Opinion: Synod ends not with a bang, but a whisper

Editor’s Note: Celia Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Out of the News (McFarland, 2012), the winner of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Excellence in Journalism award for journalism history. The views expressed here are here own. Read more opinion on CNN.

The Catholic Church’s Synod on Synodality, covered by major media outlets across the globe, ended on October 29 without much to show for itself.

Celia Viggo Wexler - Valerie Wexler
Celia Viggo Wexler - Valerie Wexler

Defined by the church as a meeting of bishops, the synod included for the  first time a sprinkling of lay people to attend, including 54 women, who had the same voting rights as the prelates in the room. Its goal? To help clergy and laity work together to build a more inclusive church.

But the synod, which continues next October with the same cast and crew, reached few concrete conclusions. Rather, it operated more like a focus group, as the 365 voting members, two-thirds of whom had to approve each section of the final report, gathered at small circular tables, pondered questions from facilitators, listened and discussed.

Politicians use focus groups to understand the electorate better, and Pope Francis seemed to be hoping for the same result. But the final synod report, which is only available in Italian for now, is big on generalities and light on specifics, particularly when it comes to the role of women in the church, and how far the church can go to welcome LGBTQ Catholics.

Pope Francis delivers his speech for the closing of the 16th general assembly of the synod of bishops on Oct. 29, 2023. - Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Pope Francis delivers his speech for the closing of the 16th general assembly of the synod of bishops on Oct. 29, 2023. - Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Perhaps for the first time in my life, I agreed with conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat that Pope Francis launched the multi-year synod to give him cover. But Douthat fears Francis will feel empowered to launch progressive reforms, while I think the Pope really wants an excuse for not rocking the boat.

Let’s face facts. Francis has been in office for more than a decade. As Pope, he is the head of the church, with 1.3 billion faithful across the globe. He has all the power he needs to implement major changes.

When Pope Benedict XVI revised the words of the Nicene Creed, which is recited at all Masses, he didn’t poll Catholics. Even many US bishops, who were great fans of the pedantic former pontiff, argued that Benedict’s choice of scholarly words made the prayer harder to parse and more remote. But the Pope’s revisions won out.

Pope Paul VI continued and expanded a commission created by his predecessor Pope John XXIII in 1963, to help evaluate the church’s teaching on artificial birth control. Then, he refused to take its advice, sticking with the conclusion that artificial birth control was “intrinsically wrong.”

But Francis? He simply doesn’t seem to want to commit. The synodal process gives him an excuse because its purpose is to listen to and discuss differing views about the future of the church.

To be sure, the Pope is willing to make change at the margins. For example, days before his synod began, he suggested that same-sex unions could be blessed on a case-by-case basis, provided it was clear that such unions were not viewed the same as Catholic marriage, which the church recognizes as taking place between a man and a woman, open to procreation.

On the other hand, let’s consider his reluctance to give women real power in the church.

The Pope has been asked to expand women’s power in the church since 2016, particularly when it comes to ordination as deacons. To date, he’s convened two commissions to study the issue without releasing a final report. More importantly, when 185 bishops met in 2019 to study the future of the church in the Amazon, which is beset by a shortage of priests, they recommended both the ordination of married men to the priesthood and expressed a lot of interest in ordaining women as deacons. Men who are deacons can preach at Mass, baptize, witness and bless marriages and preside over funerals.

Pope Francis celebrates the closing mass of the Synod on Amazonia on October 27, 2019 at the Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. - Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis celebrates the closing mass of the Synod on Amazonia on October 27, 2019 at the Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. - Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

It’s becoming clear that Francis just doesn’t want to do it. And while Synod members made a point of writing in the final report that women make up the majority of people actually attending church, they aren’t pressuring him on this issue, either. They only asked that the question about deacons receive more consideration when the group reconvenes a year from now.

So did the presence of women make any difference? Absolutely, if only for the prominence the sexual abuse crisis received in its final report. To be clear, I can only speculate that women made the difference because the proceedings were held largely in secret, and participants were urged to “fast” from talking to the media. But this issue is personal to women, who have been both mothers of young victims, and victims themselves, and thus likely eager to engage on the issue.

Synod members proposed that bishops might not be the best people to police their clerical colleagues. The report suggests that a separate body, devoid of bishops, might do a better job. Synod members also advised that women be trained and named as “judges in all canonical trials.”

These appointments could give women more opportunities to identify loopholes in canon laws that protect abusers, and to advocate for changing them.

The church likes to play the long game. At 86, this pope isn’t getting any younger. But he’s managed to name so many new cardinals that, upon his death, he will have appointed nearly three-quarters of the prelates eligible to vote for his successor. Maybe the synod’s multi-year sessions, which conclude in 2024, will wind up constituting Francis’ very lengthy to-do list for whoever replaces him.

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