Behold the ‘Spirit’ at work!
The ‘Listening Church’ Takes Shape:
Synod Working Document Released
Get ready! The ‘Listening Church’ is coming to the Vatican in October…
On June 20, 2023, the Vatican held a press conference to introduce the long-awaited Instrumentum Laboris — the ‘working document’ which the upcoming Synod on Synodality will be using as a basis for its work. Not surprisingly, the new text is already causing controversy. But first, let’s back up for a moment.
The Vatican’s process for the Synod on Synodality, begun in 2021 and scheduled to conclude in 2024, has been a gigantic bureaucratic effort. After consulting the “holy People of God” at the local level and then synthesizing the feedback first at the diocesan, then at the continental level, it is now (almost) time for the universal phase of the process, when certain select Novus Ordo bishops and similar specially-chosen characters will descend upon Rome and spend three weeks talking about how their church can be more synodal — you know, walking together with everyone, excluding no one. In official synod language: “The aim of this synodal process is not to provide a temporary or one-time experience of synodality, but rather to provide an opportunity for the entire People of God to discern together how to move forward on the path towards being a more synodal Church in the long-term.” Exciting stuff.
The universal phase will be held in two sessions, the first one in October of this year, the second one in October of 2024. The working document’s purpose is to provide a conceptual framework, as well as data, for the discussions, allowing the summarized feedback from the “holy People of God” to flow into the quasi-divine assembly at the Vatican.
The Working Document and its Reception
The Instrumentum Laboris for this year’s synod has now been made available, and it fails to surprise both in terms of its length (6o pages) and its content:
- Instrumentum Laboris: For a Synodal Church – Communion, Participation, Mission (Official English text)
- Word Document: Summary of Instrumentum Laboris (9 pages; simplified English)
By the way: Yes, the Instrumentum Laboris comes with the approval of ‘Pope’ Francis. This was explained by ‘Cardinal’ Jean-Claude Hollerich during the press conference. Hollerich, who is the ‘Archbishop’ of Luxembourg and a Jesuit, was hand-picked by Jorge Bergoglio (‘Pope Francis’) as relator general for the synod, so he would know.
Initial reports on the working document and its reception can be found in the following list, from various sources:
- Vatican document highlights need for concrete steps for women, ‘radical inclusion’ of LGBTQ+ (Associated Press)
- Synod working doc aims to unite Catholics, but may alienate conservatives (Crux)
- Synod on Synodality document outlines discussion questions for October assembly (Catholic News Agency)
- Vatican issues synod on synodality working document (The Pillar)
- Synod document sets stage for wide-ranging debate on women, Catholic ministries and structures (National Catholic Reporter)
- Major Synod on Synodality document highlights need to ‘welcome’ polygamists, ‘LGBTQ+ people’ (Life Site)
- Vatican releases Synod document calling for discussion of women, LGBT Catholics, church authority and more (America)
- Synod on Synodality Document Outlines Discussion Questions for October Assembly (National Catholic Register)
- Synod working document envisages creation of radically inclusive Catholic Church (Catholic Herald)
- New Synod Document Seeks Church that “Embraces All,” Including LGBTQ+ People (New Ways Ministry)
- Regarding Synods, Sins, and Itching Ears (Roma Locuta Est)
- Synod on Synodality: Your questions answered (Catholic News Agency)
- English-speaking bishops welcome Synod Working Document (Vatican News)
- New Ways Ministry Praises New Synod Document That Includes LGBTQ+ People (New Ways Ministry)
The full list of the October synod’s delegates (participants) has not been released yet. But, as in the past, we can probably rest assured that Francis will have stacked the deck sufficiently to facilitate a desirable outcome. While to others he preaches the ‘god of surprises’, he himself hates to be surprised by him!
On June 20, Vatican News excitedly announced on its English web site: “Instrumentum laboris calls for welcoming Church that embraces diversity“, and noted that the document “brings together the experiences of dioceses around the world over the last two years, starting from 10 October 2021, when Pope Francis set in motion a journey to discern what steps to take ‘to grow as a synodal Church’.” The purpose of the whole process, we are informed further, “is not to produce documents but to open horizons of hope for the fulfilment of the Church’s mission.”
Now let’s look at what some of those “horizons of hope” look like.
Verbatim Quotes from the Instrumentum Laboris (numbers in brackets are article/paragraph/section numbers)
-  Its [the document’s] aim will be to continue to animate the synodal process in the ordinary life of the Church, identifying which pathways the Spirit invites us to walk along more decisively as one People of God. The fruit for which we ask at the next Assembly is that the Spirit inspire the Church’s walking together as the People of God in fidelity to the mission that the Lord has entrusted to it.
-  Part of the challenge of synodality is to discern the level at which it is most appropriate to address each question. Equally shared are certain tensions. We should not be frightened by them, nor attempt at any cost to resolve them, but rather engage in ongoing synodal discernment. Only in this way can these tensions become sources of energy and not lapse into destructive polarisations.
-  Only then will that particular dynamic of listening be completed in which “each has something to learn. Faithful people, College of Bishops, Bishop of Rome: one listening to the other; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), to know what He ‘is saying to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7)”.
-  The questions that the IL poses are an expression of the richness of the process from which they were drawn: they bear the imprint of the particular names and faces of those who took part, and they bear witness to the faith experience of the People of God and thus reveal the reality of a transcendent experience. From this point of view, they indicate a horizon towards which we are invited to travel with confidence, deepening the synodal practice of the Church. The first phase enables us to understand the importance of taking the local Church as a privileged point of reference3, as the theological place where the Baptised experience in practical terms “walking together”.
-  On this will depend the fruitfulness of the discernment of the Synodal Assembly whose task will be to open the whole Church to welcome the voice of the Holy Spirit.
-  This is what emerges with great force from all the continents: an awareness that a synodal Church is founded on the recognition of a common dignity deriving from Baptism, which makes all who receive it sons and daughters of God, members of the family of God, and therefore brothers and sisters in Christ, inhabited by the one Spirit and sent to fulfil a common mission. … A synodal Church cannot be understood other than within the horizon of communion, which is always also a mission to proclaim and incarnate the Gospel in every dimension of human existence.
-  “A synodal Church is a listening Church”: this awareness is the fruit of the experience of the synodal journey, which is a listening to the Spirit through listening to the Word and listening to each other as individuals and among ecclesial communities, from the local level to the continental and universal levels.
-  As a Church committed to listening, a synodal Church desires to be humble, and knows that it must ask forgiveness and has much to learn.
-  A synodal Church is a Church of encounter and dialogue. … Everywhere, in tune with the Magisterium of the Second Vatican Council, the profound desire to deepen the ecumenical journey also emerges: an authentically synodal Church cannot but involve all those who share the one Baptism.
-  The synodal process has been an opportunity to begin to learn what it means to live unity in diversity, a fundamental point to continue exploring, trusting that the path will become clearer as we move forward. Therefore, a synodal Church promotes the passage from “I” to “we”. It is a space within which a call resonates to be members of a body that values diversity but is made one by the Spirit.
-  In this sense, a synodal Church is open, welcoming and embraces all. There is no border that this movement of the Spirit does not feel compelled to cross, to draw all into its dynamism. The radical nature of Christianity is not the prerogative of a few specific vocations, but the call to build a community that lives and bears witness to a different way of understanding the relationship between the daughters and sons of God, one that embodies the truth of love, one that is based on gift and gratuitousness. The radical call is, therefore, to build together, synodally, an attractive and concrete Church: an outgoing Church, in which all feel welcome.
-  Characteristic of a synodal Church is the ability to manage tensions without being crushed by them, experiencing them as a drive to deepen how communion, mission and participation are lived and understood.
-  Trying to walk together also brings us into contact with the healthy restlessness of incompleteness, with the awareness that there are still many things whose weight we are not able to carry or bear (cf. Jn 16:12). This is not a problem to be solved, but rather a gift to be cultivated. We are faced with the inexhaustible and holy mystery of God and must remain open to its surprises as we walk through history towards the Kingdom.
-  Once the People of God are freed from the anxiety of inadequacy, the inevitable incompleteness of a synodal Church and the readiness of its members to accept their own vulnerabilities become the space for the action of the Spirit, who invites us to recognise the signs of his presence. This is why a synodal Church is also a Church of discernment, in the wealth of meanings that this term takes on within the different spiritual traditions. The first phase enabled the People of God to begin to experience discernment through the practice of conversation in the Spirit. As we listen attentively to each other’s lived experiences, we grow in mutual respect and begin to discern the movements of God’s Spirit in the lives of others and in our own. In this way, we begin to pay more attention to “what the Spirit is saying to the Churches” (Rev 2:7), in the commitment and hope of becoming a Church increasingly capable of making prophetic decisions that are the fruit of the Spirit’s guidance.
-  Gradually the conversation between brothers and sisters in faith opens the space for a ‘hearing together’, that is, a listening together to the voice of the Spirit. It is not conversation in the Spirit if there is not a step forward in a precise, often unexpected direction that points to concrete action.
-  The interior traces that result from one’s listening to sisters and brothers are the language with which the Holy Spirit makes his own voice resound.
-  “Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God.” [quote from Evangelii Gaudium, n. 272]
-  Mission is not the marketing of a religious product, but the construction of a community in which relationships are a manifestation of God’s love and therefore whose very life becomes a proclamation.
-  Participation adds anthropological density to the concrete character of the procedural dimension.
- [B 1.2] The desire to offer genuine welcome is a sentiment expressed by synod participants across diverse contexts: a) the final documents of the Continental Assemblies often mention those who do not feel accepted in the Church, such as the divorced and remarried, people in polygamous marriages, or LGBTQ+ Catholics;
- [B 1.2] How can we create spaces where those who feel hurt by the Church and unwelcomed by the community feel recognised, received, free to ask questions and not judged? In the light of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, what concrete steps are needed to welcome those who feel excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality (for example, remarried divorcees, people in polygamous marriages, LGBTQ+ people, etc.)?
- [B 2.2] d) an all-ministerial Church is not necessarily wholly a Church of instituted Ministries. Many ministries flow legitimately from the baptismal vocation, including spontaneous ministries and other recognised ministries that are not instituted and others that, by virtue of being instituted, receive a specific formation, mission and stability. Growing as a synodal Church involves the commitment to discern together which ministries should be created or promoted in the light of the signs of the times in service to the world.
That was rough!
One is simply left wondering as to what goes on behind the foreheads of people who can write such insufferable drivel in such abundance. No wonder there is no room for Catholicism in them. They are much too concerned about generating spaces and opening horizons for a concrete journey in the Spirit, creating a dynamic experience of communion in authentic gratuitousness so that no one feels excluded. Can’t beat that!
Some ‘Trad’ Reactions
The fellows at Rorate Caeli have already denounced the Synodality Synod as the “Synod of the Anti-Church”. That’s no doubt true, but by doing so, they have unwittingly confirmed that Francis was right when he explained that he was revoking Benedict XVI’s generous Traditional Latin Mass permission because “ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church'” (Letter to the world’s Novus Ordo bishops on the release of Traditionis Custodes). If Bergoglio’s Modernist sect is the Anti-Church, why do recognize-and-resist trads nevertheless want it to supply the Traditional Mass for them?
At One Peter Five, editor-in-chief Timothy Flanders demonstrates that he does not have the faintest idea what the concept of schism means, as he continually accuses the Vatican synod of being “schismatic”. That is also ironic, considering that Flanders belongs to the recognize-and-resist camp, which typically complains about being called “schismatic”, allegedly without justification.
Meanwhile, ‘Brother’ Alexis Bugnolo, who believes Francis became a valid Pope on Jan. 30 of this year on account of his do-it-yourself ‘conclave’ at a hotel in Rome, is already bracing himself for ‘explaining’ whatever the synod may produce, as follows: “…the Church will never change her teaching on morality an iota, and when anyone claims that this or that act or document has done so, a close examination will find either the claim to be without any textual foundation, or the text with substantial canonical errors rendering it invalid as representative of any binding act upon the faithful” (source). You can guess who will be the final arbiter of the canonical validity of such a document in Bugnolo’s world. However, if all else fails, the would-be Franciscan brother can always opt for ignoring the inconvenient truth, as he did with regard to Francis’ recent clarification that when he denounces proselytism, he means converting people. Apparently not even Bugnolo could spin that one.
At Daily Compass, Stefano Fontana writes that the working doc of the Synod on Synodality presents a fluid church, so fluid that even the very concept of synodality has no clear definition:
The only thing that is proposed as certain today – including by the document we are discussing – is that synodality is a process, a journey. Establishing what else it is, beyond this, is left to the process itself, the process of the synod on synodality. It will be established as it goes along, as it is in progress, it is an itinerant idea, and therefore always processual and unfinished. Synodality is, in other words, a historical experience, continuous, inexhaustible and, we may also add to better indicate the philosophical origin of this vision, dialectical.
(Stefano Fontana, “Synod planning text makes Church ‘fluid'”, Daily Compass, June 21, 2023; bold removed.)
The same author also warns about claiming that the journey/process of synodality is the work of the Holy Ghost:
The fact of meeting and participating in a process is loaded with the revelatory meaning of a divine communication. One is very struck by the many passages of the Instrumentum Laboris in which the ‘hearing’ (the experience, we may say again) of the participants in the various stages of the preparatory process is abusively, or at least too hastily, called listening to the voice of the Spirit.
Someone needs to remind these people that public divine revelation stopped with the death of the last Apostle. The idea of ongoing revelation — that “voice of the Spirit” discerned by the “People of God” — and the consequent perpetual evolution of dogma, is one of the chief errors of the Modernists. In 1907, Pope St. Pius X condemned the following proposition: “Revelation, constituting the object of the Catholic faith, was not completed with the Apostles” (Syllabus of Modernist Errors Lamentabili Sane, n. 21). Game over.
A Welcoming Church?
There is clearly in our times an obsession with being ‘welcoming’, a concept not found in the Gospels. Attraction is good, of course, but not for its own sake. Yes, Our Lord wants to attract sinners, but He wants to do so in order to save them, and salvation requires prior repentance along with amendment of life: “The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:15); “Behold thou art made whole: sin no more, lest some worse thing happen to thee” (Jn 5:14); “Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more” (Jn 8:11).
Sometimes preaching the truth is not terribly attractive: “But woe to you that are rich: for you have your consolation. Woe to you that are filled: for you shall hunger. Woe to you that now laugh: for you shall mourn and weep” (Lk 6:24-25); “No, I say to you; but except you do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Lk 13:5); “Thou hast said well, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands: and he whom thou now hast, is not thy husband. This thou hast said truly” (Jn 4:17-18); “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife” (Mk 6:18); “Amen I say to you, that the publicans and the harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt 21:31).
Not surprisingly, sometimes the consequence of preaching the hard truth is rejection, but that did not stop Our Lord from evangelizing the way He did: “And all they in the synagogue, hearing these things, were filled with anger” (Lk 4:28); “And they were filled with madness; and they talked one with another, what they might do to Jesus” (Lk 6:11); “The Jews therefore answered, and said to him: Do not we say well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil” (Jn 8:48); “Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it? After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him” (Jn 6:61,67).
Clearly, Our Lord did not place the same significance on being welcoming as is being done today.
A Listening Church?
We must not fail to note that the synod organizers insist they have ‘no agenda’ beyond listening. Reassuringly, the word “listen” and its derivatives (listening, listens, etc.) appear as many as 65 times in the working document. If that isn’t the sign of a church that is all about listening!
In true Roman Catholicism, by contrast, the Catholic Church distinguishes between the Teaching Church (Ecclesia Docens) and the Learning Church (Ecclesia Discens), and that is quite biblical (see, for example, Mt 18:17, Acts 20:28). A ‘Listening Church’ (Ecclesia Audiens), on the other hand, is a fiction invented by Modernists that feeds on a false concept of revelation.
On June 17, 1885, Pope Leo XIII explained in a letter to the Archbishop of Paris:
…[B]y the manifest will of her Divine Founder, there are to be distinguished in the most absolute fashion two parties [in the Church]: the teaching and the taught, the Shepherd and the flock, among whom there is one who is the head and the Supreme Shepherd of all.
To the shepherds alone was given all power to teach, to judge, to direct; on the faithful was imposed the duty of following their teaching, of submitting with docility to their judgment, and of allowing themselves to be governed, corrected, and guided by them in the way of salvation. Thus, it is an absolute necessity for the simple faithful to submit in mind and heart to their own pastors, and for the latter to submit with them to the Head and Supreme Pastor. In this subordination and dependence lie the order and life of the Church; in it is to be found the indispensable condition of well-being and good government. On the contrary, if it should happen that those who have no right to do so should attribute authority to themselves, if they presume to become judges and teachers, if inferiors in the government of the universal Church attempt or try to exert an influence different from that of the supreme authority, there follows a reversal of the true order, many minds are thrown into confusion, and souls leave the right path.
(Pope Leo XIII, Letter Epistola Tua)
His successor, Pope St. Pius X, likewise taught:
The Scripture teaches us, and the tradition of the Fathers confirms the teaching, that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, ruled by the Pastors and Doctors (I Ephes. iv. II sqq.) — a society of men containing within its own fold chiefs who have full and perfect powers for ruling, teaching and judging (Matt. xxviii. 18-20; xvi. 18, 19; xviii. 17; Tit. ii. 15; II. Cor. x. 6; xiii. 10; etc.). It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.
(Pope Pius X, Encyclical Vehementer Nos, n. 8)
The Catholic Church has been entrusted by her Divine Lord with a Deposit of Faith, and this Deposit of Faith she expounds faithfully until He returns in glory. The only “listening” that must be done is by the taught, not by the teachers: “How then shall they call on him, in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear, without a preacher? Faith then cometh by hearing; and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:14,17).
Tragically, one thing we can be certain of that will not be the focal point at October’s synod meeting is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They will be too busy “listening” to everyone else.
Image source: composite with elements from Shutterstock (rontav and Rasulov)