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New Synodal Working Document: Continuing Plan to Ordain Women?

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Editor’s note: follow Synod Watch for analysis of the upcoming Synod on Synodality in Rome this fall.

In his new article “Pope Francis Disappoints Progressives. He Will Do So Again,” Fr. Thomas Reese describes a source of frustration for some papal supporters: the slow pace of change in certain areas of the Church. 

From the pope’s “temporary no” to the ordination of married men (Reese’s words) to Francis’s current “no” to the ordination of women deacons, the pope has surprised many by stepping back—more than once—from the precipice of change.

So why do the pope’s maneuvers to change the Church often seem to stall?

Councils and Synods

The way Reese sees it, Pope Francis is sympathetic to progressive voices—but is locked in a dilemma of pacing. 

On the one hand, Reese says, “Moving too quickly could blow up the church, as it did with many other denominations.” On the other hand, Reese continues, “Moving too slowly means losing the young.”  

To elaborate on this issue, Reese zeroes in on a key difference between a council and a synod. 

The Second Vatican Council, says Reese, “had a revolutionary impact on the church.” It was a massive gathering involving all the world’s bishops from 1962 to 1965.  To be sure, says Reese, “some of the [council’s] texts included ambiguous language each side could interpret as it willed,” moderating the pace of change.  Ultimately, however, “reform was set irrevocably in motion.”

A synod, says Reese, “is not a council.” Its sessions are much shorter—and a synod “cannot resolve issues on which the church is divided.” 

What is needed in a synodal church, Reese says, is patience.

Martini and Synodality

Ultimately, there was a man in the Church who deeply believed in the power of synodality. 

That man was Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of the St. Gallen Mafia, a group of high-ranking churchmen who wanted to liberalize the Church.  Every year, starting in the mid-1990s, members would meet at or near St. Gallen, Switzerland to plot a revolution in the Church.

My book The St. Gallen Mafia explains what happened at the group’s 1999 meeting:

[Martini] told the others he wanted a new council.

[Godfried] Danneels, who had just joined the group that year, listened sympathetically but critically. He was worried about logistics—questions about finances and linguistic barriers and the challenges of assembling some five thousand bishops. He remained pragmatic, skeptical.[1]

Later that year, at an October 1999 synod of bishops, Martini shared a revised dream.  He spoke in an allusive way, but Martini envisioned frequent synods on “doctrinal and disciplinary knots”—on everything from the position of women in the Church to the discipline of marriage.[2] 

But if Martini was the dreamer, Pope Francis is the executive, concerned with issues of on-the-ground action and pacing. 

Francis and Patience

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis articulates the problem of time this way:

Time is greater than space. This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time.

In other words, time reigns supreme, “immediate results” are elusive, and patience is the modus operandi of the serious executive.

Take, for instance, the rigged 2014 Synod on the Family.  A key Martini disciple, Archbishop Bruno Forte, engineered the mid-term report on the “positive” aspects of sins against the Sixth Commandment and the “precious support” found in same-sex relationships. 

But the issues concerning homosexuality were too explosive to be handled at that time.  Ultimately, the fruit of the synods was Francis’s 2016 text Amoris Laetitia, which fulfilled Martini’s dream of opening up Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried. 

By 2023, however, the Vatican document Fiducia Supplicans created an opening for the blessing of same-sex couples—addressing Martini’s longtime interest in raising the stature of such couples.

Deferred Causes

Which brings us back to the issue of seemingly stalled causes. 

Technically, Pope Francis is on record as saying “no” to the ordination of female deacons. Recently, however, the Vatican issued the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) for the October Synod on Synodality.  According to a report on the section of the IL pertaining to women in the Church:

Indeed the matter of female deacons is currently being examined by the study groups specifically formed by Pope Francis, and which are due to give their conclusions on the 10 study questions by summer 2025. As such, the female diaconate is not technically billed as being part of the October 2024 synod meetings, as noted by the IL. 

Nevertheless, the IL does echo the calls reportedly made by many for the female diaconate, also calling for women to be elevated to higher positions of governance and authority within the Church. 

‘There is also a call for adequately trained lay men and women to contribute to preaching the Word of God, including during the celebration of the Eucharist,’ the IL notes.

In other words, inside and outside of the parameters of the upcoming synod, the drive to advocate for female deacons or something adjacent to them continues apace. 

Welcome to the world of patience, where applying the brakes on an issue does not necessarily mean that the vehicle has definitively stopped. Sometimes coming to a pause is necessary just to stabilize the pace—deferring, not preventing, an arrival.      

[1] Julia Meloni, The St. Gallen Mafia (Gastonia, N.C.: TAN, 2021), 34.

[2] Ibid., 35.

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