Labels like liberal versus conservative do not fit Pope Francis or the Church he leads

The most important gathering of the Church since the Second Vatican Council is under way in Rome

Cardinals arrive for a mass on the opening day of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

The three-week ‘Synod on Synodality’ has begun in Rome, bringing together lay people and bishops to discuss the big issues facing the Catholic Church.

While a small number of liturgies and sessions will be live-streamed, most of the meetings are supposed to take place in secret.

Good luck with that. The Catholic Church makes a sieve look impermeable. With some 450 people attending, of whom 360 can vote, leaking will happen for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it will even be for idealistic motives, such as believing that this Synod is too important to happen behind closed doors.

Less nobly, there will be those seeking to influence the outcome by judicious briefings. This Synod, which follows from a consultation process begun in 2021, and which will not conclude until after a second session this time next year, is being described as the most important gathering of the Church since the Second Vatican Council.

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Delegates before the opening of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

An Irish-American priest, Fr Francis Xavier Murphy CSsR, whose parents emigrated from Co Clare, was present at the Second Vatican Council as a peritus or council expert accompanying a fellow Redemptorist bishop.

Hiding behind the pseudonym Xavier Rynne, Fr Murphy wrote 13 articles for the New Yorker, which raised leaking to an art form. It has shaped not only coverage of the Council but of the Catholic Church ever since. (He continued to deny he was Xavier Rynne for decades.)

Murphy framed the Council as an ideological struggle between liberals and conservatives, a framework which imported political categories that simply did not fit the intricacies of Church life.

Or should we blame John Chapin, a literary agent who had a strong influence on Murphy’s presentation of Vatican 2? In 2012, historian and theologian Patrick J Hayes wrote a wry history, called Bless Me Father, for I Have Rynned for the US Catholic Historian Journal. He describes how Chapin instructed Murphy to describe individuals as “members of the conservative wing of the Curia” or “arch-conservatives”, while others were to be called “advocates of reform or change” or “those in the progressive element.”

Thus were the battle lines drawn. And they have remained ever since. There’s only one problem: they just do not fit the Catholic worldview. This was brought home to me vividly during the 1990s, when on successive days there happened to be a pro-life march and a protest in solidarity with the people of East Timor. I was at both and so were others, although one would have been seen as right-wing and the other left-wing.

The categories did not even fit Fr Murphy. A proponent of traditional marriage, he nonetheless believed that contraception should be licit for married Catholics, which should place him firmly in the so-called liberal wing. Yet, when he was once asked why there was “such a fever about abortion,” he replied: “Because it’s killing. I mean to be very frank.”

The simplistic categories do not fit Pope Francis. No other pope in recent times spoke as much about the devil as Francis does. He is implacably opposed to abortion and euthanasia. He has been a leading proponent of migrant rights. This Synod comes right after the Season of Creation, which finished with the issuing of another hard-hitting papal document on climate change, Laudate Deum.

So, like the Church, Francis defies easy categorisation. This is evident even in the people he has invited to the Synod. Much has rightly been made about the inclusion of women as voting members for the first time, along with other laypeople.

But Francis has also personally invited Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has been sharply critical of the whole Synodal process, even describing it as being a “hostile takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ.”

Sister Anna Mirijam Kaschner, who is German but secretary-general of the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference, is also attending the Synod. She is a strong critic of Germany’s Synodal Path, which confusingly, is not part of the synodal process which led to this gathering, but instead, started in 2019. She was a signatory to a letter sent to the German Bishops by the Scandinavian Bishops, expressing worry about the radical departures from traditional church teaching set out by the German Synodal path.

Francis has also invited US bishops and priests seen to be more in favour of change than the ones appointed to the Synod by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. So what is going on?

Maybe we should take the Pope at his word about what he wants from this Synod. He prayed on Wednesday that “the blessing and welcoming gaze of Jesus prevents us from falling into some dangerous temptations: of being a rigid Church, which arms itself against the world and looks backward; of being a lukewarm Church, which surrenders to the fashions of the world; of being a tired Church, turned in on itself.”

The Synod’s discussions will be leaked, there is no doubt, as every major Church gathering since the pseudonymous Xavier Rynne wrote about the Second Vatican Council has been. Let’s hope that the leaks reveal a church, as Francis says, wrestling with how to “refocus our gaze on God, to be a church that looks mercifully at humanity”.