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Déjà vu and the October synod

Having covered the Vatican for more than 40 years, I learned long ago that about half of Vatican “news” can be filed under déjà vu.

The internal debate over the Vatican’s China policies. Failures of accountability in sex abuse cases. Ongoing Vatican financial scandals, despite reforms. Tensions over use of the Tridentine rite. All these and more have been perennial issues over the last three pontificates, periodically stepping into the media spotlight.

The latest example of déjà vu arose this week, when U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke weighed in on the upcoming Synod of Bishops. He argued that the synodal vision of the church espoused by Pope Francis – that is, a church that listens before it teaches – is a dangerous “slogan” that is leading Catholics astray:

“Synodality and its adjective, synodal, have become slogans behind which a revolution is at work to change radically the Church’s self-understanding, in accord with a contemporary ideology which denies much of what the Church has always taught and practiced.
It is not a purely theoretical matter, for the ideology has already, for some years, been put into practice in the Church in Germany, spreading widely confusion and error and their fruit, division – indeed schism, to the grave harm of many souls. With the imminent Synod on Synodality, it is rightly to be feared that the same confusion and error and division will be visited upon the universal Church. In fact, it has already begun to happen through the preparation of the Synod at the local level.”

Cardinal Burke’s comments, predictably described as a “bombshell,” came in a foreword to a just-published book titled, The Synodal Process is a Pandora’s Box. If all this sounds familiar, it should. Back in 2014, Cardinal Burke was among a handful of cardinals who warned against doctrinal concessions in that year’s Synod on the Family. The critique came in a book published shortly before the start of the assembly.

Whether these warnings affect the outcome of synods is a debatable question. I think they represent a minority view among cardinals and bishops, but it’s a minority that seems to have an outsized influence. Synods try to operate through consensus, and even a few participants pumping the brakes can slow things down considerably.

So far, the 75-year-old Cardinal Burke, a canon lawyer who once headed the Vatican's highest tribunal, has not been listed as a participant in this fall’s synod. But a few like-minded prelates will be inside the synod hall, including German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who has described the synodal process as part of a “hostile takeover” of the church. It should be an interesting event.

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