Two Bishops Raise Concerns About Vatican Synod
Like many Catholic leaders, I have been paying close attention to the ongoing Synod on Synodality at the Vatican, which recently wrapped up a series of meetings involving hundreds of bishops, theologians and other religious and lay advisors. And like many Catholic leaders, I have done so with considerable and growing trepidation.
Thus, it was with interest that I recently read statements by two bishops who participated in the recent meetings—Bishop Robert Barron and Archbishop Anthony Fisher—in which the bishops both thoughtfully expressed a number of overlapping concerns about how the Synod is unfolding.
Ambiguous Terms Breed Confusion
The term “synod” derives from the Greek term “synodos,” which can be translated as “meeting” or “assembly.” In Church history, the term has been used typically to refer to a meeting or gathering of bishops—i.e., the shepherds of the Church, to discuss various doctrinal or pastoral questions.
The official Vatican website for the Synod on Synodality, however, defines the term in broader terms, as “the particular style that qualifies the life and mission of the Church, expressing her nature as the People of God journeying together and gathering in assembly, summoned by the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel.”
The aim of the Synod, states the Vatican, is “to provide an opportunity for the entire People of God to discern together how to move forward on the path towards being a more synodal Church in the long-term.”
The Synod has the enthusiastic support of our Holy Father. In launching the Synod in 2021, Pope Francis stated that its purpose is “to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.”
While all of these aims sound very positive, more than a few observers have noted that the purpose and process of the Synod seems to be bedevilled by a troubling haziness or ambiguity. A primary concern is that by embracing a broad definition of the term “synodality,” which is couched in largely undefined terms of “inclusion” or “participation” or “journeying together,” Synod organizers are seemingly invoking a worryingly democratic understanding of Church governance.
The concern is that such a model suggests that the Church’s doctrinal or moral teachings are somehow subject to a majority vote, rather than being under the protection of the bishops, who are especially entrusted with preserving and preaching timeless truths—truths that are true regardless of how many people in a given time do or do not believe in or defend them.
Bishop Barron: Synod May Downplay Unique Role of Laity
These are not idle concerns. Recently, Bishop Robert Barron, who actively participated in the recent meetings at the Vatican, issued a carefully-worded statement that substantiated the impression that the Synod may, in important respects, be veering off the right track. He identified several troubling trends.
In the first place, Bishop Barron noted that leaders of the Synod seemed so intent on emphasizing the need to “include” more people in the governance of the Church, that they failed to emphasize that “the vocation of 99 percent of the Catholic laity is to sanctify the world, to bring Christ into the arenas of politics, the arts, entertainment, communication, business, medicine, etc., precisely where they have special competence.”
In other words, the special role of the laity is to go out into the world and to make disciples of all men, within their particular spheres of influence. As mentioned above, the term “synod” in Church history typically refers to a meeting of bishops. While the bishops may indeed (and in many cases, should) collaborate closely with the laity, a synod has typically been the special purview of the Church’s shepherds. The risk, then, is that by seeking to “democratize” Church governance and expending so much time and effort examining internal processes and procedures, the Synod may be downplaying the unique evangelical and prophetic role belonging to the laity.
Love and Truth Are Not Opposed
In the second place, Bishop Barron worried that some of the discussions at the Synod seemed to suggest that there exists some kind of dichotomy between “love” and “truth”—i.e., that the need to “welcome” everybody into the Church somehow requires changing core teachings that are viewed as “unwelcoming.” Unsurprisingly, according to the bishop, many of these discussions have to do with sexual ethics.
“On the one hand, we must welcome everyone,” Bishop Barron correctly notes, “but lest this welcoming devolve into a form of cheap grace (to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term), we at the same time must summon those we include to conversion, to live according to the truth.” He adds, “when the terms are rightly understood, there is no real tension between love and truth, for love is not a feeling but the act by which one wills the good of another.”
Similarly, the Bishop notes that in discussions at the Synod, the term “mission” was often used, but not to designate the Church’s mission of spreading the Gospel and calling people to conversion. Instead, the term was used in a way that seemed to emphasize the purely social aspects of the Church’s mission, aspects that the Church shares in common with many other social organizations. “Conspicuous by their absence in the texts on mission were references to sin, grace, redemption, cross, resurrection, eternal life, and salvation, and this represents a real danger.” In other words, missing was that which is explicitly Christian, and therefore which especially pertains to the Church.
Modern Science Won’t Change Right and Wrong
In a particular way, Bishop Barron objected to language in the final synodal document that suggests that somehow the discoveries of modern science show that the Church needs to adjust its teachings on sexual morality. “The suggestion is made,” he notes, “that advances in our scientific understanding will require a rethinking of our sexual teaching, whose categories are, apparently, inadequate to describe the complexities of human sexuality.”
As the bishop correctly replies, this dangerous suggestion is based upon a “category error,” given that the methods of science and ethics pertain to different realms. While science can provide valuable insights that are relevant to our ethical deliberations, its methods are incapable of making judgments of right and wrong.
Furthermore, the idea that somehow the Church’s moral teachings have somehow been rendered outmoded by modern science is, “condescending to the richly articulate tradition of moral reflection in Catholicism, a prime example of which is the theology of the body developed by Pope St. John Paul II. To say that this multilayered, philosophically informed, theologically dense system is incapable of handling the subtleties of human sexuality is just absurd.”
Archbishop Fisher: Hot-Button Issues Need Clear Answers
Many of Bishop Barron’s concerns are echoed in a recent pastoral letter issued by Archbishop Anthony Fisher, of the archdiocese of Sydney, Australia.
Like Bishop Barron, the archbishop participated in the recent meetings of the Synod. Like Bishop Barron, the archbishop seemed to find that some of the discussions betrayed a troubling confusion about the nature of the Church, the respective role of both bishops and laity in governing the Church, and the ultimate purpose of dialogue and discussion.
On the one hand, the archbishop says that he found many of the discussions fruitful, and many of the participants earnest and committed to the Gospel. On the other hand, he questions whether the method of small-group discussions oriented towards “listening” as the prime value is the correct method for addressing many of the consequential issues at stake.
Free-wheeling dialogue, in a spirit of “listening,” may be a way of “turning down the temperature” on hot-button issues, he notes, but it “doesn’t deliver theological clarity.” And the matters at stake require clear answers.
In a round-table discussion, “[s]ome views may be half-baked,” he writes, “in need of nuance, or plain contrary to the apostolic tradition and the Church’s magisterium. Others might be genuinely prophetic, creative adaptations of the tradition, or helpful re-formulations and actions. But the method used in this first assembly didn’t really help to clarify which are which. A different method will surely be required next time around.”
Christ Lovingly Calls Us to Conversion
Like Bishop Barron, the archbishop expresses the concern that at the heart of many of the conversations at the Synod seemed to be a perceived tension between truth and love. And like Bishop Barron, he notes that love cannot mean “abandoning what has been revealed by God or refitting our faith and morality for the current fashions.” Authentic love demands telling the truth to another, even when that truth might be challenging or uncomfortable.
Archbishop Fisher points out that the correct solution to the apparent dilemma finds its solution in Christ, since both love and truth meet in the person of Jesus Christ. “Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus was always open to the other. He encountered every kind of person and invited them into the fullness of life,” the archbishop writes. “But,” he adds, “this ever-more inclusive community of faith is also called to an ever-deeper conversion (Mt 4:17).”
In other words, to love in truth means to be open to the encounter with the other, and to call the other, and oneself, to conversion. “Being included in His family the Church requires a response from us. Go, He says, you are forgiven. Your dignity is restored. You are loved from all eternity to all eternity. So go—and sin no more.”
Encouraging Words from Our Shepherds
It is encouraging to me to read the reflections of both of these faithful bishops. On the one hand, both clearly entered into the process of the Synod with open hearts and minds, prepared to contribute what they could to the discussions, and to help guide the Church in a process of discernment about how best to address the many complexities and crises of the modern age.
On the other hand, both were clearly worried at what they saw as an abuse of the language of synodality to peddle a theologically vacuous, or outright insipid understanding of ecclesiology and ethics.
It is no secret that many forces, both in the world and in the Church, have been working strenuously in recent decades to change the Church and Her teachings to fit the world, rather than seeking to transform the world according to the life-giving, but often challenging teachings of the Gospel.
Nowhere is this more the truth than in the realm of sexual ethics. In light of the seeming triumph of the sexual revolution, the principles of which are deeply embedded within most of our public institutions and in popular culture, and (alas) widely embraced even by many Catholics, many have suggested that the Church’s role is to “get with the times,” and adjust its “old-fashioned” teachings accordingly.
However, such an approach is utterly antithetical to the fundamentally prophetic role of the Church in the world, as a “lone voice crying in the wilderness.”
The Church Must Not “Get with the Times”
From the beginning, the Gospel message has been greeted with rejection, derision, and outright violence by masses of men, who found its demands inconvenient, unwelcome, and intrusive. “Repent and be saved” is a life-giving message for those who recognize their sin and accept their need for salvation. But for those steeped in sin, it is a hard message, demanding nothing less than the death of the “old man.” Many reject this message and hate the Church that delivers it.
For this reason, the Church has historically put little stock in the predominant views of the age. If it had done so in ancient Rome, for instance, the Church would have accepted the morality of exposing unwanted infants to death, the sanctioned physical and sexual abuse of slaves, and the violent entertainments of the amphitheater.
Instead, the Church entered the decadent Roman age as a lightning bolt. Rather than budging one iota from the hard sayings of the Gospel to appease the spirit of the age, the early Christians went to their deaths singing joyful hymns to God, and in so doing brought about the conversion of countless souls. That is the spirit of the Gospel, and the mission of the Church. And any spirit of “synodality” that lacks this prophetic element is not speaking with the voice of the Holy Spirit but is parroting the spirit of the age.
I am grateful for the careful, but firm, voices of Bishop Barron and Archbishop Fisher. I am praying for them, and for all the bishops and laity participating in the Synod. Although there are many things to be concerned about, we must never lose heart or hope. Instead, we must fast and pray that the Holy Father, the bishops, and all the advisors, will listen with a true spirit of discernment, and be granted the courage to speak nothing less than the fullness of the message of the Gospel to a world that is desperately thirsting for “living water.”
As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.