Synod as a glorified four week-long talking therapy self-help group for clerical-lay elite encounter at the expense of the Church. Not one mention here of God, Jesus or Christ. No room for prayer, penance or grace.

World Synod in Rome: Four weeks of talk therapy for clergy and laity

ROME - Four intensive synod weeks have now come to an end. What happened in front of and behind closed doors? Did the Pope's synod plan work? What findings does the final paper bring and what happens next until the second meeting of the World Synod in autumn 2024? An overview.

There would be more peace in the world if politicians worked like the World Synod in the Vatican, said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who has experienced synods, in Rome a few days ago. Even if the Vatican shies away from parliamentary comparisons, as the devil uses holy water and the construction of the synod and its decision-making power has fundamentally nothing to do with the parliamentary nature, the Archbishop of Vienna could be right. The first meeting of the World Synod in Rome appears to have been a success – by Catholic standards.

The past few weeks in the Vatican audience hall have been characterized by prayer and conversation. The more than 400 participants reflected fundamentally on synodality, spoke about the relationship of the church to the world, church responsibility and structures. The colorful mix of the meeting brought about interesting encounters: people who were distant from church politics posed for photos with each other, opposing positions came into conversation and participants established new networks. People exchange ideas and get to know each other's problems and concerns better, say synod members again and again enthusiastically report on their experiences behind closed doors.

In order to approach the broad range of topics of the Synodality Synod, the synod planners have created worksheets with key questions and published them in the appendix of the Instrumentum Laboris. Synod participants report that all “hot topics” were brought to the table during the discussions. However, little of this reached the outside world. Some things, such as the discussions about the ordination of women, were deliberately downplayed or concealed by the Vatican. In one of the rare interviews about the synod, the Swiss synod member Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler reported on surprisingly traditional role models among lay people and equally unexpectedly liberal statements among bishops.

Points of contention identified in the final document

Many of these opinions now appear side by side in the synod's final document. The section on the diaconate of women was particularly polarizing. For a part of the synods, the diaconate of women is an "unacceptable" step "that does not conform to tradition"; for others, its introduction would restore a practice of the early church; still others see it as “an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times” for “new vitality and energy in the church.” Some express "the fear that this demand is an expression of a dangerous anthropological confusion that is adapting the Church to the spirit of the times."

There was no explicit mention in the final paper of homosexual people, whose role and acceptance in the church always played a clear role during the preparatory stages of the synod process and, according to the American LGBT pastor James Martin, was also repeatedly discussed in the synod hall. “I suspect that most LGBTQ Catholics will be disappointed that they are not even mentioned in the final synthesis,” Martin said following the vote. The final document does not reflect the fact that the LGBTQI topic came up again and again in many table discussions as well as in the plenary sessions and aroused very different views, criticized Martin.

Process of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality

Pope Francis launched the global synodal process in 2021 on the occasion of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

The fact that the synod did not fall apart despite opposing positions was - to the chagrin of media representatives - due to the Vatican's information blackout and the obviously successful new working method. There were clear rules for exchange in 35 moderated small groups of 10 to 12 people each: statements on the current topic were made in turn, followed by silence. Large countdown clocks helped maintain balance. The impressions of what they had heard were then discussed one after the other, and then, after another silence, a summary of all 35 small groups was created for the general assembly.

Most of the time this approach worked very well, but sometimes reactions burst out from participants immediately after a statement. Synod members from all church political camps report an atmosphere of intense listening. But you can also hear from everyone: It takes nerve to listen to the other position without contradiction.

Synodality as a vehicle for controversial issues

This means that the synod concept of the Pope and his synod planners appears to have largely worked. The “Spiritual Conversation” method made it possible to avoid a major conflict at the World Synod and still put pressing issues on the agenda. From the beginning, the synod had “synodality” as its theme and not critical points such as queer people, women or abuse. And yet these themes have been present at every stage of the synod since 2021. Ultimately, the “cover” of synodality and the manner of conversation seem to have made it possible to discuss it at all. The consequences of a media and church political machine during a synod on one of the "hot topics" would probably have been incalculable for the hierarchy of a highly polarized Catholic Church.

The division of the synod into two conferences in 2023 and another in 2024 also proved to be a smart move by the synod organizers. Gintaras Grusas, President of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, called it a recipe for success for the synod that there will initially be no decisions on controversial issues in the final text in 2023. This was the only way the assembly had the freedom to speak openly. Things could look different in 2024.

Bätzing praises the form of communication at the World Synod: It has changed

The seating arrangement at the World Synod in Rome was unusual: bishops, priests, religious and lay people sat together in their working groups at round tables. For Bishop Georg Bätzing, this enabled a new way of living together.

There was atmospheric praise for the synod weeks in Rome, not least from the German bishops, who were used to a completely different culture of debate from the synodal path of the church in Germany. However, various synod participants say that it is also tiring not to make any progress in terms of content. More has to happen in the coming year, said the chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Georg Bätzing, after the end of the synod in Rome. According to media reports, a group turned to the synod secretariat during the meeting asking for more space for direct discussions in order to achieve tangible results that could be demonstrated at home. After all, people there are eagerly awaiting information from Rome.

Above all, the participants’ origins had an impact on their attitudes towards the Synod. While some signaled great gratitude for having been invited by the Pope at all, others powerfully formulated demands and demands on the assembly from the start. The situation is similar when looking at the overall process. While participants reported that synods from the Asian region, for example, were overwhelmed by the openness and discursiveness of the World Synod, other synods from liberal democracies fundamentally questioned the final papal-episcopal decision in the Catholic Church and consequently called for a kind of voluntary commitment from the hierarchy in the auditorium to bind oneself to the synodal resolutions.

Discussions within Canon Law

It already seems certain that the synod will not make any decisions on controversial issues in 2024 that it will submit to the Pope for a decision. Rather, it continues to work in the church machine room. However, modifications to canon law, the mandatory introduction of participation committees and awareness of lay participation that is already possible under canon law, such as baptism by laypeople, seem conceivable. Synod participants from Western countries describe these points as possible results with which a lot has already been achieved, even if much of this has already been practiced in Europe and the church would therefore continue to lag behind the Western discourse on equality.

But the fact remains: the Pope plays the most important role in the Synod of Bishops. It is he who freely decides to implement the assembly's suggestions or not. This is one of the reasons why the papal actions of the past few weeks have been revealing. While Francis only attended synod meetings sporadically, he repeatedly caused a stir outside the auditorium.

While the Synod was in a Roman suburb for a retreat, the Vatican published the Pope's responses to a Dubia letter. In it, topics such as blessings of same-sex couples and women's ordination. During the Synod, Pope interviews were published in which Francis also commented on topics of the Synod. With "Laudate Deum", the continuation of his environmental encyclical was published at the beginning of the Synod, and in the Apostolic Exhortation "C'est la Confiance - Confidence" he commented on moral theology, among other things - these are also topics on the World Synod agenda. And the meeting with the US-American religious Jeannine Gramick, who is committed to queer pastoral care, did not go unnoticed.

In addition, there are said to have been targeted interventions by the Pope in the auditorium as well. Participants reported a strong speech by the Pope, in which he emphasised the need for better education among the clergy and the people of the Church. In addition, his spontaneous speech following the adoption of the Letter to the People of God caused a stir, as reported by the "Nederlands Dagblad". There was criticism that neither the Pope nor the Synod found a strong word on the war in the Middle East.

Now the Synod has its first Roman stage behind it. The Synodal assembly has not agreed on how to proceed until the second meeting in 2024. While some Synod members warn against renewed consultations, as this could give the impression of occupational therapy, others call for broad-based opportunities for participation and the involvement of groups that have so far been little involved. In this sense, the Synod's Letter to the People of God calls for greater involvement of pastors in the discussions. Likewise, the final document proposes various studies - among others on the diaconate of women - the results of which are to be presented at the 2024 Assembly. It is also likely that the synodal synthesis will be discussed again on a continental level. Only one thing is certain: until the next talk therapy in 2024, many more talks will be held in the Catholic Church.


Cathcon:  Displacement activities for a lack of Faith and lives of prayer.


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