Church to bear it? Francis’ Synod on Synodality halfway through

What about celibacy? What will be the role of women – will they become deaconesses? Where to send missionaries? Is ecumenism a threat to identity? Has “all this synod” – as some say – finally ended? And will the renewal of the Church begin at last? – as others sigh. Bishops and laity, as well as their advisers and journalists have returned from Rome. And what’s next?

There has come to an end this year’s (as there will be next year’s too, therefore nothing definitive has happened) synodal session of bishops and lay people summoned by Pope Francis already two years ago. During this period parishes, orders, chaplaincies, finally dioceses and large national communities in their entirety debated – or, better to say: should have been debated, but some were too lazy to do so – and discussed: how to talk about the Church within the Church? How to listen to others and let oneself be listened to? Who should be included in the talks – that’s an allusion to the already famous “inclusivity” – and who should be favoured: the poor, migrants, women, the sexually abused or perhaps some minorities, including sexual ones?

Misunderstandings, over-interpretation, ambiguity and mistrust reigned. The situation wasn’t helped by Pope Francis himself with his extraordinary and even growing talent for lapsūs linguae, incompletely expressed thoughts, imprecise opinions, vague juxtapositions of facts and opinions.

In addition, much has happened in the world over the past two years, including within the Catholic Church – may the German “Synodal Way/Path” be an example here. So many new situations have arisen, so many shocks have occurred – including external ones, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a real invasion of migrants into Europe, and now Hamas’s attack on Israel have also affected the Church – that the Synod on Synodality has offered many opportunities to take up new themes, to reflect on subsequent questions and situations. Even before the proceedings began a month ago it was known that some bishops – in Poland it was Archbishbop Gądecki – did not hide their doubts, while others – like Abp. Adrian Galbas, just appointed Apostolic Administrator of the Sosnowiec diocese by Francis – shared their enthusiasm. But mayhap this is the right way to seek mutual agreement and understanding?

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Let’s go back to the madness – I don’t hesitate to use this word – of the German proposal that the “Synodal Way”, which has been devised over these two years, should become an institution equal to the German Episcopate, that it should make decisions that are binding for the Church, that it should introduce novelties – discussed and voted on as in a parliament. Among these there were supposed to be: women’s priesthood, holly sacraments for homosexual couples, participation of the laity in liturgical situations hitherto reserved for the clergy, in a word – “a frenzy”, as a certain elderly man commented on the press reports.

But it was not a “frenzy” and it did not end at the national level, it also appeared at the pre-synodal meeting of European representatives held in Prague in February of this year – and then, in a certain sense, made its way to the regular synodal sessions in Rome. In ”a certain sense”, because there were reservations from the Vatican that the German “Synodal Way” was not a canonical model and could not be accepted. But it was never rejected outright, it was never condemned.
The President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gądecki, gave a press conference immediately after arriving from the Synod in Rome. Photo by Dawid Tatarkiewicz / Forum
Was it welcomed by the synod participants? It is difficult to judge on the basis of the scant information available – because, let me remind you, the proceedings were not broadcast in any way, they were not publicised, they were not reported thoroughly. Only designated spokesmen were given the right to report, and journalists (from Catholic media, I mean them primarily) had no free access to either the meeting room or the synod participants. Doesn’t this contradict the main idea: that the synod on synodality is supposed to teach us all how to talk to each other, how to get to know each other, how to listen to each other?

But I’m coming back to the question of whether the German proposal – although very widely publicised in the world – was met with interest and perhaps even acceptance? I will refer in particular to the briefing given by Abp. Stanisław Gądecki’s, who met with journalists on October 26, and who also gave an interview to Vatican Radio on October 30.

– In the case of doctrine, the Church cannot differ, there cannot be different points of view in different parts of the world, on different continents. Catholic doctrine must be the same for everyone, the President of the Polish Episcopal Conference told the Vatican Press Office. He noted that the Synod had been “a beautiful experience that by talking with other Christian confessions and non-believers we can move forward, not with aggression and without negative emotions, but to move forward by talking about what good can come from this process that we have undertaken”. He also said that “the method by which synodality can proceed can be applied to issues of war, to world conflicts, to everything that can rarely be avoided peacefully”.

Also in an interview with Vatican Radio on October 30, 2023, he repeated this clear (and apparently radical) remark about doctrine: pastoral practices in the world, shaped by different histories, cultures, languages and customs, may differ from each other, but the Church's doctrinal teaching must remain homogeneous and cannot sound one way in one country and another in the next.

But we have also learned something else, because the Polish hierarch listed the main controversial issues raised by the participants in this interview: “the synodality of the Church, the hermeneutics of continuity or rupture, ideological colonization, the alleged insufficiencies of biblical anthropology, the role of shepherds in the Church, the question of priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, synodality and democracy, gender and LGBT”. – The future of the Church depends on the answers to the issues included in these twenty topics [in the interview he mentioned only those quoted above – ed.] – said Abp. Gądecki. We cannot play down these issues – he appealed – given that all these proposals received an overwhelming majority of more than 300 votes in favour. [out of 350 participants – ed.]

Discussions of this interview that I found on the websites of some Catholic media lacked this dramatic context: that over 300 votes (or 85% of the participants) supported further consideration of these issues, rather than rejecting them. It is not very clear how to describe this phenomenon so as not to exaggerate by multiplying negative terms, not to increase the sense of insecurity and not to promote evil.
So, to add facts, I will use the example of the elderly Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, 91, who, incidentally, was one of the five cardinals who in September expressed their dubia, i.e. doubts about some of the Pope’s imprecise statements, including the possible blessing of homosexual couples. And he didn’t get precise, expressive, clear answers.

In the Polish weekly “Idziemy”, theologian Father Dariusz Kowalczyk SJ, professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, writes about the Chinese cardinal with great appreciation. Since the cardinal had to return to China earlier (he was recently threatened with arrest, it ended in a fine; in any case, he opposes the Vatican’s agreement with the Chinese authorities), he wrote a letter to the Synod participants, published in the American magazine “First Things”. He pointed out the contradictions of the Synod’s rhetoric and possible manipulations, such as basing the work on small groups, while – as the elderly Chinese believes – “only plenary discussions allow us to actually see what those gathered consider important and what they want to discuss. In small groups, topics are imposed and someone makes sure we don’t talk about other things”.

Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun writes directly that “The Synod Secretariat is very skilled in the art of manipulation. […] They start by proclaiming that everyone must be listened to. Over time, it turns out that among this is mainly those we have . And in the end it becomes clear that these are people who opt for a sexual morality which is different from that proclaimed by the Catholic tradition. They also say: ”. The Cardinal concludes: “They often emphasize that they have no preconceived plan. It really insults our intelligence because we all see what conclusions they are trying to reach”.

Once again I’m coming back to the interview given by Abp. Gądecki, who – fortunately – has no intention of wringing his hands. He emphasizes that the 37-page final document “Synodal Church in Mission” is to be the subject of work in each of the episcopates of the world and then to be forwarded to diocese and subjected to creative discussions among Catholics. The sum of these discussions will return to the Vatican next year, for the second, final session of the Synod on Synodality. Therefore, the response to the proposals formulated now, in October 2023, will depend on the work in individual dioceses and communities. Proposals having been adopted, as Archbishop Gądecki emphasized with some concern, with a clear majority of three hundred positive votes.

Asking about the Church’s future has definitely ceased to be rhetorical. The answer is no longer obvious, except for the one – that of Christ – that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. But how will this happen, since God always uses men? Who will be left for Him?

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Pope Francis on October 28, 2023 at one of the tables during the Synod on Synodality. Photo by VATICAN MEDIA / Reuters / Forum
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