The three-week landmark “Synod on Synodality” which Pope Francis opens today in Rome, the culmination of a two-year global consultation process with the faithful, may represent a watershed moment for the Catholic Church akin to the Second Vatican Council. The 450-strong synod, bringing together lay people with bishops for the first time, and its proposals for greater lay involvement have thrilled progressives and rattled conservatives, who warn changes could lead to schism.
Among issues under discussion will be priestly celibacy, married priests, the blessing of gay couples, the extension of sacraments to the divorced and the ordination of female deacons.
But whether the synod has the power to change doctrine, not to mention the central themes of lay empowerment and inclusivity, have already provoked a pre-synod pre-emptive blast by five leading conservative cardinals from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. On Monday they published five questions to Francis, known as “dubia”, demanding he reaffirm doctrine on homosexuality and the ordination of women, as well as an open letter to the Catholic faithful. The cardinals said they felt duty-bound to inform the faithful “so that you may not be subject to confusion, error, and discouragement.”
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, a former leader of the church’s doctrinal office who was replaced by Francis, has warned that the assembly could be used as a “hostile takeover.” It was not “a parliament or a constituent assembly, which like a sovereign could change or even replace the Constitution of the church,” he said. The fact that women and lay people had been granted the right to vote “doesn’t change anything,” he said.
The participants will reconvene in Rome in October 2024, after which the pope is expected to issue a document endorsing or rejecting its recommendations. It will be a defining moment for the long-term legacy of Francis whose willingness to embrace inclusivity and greater lay involvement has brought renewed hope to so many of the faithful in Ireland and around the world.