Skip to content

The ‘two speed Church’ agenda for the synod

The second session of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will convene October 2 for another three week series of discussions and debates. 

But while that second marathon session in Rome is still months away, the global synodal process continues to unfold in real time around the world. 

Participants in the Synod on Synodality. Credit: Vatican media.

As it does, “synodality” has reinvigorated serious questions about an emerging Western synodal agenda for changes to Church teaching and discipline which could lead to open confrontation at the next assembly and even threaten the Church’s global communion.


On Monday this week, the bishops of Germany met in plenary assembly in Augsburg. Not on their agenda was a vote to approve the statutes of a controversial “synodal committee,” a body meant to clear the way for a permanent “synodal council” for the Church in the country.

The vote on the synodal committee was dropped after a Saturday intervention by the Holy See, warning the Germans that pressing ahead with the committee would be “contrary to the instruction of the Holy See” and risk “legal consequences.”

While the German bishops’ dropped the vote from their plans for Monday, they did not commit to dropping the synodal committee entirely. Instead, the issue seems likely to be revisited in the not-too-distant future as part of the ongoing synodal confrontation between Germany and Rome.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, underlined the stakes facing his neighbors, when he warned Monday that the German bishops should consider if they “really want to leave the communion with and under the pope, or rather accept it loyally,” and that failing to come into line would trigger a schism.

But the German bishops’ standoff with Rome is a curious conflict. 

As part of their controversial “synodal way” programme, the bishops, together with their partner organization — the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) — have repeatedly called for an end to clerical celibacy, for the ordination of women, for a revision of the Church’s teaching on morality and human sexuality, and for the decentralization of doctrinal teaching authority away from the Holy See. 

But while the German bishops have insisted repeatedly on provoking the Vatican with a series of procedural and structural moves, like the creation of the synodal committee and pushing ahead with plans for a synodal council, neighboring bishops have called for their own radical slates of revisions to Church teaching and practice — but without antagonizing the Holy See.

Last week, the bishops of Belgium unveiled their own synodal manifesto, in which they also called for a reexamination of Church teaching and tradition on a range of issues and for “the decentralization of certain decisions in the Church, enabling cooperation in unity with a more legitimate diversity.” 

Specifically, the Belgians demanded that Rome leave the question of ordination of women to the diaconate to be decided at the regional or even local level, and called for an end to universal priestly celibacy in the Latin Church. 

But while the Belgian bishops have endorsed virtually the same progressive agenda as their German counterparts, they have done so without Roman pushback. 

That same dynamic was also evident last year, when the Belgian bishops developed a handbook for liturgical blessings for same-sex couples with Roman approval, while the Church in Germany pressed ahead with offering such blessings in churches across the country, courting Vatican responses in the process.

Both approaches were eventually superseded at the end of 2023, when the DDF issued Feducia supplicans, a declaration authorizing short, spontaneous, non-liturgical pastor blessings for Catholics in same-sex relationships, though not of the relationship itself.

For many Church-watchers, the lesson of the Belgian and German approaches on the issue of blessing for people in same-sex couples is that courting conflict with Rome is both unwise and unnecessary in a push for liberal reforms as part of the synodal process. 

And the fall out from Fiducia supplicans may also give important clues for what to expect after the final round of the Vatican’s Roman synodal session in October.

Subscribe now

The December roll out of the DDF’s Fiducia supplicans was sudden, and did not proceed especially smoothly.

Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez originally stated that the dicastery would not be issuing detailed guidance on the application of Fiducia supplicans, and suggested that bishops and bishops’ conferences had no authority to regulate the pastoral blessings described by the document.

But in the wake of considerable, concerted pushback from the bishops of Africa, the cardinal did issue detailed guidance on the form of such blessings and accepted that no such blessings were acceptable to the bishops of Africa and would not be offered by the Church there.

According to an account given by pan-African bishops’ conference president, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, the Congolese prelate even went as far as dictating a text to Cardinal Fernandez for him to type and issue with his own a pope Francis’ approval.

Many Church-watchers suggested at the time that the African pushback on Feducia supplicans was evidence of a new, more active and powerful Church in Africa whose bishops have the confidence and the authority to block radical proposals, buck Roman decisions, and demand doctrinal clarity.

Others, however, warned that the African bishops’ victory should actually be more narrowly understood and likely signaled Rome’s comfort with a two-speed Church emerging, with Western bishops’ conferences moving ahead with progressive reforms (both doctrinal and disciplinary) with those in other parts of the world allowed to opt out, for the time being.

The extent to which the ongoing synodal process seems geared towards accommodating, even prioritizing the priorities of Western liberal bishops seemed further illustrated by several moves in Rome in recent days.

In addition to confirming the session dates for October of Saturday, the Vatican also announced the appointment of a new slate of papally appointed consultants to the synods permanent secretariat in Rome. 

The list of six new experts features priests, religious, and lay people — men and women — from around the world. 

Synodal consultant and expert on the movement for women’s ordination to the diaconate, Tricia Bruce, PH.D. Image via

While the consultors include noted experts on the movement for women’s ordination in the United States and German authorities on indigenous Amazonian spirituality, not a single representative from Africa was appointed in the slate of synodal consultors.

Some Vatican observers are now increasingly convinced that the post-synodal recommendations and documents will push for decentralization of Church teaching and discipline along the lines of Fiducia supplicans, with European and North American dioceses given permission to ordain women, end clerical celibacy, and reimagine the Church’s moral teachings, and bishops’ conferences in Africa and Asia permitted to hold to “traditional” norms.

In a speech delivered on Feb. 16, Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego appeared to argue for just such a two-speed, federated, post-synodal Church.

Speaking about the differing receptions of Fiducia supplicans in the United States and in Africa, where blessings of persons in same-sex relationships is absolutely prohibited, McElroy hailed the “diverging pastoral paths” as a model of healthy decentralization, rather than obvious contradiction within the Church.

“We have witnessed the reality that bishops in various parts of the world have made radically divergent decisions about the acceptability of such blessings in their countries, based substantially on cultural and pastoral factors, as well as neo-colonialism,” the cardinal said. 

“This is decentralization in the life of the global Church” he said.

Ahead of the final synodal sessions later this year, the increasingly urgent question is how much “decentralization” of the Church’s teaching is possible before it becomes a total contradiction, and before ecclesiastical communion fractures. 

Cardinal McElroy has previously staked out a synodal agenda at odds with Pope Francis’ wishes for the body, and the pope’s absolute statements on the reservation of sacramental priesthood to men alone.

On Friday, the cardinal appeared to endorse another dramatic challenge to the Church’s sacramental theology, this time by advancing calls for a female diaconate. 

While Pope Francis has repeatedly said that while there is precedent in the Apostolic Church for some kind of ministry of “deaconess,” he has also made it clear this was different theologically and historically from the sacramental diaconate, part of the Church’s threefold understanding of sacramental orders, together with the priesthood and episcopate.

On Friday, McElroy said it “could make it easier to have women deacons” if the Church abolished the concept of the transitional diaconate, whereby a cleric has to receive ordination to the diaconate first, before proceeding to the presbyterate and episcopate.

McElroy’s proposal has been met with incredulity among some theologians, many of whom pointed out that proposing to separate the link between the three orders to allow female and male deacons is actually an heretical position, condemned by the Church for centuries. 

Subscribe now

In 1563, the Council of Trent defined as anathema “anyone [who] says that besides the priesthood there are not in the Catholic Church other orders, both major and minor, by which, as by certain steps, advance is made to the priesthood.”

But, an increasing number of synodal watchers are beginning to suspect, the coherence and immutability of the Church’s moral and sacramental theology may not prove an effective bulwark against a minority agenda for radical change.

McElroy on Friday said that “the process of discernment used in Rome is far too time-consuming” and unsuitable for diocesan and parish life. The cardinal also dismissed areas of Church teaching as similarly unsuitable, however definitively it has been defined and proclaimed.

“It is becoming clear that on some issues, the understanding of human nature and moral reality upon which previous declarations of doctrine were made were in fact limited or defective,” McElroy said.

“Limited or defective”: Cardinal Robert McElroy addresses the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Religious Education Congress, Feb. 16, 2024. Credit: Archdiocese of Los Angeles/YouTube

While the cardinal, along with the bishops of Belgium and Germany, might be comfortable with dismissing the Church’s articulation of eternal truths over the millennia as “limited or defective,” other wings of the Church — most notably in Africa — may prove unlikely to go along with such conclusions in the name of “decentralization.”

Those same wings appear to be increasingly marginalized from the synodal organizing apparatus in Rome. 

As the synodal process draws to a close this year, there appears to be less and less question of what the final reforming proposals will be, how they will be framed, or by whom. 

The real question is how far that agenda can be pushed before it breaches communion with a Church in Africa unlikely to accept a total federalization of the faith and sacraments.

Subscribe now

Comments 81