Press Review: The Synod on Synodality’s “Instrumentum laboris” (1)

August 10, 2023

On June 20, 2023, the Vatican published the Instrumentum laboris, which is the working document which will serve as a framework for the work of the Synod on Synodality, next October. On June 21, the Vaticanist of Le Figaro, Jean-Marie Guénois, did not hesitate to write that this synod “intends to overthrow the hierarchy of power in the Church for the benefit of the lay faithful, including women. Rarely has the Catholic Church questioned itself to this extent.”

Indeed, the French journalist noted that this program provides for a reflection on “the priestly ordination of married men and the diaconal ordination of women,” on the bishops who “should be regularly evaluated in their office and contradicted if necessary, in their government,” and finally on “groupings of local Churches from large regions of the world [which] can weigh as much as Rome in major decisions.”

Jean-Marie Guénois considers that “for Francis, it is a question of taking advantage of the devastating effects of the sexual abuse crisis by a minority of priests, to deconstruct the hierarchy of power in the Church starting, no longer from the top, but from the ‘people of God.’ Namely, the basic lay people who have ‘rights’ by virtue of their ‘baptized dignity,’ to fight against ‘clericalism’ with a view to renewing evangelization.”

And he adds: “Besides this total inversion of the hierarchical pyramid of the 'Catholic Church' – cited only ten times – which wants to become a 'Synodal Church' – this name appears one hundred and ten times in the text –, the background demands are no surprise. They match all the talking points of Pope Francis’ pontificate, namely: the poor, migrants, welcoming everyone, i.e. ‘divorced and remarried people, polygamous people or LGBTQ+ people.’”

Moreover, this revolutionary project wants to be written into the law of the Church: canon law. As Jean-Marie Guénois notes, “This whole approach is based on this premise written as such by the Vatican: “A synodal Church is called to uphold both the right of all to participate in the life and mission of the Church by virtue of Baptism, and the service of authority and exercise of responsibility that is entrusted to some.”

“The Catholic faithful had duties, they now have rights. It is important to change ‘canonical structures and pastoral procedures to foster co-responsibility and transparency,’ in particular by creating ‘groupings of local Churches’ but also ‘Continental Assemblies’ of the Church so that with ‘Episcopal Conferences,’ ‘doctrinal authority’ can be decentralized.”

Finally, this revolution advocates a method to enable it to achieve its ends. The French Vaticanist points out: “For the first time, this Working Document describes the new collective decision-making process that the Synod would like to see practiced and taught ‘in the seminary’ to be sure that priests and bishops no longer adopt a dominant position, to cultivate an attitude of ‘service’ to the ‘People of God.’”

“At the heart of this new system, this method is called ‘conversation in the Spirit.’ An explanatory diagram is even published to explain the three times it is to take place, after personal preparation in ‘silence, prayer and listening to the Word of God’: ‘Taking the work and listening,’ then ‘making space for others and the Other’ and ‘share what has resonated the most or what has aroused the most resistance.’”

“Finally, ‘building together’ . . . ‘to recognize intuitions and convergences’ and to ‘identify discordances, obstacles and new questions; to allow prophetic voices to emerge’ because ‘it is important that everyone can feel represented by the outcome of the work.’ The text specifies: ‘it is not a question of reacting or countering what has been heard but of expressing what has touched or challenged during listening.’”

Because, still according to the document, “the interior traces that result form one’s listening to sisters and brothers are the language with which the Holy Spirit makes his own voice resound.” And this method should be applied at all levels in the Church by promoting the ministry of the “facilitator of community discernment processes.”

As you can imagine, this working document has given rise to numerous critical comments in the press.

Under the explicit title Synodality, expression of a “fluid” Church, Stefano Fontana in La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana/The New Daily Compass on June 21, describes what a “synodal Church” is, in the words of the Instrumentum laboris: "Since synodality is believed to be a process resulting from the active participation of the people of God and therefore is an active experience and practice, the synod's working document characterizes the ‘synodal Church’ precisely through attitudes to be assumed, practices to be performed.”

“One of these is listening: the synodal Church is a Church that listens. Another is humility: the synodal Church is a Church that knows it has much to learn. A third is the attitude of encounter and dialogue with everyone (naturally also in reference to the environmental emergency).”

“Then comes the characteristic of a Church that is not afraid of the truth of which it is the bearer, but enhances it without forcing uniformity (a plural Church, one would think… but how plural?). Obviously, it could not fail to be a welcoming Church as well, open to all. Finally, the most bizarre feature: a Church in touch with the healthy restlessness of incompleteness.”

And he concludes: “One will not struggle to see the lack of theological consistency of these expressions. This is why I say the Instrumentum laboris is a ‘fluid’ text that, as such, remains open to any conclusion, even the most revolutionary.”

“A text from which we can expect anything. An accident? No, because the heart of everything is the process, in which synodality consists. Fluidity favors process, the substitution of truth for relationship; the how taking priority over the what and the why.”

On his blog Settimo Cielo, on June 28, Sandro Magister remarks that the Instrumentum laboris instrumentalizes the Holy Spirit for the benefit of the new synodal Church. Under the title “Conversation in the Spirit,” a synod without head or tail, the Italian Vaticanist writes:

“The formula ‘conversation in the Spirit’ was launched as the common thread of the upcoming plenary session of the synod, scheduled for October, by the two cardinals who are guiding its development, Mario Grech of Malta and Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg. In the Instrumentum laboris that will act as the outline for the assembly, made public on June 20, the formula recurs repeatedly.”

“And at the press conference of presentation it was in fact identified as the ‘procedural method’ of the synod itself. … But will this synod really have an end? According to how Francis has steered it up to now, and as long as he is pope, there is some doubt. Francis is above all interested in one thing: setting ‘processes’ in motion. Of undetermined duration. It doesn’t matter to him if they are confounding and confusing, because the Holy Spirit will know where to lead the Church.”

And he adds this interesting reference: “In the latest issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, the magazine of the Rome Jesuits printed after inspection by the Vatican authorities, there is an article by a Jesuit of the University of Louvain, Jos Moons, that says it all right from the title:

“Pope Francis, the Holy Spirit and Synodality. Towards a pneumatological reconfiguration of the Church. The very vague ‘conversation in the Spirit’ described by the Instrumentum laboris is the putting into practice of this ‘reconfiguration.’ In which there is room for everything, in a triumph of freedom of opinion and in ostentatious deference to the Spirit that ‘blows where it will.’”

On the site Silere non possumus, which benefits from information taken from the sources closest to Roman power, on June 23 appeared this revelation on the proceedings of the conference to present Instrumentum laboris on June 20: “The requests of moderate Catholicism have not been taken into any consideration.”

“Much less those of more traditional or traditionalist Catholics. The latter have always denounced the possible drifts of the Synod… In the light of events, it is increasingly difficult to prove them wrong. When, during the press conference, a courageous journalist dared to ask the reason for these absences, he was told: ‘We listen to everyone.’”

“It's like answering someone who asks me 'how is your health' by saying that 'the doctors are actually very good'! You cannot figure out if the people in the secretariat of the synod are stupid or smart.”

And he notes in passing: “The Holy Spirit is mentioned all the time. But that this Spirit is the Spirit of Christ who reminds us of what the Master taught us is never said.”