Sanity, synodality, and Germany

Why Pope Francis’s criticism, in his recent AP interview, of the German bishops’ oft-controverted synodal side project is rather puzzling.

The third Synodal Assembly of the ‘Synodal Way’ in Frankfurt, Germany, on Feb. 4, 2022. / Max von Lachner/Synodal Way.

A headshrinker could have a field day with the interview Pope Francis gave to the Associated Press last week.

There was plenty of grist for the mill, and news nonetheless buried between the argle and the bargle of the pope’s responses.

For example, there was the explication he gave of what has been an implicit – not to say “surreptitious” – presupposition regarding “synodality” and its place in the life of the Church. “The Eastern Church is used to it,” Pope Francis said. “It” is synodality, which the Churches of the East have kept precisely as their system of government and mode of governance. “[T]hey have preserved it,” he said. “Orthodox Catholics have kept it and they have the Roman Synod. We don’t have it. We are learning.”

It could be, therefore, that the whole business of the “synodal journey” on which Pope Francis has embarked the Church may find itself dead in the water before it really gets underway, or in any case never really come to port. It wouldn’t be the first time a papal reform initiative came to naught. What is certain, is that anyone saying with any degree of confidence what synodality demands of Catholics is at this point speaking prematurely.

There are myriad reasons why a synodal system or mode, such as lived and practiced in the Churches of the Christian East, cannot simply be grafted or otherwise imposed on Western ecclesiastical polity and set to run. Orientalizing the West is sure to prove as disastrous a project as the worst attempts to occidentalize the East. So, whatever Francis has in mind, it isn’t that. It can’t be that.

In order to make appropriate use of Eastern modes and orders, Western Christians will need to learn them from the inside, out, and that will require development of proper heuristics, hermeneutics, and a host of other tools for interpretation and calibration with hifalutin’ names.

The draftsmen of Francis’s working document for next phase in his own synod on synodality – the three-year worldwide consultative process that is already underway – evidence and at least tacitly recognize this ineluctable fact.

The Germans have taken such a technocratic tack in their Synodal Way. That’s one reason why his criticism of the German bishops’ oft-controverted synodal side project – that it is the work of technocratic “élites” rather than the work of the Holy Spirit through the whole People of God – is rather puzzling.

The German experience does not help, “Pope Francis told the AP, “because it is not a Synod, a serious synodal journey, it is a so-called synodal journey, but not of the totality of the people of God, but made by élites.”

How the Germans’ Synodale Weg differs from Pope Francis’s synodal project in these specific regards is not at all apparent, protestations of broad “listening” to the faithful worldwide notwithstanding.

Synodality may turn out to be something for everyone, somehow and in some way a catalyst for needed reform and a contributor to the organic development of structures more apt to affect the safety and happiness of Christians. Synodality may prove to be Pope Francis’s white whale, his attempt to extract blood from a turnip – or milk and eggs from a rooster, as the Romans used to say – or a wild goose chase, or a snipe-hunt, or … some other hackneyed metaphor. Which it will be remains to be seen.

The business will be messy, expensive, and dangerous.

You’re going to need a bigger boat,” says Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody to Robert Shaw’s Quint in Jaws. Or, perhaps Tom Hanks’s Walter Fielding on the phone in The Money Pit telling the plumber he went to Yale while Joe Mantegna’s just-arrived dirtbag carpenter gets fresh with Shelley Long’s Anna Crowley is a better cinematic fit.

The kind of work the Church’s house needs, well, it requires lots of experts. Their interests will never perfectly align with those of the principal stakeholders. The homeowners – not really owners at all, in the case of the Church – meanwhile have serious problems of their own that they need to sort out in order to have half a chance at happiness. Also, there’s no question of selling the house when the work is done, which complicates matters.

There’s grim fun to be had with the extension of the money pit (The Money Pit?) metaphor, but save it.

At the bottom of the interview, Pope Francis answered a question about his overall emotional and physical health. “Emotionally, I’m half-crazy,” Pope Francis told the AP. “De emotiva, soy medio loco,” in the Spanish original. The drop of a statement like that might have made a bigger splash than it appears to have made, even though Francis spoke the words in jest.

World’s Most Significant Religious Leader Admits Emotional Instability” is the stuff of three-inch headlines these days, not only in the tabloids. Perhaps it is reassuring to know that editors and sub-editors around the world are beginning to recognize a joke when they see one, or that Francis’s “crazy” quip is really a sign that a little sanity has crept back in through the cracks. It made this old hand chuckle, anyways.

Church-watchers with an interest in all the synodal business, meanwhile, may be forgiven if they begin to feel like the wild-eyed fellow standing before a cluttered corkboard, squeezing a cigarette and gesturing maniacally. If they read to the end of the AP interview, they’ll find they’d be in pretty good company, too.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 196 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. Sad to say, is what true synodality might have been being reduced to a beast of burden for destablizing the Church, and even for overturning our baked-in natural law and, therefore, Church teachings on sexual morality?

    At its unlikely best, the sound of an uncertain trumpet?…To what extent will all the rest of the “listening” be reduced to bubble wrap? Absolutely nothing falling to the clipping room floor!

    Will the magisterium’s Lumen Gentium, or even its Veritatis Splendor be reaffirmed–and applied, or will the synodal payload be simply a collage/plebiscite of contradictions “aggregated, combined and synthesized” by note-taking bishop “facilitators;” and then homogenized by a layer of non-ordained “experts”(!); and then recycled (hurray!) and rehashed in “continental” silos; and then with f(l)avored parts of this silage predictably vomited forward by a self-compromised retreat-master; and then finally massaged ever more forward by the well-groomed head of the 2023-4 master debate?

    Or, not finally–this “everlasting journey”?

  2. Bergoglio has opened doors, for sure. Now he either doesn’t want to close them or hasn’t a clue as to how. Either way, the Church is suffering at the hands of a very imprudent pope.

    • I think not imprudent but intentional destruction. This point will be further clarified as this goes forward. Watch how Francis maneuvers things, if he places Heiner Wilmer as doctrine of the faith…

  3. Articles keep expressing wonder. What’s it all about? At this time it’s past time to keep asking. Let’s start with the ample charm of Pope Francis, whose convincing half crazy is crazy like a fox.
    Altieri, astute, keen to the business of Byzantium Vatican, wonders if this synodality will collapse like many Vatican projects. That would be thankful. Although the Kabuki exchange between Francis, the German Synodaler bishops, and his own Synod on Synodality [how can Francis’ appointment of Hollerich SJ ever be forgotten in the midst of this] manifests unity of purpose rather than mutual antagonism. His Holiness is a masterful coordinator of the stage play that keeps journalists, clergy, laity agog. It’s wonderful theatre. If it were not as Altieri muses, that it may be dangerous. That’s so [dangerous] if you’re convinced unconditional embrace of sexually disordered relationships is itself a moral disorder, not so if you’re convinced the oft expressed unconditional embrace, inclusion into the Mystical Body is a warm, tender, truly Christlike embrace of love as you are. Ask then where does His Holiness stand? The answer is not complex.

  4. The “theater” of the Francis Pontificate proves out the assessment made by Adam DeVille of the utter failure of the governance model of the contemporary, apostate Catholic Church hierarchs.

    When this model gets populated by so many men who are outlaws, men like the “Eminences” Danneels of Belgium and McElroy of San Diego (exemplar of the sex abuse coverup hierarchs), and apostate dissemblers like Hollerich, and outright liars and sex-abusers like McCarrick, the Church is out-of-control, literally in the hands of outlaws.

    This is the fate of the juridical model of central authority, where men who have zero regard for the Commandments of Jesus expect to be obeyed by virtue of the authority vested in them by the same Jesus who they pretend to serve.

    These men submit to no authority but themselves, and their like-minded false shepherds: men with “the mind of McCarrick.”

  5. And what if anything worthwhile from all the synodality should become lasting, in time becoming…gasp!…tradition? I take comfort in Chesterton’s chapter on “The Eternal Revolution” within his “Orthodoxy”.
    “Let beliefs fade fast and frequently, if you wish institutions to remain the same”. No sooner done with synodality, and on to the next project of “aggiornamento”. The ambiguous blueprint for synodality, and the infighting among the parties, is a glimmer of hope that Catholic moral theology will not be broadsided by the proportionalism being fought on another front.

  6. Have you all noticed that EVERY logo of EVERYTHING having to do with the church is now a RAINBOW of colors? Just look at the picture accompanying this article. They are not even hiding their total control of the church now. Coming in October: Catholic teaching on homosexuality is reversed

    • Samton I don’t believe if that occurs, it will be done formally, per definitive pronouncement to the Church. That’s a personal conviction. What the modus operandi of the Francis pontificate has been is to separate without violating doctrine, practice, and to engage in a form of acculturation, transforming our present Catholic culture into an amoral all inclusive Bahá’í [or Bahai] type practicing body. Our Catholic population already is largely accepting of same sex relationships.
      Our dilemma is that too many good, outstanding bishops, Archbishop Aquila, a recent example in his criticism of Card McElroy are unduly reluctant to address the issue directly with Pope Francis.

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