Troubled Thoughts About the Synod

The Instrumentum Laboris is not as bad as some argue, but it is worrisome because of the impression it gives of structuring a supposed listening session in order to achieve previously conceived results.

I have been working my way through the Instrumentum Laboris of the upcoming Synod and reading the very critical assessment of the synodal “process” by Jose Antonio Ureta and Julio Loredo de Izcue. Not pleasant reading, I assure you.

The Instrumentum Laboris (henceforth IL) is not as bad as some of the things the authors of The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box were responding to, but it is worrisome because of the impression it gives of structuring a supposed listening session in order to achieve previously conceived results. We have had examples of synods in the past whose “conclusions” affirmed by apostolic exhortations are not what some members of the consulting body remembered and have even expressed surprised about. 

It reminds me of the various pastoral assemblies celebrated in my time in El Salvador, in which the “conclusions” of small group discussions were submitted to the Procrustean (and ideological) bed of a “comision de sintesis” (committee of synthesis). The members of the commission very often imposed their priorities and suppressed the stray ideas that came from the mass of often ambiguous “goals” presented by the assembly.

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Pope Francis had a lot of practice with such a process in the Fifth General Conference of CELAM in Aparecida, Brazil, but has certainly learned from the synodal gatherings in Rome to align the conclusions of the assembly to his own pastoral strategy. Famously, in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis’ affirmations provoked four eminent cardinals to publish a document (Dubia) expressing a kind of baffled consternation and apparent contradictions to previous magisterium. 

I doubt that the exhortation that follows the “Synod on Synodality” will have problems with the Congregation for the Faith because its new head has a very expansive idea of papal charism. I think it was W.G. Ward who said he would like to be able to read infallible pronouncements at breakfast, as if it would be frequent that the pope would speak infallibly. Soon-to-be Cardinal Fernandez, infelicitously and redundantly mentioning that Cardinal Burke did not have a papal “charism,” seemed to imply in an interview recently that the pope can never be mistaken about matters that should be tested by logical and/or theological analysis. It reminds me of Chesterton’s remark about the saying, “My country, right or wrong,” which he compared to saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.”

My problem with the IL is that it is so concerned with “structure” that it seems to eclipse the kerygma itself. “Minorities” (of course, only certain minorities; God forbid that so-called traditionalists would qualify as a minority) are given such a priority that it seems that the majority point of view is considered, ipso facto, oppressive or unhelpful. People on the peripheries deserve the Church’s profound attention, but not to the extent of pushing those in the center to the edges or beyond.  My problem with the Instrumentum Laboris is that it is so concerned with “structure” that it seems to eclipse the kerygma itself. Tweet This

The profound alienation the IL seems to see in present Church structure and pastoral practice is an ideological concept. Does the decline of faith in our times only have to do with “clericalism?” That seems to ignore the secularist and practically nihilist winds of current culture and so-called enlightened opinion. 

The Holy Father has expressed his opinion (read: prudential judgment) that creativity requires some messiness. Pope Francis is a philosophical Romantic by temperament. He uses the phrase in Spanish, “hacer relajo,” (make a mess) to indicate that he sees value in gestures and experiments that might fail but will produce insight. According to some Latin American religious, he said that they should not be afraid of “making mistakes” in their attempt to respond to pastoral exigencies. This reminds me of Luther’s “sin boldly”; and I am still recovering from the fact that the pope had the Vatican commemorate the Reformer with a postage stamp. One man’s idea of the challenges of creative process, however, is, for some people, a further descent into confusion.  

All of this is, for me, an echo of a disturbing report I read when Pope Francis was first elected. In a discussion that reflected some of his English admirers who perhaps were connected with the St. Gallen group, an anonymous commentator said that instead of choosing the name “Francis” the former archbishop of Buenos Aires should have chosen “Hadrian VII.” When I read of that particular bon mot, I began worrying about the new regime in Rome.

The reference was to a novel by Frederick Rolfe (alias Baron Corvo), an English convert and ex-seminarian who wrote a fantasy in which the main character resembled himself. In the novel, a rejected seminarian, by a series of accidents, is elected pope and takes the name Hadrian because the only Englishman ever elected by a conclave before was Adrian IV. Once elected pope, Hadrian VII begins an ambitious “reform” of the Vatican and the hierarchy that really merits the phrase “hacer relajo.” He is pope only for a short while because he is assassinated by a Scottish Presbyterian fanatic.

Peter Luke wrote a play based on the life of Rolfe and his famous novel which opened on Broadway in 1969. Hadrian the Seventh, the play, was fairly successful and toured the country. The idea of a liberal pope had traction at the time. All change had to be good, all tradition suspect. The idea of an autocrat who liberalized the Church responded to the anarchic spirit of the times. 

It is an understatement to call Rolfe an eccentric. He died in poverty in Venice with the reputation of romancing gondoliers. His mad fantasy of taking over the papacy has fascinated critics, most of whom have no sense of what the Petrine ministry involves. 

So, Pope Francis was seen as a Hadrian VII? A flippant remark by a so-called friend is not evidence against anyone. But, it was apparently humorous to associate the new pope with a radical revolution in Church polity and practice. And that leads me to think that the image is sometimes mistaken for the reality. 

In the case of the “Synod on synodality,” my impression is that the middle of the road types sat on their hands in the preparation process, and the radicals were fired up. In Cleveland, the participation of the faithful was minimal, the final assembly with only a few hundred souls out of a diocese of 600,000 faithful. I have heard similar reports from other dioceses. For me, the way the process worked out was reminiscent of Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” 

I worry that the deck is stacked for the synod and am not surprised that its sessions will be closed to the media. Clearly, we have to storm Heaven with our prayers for the synod participants and the Holy Father.


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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