, early 1960s during and following the Second Vatican Council and Gaudium et Spes. Not only “joy and hope,” but also “grief and anguish.” Our “signs of the times” compare more with the precarious time of St. Augustine. Upon first hearing about the sacking of Rome in A.D. 410, Augustine preached this to his assembly:
Do not lose heart, brethren, there will be an end to every earthly kingdom. If this is now the end, God sees. Perhaps it has not yet come to that: for some reason—call it weakness, or mercy, or mere wretchedness—we are all hoping that it has not yet come. (Sermon 105, n. 11)
Not only the Empire, but the whole cosmos was being thrown in a cocked hat. Together and today, then, we might pause to compare our new synodal steps toward what “has not yet come” with the careful balance achieved earlier by the International Theological Commission (ITC) when it introduced the synodal dimension of the Church in the 2018 document “Synodality in the life and mission of the Church”.
In walking together and “listening to the Holy Spirit,” might Church members ask, for example, about the risk of “ideological colonization” in the form of a laicized clergy and clericalized laity? The ecclesial version of secular “bracket creep?” How well are the clarifying ITC synodal guidelines reflected in the more recent preparatory document (“For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission,” Sept. 9, 2021) and in the vademecum, or handbook, for the diocesan phase of the synod?
Simply a question here, but for example, this language from the ITC:
…It is essential that, taken as a whole, the participants give a meaningful and balanced image of the local Church, reflecting different vocations, ministries, charisms, competencies, social status and geographical origin. The bishop, the successor of the apostles and shepherd of his flock who convokes and presides over the local Church synod, is called to exercise there the ministry of unity and leadership with the authority which belongs to him. (n. 79, italics added)
By comparison, the vademecum portrays the bishops—the successors of the apostles—not so much with authority or even leadership but, instead, “primarily as facilitators.” Beware, it warns, of the “scourge of clericalism.” What then of the apostolic Church?
Already, versions of synodality recast the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium—with its understanding of “collegiality” (Chapter Three, together with its Explanatory Note)—as now merged with or even subordinate to “the People of God” (Chapters One and Two). And this at a time after the sensus fidei of the People of God has been compromised by two generations of conspicuous silences, noisy liturgies, and politicized evangelization, or worse.
So, now we are to listen together to the “blowing of the Holy Spirit”—but how are we to avoid mere intuitionism, or even false spirits? “Beloved,” warned St. John, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1). The ITC and the preparatory document do clarify, on paper: “…the sensus fidei of the People of God – which they need to distinguish carefully from the changing currents of public opinion.” Indeed.
In 2023, when synodality’s compendium results are received by the Vatican, will parts seek to abrogate Humanae Vitae or Veritatis Splendor? Or to allow for the homosexual lifestyle? And de facto even to replace ecumenical councils with rolling synodality as the “endless journey”? As part of a synodal collage report, will such possible insertions become part of the universal magisterium? Citing the Acts of the Apostles, the ITC explains,
By all listening to the Holy Spirit through the witness given of God’s action and by each giving his own judgment, initially divergent opinions move towards the consensus and unanimity. (italics added)
Unanimity? Really? Will synodality be construed as only a consultative “assembly” (the ITC clearly specifies “consultation” with the laity) or, as Fr. Antonio Sparado hints, are synods now possibly a deliberative “assembly”? Are these fully merged (apostolic/lay) “assembly” options the same as a “parliament,” an aberration warned against by Pope Francis? Or, is the German synodal way of assembly the prelude? Or, instead, the Alternative Path (more attentive or listening to ITC) proposed recently by Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer?
Casting either a light or a shadow over synodality, then, is the ambiguity in parts of the stage-setting Fratelli tutti (2019). Roberto Pertici, philosopher and author at the University of Bergamo, one of several contributors to a Dossier published by Inside the Vatican in November 2020, sees Fratelli tutti as driving the final nail in that Roman Catholicism:
…that grand historical, theological, and juridical construction which has its origin in the Hellenization (in terms of the ‘philosophical aspect’) and Romanization (in terms of the political-juridical aspect) of primitive Christianity, and is based on the primacy of the successors of Peter, as emerges from the crisis of the late ancient world and from the theoretical systematization of the Gregorian age (‘Distatus Papae’).
Pertici points to Cardinal Kasper who, with great influence on Pope Francis, presents the Catholic Church as out of step with evolving Lutheranism. Kasper’s unquestioned premise is that the Church is only one “confession” among many, though the Church has never portrayed itself as simply a denomination rather than the universal Church. The Church now needs to be deconstructed.
Following the agenda, according to Pertici, Pope Francis identifies himself as the bishop of Rome (not as pontiff of the universal Church); destructs the canonical figure of the Roman pontiff (“who am I to judge?”); downgrades some of the most characteristic sacraments (auricular confession, indissoluble marriage, the Eucharist (more recently amputating Summorum Pontificum/Sacrosanctum Concilium), and sacred orders as characterized by a celibate priesthood. And, he delights in creative confusion “to which is added a vision of the Church almost as a federation of local Churches.”
Pertici concludes with questions reaching beyond the Church:
Will the operation carried forward by Pope Francis and his ‘entourage’ see lasting success, or will it end up encountering resistance within the hierarchy and what remains of the Catholic people, greater than the decidedly marginal forms that have emerged so far? More in general: what consequences could this have on the overall cultural, political, religious cohesion of the Western world, which, in spite of having reached an elevated level of secularization, has long had one of its load-bearing structures precisely in ‘Roman Catholicism’?
In summary, with St. Paul, “…then we shall see [God] face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Or, instead, since we do not yet see God “face to face,” why not settle now for the pluralism of faces of each other on a polyhedral Church? Like ecumenical councils, are synods still something that the Church does, and not what the Church is?
Or with Pertici, is misused synodality to end up as a replacement—not for St. Augustine’s mere “earthly kingdom”—but for the Church as divinely instituted by the incarnate Jesus Christ?
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