The Prognosis for Synodal Conversion, Reform and Renewal
The Church entered this Synodal process weak and wounded from clergy sexual abuse, revelations of racism and colonialism and fraud; massive departures from the faith in the Global North and pandemic trauma.
In this dark time, many have lost trust in the Church. Pope Francis’ call to “journey together” to bind up wounds, to stimulate trust, to renew relationships and to strengthen all for the common mission, brought light and hope. It challenged us to dream of real conversion, reform and renewal in the Church. However, many are sceptical that this process is a diversion from addressing long-identified pathological, systemic and cultural beliefs, practices and relationships. Still, those who are responding with enthusiasm see the possibility of real renewal of the Church.
As a physician, I am acutely aware of the risky business of prognosis for healing even when there is a patient who recognizes their need, a correct diagnosis, an effective prescription and a supportive community. I know the dangers and suffering of misdiagnosis for serious illness.
The Council of the Synod of Bishops has expressed “great satisfaction” with initial progress because most Episcopal Conferences have appointed someone to implement the process. However, this sets a low bar for the goal of becoming a “constitutively synodal” Church.
My diagnosis reveals serious and irreconcilable understandings of need, diagnosis, goals and support. I add challenges to the prognosis for healing.
The “fundamental synodal questions” are restricted to the experience of “journeying together” in dioceses, parishes and communities, to hopes for the future, and to identifying obstacles. Real encounter, sharing and listening are essential to overcome the culture of secrecy, silence and denial in the Church. We need to “form ourselves” in synodality.
Some bishops are not participating and denying the need. There are widely different formats ranging from questionnaires to single 3-5-hour sessions or a series of small group online sessions.
There is high control of the input, which is summarized in a 10-page and highly structured diocesan synthesis. This is followed by a second synthesis from continental national episcopal conferences culminating with a final synthesis presented to the Synod on Synodality in Rome, October 2023.
The preparatory document identifies goals including forming “a participatory and co-responsible Church” and liturgy promoting the “active participation of all the faithful.” However, key issues—identified by previous Synods and others—such as relationships between clergy and laity, the theology of priesthood, the role of women and a renewed moral and sexual theology and Christian anthropology are not explored.
Synodality is “discernment based on consensus from common obedience to the Spirit,” which recognizes that formal authority. There are serious issues of power, authority and Church organization here. In the Church, decision-making is only done by the pope, bishop or parish priest. All accountability is upward; none is to the People of God.
Pope Francis often says, “We say one thing with words but our actions and reality tell another story.” (Fratelli Tutti, 22) Assessing our reality, I diagnose some contradictions that threaten the promise of synodality and try to “read the dynamic of the culture in which we are immersed.”
The International Theological Commission has warned disparagingly that “synodality is … a linguistic novelty which needs careful theological clarification.” (2018)
The German Bishops’ Synodal Path agreed on many contentious theological and ecclesial issues needing reform. Disappointingly, Pope Francis responded to them with concerns about “false synodality.” He advised that they should discuss evangelism and not the teachings of the universal Church!
In classic misdiagnosis, German Bishop Voderholzer, a negative German participant, said the sexual abuse crisis was being “instrumentalized” by some to re-organize the Church. Research has shown that the abuse of trust, power, position and conscience in clergy sexual abuse and longstanding denial and cover-up has revealed endemic, systemic and cultural beliefs and practices that stand in contradiction to the “mind of Christ.”
Another misdiagnosis is evident in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) plan for a multimillion-dollar Eucharistic Congress focusing on the “real presence” to get people back to the practice of the faith.
The Vatican held a highly clerical February 2022 conference in Rome on the theology of priesthood organized by Cardinal Ouellet of the Congregation of Bishops. Pope Francis’ homily was a personal reflection on the gift of celibacy in the Latin Rite, not on the contested theology.
On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2022, Pope Francis’ message celebrated women doctors of the Church and demanded “the dignity and intrinsic worth with which the Creator endowed them be restored to all women.” If only the Church could witness to this!
The prognosis for healing depends on overcoming silence and denial in tragedy fatigue, challenges from secular culture and science, polarizing divisions, our commitment to conversion and renewal and accepting the “surprises of the Spirit.” It also depends on the life and health of our holy, visionary, and sometimes perplexing, Pope Francis.
Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.
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