Of Smurfs and Synodality

I call attention to a slight dust up recently on Twitter (which I hate doing, because it’s Twitter), which I think is a significant one. The proprietor of the traditionalist Rorate Caeli blog got into an argument with several conservative Catholic writers, namely Mark Brumley of Ignatius Press, Carl Olson of Catholic World Report and Stephen White, a theologian at Catholic University in D.C. The gist of it was that the latter thought “Synodality” was a permanent part of the Church’s life and had always been so, while Rorate Coeli thought this was preposterous.

They are referring of course, to the “Synod on Synodality,” Pope Francis’ pet project, currently ongoing and scheduled to meet in October 2023 in Rome. That the term “synodality” is a neologism everyone agrees (the first use I could find was in a volume of essays from a Congress on Canon Law in 1990; the first theologian I am aware of to use the term was the Italian Alberto Melloni, in 2005). The Vatican’s theological commission gave the word a definition in 2018, that it referred to ” the common dignity and mission of all the baptised, in exercising the variety and ordered richness of their charisms, their vocations and their ministries” but the organizers of the Synod have treated it as a term whose precise meaning is yet to be discovered. The quarrel seems to be over whether or not the word should be used to refer to some good quality present in the life of the Church with this new word.

It is painfully obvious to me that Rorate Coeli‘s skepticism is warranted. The term “synodality” may or may not capture some real element of the Church’s life, but no faithful Catholic should ever make use of it. The reason ought to be obvious. The Church has always had “synods” (the most likely referent for the term) made up of bishops, but no one has ever thought their use needed a new term to capture some special quality about them. The term “synodality” is a vague, elastic abstraction that can be given almost any definition. It is like the word “smurf” from the old cartoon The Smurfs: it can refer to almost anything (“I smurfed some really good smurf today, it was smurfing good!”).

This is why every Catholic who cares about the Church should not use the term. The organizers of the synod clearly chose its for its ambiguity, and people like Cardinals Hollerich and Grech, who are on record making statements that indicate they support things like blessings for gay “unions” and the ordination of women, will be the ones to give this term its official meaning in Church documents. If it wasn’t obvious before, in the reign of Francis it is undeniable that progressives who desire these things control the institutions in the Church (the curial dicasteries, diocesan bureaucracies, etc.) that give these words their normative meaning and status. Why anyone would trust that these words will find there way into Church documents with the innocuous meanings that Brumley, Olson and White attribute to them, is beyond me. Accepting the terms of your opponents like this, their framing of it, means you will inevitably accept the normalization of their beliefs.

It also seems obvious to me at least that Francis and his progressive allies are running the same play book their predecessors did at Vatican II: use ambiguous phrases and terms that can have an orthodox meaning and then afterwards, use their institutional power to give them a meaning that pushes the Church’s teaching in a heretical direction without stating so explicitly. It was bad enough that good, decent men allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by this in the 1960s, though more excusable. Back then, the rot in the Church wasn’t so open and obvious. But at this hour, after all the revelations of sexual abuse, after knowing how corrupted the hierarchy and the institutions of the Church have become, how they are staffed largely by people who reject many of its basic beliefs, that one can blithely accept their framing of anything is simply astonishing.

One might object that I am treating the Synod and the Church in a “political” manner, that it is not supposed to work like that. But that is my point. Brumley et. al. don’t see the Church this way, but Francis and his allies very clearly do see the Church in political terms. Lest you think I am being unfair, remember that one of his English speaking supporters, Austen Ivereigh, published a biography The Great Reformer, that praises him precisely for being “political.” Francis has governed the universal Church much like he did the Jesuits of Argentina when he was their superior, rewarding supporters and punishing those who disagreed with him in good, Schmittian fashion. He left behind him a legacy of bitterness and division which should be familiar to everyone after his time as pope.

Faithful Catholics need to be united on this. I know there are many differences between “conservative” Catholics and “traditionalists,” but they need to put these aside to recognize what is going on here. They simply cannot accept the framing of progressive Catholics on this or any other issue. (And by this I don’t mean openly proclaiming your “resistance” like some idiot activist. All that is necessary is to simply refrain from using their terms, without any self-importance or histrionics.) There is no good reason to use a term like “synodality” and many good reasons to reject it. To invoke another 1980s slogan (I am on a nostalgia kick, apparently), when it comes to the word “synodality,” there is only one thing for a faithful Catholic to do: Just Say No.

Leave a Reply