How I learned to beware of the synodal process

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By Phil Lawler (bio – articles – email) | 01 Oct 2021

You will forgive me, I hope, if I am skeptical about the Synod on Synodality. My own experience with an Archdiocesan Synod did not inspire confidence. Support me as I tell the story.

When I was hired as editor of the Archdiocesan Boston newspaper, The pilot, an archdiocesan synod was in progress. The Vicar General has asked me to give the Synod wide media coverage, and at this early stage of my brief stay in The pilot I was very concerned with satisfying my ecclesiastical superiors. So I attended the first plenary meeting, eager to uncover the stories that would generate popular enthusiasm for the Synod.

The meeting started with Mass (in a gymnasium), then quickly moved on to an obscure synod discussion to treat: preparatory meetings, breakout sessions, focus groups, outreach, listening sessions, and early drafts of various statements. The speakers were energetic, sometimes uplifting. But the content talks was elusive: not the material for a catchy newspaper headline. (If I had had a dime for every time the word ‘alive’ was used, I might have retired a rich man – and saved the Archdiocese the trouble of firing me for a few months. later.)

But eventually the assembly voted on some proposals, and although many are abstract (calls for renewed evangelical vigor, etc.), I clung to one proposal that might appeal to the general readership of our newspaper. The synod approved a rule that the famous “second collection” would be banned from Sunday Mass, except in certain restricted cases.

This, I thought, was something the common man on the bench would understand. This was a concrete change which would affect all Catholics in the Archdiocese. Here’s a featured story. So I wrote a report on the synodal assembly, leading to the decision to ban the second collection. My bosses in the Chancellery were happy with the media coverage, and I shamelessly believed it was a job well done. I had put a realistic “media hook” on a story that defied simple treatment. I had transmitted part of the main history of the synod to treat, but I focus on a real results.

The emphasis on to treat

Then a few weeks later, an older and sympathetic priest punctured my balloon. The rule of the synod, he said, was not a new. The second collections had already been banned — by the last Archdiocesan Synod meeting a generation earlier. This old rule had never been repealed; it had simply fallen into disuse over the years, because week after week there was a “special” reason for a second collection. In the 1980s when this story took place, the second collection was a routine part of Sunday Mass throughout the Archdiocese. And of course, after the new rule (which was really an old rule) was adopted (again), within a few years the second collection was systematically accepted again.

Looking back now, I don’t see any significant change that took place in the Archdiocese of Boston because of this Synod in the 1980s. The Catholic Church in Boston was shrinking rapidly and continuing to shrink, at an accelerating rate , in fact. There was a lot of good material in the proposals approved by the synod: ambitious plans and exhortations for spiritual growth. But there were also, frankly, a lot of boilerplate: statements prepared under the direction of Chancellery officials who were convinced that current policies should be preserved. The synodal process itself did not lend itself to proposals for radical change. The process was controlled by initiates of the Archdiocese: people who already had a voice in councils and a stake in politics.

The synod on synods

On October 10, Pope Francis will officially inaugurate a global process, leading to the October 2023 meeting of the Synod on Synodality. I have already expressed my fears that both the subject and the extended process will lead to confusion, at a time when confusion is already plaguing the Universal Church. Ed Condon summed up the problem well for Pillar:

Some critics will raise the possibility that the synodal process could be set up to produce documents that undermine established teaching and authority in the Church, in large part by calling for broad participation in the process, without sufficient guidance on how to facilitate a fruitful engagement within the confines of the Catholic Church. orthodoxy.

There is no doubt that there will be many good things said, done and written during the preparatory phase of this Synod, during which the Pope called for discussions in all the dioceses of the world. But all of these good ideas will go into the meat grinder process by which the synod’s working papers are finally prepared. In each state – diocesan, national, hemispheric and global – the process will be controlled by initiates. If the goal is to eliminate “clericalism”, this is not the way to do it.

The danger in the details

Look over the months and make a note of it. Are your opinions on the needs of the requested Church? Do you think your main concerns have been addressed in the discussions? Or have they been filtered out, to produce an innocuous committee document that will not offend anyone or change anything? Will there be some concrete successes, such as banning second collections, which will distract from a more general failure to act on the most important issues?

Finally, be aware that the most important outcome of the Synod may not appear clearly in the formal proposals. The process itself will raise expectations of drastic change, and even if the end product does not approve of such changes, the expectations will endure. More likely still, the final product will include a few carefully constructed passages, written in harmless language, which at least appear endorse calls for radical change.

The best possible outcome of the synod, I suppose, would be a collective decision of the best bishops in the world to challenge the process, reject the prepackaged documents, and demand what Pope Francis said he wants: a full and unfettered debate on how the Church should be governed.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for over 30 years. He edited several Catholic magazines and wrote eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is News Director and Senior Analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See the full biography.

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