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Quick notes on Synods, Phil Saviano, and Christianity in Honduras

Three items that caught my attention coming out of the weekend and into the week.

(Image: David Travis/

A friend from Rome wrote to ask me: “How is the upcoming Synod not an Ecumenical Council?”

If it’s not a disguised Ecumenical Council,” my friend continued, “how does it differ from all the other Synods of Bishops?” The short answer I gave was that Francis may well want to get all the results of an improbably successful ecumenical council, and also none of the risk.

On the spectrum of success, Francis knows that Church councils are usually closer to Constance (which did not resolve either the Great Schism or the conciliarism controversy) or Basel (a desultory affair that ended – or rather, … ahem … petered out – in Ferrara, and achieved a short-lived union with a few Eastern Churches), than they are to whatever one might put at the other end.

I don’t know, maybe Trent?

Francis is not willing to face the music that would play if he should call Vatican III, but he wants two things: to invest the Synods with the supreme and unchallengeable authority; to place the Synods entirely and unambiguously and permanently under the pope.

Writing in these pages some years ago, I noted that Francis has been clear on the point, and so right from the get-go: “The Synod,” Francis said in his address to bishops gathered for the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, “always acts cum Petro et sub Petro — indeed, not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro.”

Roughly and readily, the practical upshot of all that struck me then as bearing directly and immediately on the advisory body known as the Synod of Bishops, but more broadly to the Church’s hierarchical leadership in general and as a whole.

At risk of sounding like a broken record, Pope Francis is certainly right to affirm that Peter is the guarantee of unity in the Church. “Practically speaking,” I said then, “this will always mean that the Church is exactly as synodal as Peter says it is.”

How this plays out is something I’ll watch and chronicle as long as the cheques come. It is important that we’re all clear about what it is we’re talking about. What’s that? It seems to this Church-watcher that, once you cut through the claptrap, it’s about how power is ordered and organized and exercised in the Church.


Phil Saviano died this weekend.

Mr. Saviano was a victim of clerical sexual abuse who became a survivor-advocate and activist. His work was key to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigations, which made the crisis of clerical abuse and coverup a persistent international scandal.

I never met him, but only saw him – if memory serves – in a gaggle outside the Holy See press office in early 2019, when the Meeting on Child Protection took place.

Mr. Saviano’s passing has been the occasion of too many thoughts for me to process succinctly, but one thing is clear: Phil Saviano did not cause the crisis of leadership in the Catholic Church. Rather, the leadership crisis in the Catholic Church caused Phil Saviano to become a voice for the victims – like himself – whom Church leaders had tried to silence.

His passing marks the closure of a generation that has known the scandal of crisis, while the crisis that finally erupted in worldwide scandal two decades ago persists. “Every step they’ve taken,” the Washington Post quoted Mr. Saviano as saying of Church leaders, “they’ve done it begrudgingly.”

I think of an analytical observation I made regarding the reasons for the persistence of the leadership crisis in the Church, in a piece for the Catholic World Report exactly three years ago to the day, during the run up to the Child Protection Meeting:

For all [the meeting organizers’] talk of cultural change — and there is a good bit of it — there is next to no readily apparent recognition of the cultural problem that needs changing: The bishops, who are the overseers of the Church, are deeply invested in maintaining the untenable status quo, in which the bishops themselves exercise all the power, control all the money, and make all the decisions; while the lower ranks of the clergy are taught systematically, from their first day of seminary, to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, as the price of their portion in a system and a culture designed for corruption.

As I write this, Johnny Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” is playing in the background. I have no point to make, in making the note, unless it be one better made by wondering whether the men who are our rulers in the faith really believe the dogma that drives Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around.


Very briefly, Phil Lawler called my attention to a study by the Honduran research outfit, Paradigma, which shows that more Hondurans now identify as Evangelical than do identify as Catholic.

Published in October, the study got some play in the press. If I noticed it at the time, I forgot about it before I could dig into it and see whether it really says what the news reports say it says – and if so, whether it really means what the reports say it means.

I’m heading to New Jersey to give a couple of talks tomorrow, so I won’t have time to look into the business until this weekend.

Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” just came on. That’s perfect.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 245 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Perhaps the plan is to ensure that everyone participates in the synods, and then to let the bundled results, as a collage, simply stand as the sensus fidei because no one had the presence of mind to delete the bad apples.

    The bishops are “primarily facilitators” (the vanedecum workbook), and not firstly successors of the apostles responsible for the deposit of faith. Unanimity in the process rather than any particular element of content.

    With Marshall McLuhan: “The medium IS the message.” It’s the 1960s all over again.

  2. There will be no Vatican III as mentioned in this article. With the center of gravity of the Catholic world having shifted, the next ecumenical council will most likely be one of these possibilities: Manila I, Lagos I or Mexico City I. Besides, with Vatican II still heavily resisted or rejected by a small minority but loud conservative Catholics especially here in the U.S., like many of the readers of CWR here, the council’s teachings and reforms have still a long way to go – which may even go longer than average – before being fully “received.” (The field of study called the “theology of reception” shows that the teachings of councils normally takes on the average of more or less 100 years to be fully received by all sectors of the Church. Vatican II is only going on 60.) So the next ecumenical council should not be convoked this century but in the twenty-second.

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