The Church of What’s Happening Next

The Vatican announced recently that the next synod of bishops will now extend over a two-year period of various “phases.” According to Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, the hope is to turn the synod from “being an event into a process.” This worries me. 

The idea of a sort of “permanent synod” of bishops achieved prominence from the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (which by itself should make us reach for our Catechism). Martini’s vision, apparently shared by Pope Francis, is that this type of “on-going synod” would allow for a less-centralized Church and a “wider participation of the people of God.” 

A less-centralized Church? Well, that depends. If by “less-centralized” you mean that matters of faith, morals, and liturgy are left for “local churches” to decide, then a less-centralized Church means a more divided Church; and, in the end, not really one Church at all. The “synodal path” has led the Church in Germany into de-facto schism. Pope Francis’s last synod, resulting in Amoris Laetitia, raised more questions than it answered. I suspect that a “synodal path” will allow the same “decentralization” of practice into other areas as well. To many, these synods make one view the Catholic Faith as a New Englander views the weather—if you don’t like it, just wait a while; it will change. 

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And if by “less-centralized” you mean less “top-heavy” or less-bureaucratic, I would question that, too. Experience shows that the more often a governing body meets, the more bloated it becomes. Power is usually delegated from those who should be making decisions to the unholy trinity of committees, commissions, and departments. Since this idea of “collegiality” was introduced in Vatican II, we have seen an explosion of these anonymous bodies all the way from the Vatican to the parish level. We’ve been swamped by “documents,” “letters,” and “reports,” but has the Faith grown? 

Rome’s response to the various bishops’ gatherings, or rather, the topic of the gatherings, is also important. Twice, the German bishops were told to stop what they were doing with their “synodal path,” and both times, Rome was ignored. 

In the United States, there is a palpable tension among the bishops about the proper reception of the Eucharist (a question which—in the case of obstinately pro-abortion “Catholics”—should not need to be discussed). The U.S. bishops followed protocol and were to discuss having a discussion, such is their sense of urgency on this topic, at their meeting in June. Rome, however, intervened and now wants an extended timeline for the sake of national unity on the topic, and now certain bishops have asked to postpone even discussing the issue. What will Rome do if the U.S. bishops ignore her and are so bold as to even discuss the matter? And what does this say about the legitimacy of the call to allow the bishops to deal with these matters? 

The idea of a “process” also worries me. Is the Catholic Faith a “process”? Certainly, our understanding of the Faith grows, but anything that grows, grows upon something solid. As Catholics, we claim to know certain truths about God and man. These have been revealed by God or arrived at by reason. They are settled. It is like math. You can learn more and more about it, but you take it as a given that the multiplication table isn’t up for discussion. Can we discuss different ways to explain and transmit these truths? Absolutely. But we take as a given that there are truths to explain and transmit. 

A “process,” on the other hand, is an amorphous thing. Where are we in it? And when does it end? It seems these are questions the answer to which is for the synod to know and the faithful to find out. 

Also, in these gatherings, the outcome is not determined by the bishops, but by some bishops. Or, rather, by some bishops and some anonymous priests and experts who produce the final document. And such is the “collegiality” of bishops, that even those who may not agree with the actual decrees and changes will feel they have to agree and promote the outcomes or be labeled “divisive” or “out of step.”

We have to remember that the most altering aspect of Vatican II—the change in the Mass —had little to do with the actual documents of the Council but was done by a commission. There was certainly no outcry from the faithful for a change. If, at the beginning of the Council, you had shown its members the Mass in its various manifestations as it would be within a few years, I don’t believe it would have gone as far as it did.  

There is also the questionable notion that these synods are harbingers of the “sensus fidei,” the sense of the faithful (the “wider participation of the people of God”). This would seem a difficult thing to gauge in a world-wide church of some 1.2 billion. In the past, the “sensus fidei” has been invoked only after centuries, not decades (and turbulent decades at that) as in recent synods. One could argue that in the 300s, the “sensus fidei” was Arianism and in the 1500s it was Lutheranism. In the United States, the quality of catechesis has been such in the last fifty years that the “sensus fidei” could range from Unitarianism to the Keto diet. 

I wonder what many bishops think about this, in their heart of hearts. These synods take them away from their dioceses and keep them involved in, to take this recent example, a two-year discussion of what they should do about something that seemingly isn’t clear. Perhaps they would rather be with their flock and do the “spade work” that so obviously needs to be done. 

Besides, after two thousand years is there really so much confusion? Do we really not know the truths of the Faith and how it is to be lived? Are we really still in doubt about matters such as marriage, sodomy, abortion, and the Eucharist? Are the faithful to sit in their pews and wait for the latest “update” on the Faith? I don’t mind people questioning the Catholic Church. I do mind the Catholic Church questioning the Catholic Church. 

And there really is no question about what the Faith teaches. That, after all, was one of the ideas behind St. John Paul II’s promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. No, the question is not what the Church teaches but whether it is being taught, how it is being taught, and whether it is accepted—the answers to which are, not really, not well, and barely. Which raises the ultimate question of “Why?” The answers to that question are, as always, a lack of knowledge, a lack of faith, and a lack of courage. Taken at face value, these synods are about ways to spread the Gospel, and this is good. But, “by your fruits you will know them.” One of the greatest modern evangelizers was Mother Angelica who thought that if you get people who know the Faith and believe the Faith to explain the Faith, the Faith will grow. I would happily place a wager that more people have been converted by her work than by any of these synods.  

Well, there will be a synod. There will be talks, discussions, and commissions about the Faith. Something will be produced that will probably be the foundation for the next synod concerning the Faith. Stay tuned.

[Photo Credit: Catholic News Agency]


  • Robert B. Greving

    Robert B. Greving teaches Latin and English grammar at a Maryland high school. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from the Dickinson School of Law.

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