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The Promise of Vatican II: Still Waiting

Much is being written concerning the rekindling of ecclesial synodality. While the initiative for this renewal of Church governance comes from Vatican II, Vatican II’s sense of the Church as synodal/conciliar comes from the existence of the Eastern Churches. In its 2017 text “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” the International Theological Commission correctly noted: “In the Eastern Churches, synodal procedure continued to follow the tradition of the Fathers, particularly on the level of patriarchal and metropolitan Synods … ” (par 31). Although often not welcomed by the Vatican, this form of governance persisted, albeit imperfectly, in the Eastern Catholic Churches. Vatican II, in the Decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum, recognized the value and authenticity of this ecclesial tradition and solemnly declared “that the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls,” (par. 9). Recognizing this early Church tradition, the Council affirmed the “special duty” of these Churches in “promoting the unity of all Christians” by “prayer in the first place, and by the example of their lives, by religious fidelity to the ancient traditions, by a greater knowledge of each other …” (par. 24). Thus, the Council reaffirmed the unique gifts of the Eastern Churches and encouraged them in a mission to authentically live those gifts for the fulfillment of the dominical prayer: “that they all may be one” (Jn. 17:21).

However, what happens when an Eastern Church, living its authentic synodal tradition, sees no reason for being separated from its non-Catholic counterpart while continuing its communion with the see of Rome? Does the commitment to Vatican II, to synodality and to episcopal conciliarity make room for this possibility? This is not a theoretical question, but one that arises again and again.

On October 12, 2020, The Tablet reported that Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako said, “I see nothing to prevent the union of the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.” With that statement he joined a list of Catholic bishops who have at various times made clear that their Eastern Church should be reunited with its Orthodox counterpart. His words were reminiscent of the so-called Zoghby Initiative. In 1995, Archbishop Elias Zoghby proposed that his Melkite Church establish a “double communion”: while maintaining communion with the see of Rome, re-establish communion with its counterpart Orthodox Church, the see of Antioch. The July 1995 synod of Melkite bishops voted in favor, 24 to 2. However, a 1997 letter signed by the heads of three Vatican dicasteries, including the CDF, declared the initiative “premature.”

The Vatican’s lack of support for these initiatives demonstrates the limits of its understanding of true synodality. Synodality necessitates an organic listening, an openness to perceiving the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Synodality is not an ecclesial form of democracy. It is a recognition of our faith in the Holy Spirit working through and in the Body of Christ in its entirety. Synodality is an expression of our humility: no one actor in the Church is imbued with perfect knowledge that allows them to act with complete independence. All are at the service of the Holy Spirit. We know the Spirit when we are together and open to allowing that Spirit to call us to an ever fuller and more authentic expression of our faith, bringing the many into one. Being Church is about faith, which involves trust and a willingness to reenter into newness in Christ. Living synodally and fulfilling the promise of Vatican II demands facilitating the Eastern Churches’ freedom to be who they are, even when that entails new ways of living the unity of the Church. No doubt striving to practice synodality in this way would be neither straightforward nor easy. But this is where the Holy Spirit has been leading and it’s time to end the resistance to Christ’s entreaty that we all may be one.

Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.

Daring to Dream Amidst the Ruins

A volatile mix of populism and neoliberalism has been fermenting in politics in the last few years, most notably among United States Republicans and British Conservatives. This ideology feeds on the irreconcilable opposites of need and greed, arousing anger and resentment in struggling communities by blaming their plight on immigrants and refugees, stirring up nationalist and racist passions, while swelling the profits of private corporations which are held accountable to nobody but their shareholders. The influence of the private sector is not new in the United States; but since Brexit it has become a destructive factor in British politics, exacerbated by a Conservative Government that is lurching further and further towards extremism. Cherished publicly funded institutions of the welfare state such as the National Health Service are crumbling for want of funds, while vast amounts have been transferred from the public sector into private hands, with little or no transparency or accountability.

There was never going to be a way to reconcile the politics of populism with the economics of neoliberalism, and in Britain, the two are finally imploding. When Boris Johnson was ousted from office by his erstwhile supporters in July this year, a leadership contest saw Liz Truss emerge as our new Prime Minister in early September. Truss appointed Kwasi Kwarteng as her Chancellor of the Exchequer, and on Friday, September 24—a day that will surely go down in British history—he announced a mini-budget that the BBC described as “shock-and-awe tactics.” The budget was fuelled by an ideological commitment to “trickle-down economics”–the fantasy that the more rich people profit from their investments, the more poor people will benefit from the effects of their wealth.

It was immediately clear that the consequences would be spiralling costs for ordinary people and vast increases in wealth for the richest. The so-called markets (i.e. financial gamblers controlled by computerized algorithms) responded with a complete loss of confidence in Britain’s capacity to manage its economic affairs. Kwarteng was fired and replaced by the smooth-talking Jeremy Hunt, who abandoned most of Kwarteng’s tax reforms. As I write this, Liz Truss looks like a frightened rabbit caught in the headlights as the hyenas of her party come scavenging after her. By the time you read it, she may well be gone.

At last, populism and neoliberalism have collided head-on. The people who were promised so much by the jingoistic nationalism of the Brexit campaign with its racist and xenophobic undertones are waking up to the fact that they have been betrayed and deceived. Faced with spiralling fuel costs, rising interest rates on mortgages and rampant inflation, ordinary families face months—if not years—of hardship. It remains to be seen how this crisis will be resolved; but for now, it feels as if we Brits are living in a kleptocracy rather than a democracy.

All this has led me to wonder how any Christian who reads the Gospels and reflects on the fundamentals of our faith can possibly support such a system—though many do. Christians have less influence on British politics than they do in the States, but some of Britain’s most class-ridden elites are loudly self-proclaiming Catholics. Perhaps the most significant scripture for our times is Jesus’s warning that “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money,” (Matthew 6:24, NIV).

I heed Pope Francis’ warning that the Church is not a “spiritual NGO,” but that does not absolve the institutional Church from using its influence for good wherever it can. The Pope has a shrewd understanding of the ways of the world, a passionate commitment to those who are most marginalized and exploited by the present world order, a no-less-passionate commitment to environmental healing and sustainability, and illuminating all this a profound personal faith in the mystery and tenderness of God. This gives me food for reflection and inspiration as this crisis unfolds.

Francis has consistently spoken out against trickle-down economics, telling an interviewer: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger but nothing ever comes out for the poor.” In his semi-autobiographical book co-authored with Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream, Francis names two women economists—Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato—who offer an ethos that reflects “a concern about the grotesque inequality of billions facing extreme deprivation while the richest one percent own half of the world’s financial wealth,” (p. 64). This month, Mazzucato was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life—a clear demonstration of Francis’s commitment to expand the horizons of the Church’s respect for the dignity of all human life, including those lives blighted by the injustices of modern economics.

In the Prologue to Let Us Dream, Francis writes:

This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities—what we value, what we want, what we seek—and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. What I hear at this moment is similar to what Isaiah hears God saying through him: Come, let us talk this over. Let us dare to dream. (p. 6)

Faced with the nightmare of British politics today, played out against the horrific backdrop of the war in Ukraine, and the looming threat of an environmental catastrophe, I draw comfort and hope from these words.

Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.

The German Model May be the Best Path Towards Church Reform

Roman Catholics in Germany were the first to embark on the synodal process that Pope Francis would later ask the entire Church around the world to take up.

They began their Synodal Path (Der Sinodale Weg) in December 2019, nearly two years before the pope launched local consultations in October 2021 for the global Catholic community. This latter process was the “diocesan phase” of an ongoing three-part preparation for the next assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will be held here in Rome in October 2023.


The Synodal Path in Germany has been a controversial project, to say the least. Some have seen it as an effort to subvert longstanding Church teaching and have warned menacingly that it is leading towards a schism.

But, in all truth, the Germans may have found the exactly right method for paving the way to a true reform of Catholicism.

They decided there was an urgent need for synodal discussions that included the country's clergy (including all the bishops) and lay faithful after the publication of a devastating report on the priest sex abuse crisis. The original plan, which would be reconfirmed and intensified over time, was to address the structural, theological and sociological issues in the Catholic Church that allowed such abuse to happen and even continue to the present day.

The German Bishops' Conference (DBK) and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) formed a Synodal Committee co-chaired by the top officers of each organization. Famous for their stereotypical obsession with meticulously organizing nearly everything, the Germans then drew up a structure and precise rules of procedure for what would be called the Synodal Path.

A Synodal Assembly of 230 Catholics of various ages and walks of life was formed and its work was divided into four “forums” that would focus on the following subject areas: 1.) Power and the Separation of Powers in the Church; 2.) Living Love in Sexuality and Partnership; 3.) Women in Ministries and Offices of the Church; and 4.) Priestly Existence Today.

The issues and some of the proposals for addressing them have caused alarm and aroused fear in more traditional Catholic circles, including among some cardinals and bishops in Rome and elsewhere. One of the reasons for the negative reaction is likely due to inaccurate media reports and alarmist "commentary" about the Synodal Path. Church officials and reform-minded Catholics in Germany are well aware that misconceptions are being perpetuated.

That is one of the reasons why the German Embassy to the Holy See recently hosted a conference in Rome with law professor Charlotte Kreuter-Kirchhof, a member of the Synodal Assembly and one of six women who sit on the Council of the Economy at the Vatican. “We are members of the Roman Catholic Church, and we will stay members of the Roman Catholic Church,” she told an English-speaking gathering that included diplomats, priests and religious, a number of journalists and a cardinal from northern Europe.

Kreuter-Kirchhof then clearly explained the procedures the Synodal Path has followed during and between its four meetings up to now. A fifth and final session is to be held in March. She explained the democratic process the Synodal Path has adopted to pass resolutions but debunked the myth that it was trying to force the bishops into making changes that are contrary to Church law. In fact, she stressed that canon lawyers were made members of the Assembly to help avoid any such attempt.

Documents must be approved by two-thirds of the German bishops and two-thirds of all the others (laity, priests and religious) in the Assembly. Only some of the items that pass can be adopted without approval from Rome. But no bishop can be forced to adopt any such changes.

Other items that are approved by the Assembly, notably those that propose changes in doctrine and law, must be sent to the pope for his consideration.

All this information and documentation can be found in various languages, including English, on the Synodal Path’s website.

Kreuter-Kirchhof sought to assure her listeners that the Germans were not trying to lead another Reformation. During the question-and-answer period following her presentation, she paraphrased Pope Francis by saying, “We don't need another Protestant Church in Germany,”

The Synodal Path has not been all smooth sailing, however. It hit a crisis earlier in the year and “came close to a failure,” the law professor said, after the document on sexuality did not get the necessary two-thirds approval of the bishops. Members of the Assembly said they were blindsided by the move since no bishop had made strong objections during the multi-stage process of drafting and finalizing the proposed text. They urged the opposing hierarchs to be more engaged in the process.

Kreuter-Kirchhoff said that incident taught everyone a vital lesson about the synodal process.

“We learned that if the bishops turn away from the people of God or if the people of God are not with the bishops, the Church suffers,” she said. “The synodal Church is the place of common faith, of listening to one another, of discerning together and of common decision.”

Rather than paving the road to schism, this path marks the way towards even greater Church unity. And for this lesson learned, Catholics around the world can rightly tell their German brothers and sisters, “Danke schön!”

Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.

Synodality and Structural Change

Pope Francis was a young man when the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) met in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 and produced five documents that realigned the church relative to the poor and to the authoritarian political systems that were dominant in that decade and later that went by the collective name of “national security states.” In their efforts to encourage participatory democracy, the bishops at the meeting drew attention to the paucity of what they called “mediating structures” in most if not all of the nations of Latin America. If political life is to be vigorous, they thought, then attention must be given to creating these structures, organizations or groups that fill the gap between the individual and the state. Without them, all you have is the vote, and that in itself does not make for true participation in civic life. When individuals have entered into associations and then use the power of the group to promote their social agenda, then perhaps sufficient influence can be exercised over elected officials that real change might occur.

This idea of mediating structures might be useful in our current political meltdown in the U.S. Of course, we may be inclined to think that in a mature democracy such as our own with a tradition of involvement in local government and civic life, these structures are already in place, and we need not fear for democracy. Perhaps we are less inclined to have this kind of confidence in the aftermath of the assault on the Capitol, but maybe not. But then, look at Kansas, where a plebiscite scotched the plans of politicos to remove the state’s protection of abortion rights from its constitution. Regardless of where we stand on the implications of the Dobbs decision and the overturning of federal protection of abortion rights, we should be very wary of the disconnect between the views of political parties and the decisions of the Supreme Court on the one hand, and the views of ordinary Americans on the other. It does seem to suggest that those organs of civic life that should give expression to the views of Americans and bring pressure to bear on legislators either do not exist or are ineffectual or are simply being ignored by a cabal of elected officials with no respect for the electorate that put them into office.

The more pressing issue for us, however, might be within the American Catholic Church itself. It seems fairly clear to me that Pope Francis’s raising the banner of synodality is motivated by the papal recognition that an authoritarian church in today’s world is unscriptural and likely to be ineffective. The call for synodality resonates with Medellín’s affirmation of the importance of mediating structures. Absent synodality, there is no structure between the faithful Catholic and the bishop and, eventually, the pope. Pope Francis is trying to change this situation at both ends of the process. He has worked to turn the Roman Curia into a servant of the global church and he has frequently reminded bishops of their need for humility and to be sure to “smell of the sheep.” And he has encouraged ordinary Catholics to raise their voices and express the kinds of concerns that can only grow out of love for the church. If his initiative fails, it will be a sad day for the future of Catholicism. But if it succeeds, does even Francis know what he might have started?

Think back to the Kansas decision and apply it to the church. In any number of important issues there is a disconnect between the people of God as a whole and their ordained leadership, especially at the level of the bishop. While American Catholics may be divided on any number of issues, the majority seem to want an end to mandatory clerical celibacy. Most are supportive of LGBTQ persons and a sizeable minority is unfazed by the idea of same-sex marriage. A majority of Catholics believe that while abortion is morally problematic, there are some circumstances in which the procedure is regrettably necessary. The vast majority of American Catholics simply ignore church teaching on birth control. Most seem to think that women should have a far larger role in ministry, even ordained ministry. Most love their church, but do not believe that people of other religious traditions are in any way at a spiritual disadvantage because they are not followers of Jesus Christ. If synodality becomes effective in ecclesial life, the future is going to be exciting. It’s easy to see why Francis likes the idea, and not too difficult to understand why more than a few American bishops are dragging their feet.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.