At a Vatican press conference last week, Jesuit journalist Fr. Tom Reese asked Texas’ Bishop Daniel Flores a rather direct question.
Reese noted that a lot of American Catholics are skeptical of the synod, and that some people believe “the bishops are being manipulated by a liberal cabal of staff and theologians.”
Flores was asked effectively to respond to the question of whether he himself was under the control of a liberal cabal.
It was a funny moment, of course, because no one actually being manipulated by a liberal cabal would admit as much.
But Flores did not blink S-O-S in Morse Code while answering the question.
He said instead that Catholics live “in a very suspicious age.”
Mistrust is in the “air we breathe,” he said, adding that he had seen earnest and sincere conversations at the synod, not manipulation or control.
Reese’s question raised an important point. A swath of American churchgoers do believe that the synod has been manipulated, or set for a predetermined outcome, with the deliberations at the synod’s round tables serving as a kind of window dressing for results already determined by a group of Vatican influencers.
Americans aren’t the only ones. Several bishops from countries outside the U.S. have told The Pillar that Catholics in their countries — both “conservative” and “liberal” are skeptical that the synod is really a free deliberation, or that voices outside the mainstream are being heard.
For the most part, participants in the process tell a different story.
Even participants skeptical of the synodality process tell The Pillar they doubt that the outcome is predetermined, or that the synod is rigged.
Of course, some have raised procedural complaints, including a perceived imbalance of speaking opportunities among synod delegates — and they haven’t addressed the question of who was invited in the first place.
But most participants have told The Pillar that group reports have accurately reflected the input of synod delegates, and that it would be difficult for the meeting’s interim report — to be produced at the end of this month — to deviate from the weekly reports which contribute to it.
At least, they say, it would be difficult for the interim report to be manipulated without broad pushback from synod participants, who have been repeatedly promised that the document will reflect their views.
But skepticism about the integrity of the synod process perdures.
The reason might have something to do with the rhetoric used by some synod participants about what exactly they’re doing in the synod hall.
Some participants have framed the synod as an effort connected to ecclesiastical reform.
Germany’s Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, for example, told reporters Saturday that the synod on synodality has an ethos similar to Germany’s “synodal way” — and noted that process began as an attempt to reform the Church in light of the country’s clerical abuse scandal.
Overbeck suggested that a more participative approach to ecclesiastical leadership could be an effective way to combat the prospect of abuse in the life of the Church, and that the synod on synodality has taken up that effort.
Other participants have suggested that the synod on synodality allows a kind of reinvigoration-by-collaboration — that as religious sisters, for example, share with bishops their own experience of community life and sororal discernment, the Church will adopt new practices, by a kind of fruitful exchange of ideas and customs.
The synod’s organizers have said that recommendations from the synod will likely lead eventually to a reform of the Church’s laws — that new structures of collaboration and consultation, at the continental level and elsewhere, are likely to be created across the Church.
Organizers have also told The Pillar that the Vatican’s synod is meant to serve as a kind of global practice round of synodality, aimed at strengthening the “synodal muscle” — presumably in anticipation of new synodal structures being implemented in the Church.
Other participants have used rhetoric emphasizing renewal.
A number of bishops have said that the synod is a way to better invite the voice of the Holy Spirit into the life of the Church, that the power of the Holy Spirit will reinvigorate their parishes and dioceses.
Theologians in the synod hall have told participants that the meeting is a kind of “dialogue with God,” a prayerful discernment that will spark a new phase of discerning God’s will, and his presence, in the Church.
One bishop emphasized the synod as a call to renewing efforts for consultation — telling journalists last week that the Code of Canon Law contains several structures meant to encourage collaboration between bishops and their priests and laity, and that the synod on synodality might have the effect of encouraging bishops to better use those structures.
But some participants have used language that goes beyond the notion of reform and renewal.
Some use language evocative of revolution.
At a press conference this week, Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Lithuania said the synod is a conversation about how the Church is called to live.
Summing up “the discussion that’s happening now,” the archbishop offered two different framings for the synod.
One framing was this: “How do we live Church in a completely different way?”
The other: “Or the same way, with better dialogue?”
Grušas framed the questions succinctly.
Is the Vatican’s meeting about how to get “better dialogue?” Or might Catholics really be called to “live Church in a completely different way?” Is that really on the table?
The synod is certainly spoken of that way.
A theologian speaking to the synod Monday compared the synod’s work to the prospect of proposing “a new adaptation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Last week, one bishop — Overbeck — seemed to speak ambiguously in a press conference about the normativity of apostolic tradition, raising questions about the synod’s commitment to even basic Catholic doctrines. He is not the first synod father to suggest that at the synod, doctrine is up for grabs.
For some Catholics, that kind of rhetoric is a bridge too far.
For them, the notion of “liv[ing] Church in a completely different way” impugns the way their fathers and grandfathers “lived Church.” It indicts the way that saints of old “lived Church.” It suggests to them some insufficiency in the experience of the Church over two millennia, committing the fallacy that the present has wisdom inaccessible to the Christians of the past.
For some, the idea of “adaptation” of the Gospel itself seems to repudiate the prevailing ethos of the Second Vatican Council, which aimed towards “ressourcement” — a way towards revival through a rediscovery of the ways that Christian martyrs of the early centuries “lived Church,” and the authoritative sources which guided them.
And some ask a pressing question: If Catholics will be “liv[ing] Church in a completely different way,” will the cross of Jesus Christ still be at the center?
That question is at the heart of the mistrust some Catholics express about the synod.
Synod participants seem clearly split about how they misundertand the synod. But it’s hard to say which it really is, because the Holy See has chosen to make impossible the prospect of outside observation and assessment — imposing strict confidentiality measures, and providing little substantive information at daily press briefings.
If the synod is really about rejecting the Church’s history, traditions, and spirituality, some Catholics say, they can’t abide it, or accept it. But if the synod is instead about reform or renewal, it probably needs some different language.