Local synods are speaking. How will Rome respond?

The relationship between the centre and the peripheries has always been critical in Church history. That’s even truer now in the context of the “synodal process”.

A number of interesting decisions the Vatican has taken recently shows how delicate this moment is for Pope Francis’ pontificate.

The first came on June 2 when Bishop Dominique Rey of Fréjus-Toulon announced that the Holy See had suspended this year’s ordinations in his French diocese.

The Vatican had Cardinal-designate Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille carry out a “visitation” (inquiry) of the diocese in 2021 and after he submitted his report, it called for the “ordinations to be suspended”.

This extremely rare decision was taken at the end of May during a meeting between the prefects of four Vatican dicasteries: Cardinals Marc Ouellet (Bishops), Kevin Farrell (Laity, Family and Life) and João Braz de Aviz (Religious), as well as Cardinal-designate Lazarus You Heung-sik (Clergy).

There was concern over Bishop Rey’s longstanding practice of ordaining seminarians trained outside the diocese and coming from traditionalist groups and communities.

Reining in the movements

The second decision came on June 10 when Cardinal Farrell sent to a letter to Communion and Liberation (CL) warning them against distorting the charism of the movement.

It was the latest chapter in tensions that have been mounting between this post-Vatican II group and the Argentine pope who, paradoxically, is culturally closer to CL than to any other of the new ecclesial groups and communities.

The next big Vatican decision came on June 15 when Cardinal Braz’s office published a rescript that Francis had approved during a February 7 meeting with the cardinal and his deputy, Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo OFM.

It changed Church law so that from now diocesan bishops must obtain a “written license” from the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life before establishing pious associations of faithful.

It is another step to rein in new religious groups in the Catholic Church after their unregulated proliferation in recent decades led to abuses in governance that allowed spiritual and sexual misconduct to go unchecked.

And the most recent significant Vatican move came on June 15 when Cardinal Farrell’s dicastery published a 103-page document (for now only in Italian and Spanish) called “Catechumenal Itineraries for Married Life”.

The difficult transition to a synodal Church

What do all these steps have in common? They show how difficult the transition is from a monarchical and centralized model of the Church to a synodal one.

The suspension of the ordinations in Fréjus-Toulon shows that Rome will no longer turn a blind eye to dioceses who are offering a safe haven to individuals and groups with traditionalist tendencies (parallel universes that have often damaged the communion of the local Church).

At the same time, it also shows a paradox: the Vatican’s willingness to intervene to protect a healthy and safe dynamic in the local Churches and in lay movements. Rome has been given more powers as a result of the sex abuse crisis, and it is not afraid of using them.

But these cases also demonstrate how difficult it is to apply synodality to the day-to-day relations between the Roman and clerical centres of the Church and the non-clerical, non-Roman parts of it.

The “Catechumenal Itineraries for Married Life” is a case in point. This document is the fruit of the reception of Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which followed the Synod of Bishops’ assemblies in 2014 and 2015.

But it’s not clear how or if it reflects the views of those who participated in the Synod assembly of 2018, which focused on “Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment”.

Either the young people who attended that gathering were not listened to, or they were listened to very selectively. There’s also the possibility that the youths who were invited were not representative of their peers who are Catholics, former Catholics, and non-Catholics.

When and how does Church authority intervene?

Synodality is about listening and walking together, and the question posed by these latest decisions that Rome has made is this: when and how is the episcopal or papal authority supposed to intervene and make the final discernment?

The Vatican’s current handling of the spiritual and ecclesial movements repeats the playbook followed for centuries, and it is not clear how synodality can change the relationship between centre and periphery.

We are in uncharted territory with synodality, and we’re still exploring how we can create a proper synodal dynamic in the Catholic Church.

In his conversation with the editors of the European Jesuit periodicals, published on June 14 by the Vatican-vetted La Civiltà Cattolica, Francis made an eyebrow-raising joke about the German “Synodal Path”.

Keeping it Catholic

“To the president of the German Episcopal Conference, Bishop Bätzing, I said: ‘In Germany, there is a very good Evangelical Church. We don’t need two,'” the pope told the editors.

“The problem arises when the synodal path comes from the intellectual, theological elites, and is much influenced by external pressures,” he warned.

But then he added: “There are some dioceses where the synodal way is being developed with the faithful, with the people, slowly.”

The German “Synodal Path” has become – also in the eyes of Pope Francis – the symbol of an uncontrolled way to go about synodality that risks becoming non-Catholic.

The fact is that what the members of the “Synodal Path” have discussed and voted in favour of in Germany is not entirely different from what is being discussed and approved in other countries where synodality is finally taking off.

Just look at what both lay people and the bishops are discussing in Australia, France, Spain and India. It’s not the same as the German synod, but not entirely different, either.

The issues are the same — the role of the laity, the ministry of women, the formation of the clergy, etc… No doubt, the proposals may differ. But they do not diverge dramatically.

However, some of these proposals might not please the pope.

What will Rome do with the synodal responses?

The increasingly globalized composition of the College of Cardinals, the consistory of the end of August, and the reform of the Roman Curia are important developments for the path of the Church in the near future.

But the real question is what Rome will make of these synodal movements that have been inspired by Francis himself.

Which proposals will it accept and allow to be applied at the universal level (the whole Catholic Church)? Which ones will be allowed in this or that country? Which ones will be ignored or prohibited?

The Vatican will have to engage with these proposals at some point — either at the next assembly of the Synod in October 2023 or later.

As the old adage goes, Roma locuta, causa finita – “Rome has spoken, the discussion is over”.

But synodality could change this in ways that we cannot clearly see at this point. The early centuries were in some sense the golden (and often romanticized) age of synodality. Synods and councils spoke with more authority than Rome.

The current “synodal process” has given the local Churches an opportunity to find their voices again. Some places have already begun to find theirs; others will do so sooner or later.

The future of the Catholic Church in entire countries will be decided by Rome’s response to the synodal events.

This will be even more consequential than the outcome of the next conclave, whenever that will be.

But it could make a big difference whether Rome’s response rests with Francis or his successor.

  • Massimo Faggioli is a Church historian, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University (Philadelphia) and a much-published author and commentator. He is a visiting professor in Europe and Australia.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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