A Muddled Report for a Messy Synod
By Carl E. Olson
On October 28th, after four weeks of discussions in Rome at the general assembly of the Synod on Synodality, the Summary Report titled “A Synodal Church in Mission” was released.
That now seems, just weeks later, like a lifetime ago, for the simple reason that the time since has been dominated by significant news that began in the final days of the synodal gathering. First, that accused abuser and disgraced Jesuit priest/artist Fr. Marko Rupnik had been incardinated into a diocese in his native Slovenia; then Pope Francis (whose support of Rupnik has been widely criticized) expressed his dislike for “the scandal of young priests trying on cassocks and hats or albs and lace-covered robes”; then Francis relieved Bishop Joseph Strickland from his position as head of the Diocese of Tyler (Texas); and then, even more surprisingly, Francis stripped Cardinal Raymond Burke of his Vatican housing and salary privileges.
That is a lot to process in a month's time and it obviously overshadows the 41-page synthesis report, which was supposedly the culmination of the month-long event. I say “supposedly” because on October 29th, the day after the report was released, an American cardinal who is close to Pope Francis gave an interview and declared, when asked about the document:
The document is not as important as the experience that we had. I think the document tries to convey that experience. And it does a good job. But my hope would be that we are able to take that experience back home and share it with our people because that really is what the synod is about. It’s a new way of being church.
Such a statement might seem curious, but there hasn't been much normal or straightforward about this 2021–2024 synodal process. And this remark, by Blase Cardinal Cupich of Chicago, raises several points.
First, why does the document apparently struggle to convey the synodal experience? And if those going home can convey the experience, why is it that all involved cannot convey it together? How exactly are the 363 voting participants to “take that experience back home” and share it?
Secondly, it has been evident from previous documents that “experience” is going to be, for the staunch synodalists like Cupich and others, key to the synodal goal of manifesting “a new way of being church” into being. Thus, it's not surprising that “experience(s)” appears almost 80 times in the synthesis report, and that the favored term “discern(ment/ing”) is used 38 times. Which is quite a few more times than words such as “teaching” (18), “truth” (8), “doctrine” (6), or “dogma” (0). Experience certainly has its rightful place, and proper discernment is a good thing, but there are questions aplenty about the basis for making proper judgments and decisions.
This is especially the case when the words “new” and “change” are used constantly. And more than a few instances are so banal as to be essentially meaningless, as when we read: “Our synodal path shows the need for relational renewal and structural changes” (9g).
And it doesn’t help that, in the Introduction, we read this bit of tortured explication:
The multiplicity of interventions and the plurality of positions voiced in the Assembly revealed a Church that is learning to embrace a synodal style and is seeking the most suitable ways to make this happen.
This and other passages suggest that “synodality” is either a word in search of a definition or a word too vague for a definition. This, thankfully, did not escape the attention of everyone at the Assembly:
Building on the reflective work already undertaken, there is a need to clarify the meaning of synodality at different levels, in pastoral, theological, and canonical terms. This helps to avert the risk that the concept sounds too vague or generic or appears as a fad or fashion. It enables us to offer a broad understanding of walking together with further theological deepening and clarification. Likewise, it is necessary to clarify the relationship between synodality and communion and between synodality and collegiality. (1j)
I agree completely. But it’s hard to avoid the disconcerting contrast between the appeal for clarification of an essential term and seeing that term being used repeatedly, to the point of exhaustion, in the following ways: “synodal process” (24), “synodal Church” (23), “synodal journey” (6), “synodal configuration” (3), “synodal approach” (3), “synodal style” (3), “synodal dynamic” (2), “synodal life” (2), and “synodal spirit” (1). Quite often, there is a sense that the synodal cart has been put before the ecclesial horse, and there are more than a few bumps, bruises, and dents to show for it.
On the positive side, the synthesis report is certainly an improvement on the The Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) of the 2023 Synod on Synodality, released in October 2022 (which I described as the "most incoherent document ever sent out from Rome") and the “Instrumentum Laboris” (IL), released this past June (which I said was “turgid” and “swollen with sociological terminology and bureaucratic bloviation”). While still shot through with constant references to “process(es)” (59) and plenty of sociological jargon, there are some serious attempts to root the text in recognizable Catholic teachings. In my October 3rd essay “Synodality, Soteriology, and ‘Sharing the journey’,” I argued that “the IL severs the missionary nature of the Church from its Source.” So, it is good to see a strong reference to the Trinitarian missions in the synthesis document:
According to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the Church is “a people brought together by virtue of the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (LG 4). The Father, through the mission of the Son and the gift of the Spirit, involves us in a dynamism of communion and mission that moves us from the “I” to the “we” and places us at the service of the world. Synodality translates the Trinitarian dynamism with which God comes to meet humanity into spiritual attitudes and ecclesial processes. (2a)
Of course, there is the inevitable use of “processes”—a term that never appears in Lumen Gentium and is drawn from the realm of management and bureaucracy. This is more than a little ironic, as the report, in Part 1, says the synodal “process” is aimed at providing an “experience of and desire for the Church as God's home and family, a Church that is closer to the lives of Her people, less bureaucratic and more relational” (1b).
But this sort of conflicted and sometimes discombobulated language is perhaps inevitable in a document co-authored by numerous hands within a very short period of time. There were reportedly around a thousand changes made to the initial draft of the document. And one of those changes is worth noting here, as it provides a microcosm of the very real tensions and incompatible anthropologies of key participants.
The synthesis draft contained the sentence:
In different ways, people who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality, such as divorced people in second union, people who identify as LGBTQ+, etc., also ask to be heard and accompanied.
That was changed, in the final document, to:
In different ways, people who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because of their marriage situation, identity or sexuality also ask to be heard and accompanied. (16h)
No one was surprised that Cardinal Cupich and Fr. James Martin, S.J. complained about this change, with Martin lamenting, shortly after the report was released that despite the “community” of “L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics” being “explicitly mentioned in the Instrumentum Laboris twice,” no such mention is in the synthesis report. He implied that those supporting “L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics” were caring and pastoral souls, while those opposed to pro-“L.G.B.T.Q.” language were actually the real ideologues. He doubled down on this a few days later, essentially saying that those opposed to anything “L.G.B.T.Q.” were possibly infested with bad spirits—the same fearful “counterspirits” that want the synod to fail. Neither Cupich nor Martin refer to clear and perennial Church teaching on sexuality (ranging from masturbation to fornication to pornography to homosexuality), but fixate on experiences and feelings, as if the subjectivity of such trump objective moral truths about the human person and his actions.
In contrast, Bishop Robert Barron, in a recent essay about his experience at the assembly, emphasized the proper relationship between love and truth, noting that “one cannot authentically love someone else unless he has a truthful perception of what is really good for that person.” Further, he highlighted a problematic passage in the report, which states:
Certain issues, such as those relating to matters of identity and sexuality, the end of life, complicated marital situations, and ethical issues related to artificial intelligence, are controversial not only in society, but also in the Church, because they raise new questions. Sometimes the anthropological categories we have developed are not able to grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences and require greater precision and further study. It is important to take the time required for this reflection and to invest our best energies in it, without giving in to simplistic judgements that hurt individuals and the Body of the Church. (15g)
Bishop Barron flatly rebuffs this deeply problematic passage:
A final point—and here I find myself in frank disagreement with the final synodal report—has to do with the development of moral teaching in regard to sex. The suggestion is made that advances in our scientific understanding will require a rethinking of our sexual teaching, whose categories are, apparently, inadequate to describe the complexities of human sexuality.
He notes, rightly, that the report here is “condescending to the richly articulate tradition of moral reflection in Catholicism” and makes a “category error”: thinking that advances in scientific knowledge require changes in moral doctrine. “Evolutionary biology, anthropology, and chemistry,” he writes, “might give us fresh insight into the etiology and physical dimension of same-sex attraction, but they will not tell us a thing about whether homosexual behavior is right or wrong.”
The head of the Polish Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, in a detailed interview about his time at the assembly, also criticized the report’s remarks about science and morals, saying they “stem either from an unconscious inferiority complex or from a superstitious approach to science.” Further, he remarks, “one can get the impression that some theologians and bishops believe in the infallibility of social sciences, and not even the sciences, but some mainstream sociologists and theories, which in a few decades will only be mentioned in history textbooks.”
The reference to “an unconscious inferiority complex” resonated with me as I read this report. Yes, again, there are some positive and thoughtful sections. But, overall, the repetitive jargon, the appeal to sociological lingo and bureaucratic perspectives, and the repetitive sense of uncertainty about Divine Revelation and objective truth is troubling.
Equally bothersome to me is the strange chronological snobbery. All of the various synodal documents create a narrative in which the Second Vatican Council sought to renew and revive the Church, but failed. (In the words of Cupich: “I have said before that the bishops of the Second Vatican Council only brought back the decisions. They never shared with us the experience or replicated it.”) But, now, the synodal Church is here; this is “the Church that young people first declared they desired in 2018 on the occasion of the Synod of Youth,” (1b) and so we now are all going to enjoy it.
There are many flaws to this facile (and laughable) account. One, as I’ve written about before, is the tenuous ties of this synodal enterprise with the documents and vision of Vatican II. This synodal process, so far at least, is like Vatican II but without the substance, heft, and foundations; this version of synodality is like communio without the vertical dimension, the proper focus on worship, and the evangelistic fervor. Yes, the report mentioned “mission” over a hundred times, but hardly ever mentions “evangelization,” “salvation,” or “redemption.” It criticizes “clericalism,” but hardly even mentions families, with almost no references to “mothers” (2), “parents” (2), and “fathers” (0).
There is lots of verbiage about the laity, but it is almost all focused on what the laity can do in the Church rather than in the world, which is the opposite of what is found—in detail and depth—in Lumen gentium and Christifideles laici (to give just two examples).
The emphasis on conversation between clergy and laity is good in principle, but much of it, again, is navel-gazing. Lumen gentium (37–38) envisions a mature laity who are confident in living their faith in the world, whereas this current synodality is often obsessed with everyone's struggles and difficulties, to a degree that swerves deeply into therapeutic territory, as if the laity are too fragile to do anything outside the Church and the clergy are too uncertain to do much of anything inside the Church.
There is much discussion of shared responsibilities, but it is, again, within the Church. The Council's repeated and strong emphasis on the vocation of the laity, rooted in holiness, has been transformed into an unrelenting focus on “what can the Church do for me?” that manages to sidestep much mention of conversion, avoids the call to holiness, and ducks any discussion of growth in virtue.
In conclusion, I point readers to an exceptional essay by Douglas Bushman on this “synodal myopia,” in which Bushman makes a recommendation that I heartily support:
Following its first session, the synod on synodality should engage in a principled self-inspection, a kind of examination of conscience, in order to purify its functioning and perhaps uncritically examined presuppositions. The criteria for this examination of conscience is the very council it claims to be taking direction from in order to move into a new phrase of implementation. A fresh look at certain teachings of Vatican II that are closely related to the notion of synodality will provide corrective lenses to counteract a myopia affecting the understanding of synodality and its activation in synodal events. A deeper theological understanding of Vatican II and the post-Conciliar popes prior to Francis will assure that the synod on synodality is effectively implementing the Council through its efforts to unleash the full potentiality of synodality for the promotion of the Church’s mission.
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent and Prepare the Way of the Lord—are published by Catholic Truth Society. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.