The Synod and the logic of Cosmo Kramer

October 9, 2023
Many thanks to my Facebook friend Timothy Jones for creating the photo meme
The Synod and the imprecision of its language

After listening to the first several press briefings at the Synod, mostly from Paulo Ruffini, but also now one with the African Cardinal Besungu, I was immediately reminded of a famous scene from Seinfeld where Kramer is trying to convince Jerry to commit mail insurance fraud by claiming that a stereo of Jerry’s was damaged during shipping when in fact it had not been.  Jerry objects to this and an incredulous Kramer looks at Jerry and pleads with him to reconsider since “all of these big companies just write this stuff off Jerry!!”  Jerry then asks Kramer “Do you even know what a write off is?” To which Kramer responds: “No, but they do, and they’re the ones writing it off.”

Kramer’s goofy circular logic is a great piece of comedic entertainment, but when Synod spokesmen begin to use the same fuzzy logic, it ceases to be funny. Nobody seems to really know what “synodality” is in terms of a specific and coherent definition and instead they keep repeating that synodality is not so much a specific idea as it is a process of discernment in the Holy Spirit.  But when pressed as to what this “process” is they become equally vague and simply point to the “discerning” that is going on.  In other words, and if I might be so bold as to paraphrase their words to make it clear what they are really saying, you could put what it is they are really saying as follows: “Synodality is a process of discernment among discerners. And you ask what is discernment? I cannot say, but they do, and they are the ones doing the discerning.”

We saw this logic at work when Ruffini answered a question on how we can tell if it is the Holy Spirit speaking through the Synod or rather a “different spirit”? He replied vaguely that the Creed affirms “I believe in the Holy Spirit” and that it is THAT spirit to which they are listening.  But when pressed about how we can know that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit to whom they are listening, Ruffini essentially demurred and said that we can know this because the Spirit listeners know when the Spirit is speaking and they are the ones doing the listening…

And when Cardinal Besungu was asked about the Synod and the possibility of it approving blessings for same sex unions he demurred as well and said that he did not want to express his opinion since that would be in some way to short-circuit the listening to the Lord that comprises the synodal way.  And, he said, it is the Lord who is leading us on this question, and it is the Lord toward whom we look. We need to listen to the Lord in all of this.  But this is just another way of kicking the can down the road and it is an exercise in question begging since how do we know that the decisions reached by the Synod are from the Lord? In other words, we cannot really define what the process of listening to the Lord entails and what the criteria are for adjudicating between the Lord’s voice and our own, but those who are doing the listening know what it all entails because they are the ones doing the listening.

This entire synodal process has been riddled with just this form of circular logic as can be seen in the Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod which never really gets around to defining a coherent theological definition of “synodality” beyond some vague notion that it involves a new and unique form of “listening” to the “People of God”.  And we will only learn what synodality really is when we do this listening and kind of figure out what synodality is in the doing of synodality.  It reminds me of when Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House, told the members of the House who wanted to know what was in the massive Obamacare bill, that they needed to pass the bill in order to be able to read the bill.  So too here since we are being told that we can only know what synodality means when synodal people start doing synodal things. And only then will we be able to know what synodality is.

Meanwhile, the progressives at the Synod, in their many comments leading up to the Synod (e.g. Cardinal McElroy in America magazine) seem to know quite well what synodality is and in their eyes it is nothing short of a unique opportunity to engage in a kind of “mini Vatican III” but without all of those pesky bishops in a real ecumenical council raising obstructionist objections. Cardinal Besungu, who may or may not be of this mindset, was asked what authority, if any, this Synod has. Because traditionally Synods of Bishops have only been consultative entities designed to give the Pope advice after which he has the last word in his apostolic exhortation after the Synod.  And the Pope has said that the Synod is not to be viewed as a parliament that is voting on issues but is rather merely a process for discerning the Spirit.  But he offers no concrete criteria for how this discerning is to take place.  No criteria for discerning the discerning in order to figure out if some discerning is more in tune with the Spirit than other discerning.

But the progressives do seem to want to treat it as a platform for introducing radical changes to Church teaching, and in his answer to the question Cardinal Besungu said that in virtue of their baptism that the members of the Synod do have the authority to speak for the whole People of God.  But this is once again an expression of a very shallow theology that is merely a conclusion in search of an argument.  Because our common baptism does not in fact confer upon us the apostolic authority of the hierarchy and it does not confer upon us the authority to speak on behalf of everyone else. As St. Paul made clear, we are indeed all one body in Christ, but within that one body there are different members with different functions.  And not all are called to be apostles.  And it is to be remembered that history is littered with baptized Christians who were scoundrels and moral degenerates. Greater precision is therefore needed here as to why the mere fact of baptism gives someone the right to speak as a “discerner” on behalf of the whole Church. That is not how the Church has understood doctrinal discernment and for good reasons.

How in the world can it be presumed that around 400 hand selected people, sitting around round tables in Rome for a month, are speaking for the whole people of God?  But once again, the Instrumentum Laboris speaks as if the Holy Spirit has indeed spoken in the listening sessions that were attended by around 1% of the world’s Catholics.  It never even mentions the abysmally low participation levels – levels that were low even in dioceses that actively promoted the listening sessions – but just moves on and thumps its chest over this triumph of listening.  It then glides smoothly into talking about how the “whole People of God” have now spoken and been listened to. And devoid a precise theological/ecclesiological definition of how this new alchemy works, we are left really on the level of mere rhetoric.

And herein lies my chief complaint about this Synod.  It is purporting to introduce into the Church a radically new way of “being Church” but in language so vague and circuitous that it could be interpreted in a myriad of different ways.  And of course, the suspicion is that this is deliberate. But I truly have no way of knowing if that is true, nor does anybody else.  And I truly hope that out of all of this vagueness something beautiful and good will emerge.  And the Holy Spirit does that sometimes so it is not a vain hope.  

But the sky is not falling, the Church is not about to crumble into ruins, and Pope Francis is not an anti-pope trying to destroy the Church from within.  That is my heartfelt opinion, and I am sticking by it. I have no patience for the kinds of hyperventilations that one sees so often on social media on this score and we need to keep our heads about ourselves and offer up real theological insights and not just stomp our feet in indignation.

My concerns by contrast are those of a theologian, as one might expect, and as a theologian I am sensitive to the use of theological terminology that is imprecise and confusing.  I am also sensitive to the use of “buzzwords” that quite often mean more than they denote literally, given our cultural context.  Words like “inclusion” and “dialogue”, for example, which are rather vacuous terms since there is no specificity as to whether there are limits to either of these things and which come with no criteria for establishing what kind of inclusion or what kind of dialogue one has in mind.  Are anti-Semites, misogynists, racists, neo-Nazis, pedophiles, and sex traffickers part of this inclusion? Of course not.  And they are extreme examples of course but it establishes the principle that not all are included unless they first express a desire to repent.  And most likely that too is what the Synod organizers mean as well.  But who knows?  Because in some cases, as on the issue of LGBTQ Catholics ( and I am not comparing them in the slightest to the miscreants above), there is a great deal of ambiguity as to whether the desire to repent from sexual sin is also what is expected here.  

The Church is never well served when such ambiguities creep into her official language.  The role of the Magisterium is to unify by clarifying. But lately the role seems reversed and that the goal is to muddy the waters in order to destabilize things a bit in order to shake things up and open up new avenues of creative discourse.  And that is all well and good I guess.  That kind of destabilization is sometimes necessary when an institution becomes a bit smug, stale, and moribund.  But I don’t like it because I think there are other and better ways of achieving that goal than by unsettling millions of good Catholics who are left in a state of confusion and even a great deal of existential anguish.  This is the faith after all that we are toying with and not a parlor game, or worse, a mere political entity filled with Machiavellian protagonists who seek to achieve their ends via the path of confusion.  

Therefore, I cannot get Cosmo Kramer out of my mind.  Sorry to use such a silly example but sometimes it is better to use humor rather than syllogisms to make your point.  I am not “anti-Synod” and I will be uncorking the Champagne and throwing an after party at the Chapp farm if this whole things turns out to be something really wonderful.  

But so far, in the press releases I have seen, and in my reading of the Instrumentum Laboris, I have just been left exasperated and frustrated.  We need and we deserve greater clarity and greater precision in the argument being presented as to what all of this means.  What is synodality anyway beyond a “process of listening”?  I listen all the time to all kinds of people.  So do all of you.  But how does synodal listening rise above this and into the level of a new principle of ecclesial governance? What does inclusion mean when there are clearly people we would not include in the Church unless they expressed a desire to repent? What does dialogue mean when the dialogue has no specified object or goal and is portrayed instead as just this free-floating “conversation amongst friends”? What does “listening to the Holy Spirit” mean when the vast resources in the Church’s spiritual tradition on how to discern the movement of the Spirit and to differentiate it from the movement of other spirits are never mentioned? The Pope is a Jesuit and yet not one word about one of the greatest spiritual methods for discerning the Holy Spirit – the way of Ignatian indifference developed in the Ignatian retreats – is ever given.  

If the Pope and the other leaders of the Synod want folks to stop criticizing the Synod and to get on board the synodal way they might want to begin by explaining in very precise theological language what the synodal way actually is.  Otherwise, they are sowing a kind of confusion that only breeds the suspicions they claim to loathe.  These are smart men and women.  You would think that they would know that.  I think they do.  

I don’t know as a theologian what is meant by synodality.  But I guess they do. And they are the ones doing the synodality.

Dorothy Day, pray for us


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