Ever so slowly, the “Synod on Synodality” is beginning. A preparatory process of “listening and dialogue” in parishes and dioceses throughout the Catholic world has been underway since October 2021; in the next stage of the synod, reports from this preparatory process will be synthesized at national meetings. These will be followed by continental synodal gatherings. The synod will culminate in an international assembly of bishop delegates in October 2023. This Roman project is certainly more promising than the German “Synodal Way.” Yet even cardinals and others close to the pope are beginning to realize that many in the Church, laity and clergy alike, lack true synodal enthusiasm.
The Synod on Synodality is meant to be a global exercise in “listening” and “walking together.” But some seem to expect more from this synod than what it can reasonably deliver. Serious theologians have been pointing out since the Second Vatican Council that a Church constantly focusing on herself cannot claim to be following her founder’s mission. Sadly, the Synod on Synodality risks becoming a project of fruitless navel-gazing. Reform will only happen if the Church remembers that she exists because of Christ and “in order to evangelize,” as Paul VI said.
In order for this synod to work and bear fruit, bishops and priests first need to be committed. At this point, I see little enthusiasm, despite massive Vatican advertising. Bishops, priests, and Catholics in general want to “walk with” the pope, and with one another, but this synod has not ignited many hearts or minds. This is due to several factors.
First, enthusiasm for the synod is hampered by Vatican messaging. One factor in the clergy's lack of synodal commitment is the Vatican's frequent chastisement of “clericalism.” This clericalism may not even exist; I am not convinced that the Church’s biggest problem today is the oft-alleged antagonism between laity and clergy. Rather, for both the clergy and the laity, a failure to pay attention to the Word of God is the greater problem. Consider how the Holy See is often not clear about what the word “evangelization” actually means. Some recent Vatican documents are doctrinally opaque and theologically weak, including texts published by the Synod of Bishops. Vague references to Vatican II abound and can be quite misleading.
Second, trust in the Synod on Synodality has been damaged by recent pronouncements from Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., Archbishop of Luxembourg, who will be the relator general of the synod. Commenting on the Synodal Way in Germany, he demanded a “fundamental revision” of the Church’s teaching on homosexual acts. When someone in a key position at the synod makes such comments, it discredits the current listening process. The archbishop's comment shows how the German process is already compromising the Roman project.
Finally, any talk about synodality, decentralization, and unity remains unconvincing when the Vatican continues to exercise top-down, centralized power—for example, when it comes to regulating the Tridentine Rite. Recent Vatican documents curbing the Traditional Latin Mass are not written in a spirit of synodality. As a practical matter, this issue is not urgent in a world where many Catholics are going back and forth between ordinary and extraordinary form, or between Roman and Oriental rites. The documents offer a non-solution to a non-problem. On a theological level, it is troubling for multiple reasons when the Holy See declares the post-Vatican II liturgy to be “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite,” as it does in Traditionis Custodes. First, liturgical texts and rituals, as expressions of sacred tradition, need to be treated with great respect, even if they are now rarely used. Second, the reform of liturgical rites and texts in the 1960s was a massive intervention, guided by theologians and promulgated by the Church’s highest authority. But this intervention does not mean that any prior forms of the Roman liturgy have no theological or doctrinal relevance. As Benedict XVI wrote, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”
Moreover, Pope Francis’s declaration that the current state of the liturgy is “irreversible” calls into question the post-Vatican II liturgical reform itself. For if this is the case, how was the work of liturgical reform ever legitimate? Post-Vatican II reforms entailed historical and theological criticism of older rituals—as a result, the reformed liturgy cannot be declared exempt from similar scrutiny and remains subject to development in directions that are unknown to us right now. No one should presume to possess foreknowledge of where God wants his Church to go in the future.
At this point, I have not given up hope that the Synod on Synodality might accomplish some good. But unless it is truly open to the Word of God, it will either implode, much as the Synodal Way in Germany is imploding, or end with a whimper. Yes, the synod needs to be open to the “signs of the times,” but more open to the “light of the gospel.” Without this light, we can neither distinguish the signs of the times nor know what to do with them. We will need to be open to hearing tough messages, some of which we have been ignoring for decades. And we must no longer put unreasonable expectations on the magisterium: Councils and the papacy are not designed (that is, instituted by Christ) to organize paradigm shifts. Rather, they were designed to be the first “hearers” and “doers of the Word,” for everything else is deception (James 1:22). Only a humble approach, which leaves lots of room for the Holy Spirit to work, will bring authentic renewal and reform. As St. Augustine wrote, “Where there is charity, there is peace, and where there is humility there is charity.”
Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is the pastor of St. George’s Parish and St. Albertus’s Parish in Ottawa.
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Photo by Krzyszstof Golik via Creative Commons. Image cropped.