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Draft synodal text: Bishops to push back on ‘discernment of controversial issues’

Delegates to the synod on synodality will begin debate Thursday evening over their proposed amendments to a draft “synthesis report” that aims to summarize their month-long meeting in Rome — and to make recommendations to Pope Francis regarding the exercise of “synodality” in the life of the Church.

After proposed amendments are considered by the synod’s 365 voting delegates, the text is expected to be approved by a vote before the synod meeting closes on Saturday evening.

The draft report, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, includes several sections likely to prove controversial — including questions about the theological concept of the sensus fidei, along with sections dealing with the Church’s modes of pastoral care, episcopal accountability, and the prospect of admitting women to the order of the diaconate. 


The draft text, some 40 pages long, aimed to summarize “the experience of a Church that is learning the style of synodality,” which is often defined as an approach to discerning the will of God through common prayer and conversation among believers. 

“We have responded to the invitation to adopt a new awareness of the synodal dimension of the Church,” the draft text explained. “The Church’s synodal journey is oriented toward the Kingdom, which will be fully accomplished when God is all in all.”

The draft text took a broad view of “synodality.”

“In its broadest sense, synodality can be understood as the walk of Christians with Christ toward the Kingdom, together with all humanity. Its orientation is towards mission, and its practice involves gathering in assembly at each level of ecclesial life,” the draft text explained.

“Here, as an expression of Christ’s making himself present and alive in the Spirit, we listen to one another, enter into dialogues, communal discernment, consensus-building, and undertake decision-making in differentiated co-responsibility,” it added.

“The richness and depth of the synodal process indicates the value of expanding participation, overcoming the obstacles to participation that have emerged so far, and the sense of mistrust and fear.”

Still, “the Church does not reflect on its synodal configuration in order to place itself at the center of the proclamation, but to best fulfill … its service to the Kingdom of God.”

The draft “synthesis report” makes several suggestions for incorporating synodality in the Church’s life — some of which are expected to see pushback from synod participants.

Most concretely, the document proposed that bishops’ conferences should elect a “permanent synod of bishops to support the Petrine ministry.” 

That proposal would be a change from the current structure for the synod of bishops, in which bishops are called to Rome on ad hoc basis to advise the pope on particular issues. It is not clear whether pope will accept that suggestion, as the pontiff has cautioned frequently against a parliamentary attitude in the exercise of synodality, which could become more likely in an elected and ongoing synodal assembly of permanent delegates.

The text also proposes the introduction of “continental assemblies” to promote ongoing engagement among clerics and laity from neighboring countries, and urged “personal conversion to missionary synodality” among Catholics.

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While some delegates have said they have had insufficient time to read carefully the draft before it is subject to a debate, there are issues likely to see amendment proposals in the synod’s final days. 

Sources told The Pillar that some delegates at the synod are expected to raise questions on a section of the draft text dealing with “the Church’s discernment of controversial issues.”

On several moral and pastoral issues raised in relation to the synod in recent years, the draft text said that more discussion is needed, as there had been limited engagement on those topics during the meeting itself. 

Mentioning issues “relating to gender identity and sexual orientation, the end of life, difficult marital situations, and ethical issues related to artificial intelligence,” the document urged “initiatives that enable shared discernment on controversial, doctrinal, pastoral, and ethical issues.”

But some delegates have said that the section does not make sufficient mention of recourse to the Church’s magisterial teaching on those “controversial issues,” and seems to malign the magisterium when it criticizes the prospect of “taking refuge in the comfort of conventional formulas.”

Sources close to the synod say some delegates are concerned about a proposal to “identify the conditions that make possible theological and cultural research that takes as its starting point the daily experience of the People of God.”

That theological approach is controversial among bishops because some say that the starting point for theological research should be divine revelation, which is then applied to the experience of Catholics. A starting point of experience, rather than revelation, can too easily lead to a relativized approach to moral reasoning, some theologians have insisted in recent months. 

Still other delegates, The Pillar was told, have expressed disappointment that the draft synodal text did not take a more firm position on controversial moral issues raised in connection to the synod — among them delegates who had expressed hope that the synod might advance the prospect of liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, an emerging issue of debate within the Church.

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According to sources close to the process, some delegates are expected to push back on the text’s reference to the sensus fidei of the Church, which the draft said “consists in certain connaturality with divine realities and the aptitude to grasp what conforms to the truth of faith intuitively.”

“Synodal processes enhance this gift and allow for verifying the existence of that consensus of the faithful (consensus fidelium), which is a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the apostolic faith,” the text said.

But some delegates have reportedly expressed concern that the draft text’s definition differs from Catholic doctrine on the subject in some key ways. 

Some bishops say the text fails to mention the role of the Magisterium in assessing the beliefs of particular Catholics. Others say that while the draft text suggests that a representative sample of Catholics could demonstrate the orthodoxy of some doctrinal claim, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the notion of the sensus fidei can only be invoked when the “whole people … from the bishops to the last of the faithful … manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”

Sources say that a number of bishops are poised to urge an amendment to the draft text, likely urging that if the document makes mention of the sensus fidei, that it draw from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and from a 2014 text on the subject from the International Theological Commission.

Bishop Daniel Flores, a delegate to the synod, expressed reservations to The Pillar last November about the prospect of applying the theological notion of the sensus fidei to the work of the synod.

“I don't think the sensus fidelium can be so easily gauged theologically,” Flores explained. 

“I don't think the Fathers of the Church understood it that way. It's something that's expressed in the practice of the Church, in the prayer of the Church, in the way the Church responds sort of spontaneously to a challenge. … The spontaneous reaction of the Maccabees to the call to defile themselves  — in rejecting that, that’s a sensus fidelium, that's an expression of faith.”

According to other sources, some delegates are also expecting the prospect of amendments to proposals to develop “structures and processes for regular review of the [diocesan] bishop’s work,” to strengthen the authority of the metropolitan archbishop over the suffragan diocesan bishops in his province, and to see papal nuncios regularly evaluated by the diocesan bishops in the territories where they serve.

At issue in those proposals will likely be the emphasis placed on the authority of the diocesan bishop at the Second Vatican Council, some say — while other delegates say that episcopal accountability and reform are important issues, raised by local synodal consultations around the world.

It is also likely that some delegates will push back on the text’s two proposals to establish committees for further work on synodality. One proposal would see the synod secretariat “establish a committee of theologians to be entrusted with the task of proceeding with the work of terminological clarification” regarding synodality.

Another would create a “special commission of experts” to clarify “the canonical implications of the synodality perspective.”

But according to sources close to the synod, some bishops have proposed that if those commissions are established, the members should be nominated by bishops’ conferences — rather than be appointed by the Vatican — to ensure theological representation for the perspectives of diocesan bishops in various parts of the world. 

Sources say they expect broad support among delegates for proposals to make mandatory parish and diocesan pastoral councils, which are already in widespread use in the United States, as well as proposals to see more women involved in priestly formation.

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It is not clear whether synod delegates will debate a section of the draft text which says that “different positions have been expressed regarding women’s access to diaconal ministry” — even while Pope Francis made headlines this week for comments which seemed to rule the prospect out

The draft says that “for some, this step would be unacceptable because they consider it a discontinuity with Tradition. For others, however, granting women access to the diaconate would restore the practice of the Early Church. Others, still, discern it as an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to the Tradition, and one that would find an echo in the hearts of many who seek new energy and vitality in the Church.” 

Sources close to the synod say that while that section is technically accurate, it does not reflect their experience, that a very small number of delegates have spoken in favor of women’s ordination to the diaconate, while arguments against the idea have generally received popular support.

Debate over proposed amendments to the text is expected Thursday evening, and more consideration will reportedly be given to those amendments on Saturday. 

A final document is expected to be published Saturday evening, according to Vatican officials. 

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