ROME – During the St. Pope John Paul II years, the Polish pontiff would dutifully sit in the front of the hall during every Synod of Bishops, often whiling away the time reading his breviary, meaning the book that contains the daily prayers of the Church.
A running joke had it that John Paul was actually reading the apostolic exhortation he would issue at the end, which had been drafted before the meeting even started. The joke captured a standing complaint that papal documents which appeared after synods often seemed to bear little relationship to what the bishops had actually discussed.
That’s a useful bit of perspective to keep in mind in thinking about complaints that surfaced during the 2018 Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment that the outcome on certain key points was “rigged” by Pope Francis and his aides.
Here’s the God’s honest truth: Since St. Pope Paul VI instituted the synod in 1965, there have now been 28, divided among ordinary, extraordinary and special gatherings. (A 29th will be held next year, when Francis convenes a special synod on the Pan-Amazon region.)
In all that time, there probably has never been a single synod held under four different popes that wasn’t “rigged” to some extent, in the sense that the pope calling it knew what he wanted on at least some fronts.
Granted, there was a special bit of irony that the biggest complaint in 2018 came over language in the final document adopted Saturday night on “synodality” as “a way of … promoting the participation of all the baptized and persons of good will” in Church governance.
Given that discussion of “synodality” didn’t loom large inside the assembly, several bishops wondered where exactly it came from – and some enjoyed a good laugh at the fact that a paean to participatory governance was being imposed in fairly top-down fashion.
(Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India, a member of both the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers and the drafting committee for this synod’s final document, candidly admitted in a Crux interview he had no real idea where it originated, speculating it must have been Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri or one of the other officials tapped by Francis to staff the summit.)
In brief, both “collegiality” and “synodality” are terms used to refer to a more decentralized, inclusive way of making decisions in Catholicism. “Collegiality” is sort of the ecclesiological principle, while “synodality” is a way of making it operational through local, regional, national and continental groupings of bishops and other participants.
The section on synodality was reworked from a draft circulated on Tuesday to the version adopted Saturday night, but it still remains a strong feature of the text.
Before becoming overly worked up about “rigging”, four points need to be considered in the interests of fairness.
First, this synod may not have talked much about synodality, but the guy who hosted it certainly has.
Francis, whose formative experiences as a bishop arguably took place within his own conference in Argentina and the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM), has extolled the virtues of synodality repeatedly throughout his papacy.
“The journey of synodality is the journey that God wants from his church in the third millennium,” the pope said in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of the synod. “A synodal church is a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing. It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.”
That’s his vision in a nutshell, and it’s at least arguably not unreasonable for his aides to assume that since the pope would undoubtedly riff on the subject in whatever document he’d eventually issue, it might as well be in the final document too.
Second, whether the meeting actually discussed synodality, at least some participants insist they lived it.
“The synod to me has been practicing the art of co-responsibility and synodality, this buzzword that’s come up toward the end of the synod, which is how we be Church together,” said Jonathan Lewis, an American youth delegate and the assistant secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.
“When I read [the document] initially, it seemed to match my experience of what we had. It was mentioned in the hall throughout the month but not as prominently as it was in the document, so my sense is that it was taking the culture of what was experienced and reflecting that,” Lewis told Crux’s Elise Harris.
Third, the final document was voted on paragraph-by-paragraph by the bishops taking part, and it passed with an overwhelming majority. Granted, one of the paragraphs on synodality attracted the second-largest number of “no” votes, but still passed comfortably by a margin of 191 to 51.
Fourth and finally, there’s no point becoming overly invested in the outcome of a synod anyway, because the body is merely advisory to the pope. He’s the one who calls the shots, and if a given pope chooses to use a synod to gauge reaction to something he’s already decided rather than to approach it tabula rasa – well, it’s his meeting anyway.
So, was the 2018 synod rigged, at least as far as the discussion of synodality goes? Probably, at least a little bit.
Would it have materially altered anything if that weren’t the case, and does it mark any sort of dramatic change? Basically not, on both counts.