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Opinion: Making sense of synodal steps during precarious times

Will misused synodality 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?

Pope Francis leads a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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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About Peter D. Beaulieu 13 Articles
Peter D. Beaulieu earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in urban and regional planning from the University of Washington (1975), is a member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author of Beyond Secularism and Jihad? A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity (University Press of America, 2012) and A Generation Abandoned: Why 'Whatever' Is Not Enough (Hamilton Books, 2017).


  1. At the start collegiality was troubling, a seeming shadow church within the Church. Great Councils had an aura, driven by the Holy Spirit evident in outcome. You referred to councils of a lesser kind in reference to collegiality. And your thesis here is well made on synodality [synods in the early Church particularly the East were the forerunner of the great councils Nicea, Ephesus]. What’s changed is the format, or form. Much of Amazonia had legitimacy addressing real contemporary questions. When it comes to addressing these questions you describe the bishop participants as facilitators. And the issue of direction, what will be determined. The matter to be informed. We might add the Amazonia bishops were explorers with a cadre of men with maps. Men like Cardinal Hummes. His Holiness is a superb maestro. Synod on synodality a symphony opens with a sonata, loud affirmations of doctrine [most recently on abortion and euthanasia] subtle counterpoint what to do about homosexuality married priests women priests marriage diversity of belief. As we trudge toward 2023 I’m reminded of Teddy Roosevelt retired from politics enlisting to explore for Brazil the destination of an unknown river. Roosevelt’s wonderful account The River of Doubt finds it flows back to, sorry I meant into the Amazon. [Not aware of the unknown, my hope is for good outcome].

    • And, your “hope…for good outcome” is widely shared, also by this writer when I speak of possibly “misused synodality”…

      Understanding that the working of the indwelling Holy Spirit serves to unfold the definitive revelation of Jesus Christ, not to confuse or even replace it (e.g., Germany’s prototype and unstructured “structure”–the “synodal way”):

      “The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await no further new public revelation [!] before the glorious manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf 1 Tim 6:14, Tit.2:13)” (Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, n. 4).

      The difficult task of real synodality (toward evangelization…) is first introduced in the early Evangelii Nuntiandi (Pope Paul VI, “Evangelization in the Modern World,” 1975) which—-not unlike the new effort—-wishes to achieve “unity in variety” (n. 76); is attentive to “popular piety” (synodality’s “sensus fidei”?) and “how to perceive its interior dimensions and undeniable values, [and] be ready to help it overcome its risks of deviation” (n.48); and is attuned to the “risks of [evangelization itself] losing its power and disappearing altogether if one empties or adulterates its content under the pretext of translating it; if, in other words, one sacrifices this reality and destroys the unity without which there is no universality, out of a wish to adapt a universal reality to a local situation” (n. 63).

      What, then, is a listening and steadfast polyhedral Church? This might be what Pope Benedict had in mind, already, when he wrote:

      “Certainly we cannot return to the past, nor have we any desire to do so. But we must be ready to reflect anew on that which, in the lapse of time, has remained the one constant. To seek without distraction and to dare to accept, with joyful heart and without diminution, the foolishness of truth—-this, I think, is the task for today and for tomorrow: the nucleus [a polyhedron with a center] of the Church’s service to the world, her answer to “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time (Gaudium et Spes)” (Ratzinger, “Principles of Catholic Theology,” 1987).

      • Whatever good or evil His Holiness’ endless synodal journey may produce [although endless doesn’t suggest finality on any matter], endless deliberation on the nature of the Church, its Kerygma will condition the Church at large to question the binding permanence of moral and theological doctrine.

  2. Actually it make no sense. They are not following the Holy Spirit. They have been tricked. It is a diabolical spirit. Will cause division and death. A life-style centered on sex that displaces love will lead to dissolution and disaster. Thus is what happens with homosexuality and with attempts to change one’s sex.

  3. Let us all hope for Divine Intervention. It is clear to at least this lay Catholic that the network of Rampolla – today the inheritors are called The Sankt Gallen Mafia – is entirely responsible for the turmoil and crimes in which our Holy Mother the Church has been ensnared. It thus seems highly unlikely that the Sankt Gallen Mafia leader who concluded an “underground Pact” during the Amazon Synod will intentionally prove to be the solution…. It is painful to watch as Judas crucifies the bride of Christ. Poor Judas. He has abolished hell, submitted to Allah, poo-poos St Paul, and now tries to scrap the eternally valid Mass in response to the German schism he has generated. Anything could happen next. I hope for Divine Intervention, but fear Calvary.

    • Expect, but never fear.
      This is ultimately God’s victory, complete and total.
      Remember, the only way to Heaven is by means of the Cross.

      • The reality of the CROSS is that the horizontal beam is first supported by a vertical beam. This icon is the one “intersectionality” in our post-modern world that still matters most—community rooted in the sacral. Otherwise, join the Rotary…

        The Church is centered on and formed by the sacrifice and communion (both) of Calvary—the EUCHARIST—always more than a celebration along the way of the “endless journey.” While a more communal Church is still sacramental, it runs the risk of being no longer sacral. Part of the present confusion over synodality is that in front-runner Germany, in their 1980s translation of the Missale Romanum, the word “church” was largely replaced by “community” (still the case?).

        But, with the Eucharist we ALREADY:

        “…enter into union with the universal Church—that is, with the one Lord and his one Body. That is why there belongs to the Eucharist not only the anamnesis [remembrance] of the whole sacred history but also the anamnesis of the whole community of saints, of those who have died and of all living believers throughout the world. The outward sign that one cannot manipulate the Eucharist at will and that it belongs to the universal Church is the successio apostolica [apostolic succession]: it means that no [bottoms-up] group can constitute itself a church but becomes [!] a church only by being received as such by the universal Church. It means, too, that the Church cannot organize herself according to her own design [a dominant synodal “structure”?] but can become [!] herself again and again only by the gift of the Holy Spirit requested in the name of Jesus Christ, that is, through the sacrament.”

        The inspiration toward synodality is fully in step by appealing to the Holy Spirit (“requested in the name of Jesus Christ…”); but a pause, here, on the MIXED MEANING of replacing a so-called pyramid of institutional “clericalism” with an inverted pyramid of evangelical “service;” and on the synodal-document implication that the universal Church is now a “denomination.”)

        Some will dismiss quotes from Benedict (above, “Principles of Catholic Theology,” 1987), but such inclusive listening (!) is called for by others…Otherwise, the ghost of Schillebeeckx (1914-2009) might seem to be too influential—-he who would actually REPLACE the vertical, sacramental and sacral beam of “ordination” with the horizontal beam or “orientation” toward the community.

  4. Pope Pius X foresight that puts it better: “…the great movement of apostasy being organized in every country for the establishment of a One-World Church which shall have neither dogmas, nor hierarchy, neither discipline for the mind, nor curb for the passions, and which, under the pretext of freedom and human dignity, would bring back to the world (if such a Church could overcome) the reign of legalized cunning and force, and the oppression of the weak, and of all those who toil and suffer. […] Indeed, the true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries, nor innovators: they are traditionalists.”
    Pope Pius X

  5. When will we admit it:? With the Novus Ordo we turned from the worship of God to the worship of man. The priest went from having his back to the people to having his back to God. As Paul points out in Romans 1&2 the worship of false idols leads to immorality (homosexuality, etc.). The Church will never be spiritually renewed until it returns to worship of the Father in Spirit and in Truth.

    • Consider this, George. Jesus assures us that when we are gathered in his name he is amongst us. So, at Mass, when the Lord is amongst the people, do you want the priest to turn his back on our Lord and his people?

      • There are those who say that in at least parts of the Mass the priest should face liturgical East, along with his people who are facing the same direction, leading as a shepherd does by walking in front.

  6. All over the world Catholics are praying that this process will bring abundant blessings from God. The Holy Spirit will see our sincerity in seeking a renewal of faith and hope and will no doubt help us on this journey.

    • As we can see, the C6 – the small synodal group around the Pope which in Sankt Gallen Synodal mode voted to reject other Cardinals from the polit bureau’s central committee – have wonderfully implemented Bergoglio’s synodal process in Germany. Having closed down churches, published a moto prorio which aims to reduce access to Mass for the most ardent of Catholics and stamp out the Mass of the Apostles, they are now remorselessly chasing hundreds of thousands of Germans OUT of the the Catholic Church. Same politics we have seen throughout this strange papacy on show: political action, with public statements to the contrary. Send Cardinal Marx to Germany to explode the Church, chide him from time to time. Refuse his resignations from time to time. The sincerity of the aims and objectives of the Sankt Gallen Mafia can be in no doubt Mal. Their words, actions, spirit, and fruits are crystal clear. Only the Cross can help explain how God will put the treachery to use in his Divine Plan. Bergoglio publicly claims to have an undisclosed electoral plan he is following. That is his latest response for the situation: he is following a collective plan. He is not responsible… It is the Sankt Gallen Mafia’s fault for electing him. Heaven Help Us. And soon.

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