Catholic divisions intensify as the Synod of Bishops approaches

In our annual review last month, RW speculated that the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI might spur conservative Catholics on to greater dissatisfaction and protests against the papacy of Francis, who is seen as having a freer hand to implement his progressive reforms. Judging by recent events, this scenario seems to be happening in spades. Benedict’s private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, released a tell-all book in early January alleging that the deceased emeritus pope had misgivings about Francis’s teachings. Then, after longtime conservative stalwart Cardinal George Pell died suddenly it was revealed that the former Archbishop of Sydney authored an anonymous and blistering critique of Francis’s papacy. Next, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith, released a book recounting what he saw as the theological weakness of Francis and his inner circle and the pope’s tepid response to the clerical sex abuse crisis. The reason all these attacks against Pope Francis are occurring now, according to Austen Ivereigh in Commonweal magazine (January), is that over the past year the “tight-knit opposition groups in Rome became convinced there would soon be a conclave, and they are ambitious to shape it. They foresaw Benedict’s death as imminent and expected Francis’s resignation to follow soon thereafter—next month, if he chose to follow Benedict’s own timetable. Hence the rush to get the books out now.” Whatever the reasons for the recent onslaught of criticisms, observers are bracing themselves for more conflict and controversy over the Synod of Bishops meetings that will take place this year and in 2024.

© Mazur/

The synod, which will culminate in bishops’ meetings in October of 2023 and 2024, was designed by Francis and his advisors to give an airing to laypeople’s views and criticisms of the authority of the church in hopes of increasing lay involvement. So far, the synod meetings have consisted of “listening and discernment” sessions in order to gauge the “sense of the faithful” on key issues in the church. This is about where conservatives and liberals part ways, with the former charging that the synod is Francis’s attempt to further modernize and democratize the church while diluting important Catholic teachings on marriage, sexuality, liturgy, and a host of other issues. For their part, liberals argue that the church and its leaders are called to listen to the voices of the laity to discover what “new thing” the Holy Spirit is saying, even if the bishops in league with the pope will have the final say on any such reforms, according to Ivereigh (who has been on the drafting committee of synod documents). Even the style and methodology of the synod have come under fire. The late Cardinal Pell’s critique of the synod focused on its documents’ language calling for a hearing of the concerns of the “voiceless” and the “marginalized” and for “radical inclusion” in the church, saying they were adopting “neo-Marxist” jargon. The language of the synod documents is closely associated with groups that are working with the synod. In the U.S., community organizing groups, such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) which was started by radical organizer Saul Alinsky, have helped run the synod’s listening and discerning sessions, according to the National Catholic Reporter (January 20–February 2). The IAF has worked with bishops in organizing listening sessions for parishioners, and even those outside the church, to identify their needs and seek social change when it is possible (while matters of theology are generally left off the table).

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, who worked with an interfaith group close to the IAF in organizing a synod hearing session, said the fact that some of the organizers were not Catholic aligned with the pope’s vision. “We understand that we’re being asked to reach beyond the walls of the church, beyond religious affiliation. We can learn a lot from people not in the church.” In an article on the Public Discourse website (January 8), sociologist Mark Regnerus writes that the synod’s listening and discernment sessions have used participatory action research, a method which seeks to foster social change along with “self-reflective inquiry.” In studying the Vatican document that seeks to synthesize and interpret the findings of the synod’s listening and discernment sessions, called the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS), Regnerus sees a “great deal of woundedness and suffering” in its language, reading like a “wish list of frustrated reformists who have shifted the preferential option away from the poor and toward the ‘young and culturally alienated.’” He questions how the Vatican can “synthesize” such a huge and unwieldy amount of data without imposing its own views on such material. “Making sense of interview and focus group data from a solitary parish is not a simple task. Add another 10,000 like it from across the globe and you have an impossible challenge.” Regnerus concludes that the DCS represents a “very expensive, time consuming set of interpreters’ personal opinions, with little accountability (and no public access) to the original data.”

(Commonweal,; National Catholic Reporter,; Public Discourse,