In his opening address to the Synod of Bishops on October 7, 2019, Pope Francis warned about “two synods”–the idea that while a synod of bishops takes place in the Synod Hall (Aula del Sinodo), a “synod of the media” takes place concurrently. This second, unofficial synod is the public, often vitriolic, ideology-fueled discussion that takes place in the public square, on social media, and in publications and blogs (including this one). This media synod is often completely disconnected from the discussions taking place between bishops and other Church leaders in the aula, is highly emotional, has completely different priorities, and is fixated on just a handful of highly-charged issues.
In the conclusion of the address, Francis described the two synods as the “inside synod” and the “outside synod,” warning that imprudently spreading false information can have a deleterious effect on the outcome of a synod:
A process such as a synod can be somewhat ruined if, when I exit the hall, I can say what I think, voice my opinion. And then there will be that feature that I saw at several synods: that of the “inside synod” and the “outside synod”. The inside synod which follows the journey of Mother Church, the synod of attention to processes; and the outside synod which, because information given with levity, communicated with imprudence, leads those who have the duty to inform, to misinform.
Thus, thank you for what you are doing. Thank you because you prayed for one another, and take courage. And, please, let us not lose our sense of humour. Thank you.
We might recall the Outside Synod’s work during the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, and how bishop and cardinal participants formed ideology-based tribes, granting interviews to favored outlets or reporters, and using the space outside the synod hall to advance personal agendas and focus on particular issues. Among those who follow these synods, who can forget the leaked letter from 13 cardinals, or the drama of how copies of a book written by a group of conservative cardinals were allegedly snatched from the mailboxes of synod participants?
Even more memorable were the statements from participants such as Cardinal Burke, who seemed to give interviews almost daily during the 2014 synod. With each passing day, he would stoke the fires of fear and suspicion, with statements along the lines of,
We see a worrisome skewing of the discussions, because there are some who support the possibility of adopting a practice that departs from the truth of the faith. Even if it should be evident that one cannot go down that path, many still encourage, for example, a dangerous openness to change with respect to the question of giving Holy Communion to those divorced and remarried.
Indeed, despite the fact that the Synods on the Family and the resulting exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, dove deeply into many aspects of family life, including the theology of marriage, the challenges facing families today, the care of children and bringing them up in the faith, and the need to improve the preparation of engaged couples, the Outside Synod reduced all this work to four issues:
- the possibility of sacraments for those in irregular marriages (including civil remarriages),
- the possibility of sacraments for non-Catholic spouses,
- the possible “softening” of Church teaching on homosexuality and same-sex relationships,
- and the potential undermining of the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.
Of these four issues, the only one that was even remotely part of the final outcome was the first, via the inclusion of a single footnote (351) in Amoris Laetitia. Francis carved out a very nuanced set of guidelines for discernment that included the possibility of admitting some of those in irregular situations to the sacraments in exceptional situations. The traditional Catholic teachings regarding the other three issues are affirmed clearly in paragraphs 247 (non-Catholic spouses receiving sacraments), 251 (homosexuality), and 80 (contraception). Nevertheless, those who only followed the Outside Synod thought the entire world had caved in.
Similarly, those who are following the 2019 Outside Synod on the Amazon seem to be focused on three main issues:
- The “abolition” of priestly celibacy,
- The ordination of women to the diaconate,
- The introduction of idolatrous, paganistic, pantheistic, and even satanic worship and practices into the Church with the full approval of the pope and the hierarchy, thus leading the Church into an unprecedented crisis of doctrine, schism, and heresy–and perhaps ushering in the apocalypse and the end of days.
If you think I’m being hyperbolic about issue #3, you haven’t spent much time on Catholic Twitter or reading reactionary websites, and I envy you.
I’ll just briefly touch on the first two issues. A serious issue that has been raised in the lead-up to the synod is that due to the remoteness of some of the indigenous Catholic communities in the Amazon, many of them rarely see a priest. As a result, these communities lack access to the sacraments. Additionally, within these communities, there are few Catholic leaders in these groups with formal recognition by the Church. The lack of any stable, official Catholic leadership leaves these groups with little connection to the universal Church for much of the year. Austen Ivereigh explained the situation well recently in Commonweal:
Most Amazonian native peoples live not in parishes but in remote village-size communities with strong social structures. Religious life is entrusted to the community’s leaders; they are likely to be the catechists and “animators” of the local church. A missionary priest might pass through once or twice a year, to celebrate Mass and hear confessions, which is a cause for great celebration. But the rest of the time, in their gathering round the Word alone, the Catholic Amazonians look indistinguishable from Evangelicals. All too often priests arrive to find that the whole village leadership has succumbed to what a synod father has described as “the dizzying proliferation of Pentecostal churches.” Nowadays these are likely to be powerful megachurches that proselytize aggressively and preach a version of the Prosperity Gospel.
What the ordination of well-respected, devout, Catholic married men (frequently referred to as the viri probati), and the establishment of a formal ministerial role or title for women leaders in these communities do is help create stable Catholic communities in regions where missionaries and priests are few and far between. I think it’s unfortunate that the debate about women’s ordination has been inserted into this dialogue, because it distracts from a very real need for the recognition of a formally recognized ministry for the women who play crucial leadership roles in these communities. I plan to write about this at length in the near future.
Issue #3, however, has dominated the deliberations of the Outside Synod, even here at Where Peter Is. Within minutes of the completion of a St. Francis day prayer service and tree planting ceremony, the reactionary media seemingly lost their minds and made a small wooden figure the focus of their outrage. I needn’t rehash the entire issue (you can read about it here, here, here, here, and here).
For three weeks, it seemed that the Outside Synod was reduced to a competition to prove whether the statue was an artistic cultural expression of Our Lady or a pagan demonic idol that the indigenous people worship. “Team Mary” scored a point when the woman who presented the statue to the pope called her “Our Lady of the Amazon.” “Team Pachamama” claimed a point when the non-Catholic indigenous guest of a conference hosted by the radical traditionalist group Tradition, Family, Property asserted that it was definitely idol worship. Another point went to Team Mary when a 2018 video emerged where the statue was clearly used as a representation of Mary in a video about the Annunciation, reminiscent of the Magnificat. Both teams claimed victory (or confusion) each time a Vatican or Synod representative gave a vague answer suggesting the figure means “life” or “fertility.”
Finally, at the break of dawn on Monday of this week, two or three thieves entered the Roman Church where the figures were displayed, stole them, and chucked them into the Tiber River.
The Outside Synod has officially become a circus.
Liz Dodd wrote an astounding piece in the aftermath of this crime. I recommend that you read it all, but her conclusion struck me:
Symbols, saints, icons, statues, paintings, medallions, even Our Lady, are not God. They point us towards God and help us to communicate with him. Our Lady of the Amazon may not look like Our Lady of Lourdes, the Black Madonna, or Our Lady of Guadalupe, but she points the Catholics who brought her to Rome towards her son. I cannot imagine how it must feel for them, many thousands of miles from their homes in the Amazon basin, to discover that she was drowned in the Tiber, by the very people who claim to be their brothers and sisters.
Pope Francis often speaks of a listening Church, but those who support these actions apparently prefer a shouting, sneering, mocking Church, one who drives away those its members claim to love. Radical reactionary traditionalism is cancer in our Church, and this tumor seeks to metastasize and drive out all the love, virtue, and humility upon which our Faith is based. We aren’t certain who perpetuated this crime, but whoever did it was most certainly influenced by the angry voices of disinformation and violence on social media.
Francis knew this was coming. He knew that there were ideologues lying in wait, looking for opportunities to destroy, divide, and promote dangerous ideologies. During his opening address, he warned:
Ideologies are a dangerous weapon; we always have the tendency to latch on to an ideology in order to interpret a people. Ideologies are reductive and lead us to exaggeration in our claim to comprehend intellectually, but without accepting, comprehending without admiring, comprehending without assimilating. So reality is understood in categories, and the more common ones are the categories of “-isms”. Thus, when we have to approach the reality of a certain indigenous people, we speak of indigenisms, and when we wish to propose a way to a better life, we do not ask them about it; we talk about developmentalism. These “-isms” reformulate life starting from the illuminated and the illuminist laboratory.
I pray that this doesn’t escalate into real threats or acts of violence. I’m not the only one who has seen the similarities between the voices of the Outside Synod and the “Pizzagate” controversy that culminated in a man driving to Washington, DC with a loaded rifle and firing three shots inside a pizza parlor. Could someone be driven to violence against the pope due to this insanity? It’s not outside the realm of possibility.
One positive we can draw from this entire fiasco is the total disconnect between what is going on in the Outside Synod and the real synod, the Inside Synod. Earlier this week, the language groups submitted their final reports, and the final synod document has been submitted to the participants for final review. They should be voting on the various proposals tomorrow and/or Saturday and they will present their completed document to Pope Francis for his consideration.
In his address, Francis spoke about the purpose of the synod, and I believe the synod participants have stuck to this vision:
We have come here to contemplate, to comprehend, to serve the peoples. And we do so by taking a synodal path; we do so as a synod, not at round tables, not in conferences and further discussions: we do so as a synod, because a synod is not a parliament; it is not a parlour; it is not demonstrating who has more power in the media and who has more power on the web, in order to impose some idea or some plan.
Let us pray for the Holy Father, for the outcome of the synod, and most especially for the people of the Amazon region. Let us pray that this synod results in positive changes and greater understanding in the Church. Let us pray for a deepening of the faith and evangelization for all Catholics. Let us pray for our Common Home, and all who inhabit it.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.