Tuesday 26 March 2024

Cardinal Grech sets out vision for ‘rainbow’ synodal Church

The Secretary General of the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops used an interview with a Swiss newspaper last week to lay out a vision for the Church, which addressed several contentious issues, including women’s ordination, same-sex blessings, and division among the world’s bishops.

In the March 21 interview Cardinal Mario Grech described that he believes synodality can help the Church move from “uniformity of thought” to “unity in difference,” while reshaping the exercise of authority within global Catholicism.

As the chief organizer of the global synod of synodality, Grech’s comments give a likely indication of how the final phases of the synodal process will play out, and could form the basis for a future reforming agenda during the next conclave.

Cardinal Grech traveled to Switzerland last week at the invitation of the local bishops’ conference, holding several meetings and giving interviews on the synodal process and the state of the Church.

Speaking to Corriere del Ticino, the cardinal described how synodality means “not just walking together but listening to each other.” 

“In the Church of listening, the bishops feel the people of God, and Peter also needs to listen.”

According to the cardinal, the primary goal of Pope Francis in the synodal process is the reshaping of the Church beyond his reign, and creating a space for mutual discernment of the Holy Spirit between the hierarchy and other, more marginal voices.

“The future is the synodal one: the whole people of God must be able to find a way to walk together because it brings the presence of the Holy Spirit as wealth, and only together will we be able to discern its voice.”

“Once the Church succeeds in this new synodal culture, I am convinced that we will be able to answer existential questions,” said Grech.

The extent to which the synod has been used to float “existential questions” about the Church, bringing matters of doctrine and even sacramental theology up for debate has proven a polarizing aspect of the global process.

Pope Francis has repeatedly said he does not want the synod to be viewed as a “parliament” when doctrinal debates are argued and voted upon. Earlier this month, he set up several working groups which will consider some of the more contentious issues from the previous synodal sessions in October, and which will operate in parallel to, and beyond, the forthcoming sessions this year, something Grech identifies as a shift in the final resolution of the synod. 

Previous synods have always ended with a post-synodal apostolic exhortation from the pope, the cardinal said, but in shifting to a kind of synod-after-the-synod Francis has done a “new thing” which shows “he is listening.” 

Some critics of the synod have charged that the process is geared towards raising issues for debate but providing no obvious mechanism for settling them — either by reaffirming the Church’s perennial teaching, or by offering a theologically credible means for changing doctrine. 

But, according to Grech, resolution is not necessary for the universal Church. Instead, the cardinal says that “When we speak of unity, of communion, we are not referring to the uniformity of thought.” 

Asked specifically about the response of the bishops of Africa to the recent DDF declaration on the blessing of persons in same-sex relationships, Grech suggested that stark divisions on the Church’s moral teaching could be considered healthy, and that it is not necessary for the bishops or particular Churches in different parts of the world to necessarily think or even teach the same thing.

“There is unity in differences, there are common points and different spaces for various experiences, according to the ‘place’,” said Grech. “I always imagine the Church as a rainbow, with the colors that are not excluded but, together, create harmony. A harmony that, of course, would be missing where there was a conflict.”

In his interview, the cardinal cited Vatican Council II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, saying “it would be wrong to imagine the existence on the one hand of the universal Church and on the other side of the particular Churches,” but that “the universal Church is born from the particular Churches” with their distinctions.

Lumen gentium did address many of the points raised by Grech, including the discernment of the faithful on matters of faith and morals, together with the hierarchy, though it is debatable how Grech’s vision of a synodal Church maps onto the Council’s constitution.

While the council taught that  “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief,” it specified that kind of inerrancy only applies in instances where “from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.”

Grech’s vision of a “rainbow” Church, not defined by “uniformity of thought” would seem at odds with the ecumenical council’s vision of “universal agreement.”

“Moreover,” Lumen gentium said, while “within the Church particular Churches hold a rightful place” and can have “legitimate differences,” “the bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion.”

While individual bishops “exercise their pastoral government over the portion of the People of God committed to their care, and not over other churches nor over the universal Church,” “each of them, as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ's institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church,” and have “the duty to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church.” 

But some proposals from the synodal assembly would seem to clearly threaten the “unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church,” in as much as they propose changes to the Church’s sacramental theology or doctrine.

In the ongoing debate over the possibility of women’s ordination to the diaconate, some, including Pope Francis, have stressed that any consideration of “deaconesses” should be rooted in Apostolic-era examples and traditions, in which some women received a dedicated ministry that was distinct from the sacramental ordination of male deacons, which is part of the one sacrament of orders, the Church teaches.

Grech, on the other hand, said last week that while he would not use the term “revolution” to describe the ordination of women to the diaconate, it would be a “natural deepening of the Lord’s will, expressing and demonstrating the dynamism inherent in the history of the Church.”

But while Grech highlighted women deacons as one of several issues that deal with of the life of the Church “but also the relationship with the changing society,” he also said that “self-referential reflection kills,” and that said the Church must remain open to “the seeds full of hope coming from [within] the Church” but “also from dialogue with other religions.”

Amid that call, Grech’s vision for a “rainbow” Church may appeal to some as a blueprint for an ecclesiology of permanent synodality. But other Catholics are likely to ask how a Church without “uniformity of thought” on core teachings can maintain communion of any kind.  

Grech’s role as general secretary of the Synod of Bishops has placed him at the center of what many have come to accept as Pope Francis’ legacy as pope — delivering, or trying to deliver, an enduring new ecclesiological model touching every aspect of the Church’s governance, teaching, and sanctifying functions.

With the pope having moved several times now to extend the synodal process beyond its initial 2023 scheduled ending and into 2025, the expectation among a growing number of cardinals is that how and when the synod should be concluded will be a key factor in the election of the 87-year old Francis’ successor.