[During the Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality, Crux editor John Allen will offer regular analysis under the heading of the “Synod Files.”]
ROME – Two dramas of governance are playing out simultaneously this month in different parts of the world, and each seems to capture fairly perfectly the pitfalls and challenges of the other: The Synod of Bishops on synodality in Rome, and the chaotic race to find a new Speaker of the House in Washington.
The synod is an event which, in the past, unfolded with at least some degree of openness, but this time it’s laboring under tight new confidentiality requirements, including barring participants from revealing even their own contributions to the discussions. Meanwhile in the U.S. House, the normally behind-closed-doors process of selecting a Speaker is playing out in full public view, with evidently disastrous consequences.
In both cases, the one situation seems to illustrate the other’s chief difficulty.
The toxic nature of the Speaker’s race, fueled by the fact that positions are being rolled out in public and thus hardening before any effort at compromise can even get off the ground, would seem to confirm Pope Francis’s instinct that if you want to forge consensus, avoiding the spotlight for a while is often a good idea.
Right now, some leading Republicans are pleading with their members of the House to stay off the talk shows and social media, including scrapping plans for a Fox News forum, in order to create space for a solution to emerge before another highly visible implosion.
“There is nothing about this that is good, but going through a very public display of failure is not something a lot of us think is best for the conference or best for the country,” one Republican told CNN yesterday.
Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding confidentiality in the Synod of Bishops – what Pope Francis, rather euphemistically, has referred to as a “publicity fast” – is exacerbating suspicions of stacking the deck in favor of pre-fabricated outcomes, thereby offering a reminder that trying to make important policy decisions under the cover of darkness comes with its own perils.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, for example, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong and a frequent Francis critic, recently circulated a letter among bishops accusing synod organizers of being “very efficient at the art of manipulation,” and accused them of seeking to stifle honest debate.
Such charges are, naturally, considerably harder to refute when spokespersons and participants in the synod are prohibited from talking about what’s going on inside.
In summary form, the chaos in the House demonstrates the downside of too much transparency; the ferment regarding the synod showcases the equal-and-opposite problem of a surfeit of secrecy.
In the House, it would seem that beyond ex-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, another principal casualty of the current chaos may be the “Problem Solvers Caucus,” a bipartisan group founded in 2017 and designed precisely to find common ground. Republicans are threatening to bolt en masse, outraged over the failure of Democrats to save McCarthy after he backed a bipartisan deal to avoid a government shutdown.
That’s the sort of outcome Pope Francis wants to avoid, and he clearly believes that exposing the synod to public pressure too early in the process poses just such a risk.
As a result, there’s a towering irony at work here: Francis has said repeatedly that the ultimate aim of the synodal process is to revive the spirit of Vatican II, which was memorably expressed in the line attributed to Pope John XXIII that it was time to “throw open the windows” of the Catholic Church and let in some fresh air.
Yet in service to opening the windows, Francis has decided to slam shut the synod’s doors, at least for now.
One can obviously debate whether that’s the right approach. All you have to do is to cast an eye on the U.S. House of Representatives at the moment, however, to grasp that the problem he’s trying to avoid isn’t entirely in his head.
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In at least a minor concession to public curiosity about the synod, organizers yesterday made two participants available to journalists in a Vatican-organized briefing: Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sister Leticia Salazar, a member of the Company of Mary Our Lady and the Chancellor of the Diocese of San Bernadino in California.
Both defended the synod rules about confidentiality, but they did provide some generic insight on what’s being discussed.
Ambongo, for example, confirmed that the issue of declining numbers of seminarians in some parts of the world had arisen, while noting that the problem isn’t universal. He said that in Kinshasa alone, he has roughly 130 seminarians at various stages of formation, so it’s not accurate to say that seminaries are empty everywhere.
In case this topic catches fire, it’s worth adding a brief bit of background to Ambongo’s point.
It’s certainly true that these days, Africa is generating new vocations to the priesthood and religious life at a much greater pace than western Europe or North America. However, by no means does this imply that Africa has a priest surplus – in fact, precisely the contrary is the case, as Africa actually is terribly underserved in terms of the proportion of priests to its overall Catholic population.
At the moment, there is one Catholic priest in the United States for every 1,300 Catholics, and in Europe it’s one for every 1,700 Catholics. In Africa, the ratio is one priest to more than 5,000 believers.
Rapid Catholic growth in sub-Saharan Africa in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has exacerbated priest shortages, not ameliorated them, for the simple reason that in a growth cycle, Catholicism can baptize people far more rapidly than it can ordain them.
Despite that reality, the trend in many parts of the developed world these days is to become increasingly reliant on foreign priests, not just from Africa but also from other locations such as the Philippines – in many ways, Filipinos have become the new Irish, serving as missionaries all over the map.
Some critics see this as a Catholic version of a “brain drain,” siphoning human resources away from the places they’re most desperately needed, in a slightly selfish effort by affluent dioceses to plug their own perceived holes without considering the impact on others. Philip Jenkins has written, “Viewed in a global perspective, such a policy can be described at best as painfully short-sighted, at worst as suicidal for Catholic fortunes.”
This is not, by the way, a new observation. In 2001, the then-Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples issued a document titled “Instruction on the Sending Abroad and Sojourn of Diocesan Priests from Mission Territories.” Slovenian Cardinal Jozef Tomko, then the head of the congregation, said that priest transfers from the global south to the north were becoming increasingly worrisome. Overall, Tomko claimed, there were at that time 1,800 foreign priests in Italy alone, with more than 800 working in direct pastoral care.
“Many new dioceses could be created in mission territories with such a number of diocesan priests!” Tomko complained.
If Roman Catholicism were a multi-national corporation, it would not take a systems analyst long to realize that there is a serious mismatch between the Church’s market and its allocation of resources. Two-thirds of the Catholics today are in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but just slightly over one-third of the Catholic priests. A strong argument could be made that what Catholicism really needs right now is a scheme for the redistribution of its priests to where its business is growing.
That might well make interesting food for thought as the synod discussions unfold – even if we probably won’t know if they’re talking about it or not.