Vatican puts the brakes on Synod on Synodality, pushes ‘controversial’ topics to 2025

Women deacons, priestly formation and other contentious questions won’t be a part of the next synod in October.

Bishops attend a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the closing of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, in St.Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Oct. 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A three-year process aimed at putting the most pressing concerns of lay Catholics front and center in the church was reshuffled on Thursday (March 14), as the Vatican announced that it plans to push discussion of “doctrinal, ethical and pastoral issues that are controversial” to June 2025.

The controversial issues include allowing women to be ordained as deacons, as well as welcoming LGBTQ Catholics. These and other issues of importance to Catholics, discerned in discussions at every level of the church that took place since 2021, were the subject of a meeting of bishops and laypeople at the Vatican in October and a report listing the main concerns of the faithful.

But a second summit, scheduled for October 2024, will now focus not on the issues the Synod on Synodality raised, but on the process itself.

“The synod of bishops will be centered on the theme of synodality,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the relator general of the general assembly of the synod of bishops, at a news conference Thursday at the Vatican.

“Addressing all these other topics within the context of the Synod on Synodality is impossible,” he added.

Synodality is a loosely defined term used by Pope Francis to describe “a new way of being church,” which focuses on dialogue, welcoming and listening. But while promising to reform the traditionally hierarchical structure of the church, Francis has made clear that synodality is not synonymous with democracy. Instead, synod organizers have at various times described the synod as a soup of many ingredients, a multicolored tapestry, a large tent and a mosaic.

“Only those who experience synodality understand what it means and what its fruits are,” said Cardinal Mario Grech, the general secretary of the synod, at the same news conference.

In a letter signed Feb. 22, Francis had already ordered the creation of 10 study groups, each of which will address a topic that emerged from the October 2023 synod session. Because the complexity of these topics would distract from the main theme of the synod, the pope wrote, the synod organizers must collaborate with curial offices to study them further.

These topics include ecumenical dialogue, the formation of priests, the role of bishops and papal representatives, and theological questions on ministries and “controversial doctrinal, pastoral and ethical questions.”

Dozens of women march to the Vatican, Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, calling for female ordination. RNS photo by Tom Reese

Dozens of women march to the Vatican, Oct. 6, 2023, calling for female ordination. (RNS photo/Tom Reese)

The study group focusing on ministries is where “the question of women’s possible access to the diaconate can be properly posed,” the pope’s letter read, while “the circular relationship between doctrine and pastoral care” will be handled by another study group.

The tension between doctrine and pastoral care is at the heart of discussions about LGBTQ Catholics, and many synod participants advocated for greater welcoming and inclusion.

On Thursday the synod office announced the formation of an additional five working groups to address topics such as the role of bishops, decentralization in the church and how to inject synodality in church structures, theology and mission. These are all in keeping with the theme of the next assembly, “How to be a synodal church on mission?” Their work will be highlighted at the synod’s next meeting, in October 2024.

Officially inaugurated in October 2021, the road to the synod began with a massive consultation of faithful at the parish and diocesan level, in bishops’ conferences and among groups of bishops called continental assemblies. Religious organizations, Catholic charities and the faithful in the pews collaborated to discuss, elucidate and address what they identifed as the most important challenges facing the church today.

Synod on Synodality logo. (Courtesy image)

Synod on Synodality logo. (Courtesy image)

In October 2023, the synthesis of these discussions was brought before an unprecedentedly diverse synodal assembly, which saw the participation of laymen and -women sitting alongside bishops and cardinals.

The report that emerged from these lay discussions challenged the church to work with theologians, canon lawyers and experts to tackle important issues, from bishops’ accountability to the formation of priests, to the role of women in the church and the inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics.

Now, in preparation for the synod session that will be held Oct. 2-27, national bishops’ conferences, as well as Eastern churches and dioceses that do not belong to any bishops’ conference, will be asked to present new reflections on the main theme of the synod to the General Secretariat of the Synod by May. In addition, an international meeting of “Parish Priests for the Synod” will take place April 28 to May 2 in Rome.

Whatever the fate of the hot-button issues raised by Catholics in the synodal process, synodality is here to stay, the Vatican documents promised. “The General Secretariat of the Synod will activate a ‘permanent forum’ to deepen the theological, canonical, pastoral, spiritual and communicative aspects of the Church’s synodality,” the documents said. 


FILE - Pope Francis, sitting at right, participates in the opening session of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. Pope Francis convened a global gathering of bishops and laypeople to discuss the future of the Catholic Church, including some hot-button issues that have previously been considered off the table for discussion. Key agenda items included women's role in the church, welcoming LGBTQ+ Catholics, and how bishops exercise authority. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis, sitting at right, participates in the opening session of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Oct. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

The ten study groups will hand over an outline of the topic on Sept. 5, before the synodal assembly, and they are required to finish their work by June 2025. But synod organizers dismissed criticism that the Vatican is kicking the can down the road on big issues.

“The fact that the pope has already selected groups and Vatican departments with contributions from several parts of the world to deepen the topics from the synthesis report shows that he has listened and that he is taking note,” Grech told journalists.

Hollerich said that the church is moving “slowly but surely” on a synodal path, facing “this great construction site that has been set before us.”

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