Correcting the Synods of Surprises

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During the heady days of Vatican II, while spirited disputes over the schema raged on, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre proposed that the governing structure of the episcopal conferences undergirding the Council was “a new kind of collectivism invading the Church.”

Lefebvre wasn’t fearmongering when he told the missionary-journalist Fr. Ralph Wiltgen that a handful of bishops in a “national episcopal conference will have more influence than the rest and will take over leadership.” Fr. Wiltgen felt the archbishop could speak authoritatively on the question of national episcopal conferences, given that he’d founded a number of them himself (four, to be exact: in Madagascar, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroun, and French West Africa).

The sort of collectivism Lefebvre warned against had a peculiar character. Coteries of bishops from various nations would speak on behalf of all bishops of those nations. If an episcopal conference were organized along national lines, Lefebvre worried, the teaching and pastoral authority of individual bishops could be undermined if they found themselves at odds with a flawed joint statement authored and promulgated by the national episcopal conference. The objecting bishops, whatever their numbers, would likely remain silent so as not to sow confusion for the laity and clergy in their charge. If they contradicted the conference’s statement, the faithful mightn’t know “whether to follow their own bishop or the conference.”

Many (if not most) Catholics fear that this recent flurry of synods may pave the way for just this “collectivism invading the Church.”

 

Certain key structures governing the Second Vatican Council’s national episcopal conferences and synods are analogous. In fact, in its 2018 document “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith indicated that the terms synod and council are nearly interchangeable. However, whereas the process of the Second Vatican Council included a Coordinating Commission, to which bishops at odds with the propositions of episcopal or other “collectivist” propositions could appeal, the Synod has no such provision. This is gravely disturbing. Synods are by their nature supposedly concerned with parts of the whole (the family, youth, Amazonians, etc.), and yet each of the recent synods has attempted or effected radical particular changes pertaining to the whole – changes that will be felt throughout the universal Church.

As a solution to the problem of episcopal conferences, Archbishop Lefebvre recommended structures based “on international lines, by schools of thought and special tendencies.” That way, the bishops’ thinking would become evident. “For it is the bishops, not the nations, that make up the Council.”

Eventually, an International Group of Fathers (Coetus Internationalis Patrum) emerged which “was depicted as the epitome of conservativism.” For a time, in accord with Lefebvre’s analysis of episcopal dynamics, “no conservative cardinal bold enough could be found to give the organization needed backing,” but eventually Cardinal Santos of Manilla agreed to represent Coetus Internationalis Patrum in the College of Cardinals. The purpose of these International Fathers’ meetings was to “study the schemas of the Council – with the aid of theologians – in the light of the traditional doctrine of the Church and according to the teaching of Sovereign Pontiffs.”

In Wiltgen’s The Rhine Flows into the Tiber we read that the progressives’ so-called European Alliance was startled by the influence of the International Group of Fathers. Though the liberals slandered these churchmen as “archconservatives” who were “working covertly against the aims of the Council,” they could not but countenance the Patrum’s exacting criticisms. A young Father Joseph Ratzinger admitted over dinner that “the liberals” – and he then counted himself in their number – “had thought they would have a free hand at the Council after obtaining the majority in the Council commissions.” But the promised aggiornamento was meeting resistance in the Council hall and thus the liberals would need to take the International Group of Fathers’ careful and substantive criticisms into consideration as they revised their working documents, their schemas.

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An extraordinarily qualified good, then, has come from the synods Pope Francis has fostered: what the bishops think has become evident, and the liberal alliances have become plain. As we read the Amazon Synods’ instrumentum laboris, it becomes painfully clear that the Church is in dire need of a new kind of Coetus Internationalis Patrum. Although these Patrum were often ignored by the more powerful (and more liberal) Council Fathers, they were able to eliminate insidious errors.

The Amazon Synod should not be conceived as a “regional” Synod meant to advance the theologies of “local” Amazonian Catholics, or even of “indigenous” Amazonian peoples. Rather, the Synod will show us just how many powerful churchmen hold to the erroneous anthropologies and theologies articulated in the instrumentum. The latter insists, for instance, that Amazonians possess an “ancestral wisdom, a living reservoir of spirituality and native culture” so that “the native people of the Amazon have much to teach us.” Still more: “The new paths of evangelization must be constructed in dialogue with these ancestral wisdoms in which the seeds of the Word are manifested.”

If we follow the Amazonians, the instrumentum promises, we will better grasp “the transmission of the ancestral experience of cosmologies, of spiritualities and theologies of the indigenous peoples, in the care of our Common Home.” As indicated by Julio Loredo, an expert in Amazonian liberation theology, the Synod is staffed and prepared by a “well-organized network of ‘indigenist’ associations and movements” whose mentors are mainstays of the liberation theology movement – which, in recent years, has “evolved” its commitments toward an “integral ecology.”

Chilean journalist José Antonio Ureta explains how, “After the collapse of the USSR and the failure of ‘real socialism,’ the advocates of Liberation Theology… attributed the historic role of revolutionary force to indigenous peoples and to nature.” The number and placement of such men will likely make it indisputably clear that the Church is in a state of radical disunity, and that that a Church organized around “synodality” will heat our already-extant divisions into open schism.

After the bishops’ thoughts become evident through the synod, this evidence ends up being executed through weighty Church documents – exhortations and encyclicals. The solution, though, is not to better protect “minority bishops.” As Archbishop Lefebvre indicated, it only takes “three, four, or five bishops” united together to exercise undue influence over an episcopal conference and “take over leadership.”

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“Synodality,” too, only seems to be a more parliamentary or democratic manner of governing the Church: one that subjects doctrine to the majority’s tyranny, which is precisely what troubled Archbishop Lefebvre.

As George Weigel has observed, though the 2014 and 2015, synods were designed to address daunting crises facing marriage and family the world over. “They became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s,” Weigel argues. The controversial Synods on the Family climaxed in Amoris Laetitia, an apostolic exhortation whose ambiguities and errors have already achieved incalculable damage to doctrinal clarity concerning everything from reception of Holy Communion to the relation between nature and grace.

The enclave of elite bishops engineering and cheering the Amazon Synod is already becoming clear. To cite just a few: Bishop Erwin Kräutler, master author of the Amazon Synod’s instrumentum laboris, has argued in favor of female ordination over and against Pope John Paul II’s 1994 document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which restated absolutely the impossibility of female ordination. Kräutler insists that Ordinatio “is not a doctrine de fide.”

Bishop Fritz Lobinger, praised by Pope Francis and his synodal-collaborator Kräutler, has provided the theological “justification” for “ordained elders.” He posits that the words of Our Lord recalled in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, “Do this in memory of me,” are “more appropriate” coming from the mouths of married elders. Married elders, and not “outside priests,” are best able to utter words that beckon us to “remember” that Jesus came to promote “unity.” But Germany’s Bishop Franz-Josef Overback makes it clear that the Synod is more likely to aim at discontinuity: “[The synod] will bring the Church to a point of no return,” after which “nothing will be as it was.”

Now, when viewed from a certain angle, Bishop Overback’s comment would seem to despair over the divinely-founded nature of the Church. But to say that, in a half century, much of the Church will be superficially unrecognizable: that’s fully in keeping with traditional believe in the permissive will of God, who is right now allowing the bishops to make their thoughts evident.

As we witness the humanness of the Church more fully, we – the lay faithful of good will – await a new kind of Coetus Internationalis Patrum that study the epiphanic confusions of the Amazon Synod “in the light of the traditional doctrine of the Church and according to the teaching of Sovereign Pontiffs.” In terms of juridical process, an alliance of such Paters couldn’t eradicate the most miserable errors of the instrumentum laboris. These remain stuck in the document’s rotational, sensational ecosystem, never to be instrumentalized in the universal Church. But the Fathers would make articulate, intelligible, and visible the traditional thought of the Church – and, in consequence, make evident the revolutionary character of the particular errors of these Synods of Surprises. May God make His Thought evident also.

Joshua Hren

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Dr. Joshua Hren is co-founder and assistant director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey. For many years he served as managing editor of Dappled Things and editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books. His first collection of short stories, This Our Exile, was published by Angelico Press in January 2018.

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