ROME – Under a pope for whom “synodality” is the buzzword par excellence, meaning broad consultation and shared decision-making, it probably should be no surprise that synods and their vicissitudes are destined to be the biggest Catholic drama over the months to come.
We already know about the controversial Synod of Bishops for the Amazon set to open in the Vatican on Oct. 6, and a tug-of-war between Rome and the German bishops over plans for a two-year national “synodal journey” has also been well chronicled. In October 2020, the Church in Australia will gather for its first plenary council since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Now, it seems, we may soon be able to add Italy to the list of places either contemplating or planning its own synod. In this case, the press is coming from the Primate of Italy himself, meaning the pope, and his closest allies.
The drumbeat began in February with an essay by Italian Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro in Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit-edited journal directed by Spadaro which enjoys semi-official Vatican status.
“Only an effective exercise of synodality within the Church can help us read our situation today and engage in discernment,” Spadaro wrote, making the case for a national synod. “And this can only happen thanks to broad involvement of the People of God, in a synodal process that’s not restricted either to the elites of Catholic thought or to the contexts (specific and important) of formation.”
During an address to the powerful Italian bishops’ conference on May 20, Pope Francis directly referred to a “probable synod of the Italian Church,” which was followed by Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, president of the conference, telling reporters, “the synod could be the start of a path that will take a long time.”
Most recently, the edition of Civiltà Cattolica that came out today carries a reflection by 90-year-old Italian Jesuit Father Bartolomeo Sorge, a fixture on the Italian and Vatican scene since the era of St. John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Noting that the Italian Church has held a national convention every ten years since 1976, Sorge insisted it’s not enough to respond to today’s challenges.
“A simple national ecclesial convention won’t do it,” he wrote. “Therefore, isn’t a synod necessary?”
A decision to hold a synod, or at least to consider it, could come as early as next week when the Permanent Commission of the Italian bishops’ conference meets in Rome. Among the items on the agenda is “to offer proposals for paths to renew the missionary face of the Italian Church.”
Why do Francis and his team want a synod for Italy? Sorting through the arguments, three points seem to loom largest.
First, Francis is a populist at heart, and believes the people could pressure their leaders to implement elements of his reform program he currently believes are being blocked.
For instance, his May 20 line about a “probable synod” came in the context of expressing frustration that an expedited and simplified process for annulments he decreed in 2015 still has not been implemented “in the great majority of Italian dioceses.” Likewise, when Francis issued Vos Estis in May, requiring dioceses to create reporting mechanisms to lodge complaints against bishops for their handling of abuse allegations, one of his closest allies, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, openly invited the Italian rank-and-file to complain if their diocese drags its feet on the pope’s edict.
The idea is that breaking the logjam may require an end-run around the ecclesiastical bureaucracy, appealing to the base.
Second, Francis’s allies believe that a synod would be a chance to demonstrate that the pontiff has strong popular support despite the oft-nasty criticism he generates, usually from more conservative and traditional quarters.
(Although many see accusations against Francis of a cover-up of sex abuse charges regarding ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick as an American operation, it hasn’t escaped the attention of Francis’s team that it was an Italian cleric who actually leveled the accusation, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and that his own writings on the subject are about as Italian as such things come.)
Sorge was especially strong on the point.
“Is it possible that our Christian community does not know what to do in the face of the violent and frequent attacks against Pope Francis, coming largely from inside his own house, which even reach the absurd request for his resignation?” Sorge wrote.
“Formal declarations of filial attachment and adhesion are of little use,” Sorge wrote. “We need, rather, to reassure the faithful, with an official and solemn act, that the Gospel essence of the Petrine service in the Church always remains unchanged, even if the way of exercising it changes, as Pope Francis is doing.”
Third, Francis and his team also believe a synod could address the political role of Italian Catholics, especially the irony that millions of Catholics in the pope’s own backyard routinely vote for politicians with strong anti-immigrant and nationalistic positions at odds with Francis’s teaching and leadership.
That tension comes to a boil most often over Italian politician Matteo Salvini, the former Deputy Prime Minister and now opposition leader, who defies the pope on immigration while brandishing a Bible and a rosary of the Madonna of Medjugorje.
“We ask: What authoritative response can the Italian Church pronounce, in the light of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching authority, about the fact that millions of faithful – priests and consecrated persons not excluded – share, or at least support, anthropological and political concepts that can’t be reconciled with a Gospel vision of man and society?” Sorge asked.
To be sure no one missed the point, he made things even clearer in a footnote. (As an aside, it’s striking how often in Francis’s papacy the real meat on the bone in documents comes in the footnotes.)
“More concretely, what should we say and do with regard to those who extort votes from people with fear and hate, hiding behind the mask of a false religiosity?” Sorge wrote in footnote 15, and although he didn’t use Salvini’s name, the reference was unmistakable.
The bottom line is that Francis and his advisers are frustrated with the narrative that Francis is “controversial,” convinced that most of the grumbling, in Italy as elsewhere, comes from a cadre of elites, political opportunists and special interests who don’t represent the Catholic grassroots. A synod, therefore, would be a chance to demonstrate what they believe is a broad popular consensus in support of the pope’s leadership.
Only time will tell if they’re right.
Exit polls in the most recent Italian elections showed that Salvini was the most popular candidate among Catholics who go to Mass at least once a week, capturing 33 percent support. That’s roughly 15 million Italian Catholics who may not quite be ready to stand foursquare with Francis, at least on the immigration issue.
On the other hand, a survey earlier this year by the respected polling firm Demos found that Francis has a 70 percent popularity rate among Italians overall, and his support is even stronger among those who go to Mass. Most of that backing is probably fairly solid, given that Italians are hardly naïfs – indeed, given the media climate here, they’re probably more exposed to criticism of the pope than any other culture on earth, so it’s not as if they’ve never heard the case for the opposition.
Of course, the Church isn’t a democracy. Nevertheless, Francis and his team appear determined to inject a greater democratic spirit in Catholicism through the revival of synods, trusting it will strengthen the pope’s hand, and Italy may well be next up to see if the gamble pays off.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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