08 September 2023, The Tablet

How political polarisation is dividing Catholics as the Synod on Synodality draws near

Analysis by Christopher Lamb

How political polarisation is dividing Catholics as the Synod on Synodality draws near

Pope Francis with bishops in the Synod Hall earlier this month.
Independent Photo Agency/Alamy

Opposition to the significant church renewal process initiated by Pope Francis is ramping up ahead of next month’s synod summit in the Vatican. 

This should come as no surprise. All of the synod assemblies of the Francis papacy have seen flashpoints of hostility. During the 2015 synod on the family, fake news was spread suggesting Francis had a brain tumour, while a group of cardinals criticised the synod process in an extraordinary private letter to the Pope. Four years later, opposition to the synod ramped up even further during discussions on the Amazon, culminating in a young activist stealing indigenous statues and throwing them into the River Tiber

Nevertheless, a small yet vocal group is targeting the synod on synodality, as delegates from across the world prepare to address crucial questions about the church’s mission, including the role of women, leadership and lay people’s involvement in decision-making. Recent remarks from the Pope show that he will not allow reactionary opposition to derail the synod, which he sees as being driven by ideology. 

One group pushing the anti-synod narrative is the “Tradition, Family and Property” network, which was at the forefront of attacking the synod in 2019. TFP was founded in 1960 by the late Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, an ultra-conservative Brazilian intellectual and largely ignores the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which are the foundation of the synod. 

Two members of the Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute, José Antonio Ureta and Julio Loredo de Izcue, have released a book denouncing the synod and secured Cardinal Raymond Burke's endorsement. One of Francis's fiercest critics, the US cardinal, has written the foreword to The Synodal Process is a Pandora’s Box, which has been translated into English by the American branch of TFP and made available for free online.

A Church source told me copies of the book are being sent out to bishops across the English-speaking world, and there are reports that priests and universities are receiving it. As the “Where Peter Is” site reports, TFP groups have been closely involved in resistance to this pontificate

In my bookThe Outsider, I charted the unprecedented opposition this Pope has faced from conservative Catholic groups, a phenomenon often driven by politics and ideology and spearheaded by the United States. They accuse Francis of upending church tradition by loosening restrictions on divorced and remarried Catholics and updating the catechism to say that the death penalty is inadmissible. They charge Francis as a “political Pope” overly concerned with protecting the environment and refugees. Now, the repeated refrain is that the synod process will overturn church doctrine. 

During a press conference on the papal plane returning from Mongolia, Francis was asked about the book supported by Cardinal Burke. “If you go to the root of these ideas, you will find ideologies,” the Pope said. “They defend a ‘doctrine’, a doctrine like distilled water that has no taste and is not true Catholic doctrine.” 

Last month, speaking to Jesuits in Portugal, Francis said his detractors in the US have replaced doctrine with ideology, forgetting that true doctrine is a living thing that develops. “The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous,” he insisted. “But some people opt out; they go backward; they are what I call ‘indietristi’. When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the Church and you lose the sap of revelation.” 

Francis’ warning about ideologies reflects a concern that political polarisation, rather than theology, is dividing Catholics. Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, warned two years ago that these “stem from political options that grow into ideologies taking priority over religious and ecclesial considerations and leading to complete abandon of the value and the duty of obedience in the Church.” 

And it’s not just in the Catholic Church. Political divisions are occurring across Christian denominations, as demonstrated by the case of Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist Convention leader who took on President Donald Trump. 

Archbishop Christoph Pierre, the papal ambassador to the United States and soon to be a cardinal, says that polarisation in the Church is pushing it “very far away from what it should be” and has echoes with the divisions seen in politics. The French prelate said he’s amazed that in the US, there are those “rejecting the idea of synodality, of the Synod, not knowing what it is all about and thinking that the Pope has been elected Pope just to destroy the Church and to destroy the beauty of the Church.” 

But he and others insist that the synod is designed to be the antidote to polarisation as it brings together different voices inside the Church and creates a space for listening and discernment. The assembly in October will see a melting pot of different viewpoints. Francis has boldly invited Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the former leader of the Church’s doctrine office who has described the synod as a “hostile takeover of the Church”, to attend in October.

Will Müller take part in the “takeover”? Or will he stage a walkout? During the 2015 synod on the family, he accepted the arguments for allowing some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. His position appears to have shifted, and Müller has been more critical of Francis since his dismissal as doctrine prefect in 2017. 

The real game changer in October will be how those quietly sceptical of the synod respond. Some bishops will be coming to Rome with reservations but are open to being converted to the process. A significant number may have never before taken part in a synod. Francis and those in the synod office hope that the experience of taking part in the discussions will have a transformative effect. 

At the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, John XXIII rejected the “prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster” as he launched the Church on a path of renewal. With the synod, Francis is trying to do the same. 



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