Some bishops to reject the synodal Church

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

Everyone sees that the project of a synodal Church which will be considered at the XVI assembly of the Synod of the Bishops introduces a shift of the divine constitution of the Church towards a more democratic mode. But this innovation comes quite a distance away. The modification introduced in the mode of existence of the Magisterium which had taken place at the last Council, the pastorality, was strong of the democratization as introduced today under the name of synodality. As weak as the Council’s teaching is, it could indeed quite naturally be seen as a teaching that is synodal, understood as a sort of self-teaching practiced by the followers of Christ.                             

What is synodality?

The adjective synodal, as well as the adjective pastoral, refer to traditional ecclesial realities. For synodal, it refers to the meetings of bishops, in synods, to discuss doctrinal questions, discipline, or also harmonization of the government of a gathering of particular churches. This is customary in the Eastern churches where a synodal organization of the bishops exists and under which the election of new bishops is done, who are then confirmed by the pope.

But in the course of the present pontificate this word has received a new and very specific acceptation: one that amplifies the theme of collegiality of Vatican II. The word synodality was formed by actually using the name of the main manifestation of this collegiality, the synod of the Bishops, instituted by Paul VI, assemblies meeting regularly in Rome. The intent thus is to go from conciliar collegiality, which only concerns the bishops to a synodality which will concern the entire Christian people. Collegiality in this case only meant to imitate, with some limitations (the assemblies only have a consultative function) and without admitting it, the parliamentarism of liberal democracy. Synodality, in some way wants to imitate, also from a distance and without admitting it, a sort of universal suffrage for the People of God.

The publication of the First Session preparatory document (there will be two) of the XVI Assemblies of the Synod which will discuss synodality, as per Instrumentum laboris (“Instrumentum laboris” of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, 20.06.2023) has bluntly unveiled the reality of the project of a synodal Church.

In order to help members of the hierarchy react appropriatly, we have isolated within this Instrumentum laboris, five propositions, as it used to be done when wanting to determine the heterodoxy of a document:

  1. Regarding the ordination of married men – As some continents propose, could a reflection be opened concerning the discipline on access to the Priesthood for married men, at least in some areas? (IL, B 2-4 question 9).
    In the Latin Church, some married men would gain access to the presbyterate and not only in rare exceptions, which constitutes the abandonment of one of the most holy discipline of the Church based on the teachings of Christ concerning celibacy.
  2. Magisterium of the laity – How can we make listening to the People of God the ordinary and habitual way of conducting decision-making processes in the Church at all levels of its life? (IL B 3-4 question 1a). The consultation of the faithful of a particular Church or of the universal Church should thus normally precede the acts of government or of magisterium of the shepherds of the Church.
  3. Secularization of the Church – Can Lay people perform the role of community leaders, particularly in places where the number of ordained Ministers is very low? What implications does this have for the understanding of ordained Ministry? (IL B 2-4 question 8)
    Because of the lack of priests, some laities could thus exercise, in the same location and in lieu of these priests, the functions involving governing and teaching.
  4. Diaconate for women – Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way? (IL B 2-3 question 4)
    The diaconate, a part of the sacrament of Holy Orders, could be conferred to women.
  5. Submission of the Pope to the consensus of the Churches – To what extent might the convergence of several groups of local Churches (Particular Councils, Episcopal Conferences, etc.) on the same issue commit the Bishop of Rome to address it at the level of the universal Church?
    The pope could be obliged to approve some judicial or doctrinal decisions that have been adopted by the gatherings of local Churches.

All these propositions are subjects of scandal. The last two are definitely not Catholic. The key to understand these propositions, and consequently the synodal project, is very much so the democratization of the constitution of the Church[1]: de-clericalization, “magisterium” of consultation and consensus.

Let us be clear though: this democratization, under Pope Francis, takes the form of an enlightened despotism, because the pontifical power has never been exercised in a more authoritarian way. For example, bishops having to resign at 75, transferred often, being given by the Nuncio, the day of their appointment and on behalf of the pope, a very clear road map to follow, risking being revoked if they don’t follow party line. More and more bishops look like the pope’s administrative officers.

In addition, this democratization of the Church does not mean that we are going to put through universal suffrage the election of the bishops and the pope. There would actually be quite a surprising results if the Christian people were given a ballot! This synodal system which comes from liberal catholicism, as we will explain later, necessarily retains Catholic characteristics, specially  the ones of a hierarchical organization. To use an image yet rather imperfect, we can say that the post-conciliar Church has entered democracy, just like Communist China entered Market economy, yet staying intrinsically authoritarian. The democratization of the Church can be seen in the fact that Her doctrine is adapted to suit, tendentially, with much delays and prudence, a sort of “general will”, a relativism largely shared by Christians (hence ecumenism, relaxing of moral, for example). All in all, from modern democracy, the Church of today retains the essence of its operation – once again from a distance -, that is to say the government finding inspiration from ideological laboratories responsible for translating or fabricating fashionable ideas, the “general will”.

A weak magisterium

One must keep in mind what liberal catholicism, from which Vatican II proceeds, is. Since the Revolution, in the hope of giving the Church a place recognized in post-revolutionary society, liberal Catholicism has seek to adapt in part Catholicism to the modern world, not with the intention of destroying the Church, but so that, with a renewed look, she could have her place in modern society and continue her mission on a minor mode (pretending giving her an “extra special something”). Hoping for some recognition, in the end, it always proves to be a disillusion.

Many sincere Catholics who from a quick look couldn’t be taken for liberals did not feel towards conciliar novelties the same rejection they now feel towards novelties of the current pontificate. These ones from the Council were indeed moderated and kept within a framework under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, by what the latter had called “the hermeneutic of renewal in the continuity”. Furthermore, the teaching of moral, practically in total continuity with the previous magisterium which had perdured following Humanæ vitæ, was offsetting these ecclesiological novelties (religious liberty, ecumenism, the principles for religious dialogue).

On the other hand, what is taking place today, much more violent, chocks them. But the present pontificate is nothing less than an apocalypse in a literal sense, that is to say a revelation, in this case a revelation of the big turn operated by volens nolens the Vatican II Fathers. Pope Francis carries to its maximum degree this very unique event, or at least makes it much more tangible.

When we read about the story of the first days of Vatican II in October 1962, we can draw a parallel, sometimes distant, yet enlightening, between those days and the change from an ancient to a new regime described by Emmanuel de Waresquiel, in Sept Jours. 17-23 June 1789. France enters a revolution[2]: a new staff, inspired by a new ideology, took the reins. Seemingly, at Vatican II, in a few days, or a few weeks, the magisterial power changed hands, and the texts prepared by the Curia aligned with Pius XII policy were brushed aside.

For, very much unlike the demonstrations of liberal catholicism during Vatican II, it simply took  over the magisterial power. In substance, it was a new avatar, more theologically perfected in a way, of liberal catholicism, the “new theology” of the fifties. Of course, the new theology, like the liberalism of Montalembert and Lamennais, as well as also modernism, etc, was bringing along its doctrinal desertion (for Vatican II, religious liberty, for example) a set of real questions and interesting reflexions (over the relation between Scripture and tradition, for example). As far as its negative aspects, it had been condemned by the encyclical Humani generis of Pius XII in 1950. And there it is that twelve years later, the members of the new movements that were part of it, in France for example with the Dominican school of the Saulchoir or the Jesuit school of so called “Fourvière”, came to be the instigator of the Council. To say it bluntly, after having condemned the magisterium for over two centuries, with Vatican II, liberal Catholicism became “magisterium”. A new “magisterium in substance and in form.

  • New in substance. To deliver what content?  Essentially an ecclesiological content, the novelty of Vatican II consisting in weakening the necessity to belong to the Church for salvation. The ecumenism with its imperfect communion of the separated brothers, the inter-religious dialogue, with its “sincere respect” of other religions, the religious liberty making obsolete the Catholic state defender of the Church, put down in principle that al men is presumed to move forward in the way of salvation. Which came down to saying that a certain form of belonging to the Church is supposed to exist in all men.
  • And new in the form. This is why we put magisterium in parenthesis, because this ensemble of new relativists (a moderate relativism) cannot be so strictly speaking. This leads to making this novelty regarding the content of the teaching being sustained by a novelty in what contains it, which is best express in these words: This teaching of the Pope or the bishops in communion with the Pope, though it might be given as a public teaching and not as a teaching from a theologian expressing an opinion, does not have yet a definitive force (Lumen Gentium, n.25 § 1). Contrary to what Humani generis claims, which wanted the magisterium of the Pope to be constantly open to infallibility[3], this particular teaching always remains arguable. It can thus dispense itself from a strict continuity with the previous magisterium, giving way to the ecclesiological ambiguities of Vatican II and the moral ambiguities of Amoris lætitia.

The novelty in the content and in the container are thus intrinsically connected, but the second one, commended by the first one (to speak non-orthodox ideas, one uses the pastoral way) is way more radical. This is why it named the last Council, a pastoral council, making the distinction in this way between all the councils of the past, at least the councils which wanted to make more precise the Creed.

Hence an intrinsic incertitude giving way to a war of interpretations, as the famous speech of Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia gave testimony, yet without the “good” interpretation defended by the pope, “the reform in the continuity”, imposed itself as magisterial, which would be yet the true way to solve the debate. We could see it as a week magisterium, referring to the Pensiero debole, to the weak though of modernity according to Gianni Vattimo, weak magisterium in itself because it claims the authority of the magisterium as such, and weak by the relativist content it delivers, weak.

From pastorality into synodality

Vatican II, a council which strictly speaking is not a teaching council. This is what Christoph Theobald from Centre Sèvres, Paris, tells us in his writings. His approach is different and has the advantage of linking even more so the content with the context of Vatican II. Theobald’s theology is a sort of quintessence of liberal Catholicism in its most current developments. He is part of the group of Jesuit theologians which has all the attention of Pope Francis and will participate in the works of the next Assembly of the Synod of the Bishops. The pastorality of Vatican II, he says, is very much connected to the fact that it is a council that instead of teaching as in the old ways, instead decided to learn from the world which has today the particularity to be irremediably diversified[4]. Pastoral is no longer a message given with authority by the Church to men, but a message adjusted according to what the men of today are teaching the Church: the “magisterial” authority has switch side.

This is what Christoph Theobald describes in a recent article, “The Church in the mist of the messianic history of humanity. For a polyandric vision of the Communio Ecclesiarum in the age of the Anthropocene”[5]. Theobald explains that the pastorality introduced by John XXIII at Vatican II continues still to develop its virtualities: it allows to better meet the man of word nowadays intrinsically deeply differentiated. and to continue, to still be able to speak to them adequately, to learn from them (that is to learn also from the Christians that are part of the modern world) and especially to learn of their diversity.

We thus reach an extreme degree of liberal Catholicism, where maximal concessions are made to modernity. Yet they are supposed to give still the possibility to Christians (to Christians more than to the Church) to deliver a message, which in its case becomes minimal. The mission of the Christians, according to Theobald, comes down to delivering to the world a “messianic vision”. This “messianic vision” which constitutes the Church, since Vatican II, as a “messianic people” within the ecumenical network of Judaism, Islam, other religions and spiritual components of humanity, pushes the Church to align its way of prophesying, of delivering its message, with the world with which She wants to share it. This way of prophesying being inseparable from the message itself, since this prophecy is an interpretation of the Scriptures. In the end, for Christianity it is about making the world realize its nature, thanks to this hermeneutic key which is the peace message of Christ. In short: Christians have to encourage the conscience of men to know they are made for peace.

Prophecy that came from Christians, as men among men, all together. For this we must fully welcome the modus pastoralis as interpretation, experienced by all [not in italic in the text] of the Scriptures”, that is to say to realize an adjustment of the internal figure of the Church” to Her presence in the world. Christians can do it because they are the same, men who express themselves equally. As a result, in the Church herself, to be credible, Christians must also live and express themselves equally. They indeed have to offer men an “hospitable and fraternal presence, based on equality between all human beings”. This equality thus must be “the fundamental principle of ecclesial existence.” From then on, it is important that within the “Church constitutively synodal”, the ministers find their “diaconal identity” and the “charismatic roots” they have lost because of the fact they have been overly sacralized. Synodality goes in this way along with de-clericalization.

At the end of conciliar pastorality thus we find democratic synodality. Indeed, if we look at it closely, the teaching of a pastoral type which we believe to be a weak magisterium does not need to be hierarchical. It seeks in fact to establish a sort of present state of the consensus on the Christian heritage.

But, we must insist, as we said earlier, this democratization of the constitution of the Church can only be virtual, if we want to preserve all institutional frames, as did protestants. This is why the novelties cannot be too violent, what Pope Francis has perfectly understood. We can be sure, for example, that the radical propositions of the synodal Way of the German Church will be the subject of mitigating negotiations: that instead of adopting women in the priesthood, there will be middle term allowing for women to be admitted close to the altar, or giving sermon.

Bishops for a dogmatic return

The particularly revolting content of Instrumentum laboris has already generated some episcopal reactions to reject it, such as:

Cardinal Muller (https://fsspx.news/en/news-events/news/cardinal-m%C3%BCller-accuses-synod-wanting-destroy-church-77304 – FSSPX.news): “It gives the impression that it is really possible that the Church can change… and that the Holy Spirit is only a function for them [the organizers of the synod]. This is a way to undermine the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church.”

Mgr Strickland, Bishop of Tyler, Texas, in a pastoral letter dated 22 August 2023 (https://www.dioceseoftyler.org/2023/08/23/pastoral-letter-from-bishop-strickland-august-2023/): “The surest footing we can find is to remain firmly upon the perennial teachings of the faith. Regrettably, it may be that some will label as schismatics those who disagree with the changes being proposed.  Be assured, however, that no one who remains firmly upon the plumb line of our Catholic faith is a schismatic.  We must remain unabashedly and truly Catholic, regardless of what may be brought forth.”

Cardinal Burke: “Synodality and its adjective, synodal, have become slogans behind which a revolution is at work to change radically the Church’s self-understanding of the Church[6].”

Or yet, Bishop Schneider (https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2023/06/29/a-new-synodal-church-undermines-the-catholic-church/): “This Working Document or Instrumentum appears to undermine the Divine constitution and the Apostolic character of the life and mission of the Catholic Church, substituting for them an invented “synodal church,” inspired predominantly by Protestant, social and anthropocentric categories.”

Others will follow. Against the dangers that threatens the faithful people, only the reactions of the members of hierarchy matter indeed. in this regard, the Instrumentum laboris constitutes a providential opportunity to provoke an adequate response (see our article in L’Homme nouveau: https://hommenouveau.fr/document-preparation-synode-sur-la-synodalite/).

Adequate by way of agere contra, by going in the opposite direction than the weakened magisterium under which the synodal enterprise finds itself. These reactions must initiate a dogmatic debate, to push towards a dogmatic come back. A necessary intervention, once again, as we said earlier:

In regards to the content, by isolating precisely the reprehensible doctrinal propositions found in the text of the Instrumentum and other similar documents, comparing them with Catholic doctrine as it used to be done in the past when dealing with documents that are going astray from the Catholic faith. This is what we suggested earlier with our five propositions.

Notably the fourth proposition which contemplates the possibility to confer women a degree of the sacrament of Holy order, the diaconate, and the 5th proposition calling for a return to the consensus ecclesiæ of a Gallican type in the elaboration of acts of the Sovereign pontiff. These two propositions appear particularly susceptible to meet an opposition as they go against the tradition of the Church and the previous magisterium. The fourth one has also the advantage, if we may say, to contradict the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis of John Paul II, dated 22 May 1995, since what counts for part of the sacrament of Holy orders, the priesthood, counts also for this other part that is the diaconate. If this Letter from 1995 was not an infallible act of the pope, as seemed to indicate curiously the response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith from 28 October 1995[7], the occasion would be given to ask for it to be upgraded to a higher status that would be irrevocable in itself.

And in regards to the form, by advocating a return to an old style magisterium, in other words to an infallible magisterium or one founded on the infallibility.

Even though one might not agree with our line of reasoning over the current a-magisterial state,

nothing would prevent from requiring in all hypothesis a solution to the present synodal crisis through a magisterial intervention.

And even if one might consider this intervention as impossible or undesirable, for the moment,

still it would advisable, without waiting for the synodal reunions of October 2023 and October 2024, that the cardinals and bishops who would not accept synodality as presented in the Instrumentum laboris intervene to express their refusal of it. It would be also setting a date for the future in terms of the next conclave and the issues it will have to face.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke speaks of a “populist rhetoric” Catholicbusinessjournal.com/voices/bishops-corner/cardinal-raymond-burke-discipline-and-doctrine-law-in-the-service-of-truth-and-love/

[2] Tallandier, 2020.

[3] “If the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.”

[4] « La “pastoralité”» de l’enseignement du concile Vatican II. Bilan d’une réception controversée », dans Angelo Maffeis (dir.), Una Chiesa « Esperta in Umanità ». Paolo VI interprete del Vaticano II. Colloquio internazionale di Studio, Brescia, Edizioni Studium, Rome, 2019, pp. 73-85; et « Le Concile et la forme “pastorale” de la doctrine », dans Bernard Sesbouë (dir.), Histoire des dogmes t. IV, DDB, 1996, pp. 471-510.

[5] Recherches de Science Religieuse, July-September 2023, pp. 405-419.

[6] In a preface to Julio Loredo, Jose Antonio Ureta, Processo sinodala : un vaso di Pandora (Associazione Tradizione Famiglia Proprietà, 2023).

[7] It clarified by saying that it was “an act of the ordinary pontifical magisterium, non infallible in itself, [which] confirms the infallible character of a teaching of a doctrine the Church already possesses”.