The Synod on Synodality: a “Pandora’s box” with unforeseeable consequences
By Roberto de Mattei | 20 September 2023
We do not know if the decade between the beginning of 2013 and the end of 2023 will be remembered as among the most intense of the twenty-first century, but they have certainly been the most unpredictable of our lives.
The decade, in fact, opened with a bombshell — the resignation of Benedict XVI on 11 February 2013 — and is drawing to a close with another bombshell, or rather, as it has been aptly called in a recent book by Julio Loredo and José Antonio Ureta, a Pandora’s box — this October’s Synod on Synodality.1 But on closer inspection the first “Pandora’s box” was Benedict XVI’s abdication of the pontificate — “a bolt from the blue”, as Cardinal Angelo Sodano put it — from which it all began.
The possibility of abdicating the pontificate is provided for by canon law (can. 332 §2) but had been implemented very rarely. Moreover, the reasons for and manner of the abdication appeared singular. Until the last day of his life, Benedict XVI repeated that his decision had no other motive than his frail psycho-physical condition, a “weariness, physical and mental”, as Archbishop Georg Gänswein explained in the pages of his volume dedicated to the “historic resignation”.2 In a letter sent on 28 October 2022, a few weeks before his death, to his biographer Peter Seewald, Benedict explained that the “central motive” for his renunciation was “the insomnia that has been with me continuously since World Youth Day in Cologne” in August 2005. But his unequivocal declarations did not succeed in putting an end to the most extravagant speculations, which went so far as to theorise that in reality the resignation had never occurred and that Benedict XVI continued to reign as opposed to the “usurper” Francis.
Pope Benedict certainly did not imagine having to witness, in his decade-long post-pontificate, the debacle brought on by the election of Francis, in part because he was certain that his successor would be Cardinal Angelo Scola. When the first white smoke came from the chimney of St Peter’s, a statement from the Italian Episcopal Conference, at 8:24pm on 13 March 2013, expressed “the sentiments of the entire Italian nation in welcoming the news of Cardinal Angelo Scola as successor of Peter”. In the conclave of 2013, Cardinal Scola, according to reliable reconstructions, was in the lead after the first ballot, before being overtaken by Cardinal Bergoglio, who was elected with the fifth.3
The predictions were subverted by the vote of the American cardinals, convinced that a deep internal cleansing of the Church was necessary and that no Italian cardinal would be capable of conducting it. It was thanks to their decisive vote that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected. Who would ever have thought that none other than the American episcopate, ten years later, would show the most determined opposition to Pope Francis?
The internal reforms of the Church were desired by both conservatives and progressives, and Bergoglio presented himself as a “spiritual” candidate, capable of implementing this reform. Who, moreover, would have imagined that Pope Francis would be the most “political” of the popes of the last century,4 and that his reforms would be a resounding failure?
The appointment of Cardinal George Pell as the first prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy on 24 February 2014 seemed like a pledge to the conservatives, who nonetheless realised that the reforms were slow in coming and doctrinal and pastoral misunderstandings were multiplying, especially after the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia of 19 March 2016. Four eminent cardinals (Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Leo Burke, Carlo Caffarra, Joachim Meisner) presented five Dubia to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 16 September 2016: perhaps it was foreseeable that no response would ever come, but what unexpectedly did come to pass were the deaths of two of the four cardinals — Joachim Meisner on 5 July 2017 and Carlo Caffarra on 6 September of the same year — thwarting the public action of the other two cardinals.
On 29 June 2017, the Australian police confirmed that Cardinal Pell had been charged with “serious sexual crimes” against minors. Pell was found guilty by a jury in the state of Victoria in Australia and, on 13 March 2019, he was sentenced to a prison term of six years. It was not until 7 April 2020 that he was acquitted unanimously by the same court and released after more than a year of incarceration. The Australian cardinal, the most active of the cardinals of the curia and the one most equipped with know-how, returned to Rome and began to organise the anti-Bergoglian ranks for the next conclave, but he unexpectedly passed away on 10 January 2023. Even while his funeral was going on, a heated hearing in the trial of Cardinal Angelo Becciu — a judicial matter still open and full of unknowns, in which Pope Francis is involved — was taking place nearby at the Vatican.
Who, furthermore, could have imagined the disappointment in Pope Francis on the part of those same progressives who had enthusiastically welcomed his election? In April 2013, the historian Alberto Melloni called Pope Francis’s announcement of the reform of the curia “the most important step in the history of the Church in the last ten centuries and in the fifty-year history of the reception of Vatican II”.5 Ten years later, Melloni himself called the founding principle of Praedicate evangelium, the apostolic constitution of 19 March 2022 on the reorganisation of the Roman curia “a thesis that strikes at the heart of the Second Vatican Council, and that constitutes a sticking point for the future of the Church”.6 The accusation is that of having renounced the primacy of the sacramental order over the juridical, which had constituted one of the cornerstones of the new conciliar doctrine.
“The irruption of Francis produced a shock,” Jean-Marie Guénoisin wrote in his latest book, in which he tries to solve what another vaticanista, Massimo Franco, has called the Bergoglio enigma,7 “A clash of cultures. It was experienced, depending on one’s sensibilities, as a nightmare, an earthquake, or an authentic liberation.”8 Among the few clear points is a radical continuity, on the level of practice, with Vatican II. In this sense, Abbé Claude Barthe is correct when he calls the current pontificate: “an apocalypse in the literal sense, that is to say a revelation, specifically a revelation of the great turning point that the Fathers of Vatican II had brought about volens nolens. Pope Francis is raising this absolutely unique event to the highest degree, or in any case making its nature much more tangible.”9
But the “Pandora’s box” of Benedict XVI’s resignation, with the consequent election of Francis, has perhaps produced its most unforeseeable consequences in the camp of Catholics faithful to Tradition. The Correctio filias of 11 August 2017, signed by over 200 theologians and scholars of various disciplines, seemed to have found a unity of doctrine and purpose in that world. But the coronavirus pandemic, the Russian-Ukrainian war, and Francis’s wavering attitude have contributed to destabilising it. The traditional world is no longer an Acies ordinata, as it may have appeared until January 2020, but a confused and quarrelsome formation, which today finds itself facing an event that Cardinal Pell called “a toxic nightmare”: the synod of October, a new “Pandora’s box” from which anything can be expected, even with regard to the reactions it will inevitably bring about.
- Julio Loredo and José Antonio Ureta, The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box (TFP Books, 2023).
- Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Nient’altro che la verità. La mia vita al fianco di Benedetto XVI (Piemme, Casale Monferrato, 2023) pp. 191-230.
- Gerard O’Connell, The election of Pope Francis. An Inside Account of the Conclave that Changed History (Orbis Books, 2021).
- Cf. Jean -Pierre Moreau, La conquête du pouvoir (Contretemps, Paris, 2023).
- Corriere della Sera, 14 April 2013.
- La Repubblica, 24 August 2022.
- Massimo Franco, L’Enigma Bergoglio (Edizioni Solferino, Milan 2020).
- Jean-Marie Guénois, Pape François. La Révolution (Gallimard, Paris, 2023).
- ResNovae, September 1, 2023.