Catholicism after Ratzinger and the Synod on synodality

One could easily lose count of how many books have been published — or about to be published posthumously by Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI.

And there are the books by those bishops and cardinals who refer to the late pope and former doctrinal chief in support of their views on the issues at the center of the ecclesial debate today.

Not to mention the flood of supposedly news-making interviews some of these prelates have been giving.

This publishing spree began with remarkable speed in the very first hours after Benedict’s death, even before his funeral was celebrated.

This indicates how the media can dominate intra-ecclesial conversations – a point that Ratzinger understood and emphasized often, one that his followers should have received and applied to themselves.

In part, this is all about marketing. But it’s also Church politics, vanity and personal revenge, although it’s not clear which is more important.

Benedict XVI’s death has marked the end of an era and has triggered a “jump start for the conclave”, even though Pope Francis is still fully in charge of the Church’s governance and shows no signs of slowing down or that he’s ready to step aside, as his German predecessor did.

End of the first post-Vatican II era

The first post-Vatican II era has come to a definitive end with Ratzinger’s death.

It marks another point of transition within the context of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which was called by John XXIII.

When Pope John died in 1963, the papacy and the conclave were part of a larger ecclesial context dominated by Council.

The conclave that elected Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini) to succeed the “good pope” was part of the conciliar dynamics between primacy, conciliarity, and collegiality-synodality.

In some sense, the situation of Pope Francis’ pontificate almost ten years on, which coincides with the beginning of the crucial phase of the synodal process (2023-2024) is similar to the one of the Catholic Church in 1962-1963 at the beginning of Vatican II.

But there is a big difference today.

It has to do with the way in which the synodal process could change the Church.

It is this, and not the bickering about Benedict XVI’s legacy, that is the real target of the some of the statements that have from a number of prominent churchmen these last few weeks. One example was the late Cardinal George Pell’s article in The Spectator, written shortly before he died, in which he called the synod a “toxic nightmare”.

In a memorandum which he wrote and circulated under a pseudonym in March 2022 the same Australian cardinal warned that “if the national or continental synods are given doctrinal authority, we will have a new danger to worldwide Church unity” and that “if there was no Roman correction of such heresy, the Church would be reduced to a loose federation of local Churches, holding different views, probably closer to an Anglican or Protestant model, than an Orthodox model”.

Council and Synod: same but different

The current situation is not the same as that preceding the opening of a new council like Vatican II, which would be impossible today with more than 5,000 bishops and superiors of male religious orders with the right to participate.

Then there is the problem of how representative an assembly of bishops and superiors of male religious orders would be for the Church of today.

Still, the prerequisites for a conciliar event or an ecclesial event with council-like consequences are there, where what has happened up to now in the councils precedes it.

But the “synodal process” now underway is taking place according to a completely different preparation compared to the one that took place between 1959 and 1962 to prepare Vatican II.

The synodal process is much more decentralized and is involving the entire People of God – at that those who could and desired to participate.

This process is also taking place in a Church where, compared to the time of Vatican II, the institutional loneliness of the pope is much more evident: for Benedict XVI when he resigned, for Pope Francis today.

The Catholic Church today needs new ways to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That proclamation will have to be made more and more by the People of God and less by the clerical elites.

Those who appeal to Benedict XVI are understandably scared by the undeniable fact that the Church is trying to find those new ways and that will require a new form for the Church.

It’s clear from the very title of the “working document for the continental stage” that general secretariat of the Synod has prepared: “Enlarge the space of your tent” (Is 54:2).

Attempts to reset the narrative

There are a number of key issues at stake: some kind of de-hierarchisation of the Church’s government, a different role for the episcopate, and the relationship between unity and diversity in the one Catholic Church.

One of the questions is what kind of regulation will be part of this new form of the Church, given the highly pluralistic ecclesial system such as the one in which we are and will be part of.

Surely some of the movements of the last few weeks, for example the book-length interview by Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (2012-2017), are part of the attempts to accelerate and prepare the next conclave.

But no one (or perhaps only one) knows when the next conclave is going to be.

We all know that the Synod is underway and now entering the crucial stage. Cardinal Mario Grech, the Synod’s secretary general, put it this way in a recent interview with the Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno:

“The Synod has already begun. According to a new experience. The Holy Father opened it in October 2021 and now there are various stages. The phase completed in August was not a preparatory phase for the celebration of the Synod, but is already part of the synodal process.”

The immediate target of those who are trying to reset the narrative in post-Ratzinger Catholicism is not one particular issue or another.

The target is the Synod itself.

  • 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.


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