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Pope Francis with a crowd, symbolizing the goals of the Pope Francis Synod

Synod of the Times

Do Pope Francis' reforms imperil Catholic teaching or update its delivery? This examination suggests various interpretations, underscoring tensions between flexibility and tradition that a synod may highlight but only a pontiff can resolve.
This is Part II of a two part series. Read Part I: The Synod on Synodality: One Church Divided By a Common Language

As we continue examining the Synod on Synodality, it is apparent there are still many unresolved questions about Pope Francis’ intentions and goals that have animated this process. In part I, we saw that different understandings of the meaning of the language that is being used have resulted in very different perceptions of the direction in which the Synod is intended to move the Church. 

In Part II of our analysis, we will explore this further. To do so, like the Church Councils throughout history, we are obligated to seek Holy Wisdom—the combination of reason and faith—needed to find clarity and understanding and avoid the seemingly sophisticated use of language that caused Oscar Wilde to quip: “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

To reason about the synod on synodality, observers might be well served to agree on some definitions. As the anecdote in Part I about the difference between the British and the Americans over “tabling it” showed, the lack of definition of terms is a basic reason for miscommunication.

The definitional confusion begins with the idea of this Synod itself. The term is derived from the Greek language and means “walking together,” recalling the story of the disciples leaving Jerusalem via the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion and finding themselves accompanied by a stranger who “opens the scriptures” for them and whom they finally recognize as the risen Lord. On the other hand, the word synod itself appears only once in the New Testament, and that is in the story of the finding of Jesus in the Temple. It references the group of pilgrims returning from Jerusalem with whom Mary and Joseph hope they will find Jesus, but He is not among them. So, we begin with a bit of scriptural ambiguity as to our certainty that Jesus will be with us on the synodal path.

Over the course of church history, synods came to mean gatherings of bishops. Sometimes these were intended to be all the bishops, and those are more familiarly known as Ecumenical Councils of the Church. There have been 21 of those, and these Councils are the source of elucidation and clarification of church teaching. There have also been many lesser synods of smaller groups of bishops for various purposes.

The last Council of the Church, Vatican II, which ended in 1965 but continues to reverberate among Catholics, produced a document called Lumen Gentium that called for an increased role for the bishops and expressed the notion that they had a collegial role with the Pope in setting forth church teaching, while still under the Pope’s authority. Pope Francis has said that his efforts on synodality are intended to carry out this directive of the Council.

Accordingly, this synodal path would seem to have a very significant impact on how the Catholic Church is governed. At the same time, this particular Synod on Synodality is supposed to have a very specific purpose: to address the process to be followed in connection with these gatherings. That process is said to be all about “listening.”  

This is not the first synod of Pope Francis’ papacy. There was a synod of the Amazon that also generated considerable expectation or angst, depending on one’s perspective.

The German Catholic bishops have also embarked on their own “synodal path,” which has pushed a progressive agenda on issues of sexuality (same-sex marriage, for example) and has generated concern about a schism between Germany and the rest of the Catholic Church.

This latest synod is a church-wide effort that started with a worldwide series of listening sessions producing various working documents. The overall summary of what is intended is set forth in a document called The Instrumentum Laboris, which expresses the results of those sessions under the headings communion, mission, and participation, as a series of questions to be addressed by the Synodal Assembly. That group “will have the task of discerning the concrete steps which enable the continued growth of a synodal Church, steps that it will then submit” to the Pope, completing “the dynamic of listening.”

To its credit, this document recognizes the challenge of the “variety and diversity of … languages and modes of expression.” It notes: “In particular, the same words—think, for example, of authority and leadership—can have very different resonances and connotations in different linguistic and cultural areas, especially when in some contexts a term is associated with precise theoretical or ideological approaches.”

As I read the document, the purpose of the Synod is to find ways for the Catholic leadership to be more in touch with the laity and lower clergy, create a greater sense of participation, demonstrate empathy, compassion, and outreach to those who feel left out, ensure that everyone feels listened to, and trust that through this improved process the Holy Spirit will guide the concrete results.

This is plainly a process-oriented effort. To the extent that a discussion of church doctrine is hinted at, it is done so only discretely by mentioning “certain tensions” that will arise: “We should not be frightened by them, nor attempt at any cost to resolve them, but rather engage in ongoing synodal discernment.” Doing so, it is said, will make these tensions “sources of energy” and not “destructive polarizations.” Finally, the Synod takes votes but only to make recommendations to the Pope. It decides nothing on its own.

So, if the synod on synodality is (1) about process, not substantive doctrine or church teaching, and (2) is merely advisory, why are so many conservative Catholics anxious about it and progressive Catholics hopeful?

The reason is the Pope; progressives hope that he will use the synodal process as a method to make modifications to the teachings of the Church, and traditionalists are concerned that they might be right. Both the idea of the Synod and its points of emphasis are very much reflective of Pope Francis, his thinking, and his language. What is not so clear is exactly what that thinking leads to, as the language of the Holy Father, like that of the Synod, lends itself to conflicting interpretations.

Illustrative of the situation is the recent criticism by Pope Francis of those American Catholics whom he calls “backward” because they confuse doctrine with what he calls “ideologies.” What does the Pope mean when he speaks this way? It may be that the word “ideology,” as he uses it, is synonymous with a kind of perfectionism, harkening back to the viewpoint of the Pharisees with their over-scrupulosity with Mosaic law. Or perhaps he thinks they espouse an impractical, idealistic view of the faith, which takes us back to another aphorism of Oscar Wilde, who said: “Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better.”  

In this sense of the language, “ideals” means perfect behaviors that are treated as being consistently achievable, as opposed to goals to be strived for but seldom, if ever, reached. Pope Francis seems ever insistent that those who are coming up short in living up to the demands of the law be received with mercy and included within the Church.

The difficulty with this formulation for many concerned Catholics is that it leaves them wondering if the Pope is obscuring the relationship between the command that every sinner be shown mercy and the willingness of the sinner to abstain from sinful behavior. From this perspective, mercy remains conjoined with repentance and the command of Jesus that the sinner make a firm (even if imperfect) commitment to sin no more.

The Pope likes to define mercy and inclusion as broadly as possible and downplays their inherent limitations. This is exacerbated by his tendency to speak in what he calls “conversational language” as opposed to more formal and precise speech. This was well illustrated by his remarks on homosexuality. He has strongly stated that criminalization of homosexual acts is wrong but is more subdued in his moral approach to the substantive behavior: “When I said it is a sin, I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin. Of course, one must also consider the circumstances which may decrease or eliminate fault.”

Looking at the issue more broadly, Pope Francis has said: “What I don’t like at all, in general, is that we look at the so-called ‘sin of the flesh’ with a magnifying glass.” He also added: “If you exploited workers, if you lied or cheated, it didn’t matter, and instead relevant were the sins below the waist.” Thinking especially about the Pope’s own experiences in Latin America, and the political violence and social injustice that he saw in an underdeveloped part of the world, it is understandable that he is concerned about what he sees as an overemphasis on sexual sins, which drives some people from fellowship. Progressive Catholics similarly prefer to see much more focus on “social injustice, “ecological sin,” racism, and the like.

The Pope’s point is plainly an important one—society can cause us to overlook, rationalize, and even tacitly accept a great deal of seriously sinful behavior by distracting us with a singular focus on sexual sins. The grandees of Argentina may have felt welcome in the Church when they should have been ashamed of their ruthless politics and the sources of their wealth, while the average citizen may have felt unwanted due to their perceived shortcomings of the flesh.  

I doubt most conservative American Catholics would disagree. Their rejoinder is that in the developed world, the ‘sin of the flesh’ has gone from being treated as among the most serious of sins to not being sinful at all, a viewpoint that some progressive Catholics seem to agree with. However, the world’s definition of right and wrong may be just as unreliable in this area as it was in the other. Thus, on this issue, conservative Catholics of America are making the same point as the Pontiff, just on a different issue—that a focus solely on certain types of sinful behavior does not justify ignoring other types. We can witness, then, a language offering some common cause;  but in its application, separation may arise. 

There is also the matter of outreach to the marginalized. Here some American Catholics—perhaps the “radical traditionalist Catholics” as an infamous FBI memo characterizes them—feel betrayed by language. When Pope Francis and the Catholic bureaucracy speak of the marginalized, the references always seem to include immigrants or the LGBT+ community. But in the United States and in much of Europe, due to the intervention and advocacy of the government, in an important sense, immigrants and LGBT+ advocates have a privileged position as a matter of political rhetoric and to some degree of legal rights, while it is the traditional Catholics who are castigated and increasingly feel that they are outcasts. 

Even though the traditional Catholics are well off economically compared to immigrants, the beliefs of the traditionalists are under a sustained ideological assault while the governmental rhetoric extols the interests of the immigrants. Similarly, many LGBT+ people believe themselves to be mistreated, but at the same time, their positions are in ascendence with the government and elite institutions in Europe and America. Perhaps the fact that the Pope is himself something of an immigrant, his parents having come to Argentina from Italy, stirs a special sense of solidarity in him. But the question remains, isn’t it important to understand that being marginalized can come in many forms?

The Pope has less difficulty being clear about what he deems to be reactionary or retrograde attitudes. Pope Francis seems empathetic to what would generally be called progressive concerns while sometimes seeming dismissive of the sensibilities of the more conservative members of his flock, which further complicates the picture. The language of inclusion does not seem to extend to those who care deeply about the traditional Latin Mass, for example, an area where one might think that inclusivity and tolerance would be easy, not hard. Instead, the Pope sees this as another area where there is ideological backwardness. As far as he is concerned, one must always be looking ahead. Yet, one is tempted to reply that tradition does not need to be interpreted as an antonym for progress.

The Pope also, and with great frequency, decries “clericalism.” This is a term for which American Catholics have a very different frame of reference, as we have no history of an established Church, while in Europe and Latin America, the experience has been much different. While the term is said to mean an excessive deference to clergy by the laity and an attitude of superiority by the clergy, deference to presumed superiors has never been an American characteristic; such attitudes are easier to come by in more class-based societies where aristocratic clergy are more often found. The issue with Americans (both clergy and laity) and their independent frame of mind is that they are inclined to pick and choose what they wish to believe rather than defer to authority. Are these “cafeteria Catholics” problematic, or are they simply an outgrowth of clericalism?

Beyond his penchant for imprecise language that seems to hint at a relaxed attitude toward behavior that has traditionally been deemed sinful, Pope Francis has been supportive of a number of people who have quite openly called for change in church teaching on several significant issues, especially issues relating to sexual behavior and divorce and remarriage. In fact, he has personally appointed to the Synod on Synodality quite a few of these non-traditionalists whom the more conservative Catholic members consider to be a serious challenge to maintaining orthodoxy. 

Is this because Pope Francis is in agreement with them and is looking at the Synod as a way to embrace—in whole or in part—their views? Or is it in keeping with a strategy to keep as many within the fold as possible, in the hope that ongoing dialogue will eventually bring a greater degree of harmony? 

We won’t know the answers to these questions until Pope Francis decides how to respond to the recommendations that come out of the Synod, which we might expect after the second session in October 2024. We do have some precedent for how he will view those recommendations, however.

After the Amazon synod, Francis issued Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon), an Apostolic Exhortation, which strongly echoed many of the recommendations of the synod on ecology, rights of indigenous peoples, and the dangers of industrialization, but without concretely implementing them.

However, he declined the recommendation to ordain women as deacons, saying in an interesting twist that it would “clericalize” them, which, as noted, Pope Francis sees as a serious concern with the clergy.

The Pope did not even adopt recommendations for broadening the rules allowing for married priests, although this is not a matter of Catholic doctrine (there have been married priests, starting with Peter, throughout the history of the Church, including at the present time converted formerly Anglican priests). He said that on the issue of married priests, there was no “discernment”: “There was a discussion … a rich discussion … a well-founded discussion, but no discernment, which is something different than just arriving at a good and justified consensus or at a relative majority.” Once more, we have a word that seems to be understood in different ways by different people. 

While a layperson might understand discernment as judging between right and wrong, the theological meaning is much more complex, involving the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesuit (or Ignatian) spirituality places great emphasis on discernment. It is not, as we might think, choosing between the good and bad, but rather choosing among two or more good things. Based on the Amazon Synod precedent, it seems impossible to predict the degree of discernment that Pope Francis will find in the ultimate recommendations of the Synod on Synodality.

Despite anxiety as to his position on a number of high-profile doctrinal issues, the Pope has shown consistency with his predecessors. He has said that abortion is “like hiring a hitman.” In 2022, the Pope stated that women cannot be priests, opining that the role of women in the Church needs to be further developed theologically and practically, especially in administrative roles. Furthermore, speaking of the German Synodal Path, the Pope called it elitist, ideological, and not a true synod, and later quipped: “In Germany, there is a very good Evangelical Church. We don’t need two.’”

Having reviewed all this, reason can carry us only so far. It helps us better understand why the Synod on Synodality is important to the Pope and could be a good thing and, at the same time to appreciate why many devoted and orthodox Catholics are anxious that it may cause more problems than it solvesfeeling especially perplexed by the Pope’s ambiguous comments, personnel choices, and intentions.

Fortunately, we Catholics have the consolation of faith to complement the insight of reason. If there is one thing that has sharply distinguished Catholicism over the centuries, it is confidence in the role of the Pope, which we believe came with the absolute assurance of Jesus. For Catholics like myself, we see the Pope as the successor to Simon bar Jonah, whom He renamed Peter—the rock—and upon that rock, we believe the Church is built. And he told Peter (and, we believe, those who succeed him in that office) that as His steward, whatever he binds on earth is bound in heaven.

On top of all that, just so that we can be particularly confident regardless of all the complexities facing the Church, Jesus assured us that when two or more are gathered in his name, He is with us. Perhaps it is for these reasons (among so many others) that one of the phrases found so often in scripture is “Do not be afraid.”

That we Catholics should be serene about the ultimate outcome of the Synod on Synodality does not mean that there will not be considerable drama along the way. The Church is an institution full of human beings with all of the foibles and follies that this implies. The great Church Councils which laid out the doctrines of our faith were often tumultuous affairs, involving contention and unwanted drama. Orthodoxy in our history did not derive from unanimity but rather from the triumph of the Holy Spirit over the fallibility of man.

The brilliant yet deeply troubled Oscar Wilde not only provided the aphorism that provides the theme for this analysis, but in a sense, his life story is an embodiment of the tensions that undergird it. Wilde’s sexual behavior was notorious during his lifetime but is now held up in certain secular circles as heroic. Notwithstanding these facts, the Vatican newspaper, which generally reflects the thinking of the papal enclave, wrote a highly favorable review of a recent book about Wilde, laying stress on the fact that on his deathbed, he chose to be baptized a Catholic. 

One traditionalist Catholic site was deeply scandalized by this, focusing on the immoral behavior that characterized most of Wilde’s life and that is deeply ingrained in the public understanding of him. Its viewpoint was that the Vatican was signaling that homosexuality and worse behavior were on the verge of approval by the Pope.

A far more charitable reading—and I believe a fairer one—would emphasize what has been consistent Catholic teaching. In our belief, Jesus forgave the sins of “the good thief” crucified with him (quite likely a murderer with a lifetime of lawlessness and evil on his resume) after he made a last-minute confession of faith. As remarkable as this may seem, it is entirely consistent with one of His perplexing parables: the story of the laborers in the vineyard, where those who worked only the last hour received the same reward as those who worked through the heat of the day. If God would extend his mercy to Oscar Wilde, as Pope Francis might say, who are we to judge to the contrary?

Maybe, as challenging as it is to understand Pope Francis and the cacophony of opinion stirred up by the Synod on Synodality, we Catholics need to quiet ourselves and listen to the small voice of the Holy Spirit that Jesus has promised will be with those who seek to follow Him, to guide them always. That Spirit will help us to make sense of what is happening as we do our best to think as God thinks, not as man thinks. As Wilde had one of his characters say: “What seem to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.”  

About the author

Carl Herstein

Carl Herstein retired as a partner from a large, Midwestern law firm. He is a past recipient of the St. Thomas More Award from the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Lansing, Michigan. He has a J.D. from Yale Law School.
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