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Clear as day - The Catholic Podcast

Vatican correspondent: Synod on Synodality obsessively sought unanimity

Köln - Not only Germany is looking at the Synod in the Vatican, but also the USA. Christopher White is an American Vatican correspondent. He sees a great presence of the Synodal Way at the Vatican deliberations, he explains in an interview - but would have liked more clarity in some places.

Published  on 01.11.2023 at 00:30  – by Renardo Schlegelmilch

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Christopher White is Vatican correspondent for the "National Catholic Reporter" in the USA and, among other things, also an analyst for the television station MSNBC. White draws a conclusion of the World Synod: He would have wished for a clearer presentation of the lines of conflict in the final document - and also finds that the "Synodal Way" was very present during the deliberations.

Question: This Synod is fundamentally different from all the others that have come before. Among other things, because lay people with voting rights were also involved. Nevertheless, the analyses are very different. Some speak of a revolution, especially in the way we live together, others complain that nothing will change except talk. In the final document, for example, there is talk about the diaconate of women, but again only with a request for scientific examination. We have been hearing this for years. What do you think? Is this a revolution or just hot air?

White: I think the whole synodal process has the potential to be revolutionary, to radically change church structures, for example, to involve lay people at all levels of decision-making. The fact that these things are being discussed openly and honestly at the Vatican level, I consider that revolutionary.

On the other hand, the formulations we read in the final document at the weekend are expressed very cautiously in many places. This brings with it the risk that the wind will be taken out of the sails of the whole reform enthusiasm. Especially among those who have been engaged in the process for years.

The passages on women in the church have quite strong, clear formulations. Especially when it comes to how women have been hurt by the church through chauvinism. The final document speaks of a very urgent need for reform in the Church. But when it comes to concrete steps, it becomes a little thinner. Many women want concrete steps towards ordination. The document only speaks of further discussions in the coming year. Francis has already appointed several commissions that have historically dealt with this question. Many women are disappointed that nothing further has happened so far. I see a great danger that the next round of the Synod in October 2024 could bring great disappointment to some.

This also applies to the treatment of LGBTQ Catholics. Both topics were discussed at great length and depth during the Synod's deliberations. In the final document, however, the phrase LGBTQ was not even taken up. The fact that this topic still causes such tensions and fears of contact in the Synod, I think that has already disappointed many who thought that we were already further along in the Church.

However, one must also mention again that the document makes it clear that the traditional anthropological classifications and categories of the church are no longer sustainable today. I have spoken with some reform groups who see this as a big step in the right direction.

So you could say that this document ends up swinging both ways. There are amazing formulations that bring hope to many, but it is also carefully worded in other places so as not to scare away those who are hesitant.

Participants of the World Synod at a service in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
Bild: ©KNA/Lola Gomez/CNS photo

Many people are not even aware of the different rites in the Catholic Church, says White.

Question: Is there anything that surprised you in the final document of the Synod?

White: I would say, in fact, the fact that the phrase LGBTQ was not even used. That did surprise me a little bit. For years we have seen documents coming out of the Vatican that have no problem with that term. The issue has been really present in the last four weeks, and even the Pope has made big moves towards LBGTQ activists and advocates. We remember, at the beginning he even said that he can imagine celebrations of blessings in person. On the sidelines of the Synod, he also met with some prominent Catholics from LGBTQ circles.

The final document seems to speak a different language than the Pope's words and gestures would suggest. That did surprise me.

Another point that perhaps does not make the headlines are the sections on ecumenism. The document has a lot to offer there. Also on the question of Eastern Church Catholics. Many people are perhaps not aware that there is a difference between, for example, Latin and Greek rites in the Church. That is where the document wants more understanding and attention. I am aware that this question will not move the masses now, but I see many very positive developments.

Question: With regard to the question of sexual abuse, the final document speaks of the fact that in future, the process of coming to terms with it can no longer take place only from the top down, i.e. by the bishops themselves. Since 2019 we have the document "Vos estis lux mundi", which has already established new rules, but apparently is not the big solution to the problem. Could something change there as well through the Synod?

White: You have already mentioned the most important point, the question of whether structures can be created so that not only bishops themselves are responsible for investigating the crimes of priests and other bishops. This is exactly what associations of victims have been demanding for years and decades. For this, canon law would have to be changed.

You have to admit that Francis has already taken a big step with the big anti-abuse conference and the document. For the first time, he has admitted at the highest level that abuse is a major problem of the worldwide Catholic Church. On the other hand, he has also made personal mistakes on this issue. Big mistakes that lead many to legitimately question whether he is really interested in a new form of coming to terms and transparency.

Before the start of the deliberations, I had an interview with the General Secretary of the Synod, Cardinal Grech, who emphasised that it was time to set up a committee that would really discuss whether canon law could be changed in these matters. This would also be a very important step on the way to a synodal church. If something like that were to happen, it would really be an important step. On the other hand, it would be bishops and priests again who would be judging their peers. There is an urgent need for change in these two areas.

The Synod Hall during the World Synod
Bild: ©KNA/Cornelis Gollhardt

For four weeks, men and women, consecrated and lay people could discuss openly and equally in the Vatican.

Question: Of course, we must also address the conflict between the German Church and the Vatican. There has been harsh criticism of the Synodal Way and the German reform course from Rome for years. Then the Vatican forbade Germany to set up a permanent body, the Synodal Council, which gives lay people decision-making power. Now we have seen many wishes and discussions in the synodal assembly hall over the last few weeks, which have also had their say on the Synodal Way in Germany. Do you see that these discussions could also change the attitude in the Vatican towards the reforms in Germany?

White: Definitely not directly and in the short term. But I do think that the fact alone that men and women, consecrated and lay people, were able to discuss openly and equally at round tables in the Vatican for four weeks now. That could make it clear to the decision-makers that one need not be afraid of this form of open exchange, which we know from the Synodal Way in Germany. Perhaps this will lead to less suspicion towards Germany in the medium term.

As far as the major lines of conflict between Rome and Germany are concerned, I don't see any real change as a result of the Synod. Personally, I would have expected the German bishops to adopt a more critical tone after the publication of the final document, that too small steps had been taken in the direction of reform. But that was not the case at all, a conciliatory tone was adopted. I believe that in Germany they will now try to extract as much as possible from this document that will then support the reform wishes of the German Church. But again, that does not mean that all tensions have now been eliminated. It will definitely continue to bubble under the surface.

Question: So all is harmony at the Synod?

White: I have the impression that it was very important to the organisers of the Synod that every point in the final document was approved by a large majority. Even the issues where there are known tensions and conflicts. I do not quite understand why it would not have been in order to make it clear here that not everyone is on the same side, and that a paragraph may sometimes fall through with less than a two-thirds majority. If there are tensions, I think they can and should be made clear. I still think that's better than talking down all conflicts.

„Ich glaube, dass wir an einem Punkt stehen, wo das nächste Konklave auch zu einem Referendum über den zukünftigen Reformkurs in der Kirche werden wird, wann auch immer es so weit sein mag.“

Question: What would that mean for the next round of the Synod in October 2024? It could mean that we can only go forward with the lowest common denominator.

White: It is a bit difficult to look into the crystal ball now. For years people have been saying that the Synod is not a parliament and that the votes should not matter. If it is not a parliament, why are people so concerned about the results of the votes? Why does one try so hard to get as much unanimity as possible? What are they afraid of? That the outside world will find out that there are different views in the church? Everyone already knows that. Nevertheless, it is very important that almost everyone votes "yes". That doesn't quite add up for me.

At the Amazon Synod 2019, even the controversial issues like women's diaconate and viri probati got more than two thirds. Nevertheless, the Pope then formulated very carefully and tentatively in the post-synodal letter. I think it is very important to him to preserve the unity of the Church as it moves into the future. He also wants to be sensitive to the voices that are critical of reforms. Issues such as women's ordination or celibacy now require a decision in order to move into the future, and there is no getting around that.

Let's think back to the document "Amoris laetitia" 2016 and the question of communion for remarried divorcees. There, too, he proceeded very cautiously. In the end, however, he did make a decision - and I think that will also be necessary at the end of the World Synod.

Of course, his age and health also play a role here. Will he ever be able to make a decision on these issues? I believe that we are at a point where the next conclave will also become a referendum on the future course of reform in the Church, whenever that may be.

Bild: ©KNA/Julia Steinbrecht

Franz-Josef Overbeck (from left to right), Bishop of Essen; Bertram Meier, Bishop of Augsburg; Felix Genn, Bishop of Münster; Georg Bätzing, Bishop of Limburg and President of the German Bishops' Conference (DBK); and Stefan Oster, Bishop of Passau; were present at the World Synod.

Question: What role did the Germans play in the Synod? Beforehand, it caused irritation that there was to be no German language group. When you look back at the last weeks, what role did the Germans play? Both in the Synod Assembly Hall and in general around the Vatican.

White: I think the Synodal Way has been very present in the deliberations here. I don't see any one person in particular being the focus of the discussions, rather the general experience that the Germans have already gained and been able to bring from their consultations. Depending on whom you ask, many would have shared the Germans' hopes for reforms or would have feared that things could turn out similarly to the Synodal Way and far-reaching reforms would be adopted. In this sense, the Synodal Way was present in many people's minds.

Incidentally, the same applies to the Australian Plenary Council, which brought similar previous experiences with it. These processes certainly shaped expectations for many.

As an American who observes the Vatican and also the universal Church, I am generally a little surprised by the openness that many German bishops show, also towards us as media. Our work has not always been easy, as the Pope has imposed a media embargo on the Synod's discussions. This caused a certain uncertainty on both sides, among journalists and participants, as to what one can ask and say - and what one cannot. If that had not been the case, there would certainly have been more public discussion and input, including from the German participants. As far as I know, the only statement from Germany was the appearance of Bishop Overbeck at one of the press conferences.

An exception here, of course, are the various interviews given by Cardinal Müller. On the second day of the consultations he was the first participant to give an interview at all. As a reporter, I think that is basically a good thing, whether I share his point of view or not. I was glad that someone spoke at all and would have liked to see more participants in front of the cameras.

Question: One of the most impressive moments was certainly the photo that the Jesuit James Martin, who is very committed to LGBTQ Catholics, took with Cardinal Müller and posted. Respect from two people who could not be further apart in terms of church politics. Do you think that was symbolic of the Synod's deliberations?

White: I think what James Martin wrote about his photo on Twitter speaks for itself. He wrote that they have very different opinions but that he values him very much, among other things for his friendship with the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez.

I think that was a very symbolic moment, of which there were many. In a sense, the Synod spreads its message more through images than texts. I found this image very powerful because it shows that differences are not wiped off the table, but still space has been created for listening and respect. For many, I am sure this is more progress than any Vatican Synod document could ever be.

by Renardo Schlegelmilch