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The Journey towards a synodal Church is at a crossroads, Part 1

The Synod of Synodality that Pope Francis convened last month had adjourned and has produced a 40-page document that provides a “way forward” in achieving a synodal Church. The reactions to it have been mixed with some enthusiastically embracing the tremendous opportunity for the Church to address issues of the current world where we lived in. Others, particularly the conservatives are skeptical, and many are even vocal and forceful in opposing what the pope is trying to achieve. Some even derisively refer to the synodal process as “cafeteria talk.”

It is painful to even listen to some of these vociferous critics who openly disrespects Pope Francis. At the opening of the Synod, thirteen cardinals sent a self-serving letter to Pope Francis challenging or having raised serious objections on two important aspects of the synod. One, they claimed that the “Instrumentum Laboris,” (working instrument) was inadequate and that the synod procedures “will lead to a predetermined conclusion” because of its lack of openness and genuine collegiality. In other words, they were accusing the pope of rigging the whole thing.

These cardinals who are in their late 80’s or mid-90’s feel entitled to their tradition and dislike the boomer approach. The fact that Pope Francis has appointed some lay people to certain committees is a point of contention for them because “they were not elected” (by them). Pope Francis has practically defanged these cardinals, and they were not happy that they are not the one in charge of the synod. In truth, these conservative cardinals and other members of their conservative movement have always been against this sitting pope. They want to cling to their dogmas and doctrinal “expertise” as a way of running the church. They even belittled the synod as a “meeting of meetings.”

The conservative members of the clergy who were against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), believe that the Roman Catholic Church is about faith and reason as inspired by Thomas Aquinas and other Church Fathers. They want to advance a neo-Thomism system that has long lost its luster with the advent of the Vatican II. Thomism is the name given to a broad system of metaphysical school of philosophy that unifies science and theology and seeks to articulate the intellectual content of Catholic Christianity.  From Aquinas’ masterpiece, Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology), Thomism offers a comprehensive, non-skeptical response based on the synthesis of Greek (Aristotle) and Judeo-Christian thoughts.

What these cardinals really want is for Pope Francis to not tinker with their idealism (power) and just let Vatican II die. They want the faithful to have faith and leave the “reason” part to them. The pope, however, wants the faithful to be part of the conversation and that makes them nervous because they believe that they hold the key to the Church doctrines and dogmas through the College of the Cardinals (episcopal collegiality) to provide authentic interpretation of the word of God. Religion is much like science. It should be about advancing humanity, else, they’re just theories or hypotheses.

The Synod of Synodality is not a new approach, if you will, to reforming the Church. It is actually a continuation of Vatican II. Vatican II of course, the conservatives might have thought or wish, is dormant. Consider it a liberal approach, but Pope Francis has his thumb on the right side of the scale in addressing the pressing issues of the Church that Vatican II envisioned: declining attendance, priest abuse, how to be a universal church as envisioned by Jesus. The Catholic Church should be about people and that in a universal church, everyone is welcome. “Todos, todos, todos!”

The common themes that came out of the synod are worth mentioning because they truly echo the visions of Vatican II. Vatican II called people to unity as one human family through reconciliation. Themes like listening, speaking out, consultation, ecumenism, dialogue, participation, sharing, communication, and responsibility are all about the future of the Church. Thus, topics like divorce, same sex-marriage, transgender baptism, bringing back those who left the Church, women’s role in the church, among others; are topics of great importance.

Human communication as it relates to religion is not just about listening to homilies or professing the faith which is one-way communication. Salvation is a theory that the Church wants us to have faith in without fully understanding if such destination even exists. This is the doctrinal or dogma side of the Church – faith and reason – that instills fear in the faithful on the prospect of going to hell. Let me put this in context. If one lives to be 90 years old, all your life the Church wants you to obey the teachings for that one day that one eventually dies and face the question of, “where to now?” What about the 89 years you were here on earth occupying space and don’t have anything to say about the future of the church?

The greatest miracle of living is being alive together with our church where one can express his or her joys and sorrows. The object of human communication is not only about exchange of information during a synodal consultation but the exchange of understanding. The biggest scandal of the Roman Catholic Church is about pedophilia involving the clergy, while the laity remained silent. Many dioceses and archdioceses have filed bankruptcy to give them the “ability to pay for reparations or damages” to abused kids. Pope Francis talked about clericalism being a thorn that every Catholic should reject. “Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given,” said the pope in 2018.

He emphasized the evils of clericalism with the undertone that it contributed, if not caused, the priest’s abuses. “Clericalism is a scourge, a sickness, a scandal that defiles the Church,” Pope Francis emphasized during the recent synod. “It enslaves the holy, faithful people of God.” The practice of “charging” for sacramental services (marriage, baptism, funeral Mass, etc.) “is like a supermarket of salvation,” the pope added.

The other side of clericalism that Pope Francis talked about, is empowering the laity. Clericalization of the laity is about its role in a missionary Church. The confusion regarding the priesthood of the Laity (common priesthood) versus ordained priesthood contributes to the chasm of understanding. Vatican II indicates Catholics are called to priesthood at baptism. They are the people of God who are called to serve the church.

The Council of Trent expressed that priests receive ontological gifts of the Holy Spirit– a special grace and “character” upon ordination. Meaning, the priest undergoes an ontological change in such a way that the priest is substantially different from his “being” before his ordination. This ontological change is the basis for the priest as the “in persona Christi,” transforming the simple elements of bread and wine into Christ’s presence – transubstantiation. (To be continued)


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