What fruits will the ‘Idol Synod’ bear? Time will tell

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Pope Francis accepts offertory gifts from indigenous people as he celebrates the concluding Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

History is funny in the holdovers it keeps from its first draft — journalism — and in those it discards. Salacious or outlandish headlines rightly decried at the time events were unfolding often give events their names. This one might go down in history as the “Idol Synod.”

The sham trial of Pope Formosus in 897, for example, is known as the “Cadaver Synod.” It did involve a cadaver, but it wasn’t a synod. The Special Assembly for the Amazon, held in Rome from Oct. 6-27 in search of “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” was an exercise of an organ called the Synod of Bishops. Whether it was a synod in any other meaningful sense is doubtful. It probably didn’t involve idols.

If it sticks, the name for the 2019 Synod Assembly will have come from a ceremony in the Vatican Gardens on Oct. 4 — the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, in whose honor a tree was planted and to whose protection the gathering of bishops was to be entrusted. The ceremony also included some elements that were rather strange — unfamiliar to Western sensibilities and certainly not Roman, fairly said to be rather startling. Pope Francis, before whom the ceremony unfolded, declined to deliver his prepared remarks and offered only the Our Father before hastily departing the scene. The director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Matteo Bruni, later explained to The Catholic Herald that the Holy Father had indeed placed the synod under the protection of the Poverello of Assisi.

Explaining the statues

Surely, an explanation was in order. Instead, message managers from the Vatican first told inquiring journalists they didn’t organize the thing that happened in the Vatican Gardens in the presence of the Roman Pontiff, which was broadcast on Vatican Media. They then offered their own personal opinions — often from the dais in the press room and during official press briefings — in lieu of a qualified explanation.

A wooden statue of a pregnant woman is pictured in the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina as part of exhibits on the Amazon region during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in Rome Oct. 18, 2019. Several copies of the statue were stolen from the church and thrown into the Tiber River Oct. 21. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

At least one of the participants in the ceremony did go on record to say the wood-carved image of a pregnant woman to which indigenous participants in the ceremony at one point knelt and bowed low to the ground was Our Lady of the Amazon, but that flew in the face of the semi-official unofficial narrative, according to which the statues were generic symbols of life and no rites of any kind were performed.

Then, on the last Friday of the synod, Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Communications (also president of the Commission for Information of the Synod of Bishops) actually denied — in words — not only that there had been rites performed during the ceremony (there was some wiggle room on that point), but that there had been prostrations. Who are you going to believe? Ruffini, or your lyin’ eyes?

The secretary of the Synod of Bishops’ Committee for Information, Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, wondered aloud and on the record at the whole line of questioning regarding the figures and the ceremony. He said he felt it was motivated by a desire to paint indigenous cultures in a bad light and perhaps to discredit the Vatican.

The Vatican could have stopped the mess before it started, and might have put an end to it easily, but didn’t.

Someone eventually subtracted the statues from their niches in Santa Maria in Traspontina and hurled them into the Tiber. That, too, was caught on video, which went viral. One part of the public hailed the would-be idol-smashers as a new Boniface for our times, while another condemned them as racist iconoclasts. The really disturbing thing about the whole sordid episode was how much everyone on every side seemed to be enjoying themselves.

In any case, the statuary was recovered. Pope Francis made an apology “as bishop of the Diocese [of Rome],” which he addressed to “the persons who were offended by this act.” Amply, Pope Francis told the Synod Fathers gathered on the final Friday afternoon of the assembly: “I want to say a word about the statues of the pachamama that were taken from the church of the Transpontina — which were there without idolatrous intentions — and were thrown into the Tiber.” Matteo Bruni clarified that the pope’s use of the name was merely a form of shorthand reference, but the use of it earned the business at least another full round of media coverage.

“First of all,” Pope Francis continued, “this happened in Rome, and, as bishop of the Diocese, I ask pardon of the persons who were offended by this act.” Careful parsing — always a good idea with Pope Francis — raises the question of whether “this act” referred to their placement in the church or the attempt at drowning them in the river. “Then,” he said, “I want to communicate to you that the statues which created such attention in the media, were retrieved from the Tiber,” undamaged, he specified.

On the return flight to Rome from Africa in September, Pope Francis warned journalists of the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of narrative. Whether by circumstance or by design, he and his communications cohort certainly fed both narratives throughout the whole sad and sorry episode.

Celibacy, women deacons

We were talking about the Synod. Right. On that point, two things emerged from the final document: qualified approval from participating bishops for a relaxation in the discipline for secular clerics in the Amazon, so that married “men of proven virtue” — viri probati — might be ordained to the presbyterate; and a call for greater recognition of the role of women in the life of the Church in the Amazon, including ordained ministries such as a permanent diaconate.

On the first — viri probati — it is worth noting that any concrete action is still a ways off and will not abolish celibacy, which will remain an essential and integral part of religious life, even if it does cease to be a defining characteristic of secular clerical culture. The synod is, as we were told time and again during the course of the Fathers’ most recent labors, a consultative body: the Fathers propose, the pope decides.

The theological part of the second major issue — women deacons — turns on a delicately balanced axis that requires a subtle distinction. Historically, there is no doubt regarding the existence of an order of deaconesses in several ritual churches, East and West, some of which continued into the second millennium. These were orders, members of which were ordained. We have some of the rites of ordination. The question, therefore, is not whether there were deaconesses — there have been — nor whether they were ordained — they were — but whether their ordination participated in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Those who say that women were never ordained and cannot be ordained are not flatly wrong. In fact, they appear to be right, if one allows “ordained” to be shorthand for “validly received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.” They are, however, technically imprecise. Many ritual churches still have minor orders. Pope St. Paul VI abolished the minor orders and the order of subdeacon (a major order in the West) in 1972. Historically, the order of deaconesses appears, in some places, at least, to have been roughly on par with (though not identical to) that of subdeacon.

In his closing remarks to the Synod Fathers, Pope Francis said he would consider reconvening the study commission he created a few years ago to examine the question.

Now, it’s a waiting game: Each numbered paragraph of the final document (120 of them over 29 block-set pages) received the necessary 2/3 majority approval of the Synod Fathers, but the whole thing was little more than a report with a series of recommendations or requests for further consideration. The pope will decide what, if anything, to do with the recommendations.

Christopher Altieri is the Rome bureau chief for The Catholic Herald.