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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 31, 2023
Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego gives the homily during Mass in the Church of St. Frumentius, his titular church in Rome, April 23, 2023. Every cardinal is assigned a titular church in Rome, making him a member of the Rome clergy. (CNS photo/Chris Warde-Jones)

After the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica that concluded the first session of the Synod on Synodality in Rome this October, Cardinal Robert McElroy, the bishop of San Diego, spoke with America’s Vatican correspondent at the North American College on Sunday, Oct. 29, about the synod.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gerald O’Connell: You’ve spent the past four weeks in session at the synod, and I described it as a marathon. Would that be an accurate description of it?

Cardinal McElroy: Absolutely. There were moments of real exhilaration and joy and moments of deep encounter, but it was a grinding process because the level of engagement we needed for the conversations in the spirit, which were very rewarding, were also very demanding.

Now we have the synthesis document. What is your overall take on it?

It’s a transitory document. It’s for this moment. To a great degree, it encapsulates where the discussions have led, but it’s oriented toward the future, in two different ways. One is for when we come back together [in October 2024], but also, in the interim, to have conversations with people at the grassroots level, in the local dioceses and parishes, on these issues as they have fermented and developed within the document.

To do those conversations well, we’ve asked the synod office to help come up with some materials that will, in a way, simplify some of these theological complexities, try to engage people and ask them to contribute more in their review of where we’ve been and how we have gotten to this point.

[The document] needs to be translated into a form where there can be true dialogue at presbyteral councils and parish communities and so forth. It’s got some very technical language, a lot of it. So we have asked the synod office to help us to come up with materials that will make real dialogue and feedback possible in the coming months.

Let’s look at the different sections of the synthesis document, The first section is on synodality. I was struck by the statement that “synodality represents the future of the church.”

It’s still important to clarify what synodality is, in that synodality is a way of dialoguing with one another in the presence of the Spirit of God. But it’s also a culture within the church. The synodal culture is one founded on the Eucharist, the word of God, prayerful listening to one another, and dialogue, discernment, collaboration, co-responsibility, inclusion, humility. Those are to me, the marks of a synodal church. It’s not merely a process.

The process of listening to each other was enormously productive, much more productive than I would’ve thought it could be in terms of bringing people together and helping people to move beyond their positions to where they really engaged in what the Gospel would be asking of us in various situations. But it’s more than just that method. It’s also those elements, bringing those elements into the culture of the church.

What else came out of that first chapter’s focus on synodality?

Part of it was the global nature of the church and having lay people there, priests, consecrated religious as well as bishops and the pope. That made it a dramatically different experience of the people of God. The report talks about it in terms of all three dimensions of synodality being there: The whole people of God were present, collegiality was present in the bishops and their discernment and their dialogue, and then with the Holy Father being there. All three dimensions of the life of the church were present in this one gathering because of the non-bishops being there, which was critically important, and frankly, [this] became very natural very early on.

But some people—and it comes out in the synthesis document—obviously questioned whether this then is a synod of bishops. Some felt that they might be losing authority and wondered who exactly is leading the church.

There are three different answers to that question. Who is leading the church? The whole people of God coming together. Secondly, the College of Bishops has a particular role in the church; and thirdly, the pope. And so all three are present in this gathering. But I do think that the theological and canonical underpinnings for this type of assembly should be further developed and fleshed out, because we can’t go backward. I don’t think there should ever again be a synod of bishops which does not include non-bishops as voting members and lay people as voting members. The theological development of what this exact nature is and the relationship between primacy, collegiality and synodality, in the sense of the whole people of God being present—that needs to be crystallized.

Who is leading the church? The whole people of God coming together.

What else stands out to you from the document?

I think there are a couple of things. One is, the question of women was enormously important. Timothy Radcliffe, in his retreat talks, alluded to the fact that Jesus’ interaction with women, in terms of real discipleship, engagement and leadership in the Christian community, was a paradigm shift in terms of the culture of those times. There was a broad feeling that we need to have a paradigm shift in how we approach the leadership and embrace of women in the life of the church today, particularly in processes of decision-making. There were more than 80 proposals, policy proposals to move forward on. Only one of them did [the synod document] call urgent, and that was bringing women more fully into the life of decision-making and leadership in the church.

I was also struck by the synod calling for women to be involved in formation roles in seminaries.

There was a lot of reflection and concern about the formation of priests, and that tied in with the question of having women involved in formation in seminaries. The reason behind that was not to particularly do something for women; it was to do something for the formation process, and—and this was [the case] across continents—the belief that it’s key to have women involved in the discernment of the ability of particular candidates to work well with women and work well with the larger community.

The synthesis document seemed to open up the possibility of lay people preaching.

It’s not clear to me what was meant by that, given that lay people can preach in a variety of settings now. They can’t in the [celebration of the] Eucharist. Some were in favor of having lay people preach, or at least non-priests preaching in the Eucharist. Although many of those people were not in favor of that becoming the dominant mode in any one parish or community. But as an opportunity in particular circumstances, many were in favor of that.

But when they spoke of preaching, it was unclear to me whether they’re talking about within the Eucharist or just in other circumstances where you can do many of those anyway.

I’d say a couple other things that struck me about this, that partly flow from the synodal method. One was the question of how the diaconate and women were handled. This was one of those areas which became an instance of either-or question, an either-or choice. I’m in favor of having women deacons, but an either-or choice—do we have them or not have them—in the discussions became perhaps a pathway to a both-and solution, in that when we talked about the diaconate as a whole; many places in the world do not have any permanent deacons.

There was a lot of reflection and concern about the formation of priests, and that tied in with the question of having women involved in formation in seminaries.

Thus the conversation with them became: How do we have lay responsibility, lay ministry, but outside of the concept [of the diaconate]? And there came to be a real pathway of examination of the permanent diaconate as a whole, as to whether it is engaging in the full ministries that it should be [engaged in], and is it a good idea to have the diaconate as a whole linked to ordination? Because Pope Benedict changed the theological warrant for the diaconate and made clear that it is not an identification with Christ but rather care for the community. [There’s] a different theological foundation for it than for priesthood or for the episcopate.

So there was a lot of discussion [about whether] the permanent diaconate [should] be re-imagined and become more focused on the needs of the poor, the dispossessed, those that are marginalized, and in that context perhaps be de-linked from ordination to the priesthood so that admitting women to the diaconate might be much more possible in that sort of context.

Were you surprised that there’s such support for the diaconate? It was approved even though there was some strong opposition, as the voting shows. The whole decision is to study it further?

There is a lot of support for it. And I was at the Amazon Synod, where there was a tremendous amount of support for it by the Amazon bishops. But this wider look at the diaconate as a whole could be very fertile in terms of helping to reinvigorate the permanent diaconate as it is and even strengthen it with new ministries. Again, focusing it on the historical nature and not making it primarily a liturgical ministry, but one of outreach to the poor and the marginalized, which it is what it is in many places, but isn’t in others.

The thing that was interesting to me was, because of the method of engagement that went in the discussion, what was an either-or question became a much broader, fuller and richer discussion about the permanent diaconate as a whole, and how can we renew it and strengthen it, and that coming at those questions in that way might provide a pathway that doesn’t seem available now.

Other countries don’t have the permanent diaconate at all, so this is opening it up. It’s revisiting Vatican II in a new light.

It’s revisiting Vatican II in a new light, and against the context which was very broad, to have lay people taking on new ministries in the life of the church. It was within that context.

The question came up, too, of that we don’t want to clericalize the laity. So when you talk about the permanent diaconate, that’s got to be kept in mind too. It was against this wider backdrop of wanting to bring lay people into new ministries in the life of the church, and, of course, the permanent diaconate is not a lay ministry.

One of the proposals of the synod was related to the question of opening positions of responsibility and decision-making to lay people, and in particular to women. This was also discussed in relation to the separation of holy orders from the exercise of power in the church as stated in “Praedicate Evangelium,” the constitution on the reform of the Roman Curia. The synod is proposing there be a deeper study of this?

“Praedicate” was cited frequently as having implications that are very broad on this set of questions in the life of the church, and for local churches to open up areas which are now sometimes precluded by canon law in terms of lay participation in the life of the church. “Praedicate” was taken as a given, and then the question was raised as to what are its implications for all of the different levels in the life of the church.

Bishops brought up these various situations they have where they have lay leaders in their diocese and they can’t appoint them to the positions they would like to because it’s precluded by church law now. So they asked: Can “Praedicate” now open up these possibilities?

So they’re calling here for a revision of canon law?

Absolutely. Looking at the revision of canon law to see how the involvement of lay people in the life and decision-making leadership in the church can be accomplished much more effectively, and what are the obstacles to that which can already be dispensed with in light of the principles of “Praedicate.”

Another element in the synthesis document that I found quite interesting was the whole discussion on bishops in the church, because it raised the question of re-evaluating the criteria for the selection of candidates to be bishop.

[There was] strong support for that, and for having more lay people involved in that process.

The synthesis document also said there should be some process for evaluation of the performance of bishops.

That’s right. It’s in there. Now, it was talking about particular areas. It was talking about general leadership and consultation with people and then the finances, and then the questions of abuse and so forth. So there were certain specific issues that were focused on, but it said, yes, there should be evaluations of how bishops handle these key things, which I think is a wonderful step forward—because realistically, we don’t get evaluated in any way that has any sense of supervision over us.

It speaks also about accountability of nuncios—evaluating nuncios, how they perform. This really is quite a significant shift in how the church has up to now operated.

It was amazing to me the degree to which that was taken up. But I think it’s a great thing.

And I’d say one other thing, [about a] broad theme that’s very important. There was a whole section that we spent basically a week on, on the theme of when truth and love meet. That was, I would say, the most fruitful part of the whole set of discussions because we were at our tables, and again, we had bishops and lay people and priests and consecrated religious [dealing] with this question of how does doctrine interact with pastoral care for people who are in very difficult situations of all different kinds.

Individual cases were brought up that bishops encountered and found difficult to wrestle with, but there was a broad sense that doctrine can’t simply be the first step, and then a derivative step is pastoral integration. There was a sense that this all intersects, that Christ is the truth for us, the person of Jesus Christ, the truth.

There’s a section in Chapter 15 where it talks about the method of Christ, to listen to [all people], to embrace their needs. It’s about the pastoral method. And that’s what people were wrestling with. How do we take the doctrinal tradition of the church, which is critically important, and bring it to bear in the pastoral situations we face, but not make that the starting point? Rather, it’s one ingredient in discerning how we deal with these pastoral situations.

And among the issues that it addressed were marriage situations, sexual identity questions and other issues, but some people have noticed that the L.G.B.T.Q. acronym is not there.


How do you read what’s there and what’s not there?

They rewrote the whole text [of the synthesis] from the first draft of the synthesis to the second [in the light of more than 1,000 amendments]. It’s quite different. I don’t mean it’s all new things. I just mean the framing of it, the tonality, was different across the board. In that section, they had at first been dealing with it as groups of people, then they put it under the situation of problematic questions or issues. So it’s in the section on listening in the following chapter [Chapter 16] that they speak about people and sexual orientation. That’s where they put people. In the prior one [Chapter 15], they focused in that whole section on what the issues are that we have to face. So at that point, rather than framing it as different groups of people that are problematic, they said, “Here are issues that we have to face that are problems.” So that’s what happened, but it risks taking the people component out of it when they do it that way.

So now they’re focusing on issues?

In Chapter 15, they focus on issues. In Chapter 16, they focus with many of the same groups on listening to them as people.

Why do you think the L.G.B.T.Q. acronym was removed?

One of the reasons for the difficulties with terminology now is that it has gotten tied up, particularly in Africa, with American foreign policy and conditioning foreign aid. And it’s widely interpreted as a colonialist [effort].

Ideological colonialism, that’s what the pope calls it.

That’s correct. And so that is widely felt by many parts of the world. So that is a big part of the problem, too. The fact that foreign aid is conditional on the L.G.B.T.Q. issue, so that creates a rancor about the term

Is it possible the whole issue will come back in the next session?

I think the issue will, because if you look at Chapter 15, it says we’ve got to figure out how this works with these issues, including issues of identity and sexuality. How do love and truth meet in the life of the church and in the lives of individual people? Chapter 15 says that’s where it’s oriented, says that’s what our next goal is. The issues themselves are prominently embedded within this context, which I think is very beautiful and was very fruitful. Where did love and truth meet for us in the lives of people who are in these positions, in which they’re suffering?

Is there some other issue that struck you as very significant?

One other area that was huge was the whole question of formation.

Of course, the pope spoke on formation.

That’s right. And everyone spoke on formation. At every section, when we come to how do we make the church better, the notion was always, we can’t just have a policy or have an initiative. There’s got to be formation tied to it, on synodality itself, but all these other issues, too. Seminary training, formation for the laity, formation for bishops. There were a lot of discussions about how we need to be formed as bishops.

To be synodal bishops?

Not just that. We’re often put in positions where we weren’t prepared in our training to handle things, and so we need to address how we go about having formation for bishops in an ongoing way.

It seems to me it’s calling into question the whole seminary system, or is that too much to read in it?

There were widespread concerns about seminary formation, and it was a strong theme. Again, it’s against the backdrop of this larger question of formation, of laity, of ongoing formation of priests, of religious, of deacons, of bishops. But yes, the seminary system did come up as an area of particular concern to look at.

One last thing. I was quite struck by the focus on baptism, on confirmation, on, really, the whole question of Christian initiation, that it needs to be relooked at.

The kind of tidal wave was our identity being rooted in baptism, and what does that call us—everyone in the church—to do? I think part of this notion came as a kind of a corrective to Vatican II, which had put the stress on the distinctive role of the laity is the transformation of the world, whereas what came out very strongly in the discussions [at the synod] is that the laity also have a distinctive role in the transformation of the church. Because so many people are now involved in ministry, which is a great thing. But that’s a different mindset, and it undercuts clericalism. Again, that call of baptism was really front and center in so many of the discussions as we moved through these days.

And of course, clericalism came in for quite a lot of focus, and the pope spoke on it, too.

One thing that’s important, too, on the clericalism [question]: All of those corrosive patterns were brought up and discussed and felt to be serious problems. Also, though, there was a concern that when we talk about clericalism so much, we must not in any way undermine the fundamental role of priests. That was talked about, and I certainly share that.

You attended the Synod on the Amazon, where there was a lot of discussion about the ordaining of mature married men. I was quite surprised to see the question of celibacy re-emerge in this document. They call for further examination of the priesthood and celibacy.

It’s in there. I think it was one of those things which was a very strong notion among people at the grassroots in the consultations, more than being present in the discussions I was part of, anyway.

The abuse question came up and is mentioned in many ways in the document.

Oh, yes. And the issue too, of adult abuse, abuse against adults, which is an emerging issue that’s very difficult to deal with, and challenging. We’ve got to face it.

Yes. Because the synod speaks about consecrated women being abused.

Oh yeah.

Is there anything else you would like to say as a conclusion?

It was a wonderful, rich experience. It was arduous. I really felt God was present in it. And being with people from around the world and having lay people involved was crucial in making the conversations as productive as they were, and helping us to come to some sense of where these issues can lead. And then after the consultation that occurs at the local level, when we come back next year, that’s going to be when we really have to move those forward.

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