The Vatican’s synod office released a 45-page report on Thursday, which aimed to summarize a year of gatherings for the purpose of prayer, listening, and discernment in parishes and dioceses around the world.
While the level of participation in most Western countries is quite low, often at or below the rate of 1% of local Catholics, the gathering and synthesis of reports from around the world does represent the fruit of considerable effort, aimed at inculcating a more synodal approach to Catholic life at every institutional level.
But the report text released Thursday also points to a key question still unresolved about the synod on synodality: Who is actually exercising the discernment at the synod?
That question is actually amplified by the publication of the Vatican text Thursday, and is likely to continue plaguing the process, as the bishops move to the “continental phase” of the synod on synodality.
The International Theological Commission published in 2018 a treatise on synodality approved by Pope Francis and the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“Synodality describes the path to follow to promote the Catholicity of the Church with the discernment of the paths to be taken together in the universal Church and distinctly in each local Church,” the text explained.
It also said that “synodality is the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the Church, the People of God, which reveals and gives substance to her being as communion when all her members journey together, gather in assembly and take an active part in her evangelizing mission.”
But while synodality is proper to the whole Church — with equal dignity and importance — the text explained that not everyone has the same role in a synodal process or discernment.
All the baptized are called to prayer, and to offering their views on the mission and life of the Church, and even their sense of the needs of the Church, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
But the bishop, in a particular way, is called to discernment, and decision-making, in the synodal process.
“The authority of Pastors is a specific gift of the Spirit of Christ the Head for the upbuilding of the entire Body, not a delegated and representative function of the people,” the International Theological Commission explained.
“A synod, an assembly, a council cannot take decisions without its legitimate Pastors. The synodal process must take place at the heart of a hierarchically structured community…Working things out is a synodal task; decision is a ministerial responsibility.”
In short, synodality means that the Holy Spirit can speak through all the baptized, that each person is called to speak prophetically, and that listening is an essential part of the Christian communion.
But it also means that the bishop - the one entrusted with spiritual care - must listen well, to sift the wheat from the chaff, to test the different voices in his local Church against the Catholic doctrine, and, having heard and discerned, he must decide what seems to come from the Lord, and what does not.
That task is done in communion with the bishops of the world, and with the Roman pontiff, the Bishop of Rome.
In any authentic synodal engagement, the bishop is more than stenographer or secretary. He carries the heavy weight of discerning, deciding, and teaching with authority, all of which give weight to the synod’s results.
The report released Wednesday was the product of a process with a different vision of the diocesan bishop’s role, which called for bishops to do a different task.
Diocesan bishops were not told to make judgments during the current synodal process.
Instead, the Vatican’s vademecum, or synod guidebook, published at the launch of the synod process, explained that “the primary role of the diocesan bishop in this Synodal Process is to facilitate the synodal experience of the whole People of God on the journey towards a more Synodal Church. The diocesan bishop holds a key role in listening to the People of God in his diocesan Church.”
The discernment of the diocesan bishop is limited to choosing “the most fruitful processes for listening to the People of God in his diocese,” according to the text.
In that schema, the diocesan bishop is effectively organizer-in-chief, the vademecum explained, “called to go before the People of God, to stand in their midst, and to follow behind, ensuring that no one is left out or gets lost.”
And the vademecum told the bishop what kind of product he should produce: “The diocesan synthesis should be an honest report of all that was shared during the diocesan phase of the Synodal Process, representing the variety of views and perspectives of the People of God.”
In short, the guidance given to diocesan bishops was that they were cheerleaders and stenographers, called to make a good report about what their people had to say, and then send it up the ecclessiastical food chain.
The Vatican’s text, in turn, contains summaries of the ideas presented in reports submitted by the bishops.
The text summarizes, for example, both encouragement to include women more readily in institutional decision-making, and encouragement to reconsider the prospect of ordaining women as priests.
One of those ideas is in conformity with Catholic doctrine, one opposes it. The text makes no mention of that fact.
The text also mentions the "the pain of not being able to access the Sacraments” experienced by some Catholics, including “those who have entered into polygamous marriages.”
“There is no unanimity on how to deal with these situations,” the document explains.
There may be no unanimity on how to deal with the situation of Catholics in polygamous marriages, but it is clear to anyone with a theological formation that some proposals on that front would conform with Catholic doctrine, and some would not. Again, the text makes no mention of that fact.
In the ITC’s vision of synodality, it would be the job of the bishop to discern among the different ideas presented. But, again, the bishops have been instructed that their role in this case is only to pass along information.
There are more stages to the synod on synodality, before the pope will reflect on all he’s heard, and make decisions — issuing an apostolic exhortation.
There is a continental phase, at which bishops, priests, religious and laity will gather in “virtual sessions” to talk about the Vatican report, and then there will be two month-long meetings of bishops in Rome.
But the guidance issued thus far suggests that, until that final phase, the principal tasks are information-gathering, impression-collection, the collation and organization of responses to reports collecting responses to questions.
There does not seem to be a place for the part of discernment called judgment.
Barring a change to that guidance, it seems that Pope Francis will be the singular person empowered and encouraged to make judgments about what’s been said by participants in a two-year process spanning more than 100 countries.
Is that synodality?
The question, really, is what kind of synod this synod on synodality is supposed to be.
Is it a synod of synods, each involving the charisms and ministry of the local bishop, followed by papal discernment, or is it a kind of mega-synod, involving synthesized voices from around the world, presented for discussion among a small group of bishops in Rome, followed by discernment from the pope?
To date, the consecrated leaders of particular churches have been called by the synod on synodality process just to take feedback from their parishioners and pass it up the chain. Barring a change to that approach, it seems likely that some Catholics will take issue with a process that seems not to reflect the emphasis of Vatican Council II on the unique importance of the diocesan bishop.
If the pope exercises a singular role of discernment, after hearing more feedback from more levels - and if diocesan bishops haven’t had a role in discerning the voices of the local Church - surely some Catholics will say the process seems to miss the collegial emphasis of the Second Vatican Council.
And if the purpose of the synod on synodality is to inculcate synodality as a more regular part of Church life — as synod organizers have said repeatedly — it would seem that encouraging diocesan bishops to play proper their roles in the synodal process would be important.
Is there a danger that making of bishops organizers-in-chief has infantilized them, telling them synodality is really the job of someone with more stripes on his sleeves? Or in telling successors to the apostles that rather than exercise the charisms of their office, they should trust that real discernment lies with a committee of experts in Rome?
Some bishops have said their diocese got a great deal of benefit from the synod on synodality process, because they listened to what their people had to say, prayed carefully about it, and then developed plans for evangelization, pastoral care, and catechesis.
Supporters of the synod - including those who drafted the USCCB’s synthesis document - say takeaways like that are the point.
Synod organizers and synthesizers at the USCCB told The Pillar last month that the process is the point of this synod, and the process is meant to be a learning exercise, in which everyone learns the dignity of his own voice in the life of the Church.
There is a lot more to learn, those organizers say.
But as marginalized groups on the periphery are invited to the process, it’s worth considering whether diocesan bishops are among them. Has their unique place in the Church been seen, respected, and empowered in the synodal process? What is their role in all of this?
When bishops gather in Rome this October, Francis may find them wondering exactly that.