In the last article of this series, I discussed concerns that people have had about the Synod on Synodality arising from troubling developments in the German Synodal Way. I clarified that the German Synodal Way is not part of the Synod on Synodality, and I offered quotes and resources showing that the pope, other high-ranking Vatican officials, and bishops throughout the world share concerns about unauthorized changes to doctrine and ecclesial structures of authority. In this article, I will address other concerns that have a more direct relation to the Synod on Synodality itself.
One concern about the Synod on Synodality is the low percentage of Catholics that were involved during the leadup to the synod. As The Catholic Telegraph recounts: “According to a September 19, 2022 report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, only about one percent of the 66.8 million Catholics in the U.S. participated in the ‘listening sessions’ that are at the Synod’s heart.”1 This statistic alone is a cause for concern about the representative value of such a small sample size. Does 1 percent really speak for American Catholics as a whole? Sadly, several other dioceses and countries around the world show even lower participation rates.2 Whether these numbers are the result of a lack of invitation from dioceses or people choosing not to participate even if invited, the statistics lead to doubts about its value.
Additionally, there is the issue of trust. A good portion of regular church attendees are dubious about the orthodoxy of their Catholic confreres. After all, a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that “just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’”3 Orthodox Catholics question whether those who do not believe such a central dogma of the faith should be allowed to offer advice on the Church’s faith and practice.
Relatedly, there is a question as to the orthodoxy of that meager 1 percent who have participated in the synod’s listening sessions. As Kenneth Craycraft writes:
While the composition of those one percent is anecdotal, it seems to be dominated by persons less interested in listening and more interested in agitating for substantial change in Church doctrine and practice, including changes that would contradict well-settled tradition and dogma. In other words, a significant number of participants . . . seem more determined to dictate terms to the Holy Spirit than to listen to His prompting.4
Thus, faithful Catholics are concerned that their own perspective will be drowned out by the views of radical progressives during the synod through the listening session reports.
However, as we have already discussed in earlier articles, the synod is not a democratic process. Knowing that significant numbers of Catholics are struggling with certain doctrines or disciplines can potentially help the pope address those issues in an orthodox and effective manner. It is not a foregone conclusion that the pope would change the Church to conform to such opinions simply because a segment of the population would like him to do so. The Instrumentum Laboris raises this very point when it asks: “How can we deal constructively with cases in which those in authority feel they cannot confirm the conclusions reached by a community discernment process, taking a decision in a different direction?” (p. 52).
Nevertheless, there are concerns over the formulation of certain questions in the most recent Instrumentum Laboris. For instance, on page 30 of that document, the following question is raised: “What concrete steps are needed to welcome those who feel excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality (for example, remarried divorcees, people in polygamous marriages, LGBTQ+ people, etc.)?” This question reflects comments included in the North American Final Document for the Continental Stage of the 2021-2024 Synod (p. 12).
Some take such comments and questions to imply that the Church should reconsider its stance on homosexuality and proceed to bless same-sex unions. However, I do not think such steps will be taken. Pope Francis already addressed that issue when he approved the response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith5 (now known as the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith), which stated that such blessings are not permissible. It is highly unlikely that the pope would reverse direction on this point, especially considering how vocal he has been against the German Synodal Way’s attempts to do that very thing, as noted in the previous article.
I also think it is important to consider the validity of the question. There are Catholics who would place themselves somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. It is easy for those who do not struggle with such things to be dismissive and simply state the objective disorders involved and leave it at that. But that is not the question. The question is: how can the Church reach out to people in charity and effectively minister to them? Christ was lambasted for eating and associating with sinners. But it was precisely through welcoming them—without condoning their sins—that he was able to bring them to repentance. The reality is that Catholics—including many of our young people—are struggling with these issues, and we are in danger of losing them. The task of effectively reaching out to them and assisting them in their struggles is a very delicate and difficult one. It is, therefore, worth pondering prayerfully. We cannot forsake sound moral teaching, but neither can we abandon people coldly as not worth engaging.
Another issue raised in the Instrumentum Laboris involves women’s ordination. In his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope St. John Paul II taught that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (§4). That is an infallible doctrine not subject to reversal. But what about women’s ordination to the diaconate? As the Instrumentum Laboris states: “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?” (p. 42).
My theological opinion is that it would not be possible. Perhaps this synod could be an occasion for that question to be resolved definitively. But I have another reason to doubt that Pope Francis would be amenable to ordaining women to the diaconate. The working document for the Amazon Synod spoke “about the possibility of ordaining married people, old and respected in their community.”6 Leading up to the synod, there were pundits who thought that Pope Francis would, in fact, give an affirmative response to that request. He did not.
Keep in mind that the Catholic Church does have married priests already, so there would have been precedent for doing so. Eastern Catholic Churches have married priests, and there are even Latin Rite married priests who were formerly Protestant ministers who were allowed to be ordained as Catholic priests upon their conversion. There arguably would have been a good pastoral reason for expanding that same allowance in regions such as the Amazon, where access to the sacraments is highly limited. If Pope Francis did not follow the suggestion made for the Amazon Synod, which has precedence and a legitimate pastoral reason, then it appears unlikely that he would enact a proposal for something that has no precedence in the Church’s tradition.
In short, just because there are Catholics involved in the synodal process who advocate for radical changes to doctrine and practice (something that should not be at all surprising), we should not assume it is a foregone conclusion that their petitions will be granted, especially when the Holy Father has already addressed many of those same issues.
1 Kenneth Craycraft, “Synodality, Sensus Fidei & Development of Doctrine,” The Catholic Telegraph (August 25, 2023).
2 See Luke Coppen, “How Many People Took Part in the Synod’s Diocesan Phase?” The Pillar (July 29, 2022), available here.
3 Gregory A. Smith, “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ,” Pew Research Center (August 5, 2019).
4 Craycraft, “Synodality.”
5 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex,” March 15, 2021, vatican website.
6 Andrea Gagliarducci, “A Vatican Observer: Viri probati, the discussion was already settled,” Catholic News Agency (June 20, 2019), available here.