On the Ground in Rome: Reporting on the synod—and tuning out the noise
The Synod on Synodality, currently taking place in Rome, has the potential to be the church’s most extraordinary event since the Second Vatican Council. Like that council, it is deeply rooted in the longstanding Christian tradition of communal decision-making. Because of that, it is nearly impossible to predict what exactly will result from this year’s meeting or from the synod’s second global gathering next year.
One thing we can predict, unfortunately, are continued efforts to undermine the synod—because, again like Vatican II, the synod threatens some Catholics’ erroneous understanding of the church as a never-changing institution. Previous synods under Pope Francis foreshadowed some of the arguments against this one.
First is the argument that the synod has mounted a facade of open discussion but is destined toward predetermined outcomes. This could not be farther from the truth: In my and my colleagues’ reporting, few involved in the synod have been able to provide even a general idea of what will result from this first meeting. Only in late September was it announced that the synod participants would put together a summary document at all.
It is nearly impossible to predict what exactly will result from this year’s meeting or from the synod’s second global gathering next year.
To be fair, this is a criticism rooted in historical reality: In previous pontificates, synods were indeed predetermined, and discussions in the synod hall were tightly controlled. In The Synodal Pathway: When Rhetoric Meets Reality, editor Eamonn Conway writes that Pope Francis, then archbishop of Buenos Aires, likely chose not to attend Pope Benedict XVI’s last synod on evangelization in 2012 because of the “carefully contrived” nature of Roman synods at the time.
Although Francis has reacted strongly against this tendency, allowing instead open conversation and even encouraging disagreements, several of his cardinal-critics reportedly gave a letter to the pope on the first day of the Synod on the Family in 2015 saying the meeting “seem[ed] designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions.”
Critics across the spectrum may fall into the trap of seeing the synod as a sort of ideological battlefield, when in fact it is a place for listening and communal discernment
This is related to the second predictable criticism of the synod, that it is solely focused on hot-button issues. Critics in 2015 believed that meeting was an effort to weaken Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, and critics of the Synod on the Amazon in 2019 argued that it was really about ordaining women as deacons and married men as priests. So too critics of the Synod on Synodality have already denounced it as opening a “Pandora’s box” of anarchy or democratic rule in the church, opening the door to women clergy, the blessing of same-sex marriages and acceptance of the idea that people can be transgender.
On the other hand, critics who desire to see more change, more quickly, point to the fact that despite even a majority vote in favor of ordaining married men in the Amazon at the 2019 synod, Pope Francis has changed very little. (And there is no shortage of invites in Rome these days to extra-synodal events that are focused on advocating for greater changes in the church.) Critics across the spectrum may fall into the trap of seeing the synod as a sort of ideological battlefield, when in fact it is a place for listening and communal discernment, with Francis acting as a sort of discerner-in-chief.
“There is the synod that happens inside the synod hall and the one that happens outside.” We ought to keep our eyes on the real one.
Then there are the media efforts to spin, or at worst, subvert, the synod. One need only think of the “Pachamama” incident, in which critics of the Amazon synod accused the Vatican of idolatry when Indigenous carvings of two pregnant women were placed in a display at a prayer service in the Vatican Gardens. The Vatican was caught off guard by the accusations, and was thrown off even more when a young man stole the statues and threw them into the Tiber River, as recorded in a viral video. It remains, sadly, the most memorable event of that synod, despite having nothing to do with the synod’s content.
Will there be a “Pachamama” incident this time? I hope not. Yet given the open-endedness of this synod and the general difficulty of communicating what synodality itself means, I worry that such media stunts or distractions might throw off the public understanding of what is actually going on inside this momentous gathering in the life of the church.
As America’s veteran Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, has often warned me, “There is the synod that happens inside the synod hall and the one that happens outside.” We ought to keep our eyes on the real one.