Separation of ten topics causes irritation

Has Francis taken the wind out of the sails of the Synod on Synodality?

Vatikanstadt - The second and final round of the Synod on Synodality will take place in the Vatican in October. The canonical and theological debates will continue – but without the synod members. Some find this irritating and questionable.

Published  on 01.04.2024 at 00:01  – by Anita Hirschbeck (KNA)

It is Pope Francis' great vision: a church for all. The Synod on Synodality, which has been running for around two and a half years, is a key component on the way to achieving this. It is about a new way of working together, new ways of consulting and more participation of the "people of God".

Accordingly, the organisers of the Synod - General Secretary Mario Grech and Content Coordinator Jean Claude-Hollerich - are also repeating the idea of a new synodality like a prayer wheel. At a recent press conference with the two churchmen, however, it became clear that controversial topics will ultimately be dealt with in an "unsynodal" manner.

Expert groups should take care of the matter

Around six months before the last round of the Synod in the Vatican, Pope Francis has separated ten topics from the synodal process. Experts are to deal with these issues, which have crystallised along the way so far, in so-called study groups. They are to present their findings to the Pope in June 2025 - long after the conclusion of the Synod on Synodality.

The question of preaching in a digitalised world is among the topics, as are possible changes to priestly training and the future role of bishops. In the best church parlance, it is also about "theological criteria and synodal methods for the joint discussion of controversial doctrinal, pastoral and ethical questions" as well as "theological and canonical questions on certain church offices".

Vatican journalists learnt that the latter point refers, among other things, to the controversial issue of the "diaconate of women" after a colleague specifically asked about it. However, another controversial point - the abolition of compulsory celibacy - is not included in any of the ten partly hieroglyphically formulated topics. This issue was never on the table, said Grech at the press conference, almost somewhat piqued.

Bild: ©Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner

"There are decisions to be made," warned ZdK Vice President Thomas Söding with a view to the second round of the Synod on Synodality.

Which is not entirely true. At least the 350 or so synod members - including women entitled to vote for the first time - identified the topic of celibacy as worthy of discussion during their first round in the Vatican in October 2023. "Some (synod members) ask whether the appropriateness of celibacy is theologically necessary to make it obligatory for priestly ministry in the Latin Church," reads the synthesis report of Synod on Synodality Part One.

It was not entirely clear at the press conference how things are to continue with Part Two in October 2024. Apparently, the study groups are now in charge of the theological and canonical debate. This prospect must frustrate a number of synod members, especially as many of them have been talking their heads off for months trying to explain the synodal idea in their dioceses and parishes. It is of little consolation that the study groups are to present their preliminary discussion status before the Synod in October.

Warning against delaying tactics

Synod member Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler from Switzerland, for example, expressed her irritation. In her home country, she told the online portal Vatican News, it is difficult to convey the slowness of the process to people. The topic of the diaconate for women "cannot be dealt with" next October. The Vice President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Thomas Söding, also warned against delaying tactics. "There are decisions to be made," he told the Catholic News Agency (KNA).

To be fair, it must be admitted that Grech, Hollerich and their team have always spoken of a "Synod on Synodality". They are not making decisions on specific individual issues, they are not engaging in church politics, but are talking about the big picture, namely a new way of working together in the Catholic Church - this is what the synod secretariat and those close to it have repeatedly said.

And: the fact that there are several issues that require theological and canonical clarification became apparent during the first October meeting in the Vatican at the latest. Less than two months later, the General Secretariat published the further timetable for the Synod on Synodality and explained, among other things, that there would be a separate process for such fundamental issues.

Women's diaconate: what the Pope's new advisors have to say

There will be no vote on the diaconate for women at the World Synod finale in autumn. Nevertheless, expectations are high in this regard. The Pope recently added three women to the group of advisors. Now they are speaking out on the diaconate for women.

"These are questions of great importance, some of which must be dealt with at the level of the entire Church in collaboration with the Roman Curia," the letter from the Secretariat of the Synod stated at the time. The questions were to be formulated by the Pope and then passed on to "synodal working groups".

There was no uproar at the time, partly because the Secretariat of the Synod did not make the implications of this separation clear. Some synod members now feel all the more offended, as they learnt from the media that the theological and canonical debate on the diaconate for women, for example, was basically taken out of their hands.

"The effect on the synod is ambivalent"

Neither the Pope nor Grech or Hollerich ever promised that the synod members would be allowed to have a say on such issues. However, they were promised a new way of working together in consultation and decision-making processes - synodality.

"The effect on the synod is ambivalent," says ZdK Vice Chairman Söding. "On the one hand, the leadership is continuing to pursue the plan of focussing on synodality itself and not immediately dealing with all issues that seem problematic and need to be discussed and decided synodally. On the other hand, it would be consistent to also deal with all substantive topics for which study groups have now been set up in a synodal manner. But this consistency is not yet there."

In other words, the new togetherness that is to be created primarily with the help of the Synod on Synodality does not yet exist. Until then, there will continue to be "non-synodal" ways of consulting, especially when it comes to hard-hitting theological and canonical issues. Which does not necessarily have to be negative in every case. The fact that a working group set up by the Vatican is now looking into the diaconate for women could also help the cause for those in favour. Beyond that, the same applies as ever: The Pope alone makes the final decisions - study groups or synod.

by Anita Hirschbeck (KNA)