ROME – In the annals of church affairs, some synods are sufficiently famous – or, as the case may be, infamous – as to merit their own informal title. In the late 9th century, for instance, Pope Stephen VI decided to dig up his dead predecessor, Formosus, and put him on trial, which ended with the corpse of the deceased pontiff being tossed unceremoniously into the Tiber.
The episode has gone down in history as the “cadaver synod.”
Presumably, nothing quite that dramatic is going to happen over the next month, after the curtain goes up on Wednesday on the first of two Synods of Bishops on synodality summoned by Pope Francis. Yet even before it starts, we’ve got a good candidate for the unofficial moniker of the event: The “murmuring” synod.
The reference is to a distinctive practice within the Society of Jesus, the pope’s own religious order, when members gather to elect a new Superior General. After listening to overviews of the state of the order, such as where it’s growing, what missions it’s running, and so on, delegates then begin four days of what’s known as the murmuratio, literally “murmuring.”
During that time, Jesuits may speak to one another quietly and one-on-one, discussing which individuals they believe have the qualities needed to become the next leader. They cannot have these conversations in groups, to avoid the formation of parties or blocs, and they must hold the information they gather in the strictest confidence.
The idea, based on the instructions of St. Ignatius of Loyola, is to foster prayer and discernment rather than politics, and to give pride of place to the operation of the Holy Spirit. The hope is that in so doing, a genuine consensus will emerge. There’s some evidence that murmuring actually works, given that the last three Jesuit superiors – Fathers Peter Hans Kolvenbach, Adolfo Nicolás and Arturo Sosa – were chosen on the first, second, and first ballots respectively.
As veteran Vatican correspondent Angel Ambrogetti of Acistampa recently observed, it seems as if Pope Francis is conceiving the looming synod more along the lines of a Jesuit General Congregation rather than a classic Synod of Bishops, especially when it comes to the question of confidentiality – or, to use the more loaded term, “secrecy.”
As of this writing, the Vatican still has not issued the regolamento, or rule book for the synod, and thus we don’t know what the formal requirements will be, including whether the entire exercise will be placed under some version of pontifical secrecy. Yet even in the absence of such a requirement, it’s obvious that participants have gotten the clear message that they’re supposed to keep a lid on things, avoiding the media and public disclosure.
In a recent briefing, Italian layman Paolo Ruffini, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, offered a lofty explanation of this ethos of silence.
“Preserving confidentiality, reservedness, I would even say the sacrality of spaces for conversation in the Spirit, is consubstantial with the desire to make these moments a true occasion for listening, discernment and prayer founded on communion,” Ruffini said.
In Catholic theology, “consubstantial” is a deeply meaningful term, referring to Christ as of the same nature as the Father, and Ruffini’s use of it seems almost calculated to invoke a sacred basis for a policy of secrecy.
“Every public or private organization preserves these precious, indispensable moments of free, protected discussion, where common thought is being forged,” he said.
Make of that rhetoric what you will, but the net result is that this synod may well set a new historical standard in terms of how little we know, at least officially speaking, about what’s going on behind closed doors.
There are three principal arguments against this drive for secrecy.
First, critics say, it’s futile. The synod has 393 participants, along with dozens of staff, translators, and other support personnel, and the idea that none of them will say anything, even on deep background, about what’s going on, strikes many observers as little more than a childish fantasy. Instead, they say, carefully timed leaks will drive the narrative, thereby distorting the reality and setting the stage for disaster.
To which, one supposes, Pope Francis might respond that the same thing could be said of a Jesuit General Congregation. The last one had 212 electors, and given the legendary volubility of the Jesuits, each one might be said to count for two ordinary people, bringing the total close to the number of synod participants. Despite that, the tradition of the confidential murmuratio nonetheless pretty much holds up.
Second, critics also argue that imposing secrecy requirements on a synod is irresponsible. In theory, every Catholic in the world was invited to participate in this process, which means they all have a stake in its outcome. Arguably, they deserve to know what the bishops and other participants who allegedly speak in their names are saying, and depriving them of that information could be construed as an insult to their legitimate interest in the process.
Third and finally, critics also claim that putting a lid on the internal dynamics of the synod is contradictory to Pope Francis’s oft-stated pledges of transparency. The pontiff has said on multiple occasions that the only antidote to the scandals of the past is a commitment to coming clean, to refuse to sweep unpleasant realities under the rug, and to now demand secrecy from participants in what is supposed to be his legacy event runs contrary to that ideal.
Each of those arguments is, prima facie, persuasive and compelling. On the other hand, the pontiff’s desire to avoid allowing his synod to become swept up in the partisan dynamics of the 21st century, making it another victim of a culture of contempt, seems equally comprehensible.
To sum up, it would appear that in terms of the success or failure of this synod, Pope Francis is betting on murmuring rather than megaphones. Whether that bet pays off may well frame the core drama of the month that we’re about to witness … however little we actually know in real time about which way things are going.