A novel procedural rider in the 2018 apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio allows for a final document of a synod of bishops to be incorporated into the ordinary magisterium (teaching of the Church) by the pope. Pursuant to the text of the constitution, a synod's final document is to be regarded as magisterial "if it is expressly approved by the Roman pontiff" (emphasis added).
Not long ago, in one of his airplane magisterial declarations, Pope Francis voiced an objection to comments critical of him emanating from some conservative members of the clergy. He spoke openly about the possibility of a schism in the Catholic Church. It's true that many prominent Catholics have indicated that Pope Francis is "diluting the Faith," with a few even calling for his resignation. His views on internal political affairs of other countries, like the environment and immigration, have raised objections. Moreover, the faithful widely bristled over the pope's permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
"I'm not afraid of schism," Pope Francis ominously said, adding that many schisms have occurred in the history of the Church. Other splits have led to the rise of antipopes.
One of the primary drivers of contention is Francis's seeming desire to change the Catholic Church into a synodal institution. Indeed, Pope Francis has decided that the next world synod of bishops in October 2022 will focus on "synodality."
What is so-called synodality? It was Cdl. Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary-general of the synod of bishops, who introduced the expression, calling for a "synodal Church: communion, participation and mission." The adoption of the term was opposed by Cdl. Raymond Burke, who criticized the concept of synodality in a 2018 interview: "It's become like a slogan meant to suggest some kind of new Church which is democratic and in which the authority of the Roman Pontiff is relativized and diminished — if not destroyed."
Now, it seems as if the term synodality carries with it the connotation that conferences of bishops wield the authority to change Church doctrine. Cardinal Robert Sarah has stated, "People are trying to detach the local churches from Rome. People want to be autonomous with regard to Rome and the Vicar of Jesus Christ, that is, Peter — he who gives direction to the Church of Rome." In other words, it's another step in the Protestantization of Catholicism.
Pope Francis pointed out that, from the beginning of "his ministry as bishop of Rome" in 2013, he "sought to enhance the synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council." The German bishops have been using the concept of synodality to push their own agenda of overthrowing Catholic sexual teaching — namely, demanding changes to the Church's teaching on contraception, masturbation and homosexuality.
Pope Francis spoke mainly of bishops' conferences, but also ecclesiastical provinces, namely archdioceses: "The hope expressed by the council that such bodies would help increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized."
Pope Benedict XVI is — to the best of my knowledge — the only Pope in Church history whose views were well-known decades before his election to the papal throne. The once famous Ratzinger Report, published by Ignatius Press of California (1985), was relegated to the basement of the Church and mainly forgotten. In it, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made some important clarifications that, today, in the confusing times in which we live, would be most timely to recall.
I recommend our readers to order this book from Ignatius Press, in order to have a better understanding of the current crisis of faith in our Holy Mother Church. Synodality is a tendency today in the Catholic Church, especially in Germany (and in various dioceses here in America, Argentina, Belgium, Malta, etc.) to grant to the bishops' conference an authority that sometimes ignores that of Rome. So one speaks of the "American Church" instead of the Church in America. The universality of the Catholic Church is cast aside in favor of the assumed authority of the local Church. In this regard, Cdl. Ratzinger is very explicit, warning, "We must not forget that episcopal conferences have no theological basis, they do not belong to the structure of the Church as willed by Christ that cannot be eliminated; they have only a practical, concrete function."
That is, a Pope can abolish them, at any time, without a question. Ratzinger continues on in his remonstration:
No episcopal conference, as such, has a teaching mission; its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the individual bishops. ... The Catholic Church is based on an episcopal structure and not on a kind of federation of national churches. The national level is not an ecclesial dimension. ... It happens that with some bishops there is a certain lack of a sense of individual responsibility, and the delegation of his inalienable powers as shepherd and teacher to the structures of the local conferences leads to letting what should remain very personal lapse into anonymity.
It would seem an admonition given by St. Paul is very pertinent to the Church's situation today:
The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect for themselves a whole series of teachers, according to their tastes; and then, instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to myths. Be careful always to choose the right course; be brave under trial, make the preaching of the good news your life's work, in thoroughgoing service (2 Timothy 4:1–5).
Speaking of the foregoing Pauline text, Ratzinger grimly reflected that it "seems to be especially and strikingly pertinent to our point in time."
The first example of episcopal collegiality took place when the Apostles abandoned Our Lord to the soldiers in the garden of Gethsemane and fled together. The second example was when the English bishops abandoned St. John Fisher to his executioners and followed a Church founded by a proud and lustful king.
Saint John Fisher went down in history as the only bishop who preferred to sacrifice his life instead of being "synodal" against Rome.