Pope Francis’ Synod Gerry OShea
Every major document emanating from the Vatican has a Latin title, and the most recent one dealing with the upcoming synod, scheduled to start on October 3rd, is named Instrumentum Laboris (IL). This is the official appellation for an important 60-page booklet containing a summary of the results of a 3-year consultative process involving Catholics throughout the world.
The synod booklet asks serious questions about the mesmerizing allure of power and how that played out in the structures that evolved in the Catholic Church. For centuries the church has been a patriarchy with men making all the big decisions about its rules and dogmas.
Successive popes aided by male appointees in the various departments in the Vatican and with a minor role for local bishops callrd all the shots. Until recently, everybody understood that in any controversy Rome had the final say.
It is a top-heavy organization with the dress code followed by members of the hierarchy indicating their ecclesiastical status and perceived clout. The IL recognizes that many of these power structures must change. Francis wants to de-imperialize the church, moving aside the mitered savants who have stymied the Christian project and opening the door for women’s participation at the highest authority levels.
His biggest challenge by far revolves around the sexual abuse problem in the church. Tens of thousands of innocent young people, boys and girls, endured various forms of sexual torture by members of the clergy. These have been thoroughly documented over the last half century by diligent journalists and in official inquiries by many dioceses and governments.
Take the case of Bernard Law, a cardinal archbishop of Boston and America’s senior Roman Catholic prelate just twenty years ago. He was a strong supporter of enhancing civil rights laws and immigration reform, but he fiercely opposed modern perspectives on birth control, the ordination of women and any changes in the celibacy rules for priests as well, of course, as opposing abortion.
In January 2002, the scandal of child molestation by priests that had been gathering in dioceses throughout the world, hit Boston like an explosion. It erupted when a judge released documents relating to a defrocked priest who, while in service, was shifted to a half-dozen parishes amid accusations of abusing 130 boys over 30 years.
In the ensuing months, hundreds of people came forward to say that they had been molested by priests in the archdiocese. Resulting from the lawsuits and criminal investigation 25 priests were removed and the cardinal was forced to hand over to prosecutors the names of 80 other priests accused of child molestation over a few decades. Not surprisingly, Cardinal Law resigned his Boston assignment shortly after these revelations.
Most members of the hierarchy in chancery offices and presbyteries let the children down, losing credibility with the people in the pews by failing dismally to take care of vulnerable youth. Robert Orsi, the noted scholar of America Catholicism, encapsulated well the disastrous effects of the abandonment of the innocent when he wrote, “the holy proved the best hiding place for evil.”
Francis acknowledges that his church is in crisis with millions of members leaving for other churches or none. It is impossible to overestimate the damage done to the credibility of the institution by the proliferation of stories and court cases dealing with clerical sexual abuse in every country.
Biblical scholars point to the prophetic words of Jesus when, according to Matthew, he warned about disastrous future times, “the abomination of desolation, standing in the holy place, as spoken of by the prophet Danel.” Is it too facile and convenient to identify pervasive Vatican and hierarchical corruption as the object of this vision clearly enunciated by the evangelist?
The synod can be seen as Francis’ effort to regain the trust and goodwill of church members. In 2019, he invited all his people, faithful and unfaithful, to join together to deliberate about the priorities and authority structures in their church. Why has it veered so far from the principles and teachings in the New Testament?
He is convinced that the Spirit speaks through ordinary people who, in the words of the poet “are hearing oftentimes the still sad music of humanity.” Unlike the leaders in the Vatican and their minions in chancery offices the men and women in the pews never let the church down in any serious way. They have a proud record of serving their communities and getting behind worthy charities to help suffering people in poorer countries and Francis has wisely come to them for their counsel.
He speaks of the synod process as a time for walking together to discern the promptings of the Spirit. It is a spiritual journey. However, he will be pushing the effort against strong winds because the abuse crisis has produced a hard-to-reverse disenchantment with the clergy.
The IL document stresses that the synodal process does not indicate a step towards a democratic church where majority opinion would authenticate decisions. With the dire failure of the autocratic approach, I am surprised that democratic decision-making, despite its undoubted clumsiness, is not viewed more favorably in this reassessment of church procedures.
There are a few noteworthy areas of discussion that are likely to engage the 370 participants who will gather in Rome on October 4th and will include for the first time a minority of lay men and women as equal participants with the bishops, archbishops and cardinals.
First, should the church continue as a patriarchy where the top decision-making power resides with males? These cultural privileges are rooted in history. Governmental power has resided with men for thousands of years, and the early church fathers came up with easy rationalizations to follow suit and promote a male hierarchy in their own institution.
Right now, women are not allowed to baptize, except in extraordinary circumstances, or administer confirmation or participate in priesthood ordination or provide the last rites for the dying.
Also, they may not lead the eucharistic celebration or give the sermon after the gospel reading at mass. Some or all these anti-female prohibitions would have to change if the dynamism needed for renewal is to prevail.
Francis is unequivocally opposed to women’s ordination but, significantly, he allowed the impressive main Catholic group favoring women priests, the Women’s Ordination Conference, to present their case on the Vatican website as part of the synod preparation. That magnanimous act would have been unthinkable under any of his predecessors.
There is no doubt that women acted as deacons in the early church and this matter is on the agenda again at the synod. Failure to act on this would be a huge letdown for church progressives.
Second, providing a church blessing for gay marriages will divide the October assembly because conservatives are dug in on blessing traditional binary relationships only. Considering the insistent preaching of this outmoded view of conjugal love, which bans same-sex partnerships, achieving change in church teaching presents a major challenge.
The experts planning the synodal discussions claim that the primary goal of this year’s session in October will be to outline areas of in-depth study that will be examined in the lead-up to the second session in October 2024. Only then will the synod’s final proposals be presented to the pope for his approval.
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com