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After two years of synodal consultations at the diocesan, national, and continental stages, the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church is now ready for the planetary phase this October. Or, to be precise, the first of two planetary phases. There will be a “Synodal Assembly” of bishops and other appointed delegates this October in Rome, and then another one in October 2024.

The final step of preparation for this planetary phase was the Vatican release on June 20 of the Instrumentum Laboris (IL), or “working document” for the Synodal Assembly. It was drafted by an international team guided by the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.

The IL customarily provides the starting point for pre-synod discussions, and is revised and amended during the synod meeting itself. It is then reviewed by the Holy Father in preparation for an apostolic exhortation. This IL provided something different, with a recap of discussions to date and numerous “worksheets” with dozens of questions to guide the approximately 370 participants in the “Synodal Assembly” this October. 

So what did we learn from the release of the IL last week? A number of things became clear.

1. Synodality is verbose

The vast amounts of synodal paper generated over the past eighteen months had to be massaged and masticated in order to produce something remotely digestible. The IL hit the scales at 27,000 words, many of which were devoted to those worksheets aimed at generating still more discussions. After the two-stage planetary phase concludes next year, the final report of the synod will be further bloated still. It is now reasonable to expect that after all is said and done—with an enormous amount being said—Pope Francis, who has already issued several of the longest papal documents in history, may produce the first papal text ever to crack 100,000 words. 

Explicitly characterizing itself as not a magisterial document, the IL states that the purpose of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church is “not to produce documents but to open horizons of hope for the fulfilment of the Church’s mission.” Perhaps so, but the sheer mountains of paper generated make it hard to see any horizon whatsoever.

The embarrassing artwork and children’s handwriting that have marked the synod’s logo and branding are back in force in the IL, and are taken to a new level with the kind of infographics that made USA Today a pioneer in 1980s newspaper design. A particularly cringeworthy example supposedly illustrates “conversation in the Spirit”; it includes disembodied hands assembling an archway of clam shells. In a typical boardroom powerpoint presentation, the appearance of that graphic marks the moment when everyone stops paying attention.

2. The synod marks the end of Evangelii Gaudium

During the lead-up to the Amazonian synod in 2019, it became clear that that synod would mark the formal death of “Aparecida,” the landmark 2007 document of the Latin American bishops that called for a “continental mission.” If, more than ten years later, the Latin American Church could not send missionaries into its own Amazon region, while still managing to send priests to comfortable assignments in the United States and Europe, then the continental mission had failed.

The synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church threatens to bury Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis's 2013 programmatic exhortation, with its bold call for a Church “permanently in mission.”

The evangelical urgency of the Holy Father is lost in the IL. Pope Francis has repeatedly called for a Church that “moves ahead,” is “not locked in the sacristy,” and “gets dirty.” At the press conference introducing IL, the synod managers were excited about a different image—that of synod participants gathered at round tables, locked in an inward-facing circle where the Church discusses how to discuss the Church’s structures. The pope who began with such an outward-facing vision must be terribly disappointed by the reality of ecclesial officials looking at each other around a Vatican table.

3. The synod is a discussion about discussions

An early criticism of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church was that it was a meeting about meetings. Now it is clear that, if not exactly a meeting about meetings, it will be a discussion about how to have discussions in the Church. Who should participate? 
Who should listen? Who should speak? How should all the listening and speaking be organized?

What should be discussed is not the concern of the IL. The synod managers were adamant that the purpose is not to discuss anything in particular, but to discuss how to have discussions.

“We have no agenda,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg. The Jesuit who serves as “relator general” of the synod process was annoyed at suggestions otherwise.

“There was not a conspiratorial meeting with some people to come up with how we could add some progressive points of the Church,” he snapped. “That is a very bad imagination of some people.”

4.  What is the real agenda?

Is it a bad imagination, or a well-founded suspicion that there is a real agenda afoot somewhere? As the previous eighteen months of discussions unfolded, people quickly tired of talking about talking, so at some point they began to talk about something. The IL was attentive to what they had been talking about.

“Among the fruits of the first phase, and in particular of the Continental Assemblies, which came to the fore thanks to the way of proceeding just outlined, three priorities were identified that are now proposed to the Synodal Assembly of October 2023 for discernment,” the IL reported. “The three priorities will be illustrated in connection with the three key words of the Synod: communion, mission, participation.”

Amazing. After all the attentive listening, it turned out that the best way to understand what had been said at every round table in every corner of the Church was through the prism of the synod theme chosen before it all began: “communion, mission, participation.” So there is no specific agenda, but all points are fitted into a general agenda already decided upon. Hence the suspicions. Were there really no significant contributions that suggested that “mission” might be compromised by “participation” in this exhausting process?

As for the “progressive points” Cardinal Hollerich denied were being emphasized, it was worth noting that the court stenographer of this pontificate, Gerard O’Connell of America magazine, wrote that the IL called for “discussion of women, LGBT Catholics, church authority and more.” Where did he get the idea that some discussions about discussions would get more attention than other discussions about discussions?

In one of fifteen appended “worksheets,” the IL poses this question: “In the light of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, what concrete steps are needed to welcome those who feel excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality (for example, remarried divorcees, people in polygamous marriages, LGBTQ+ people, etc.)?”

Pope Francis himself might ask that question, as Amoris Laetitia did not address “concrete steps” for “LGBTQ+ people.” It’s that kind of sleight of hand that raises suspicions when Cardinal Hollerich insists that there is no agenda, hidden or otherwise. And there has been a steady drumbeat from the old liberal warhorses that their as-yet unrealized moment may finally be at hand. Do they know something that Cardinal Hollerich doesn’t? 

5. The IL misreads Scripture

Throughout the synods of Pope Francis, the image of the Risen Jesus “walking together” with the disciples on the road to Emmaus has been popular. “Walking together” is both the slogan and the constant refrain of synodality. The Emmaus image is back in the IL, with the customary omission of the fact that in the biblical account, Jesus harshly rebukes the disciples for walking in the wrong direction, and that the entire encounter ends with conversion—turning around and walking in the other direction. Conversion is largely absent from the IL.

The tendentious use of Scripture appears again with an invocation of John 10, noting that the sheep recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. True enough, but John 10 also emphasizes that the sheep do not listen to the voices of “thieves and robbers.” Biblical listening requires that the flock not listen to the voices of bad shepherds. Listening to all voices uncritically, as the IL proposes, has a worldly logic, but it is not biblical. 

6. The IL has a worldly spirit 

Indeed, the “worldliness” that the Holy Father frequently condemns prevails throughout the IL. Its initial survey of issues could have been produced by any U.N. agency: “too many wars that stain our world with blood leading to a call for a renewed commitment to building a just peace, the threat represented by climate change that implies a necessary priority of caring for the common home, the cry to oppose an economic system that produces exploitation, inequality and a throwaway culture, and the desire to resist the homogenising pressure of cultural colonialism that crushes minorities.”

The language employed is not the language of the Bible, the language of Vatican II, or the language of Pope Francis. It is the language of the consultant class, run though the phraseology of ecclesial bureaucracies and decorated with a few biblical citations. The Instrumentum Laboris is laborious indeed. Whether all that labor will be an instrument for anything other than more labor remains to be seen.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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