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James Martin, S.J.September 08, 2023
Pope Francis smiles as he greets journalists aboard his overnight flight from Rome to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Aug. 31, 2023. His visit to Mongolia Sept. 1-4 is his 43rd international trip since becoming pope in 2013. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Pope Francis has been the subject of what seems like unrelenting criticism for several years. At times, it is difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of critiques and attacks on the Holy Father coming from Catholic media outlets, Catholic journalists, columnists and writers; as well as, more surprisingly, cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests. Some well-meaning critics try to be respectful of Pope Francis; other critics seem to have jettisoned even a modicum of respect for the successor to St. Peter.

In the run-up to the Synod on Synodality’s first month-long gathering in Rome, the critiques have only intensified. Few things seem to stir up Francis’ opponents as much as this worldwide consultation of Catholics. (I am one of the six Americans invited by Pope Francis to participate in the synod as a voting member.)

Most recently, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, penned an appreciative forward to a new book attacking the synod, saying that the process will foster “confusion and error and division.”

Perhaps one reason that there is so much public criticism is that, with a few exceptions, Francis is allowing these conversations to take place—and even commenting on his critics at times—rather than clamping down on the discussions.

At times, it is difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of critiques and attacks on the Holy Father.

But before we get into where such fierce opposition to the synod comes from, we need to look more closely at what it is.

What is a synod?

First, let’s define a synod. It is a form of ecclesial gathering that has existed since the time of the early church, but which fell into disuse; it was revived by St. Paul VI shortly after the Second Vatican Council as a way of gathering together a variety of voices from across the church. Later, the model was promoted by St. John Paul II, who convened many synods during his pontificate.

For his part, Francis has emphasized the synod and “synodality” as a way of listening to voices from around the church, especially those who may not have been heard from before. One of Francis’ innovations has been to give women and other laypeople the right to vote as full members of the synod. In this way, the pope is filling a notable lacuna left by Vatican II, which said in “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, that lay people, by virtue of their expertise, are sometimes “obliged” to offer their opinions on “things which concern the good of the church” (No. 37). But in the decades since, they have been given few avenues in which to do so, at least at the universal level. The synod is a step toward allowing them to fulfill that obligation.

“The synod,” Pope Francis said on Oct. 9, 2021, the day before its official opening, “offers us the opportunity to become a listening church, to break out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns in order to stop and listen.”

If we trust in the Holy Spirit, why would we be fearful of Francis’ vision of the synod as a gathering where all voices are heard?

As a result, the current Synod on Synodality (that is, a synod to help the church hear the voice of the Spirit by involving and hearing from the people of God) was preceded by listening sessions on the parish and diocesan levels around the world. The fruits of these conversations were sent to bishops’ conferences, who summarized the proceedings. All these, in turn, were sent to the Vatican, where the worldwide responses were summarized into a working document (or instrumentum laboris).

Basically, then, the synod trusts that the Holy Spirit is alive and active among not just cardinals, archbishops and bishops, and not just among Vatican officials, but among all the faithful. So where might this fear of the synod come from?

Fear and trust

I suspect a primary fear is that there will be a wholesale change to church teaching. Now, I cannot speak for my fellow synod members, but I doubt that any members wish to change the essentials of the faith. (I don’t.) But anyone who knows any church history also knows that church teaching has developed dramatically on a variety of topics, including slavery, women’s roles, ecumenical relations, the liturgy, limbo, capital punishment and so on. As Pope Francis said in a conversation with Portuguese Jesuits during World Youth Day, “doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing.”

But I often wonder if the deeper opposition is to something else.

After we dig into the political, the sociological, the ecclesiological, the theological, even the spiritual, we have to ask ourselves two questions: First, do we trust in the Holy Spirit? And second, do we believe that the Holy Spirit is active both in this gathering of the faithful and in the individual consciences of the people participating in the synod? Throughout church history, we have been invited to trust in the Holy Spirit during times of uncertainty—with Pentecost as the defining example, but elsewhere as well, as during ecumenical councils and papal conclaves.

We may also need to ask a third question: If we trust in the Holy Spirit, why would we be fearful of Francis’ vision of the synod as a gathering where all voices are heard?

The role of conscience

Let’s focus on the second question, which I think may be at the heart of some of the opposition to Pope Francis: Do I believe that the Holy Spirit is alive in the individual conscience?

Many of the main flash points during Francis’ papacy have included concerns around the role of conscience. Perhaps the first instance was his answer to a journalist’s question about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?” The first part of his response is important: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord, who am I to judge?” If one believes in an informed conscience as the final arbiter of the moral life—what The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls our “most secret core and…sanctuary,” one can see what the pope means. If one does not, then what the pope said can be very confusing—or result in a fearful response. After the publication of “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis’ meditation on love and the family, four cardinals sent him and the Dicastery (then-Congregation) for the Doctrine of the Faith, a “dubia” (a formal request for answers on theological questions), which took issue with several matters concerning conscience. This is not surprising. “Amoris Laetitia” highlighted the church’s traditional teachings on conscience, reminding pastors that they are called to “form consciences, not replace them,” and inviting the church to reverence people’s consciences, for example, on the question of whether a divorced and remarried person may receive Communion.

To condemn the synod outright is akin to saying that we do not trust that the Spirit is alive in the hearts of our fellow Catholics.

For many of Pope Francis’ opponents, this seemed tantamount to “breaking the rules” or encouraging an “anything goes” approach to traditional Catholic morality. But from the perspective of reverencing God speaking through conscience, this instead marks an emphasis on a deep trust in the Holy Spirit. In a similar way, the synod asks us to believe that the Holy Spirit can act through the individual conscience as well as in the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of the people of God, as “Gaudium et Spes” put it.

‘Counter currents’

As I mentioned, the synodal process has included inviting the faithful at the parish level, the diocesan level, the national level and then the continental level, to offer their opinions about the church. The process calls to mind a line from every priest’s ordination Mass, when the person in charge of the priests’ training says to the ordaining bishop, “After inquiry among the Christian people, and upon the recommendation of those responsible, I find them to be worthy.” That “inquiry” trusts that the people of God have something to say. Likewise, the synod is trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work in not just cardinals, archbishops and bishops, but in everyone who participated in these sessions—and all those who are gathering next month in Rome.

[When bishops attack: How Pope Francis handles his critics]

Nathalie Becquart, X.M.C.J., the undersecretary of the synod, told me that we had to be cautious of the “counter currents” that resist the movement of the Holy Spirit and bring “fear, trouble and hopelessness.” She said it was important to discern carefully, weighing what comes from God and what comes from “the enemy.”

“The Spirit can speak through some of the critics to tell us something we have to integrate,” she wrote in a recent email, “but the enemy can also use fears, resistance and critique as a means of diverting us from the right path to take in response to the Spirit’s calls.”

Francis’ experience

Before being elected pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio served as the archbishop of Buenos Aires. But before that he was a Jesuit novice, scholastic, priest, spiritual director, novice director and finally provincial.

As one lighthearted saying goes, “If you’ve met one Jesuit, you’ve met one Jesuit.” That is, Jesuits are a variegated lot. But what binds Jesuits together most is not simply our vowed life, our living in community and our shared ministries, but our experience of making and giving the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Like many others in the church, we direct people on their annual retreats and in regular spiritual direction sessions. During these times, and at many other moments, we see how the Holy Spirit is alive and active in every person. I can think of few things more important than reverencing the sometimes confusing but always consoling work of the Spirit in another human being.

Do we believe in the Holy Spirit? Catholics profess this in the Nicene Creed during Sunday Mass. But do we trust in the Holy Spirit? On an individual level—that of conscience—and on an ecclesial level? If we do, then we can approach the synod with open hearts and minds, free of what Sister Nathalie calls “fear, trouble and hopelessness.”

I do not mean to equate the pope (or the synod or anyone else) with the third person of the Trinity. But I do mean this: To condemn the synod outright is akin to saying that we do not trust that the Spirit is alive in the hearts of our fellow Catholics, that it is alive in the church and that it may even have something new to teach us.

As for me, I trust in the Holy Spirit.

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