Pope Francis and his Synod on Synodality looks (for now) like 2023’s story of the year


Or not. Germany’s “Synodal Way” process has taken the lead in promoting such revisionist proposals. By contrast, some U.S. bishops downplayed participation in the pope’s synod project or publicly criticized it.

Raising the stakes, according to Rome’s Civilta Cattolica (Catholic Civilization) on Monday, Francis told an Aug. 5 meeting in Portugal that in the American church there is “a very strong reactionary attitude. It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally.” The pope also said “there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals” and that “backward-ism is useless.”

News coverage understandably emphasizes the “Pandora’s Box” booklet’s foreword by American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the onetime archbishop of St. Louis who is now retired as head of the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican, the church’s highest tribunal. Burke has emerged as the most visible global leader of Catholics who resist innovations made during Francis’ papacy and his plans for more.

Burke charges that actions linked to synod preparations in Germany, including bishops voicing support for same-sex blessings, have spread “confusion and error and their fruit, division — indeed schism,” and that the discussions have begun the same impact across world Catholicism. He believes “a revolution is at work” to accommodate “a contemporary ideology which denies much of what the Church has always taught and practiced.”

The cardinal is not alone in his anxieties. Britain’s independent Catholic Herald newspaper says the upcoming synod is an event that “many” fear “will do great harm to the Church.” A columnist in France’s daily Le Figaro reported that the June release of the “Instrumentum Laboris” (“Working Paper”) setting the synod agenda “caused unprecedented turmoil among moderate priests and a good number of bishops.”

A pastoral letter on the synod published last week by Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, declared that “those who would propose changes to that which cannot be changed seek to commandeer Christ’s Church, and they are indeed the true schismatics.”

The new booklet is the work of two writers with the Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, a Brazil-born international network of religiously and politically conservative Catholic affiliates. The U.S. branch, based in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, produced the booklet’s English translation.

TFP’s booklet expresses particular dismay that the pope and his aides seek to “tamper with the Church’s form of government” by raising “democratic” involvement of lay parishioners, making decision-making less hierarchical and suppressing “clericalism.” Francis implemented the concept by giving lay women and laymen voting rights at the synod, heretofore restricted to bishops. In 2021 he authorized women to be “lectors” and “acolytes,” traditional stepping-stones to become deacons and priests.

TFP raises the specter of 15th century “conciliarism,” the emergency exercise of bishops’ collective authority over the pope that solved the Great Western Schism in 1417. Other Christians have different views on how “synodality” operates. In Eastern Orthodoxy, all bishops in a national branch share equal power in a “synod,” minus any pope, and sometimes formally obtain input from lay members. Protestant denominations with “synods” grant equal voting rights to clergy and lay delegates.

The sponsoring TFP network is dismissed as “anti-papal” and “cultlike” in an X message (or tweet) posted by a former GetReligion contributor, Catholic theologian Dawn Eden Goldstein.

On the doctrinal left, America’s National Catholic Reporter is “encouraged” by the June “Instrumentum Laboris” and ”positive signs” that the synod may begin “a significant shift in the church.” One of its columnists called the pope’s design for presynod discussions at the diocesan, national and continental levels “likely the widest consultative process in the history of the world.”

To keep up with liberal viewpoints, reporters will want to monitor that newspaper’s updated list of articles about the synod. And while the new TFP booklet lays out traditionalist alarms, it can also serve as a handy briefing book for reporters who will also have liberal and conservative side lobbyists on hand in Rome, and for those who’ll cover the synod from afar. TFP provides text and lavish footnotes that cite pretty much every important development in the synod debate since 2020.

This piece first appeared at GetReligion.org.

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