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Cardinal Zen expresses concerns about Synod on Synodality in leaked letter to bishops

Cardinal Joseph Zen preaches a sermon during a Mass at the Holy Cross Church on May 24, 2022, in Hong Kong, China. / Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

CNA Staff, Oct 4, 2023 / 08:50 am (CNA).

Just days before the Synod on Synodality kicks off its first round of meetings at the Vatican, a letter from Cardinal Joseph Zen has been leaked to media, voicing serious concerns to cardinals and bishops worldwide about the gathering in Rome, and advocating for changes to the synod process as well as spirited discussions of the gathering’s topics. 

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by CNA, was dated Sept. 21 — the Feast of the Apostle St. Matthew — accuses synod organizers of manipulation and pursuing an agenda, rather than allowing for authentic ecclesiastical discourse. News of the letter’s existence was published by The Pillar Wednesday.

The framing of synodality

Cardinal Zen examines the theological framing of synodality by drawing on a recent document by the International Theological Commission, “Synodality in the life and mission of the Church,” underscoring that synodality, at its core, refers to the “communion and participation of all the members of the Church in the mission of evangelization.” 

The cardinal expresses reservations about the scant reference to this critical Vatican-approved document in the preparatory materials for the synod, implying a potential deviation from foundational ecclesiastical principles.

One such principle is “the collegial ministry of bishops,” Zen writes, which is based on the theological foundations of the Second Vatican Council

“I am confounded by the fact that, on the one hand, I am told that synodality is a constitutive element of the Church, but, on the other hand, I am told that this is what God expects from us for this century (as a novelty?).” 

The cardinal, who co-signed the dubia ahead of the synod, adds: “How can God have forgotten to make his Church live out this constitutive element in the 20 centuries of her existence?” 

Cardinal Zen shares “even greater confusion and worry” about “the suggestion being made that finally the day has come to overturn the pyramid, that is, with the hierarchy surmounted by the lay people.”

Pope Francis used the image of an inverted pyramid in a major speech in 2015, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the synod of bishops in 2015. Describing the role of the Apostle Peter as the “rock” atop which the Church is founded, the Holy Father said: “But in this Church, as in an inverted pyramid, the top is located beneath the base.”

Drawing on this, one participant in the Synod on Synodality, Father Ormond Rush, has argued for changes to ecclesiology and Church organization. 

The German Synodal Way lesson

Central to the cardinal’s critique is the German Synodal Way, whose participants have voted in favor of documents calling for the priestly ordination of women, same-sex blessings, and changes to Church teaching on homosexual acts, prompting accusations of heresy and fears of schism.

Concerns have been publicly raised by Pope Francis, as well as Church leaders from Poland, the Nordic countries, and around the world

German organizers have rejected all interventions, instead pushing to install a permanent German Synodal Council to oversee the Church in Germany and implement controversial changes. 

Nonetheless, Cardinal Zen notes, the pope “never ordered that this process in Germany” had to stop, and that his speech to the German bishops during their 2022 ad limina visit — typically published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano — remained undisclosed.  

Instead, the German bishops announced in March they were moving forward with their plans.

Given the carefully planned and executed developments in Germany, Cardinal Zen’s letter warns of attempts to depart from the traditional ecclesiastical order, suggesting any apparent democratic re-orientation is coupled with proposed revolutionary changes in Church constitution and moral teachings on sexuality. 

Zen also notes the precipitous decline in the number of Catholic faithful in Germany since the start of the Synodal Way, stating, “The Church in Germany is dying.” He parallels this collapse with the decline of Catholicism in the Netherlands

Avoiding Anglican strife  

Drawing another parallel, Zen writes: “I think it is not out of place to mention here the great schism that is threatening the Anglican Communion.” 

The Anglican Communion is a worldwide fellowship of 85 million Christians, united by historical ties to the Church of England — and currently facing profound internal divisions over issues such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of people identifying as LGBTQ+ to the clergy. 

Cardinal Zen notes that this has led to some Anglicans calling on their head, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, to repent. Otherwise, they will “no longer accept his leadership,” the letter adds.

Zen refers to the Anglican development as a stark reminder of the divisive paths the Catholic Church could tread if led astray by misinterpretations — or worse, manipulation — of synodality in the pursuit of a questionable agenda.

An agenda and foregone conclusions?

Within this context, the cardinal’s letter accuses the Synod Secretariat — the Vatican office responsible for organizing the Synod on Synodality — of questionable conduct. 

“The Synod Secretariat is very efficient at the art of manipulation,” Zen writes, adding: “Often they claim not to have any agenda. This is truly an offense to our intelligence. Anybody can see which conclusions they are aiming at.”

Zen draws upon biblical examples to highlight that change should be reflective of a larger divine schema, rather than arbitrary alterations. He emphasizes a continuous, harmonious development of doctrine, in the vein of St. John Henry Newman, rather than any insidious shift in narrative, particularly on sexual morality. 

Zen writes that the organizers, while emphasizing the need to “listen to all,” are focusing on one group in particular: “Little by little they make us understand that among these ‘all’ there are especially those whom we have ‘excluded’. Finally, we understand that what they mean are people who opt for a sexual morality different from that of Catholic tradition.”

A Synod radically changed

On the decision to add selected lay participants with a right to vote, the cardinal writes: “If I were one of the members of the Synod, I would place a strong protest, because this decision radically changes the nature of the synod, which Pope Paul VI had intended as an instrument of episcopal collegiality, even if, in the spirit of synodality, lay observers were admitted with the possibility to speak out.” 

“To give the vote to lay people could appear to mean that respect is shown for the sensus fidelium, but are they sure that these lay people who have been invited are fideles? That these lay people at least still go to church? As a matter of fact, these lay people have not been elected by the Christian people,” Zen writes.

The cardinal assures the cardinals and bishops: “I do not suggest a protest, but at least a sweet lament with a request: that at least the votes of the bishops and the votes of the lay people be counted separately.” 

The prelate also takes issue with the overall timing of the synod. “There has been no explanation at all for the addition (halfway through) of another synodal session for 2024,” Zen writes. He wonders whether “the organizers, not sure to be able to reach during this session their goals, are opting for more time to maneuver. But, if what the Holy Spirit has wanted to say is clarified through the voting of the bishops, what is the need of another session?” 

The need for robust dialogue

The cardinal also accuses the organizers of trying to avoid honest, spirited discussions, stating it’s through such open, robust dialogue — much like during Vatican II — that the Holy Spirit truly operates. 

“It seems to me that at Vatican II, before reaching an almost unanimous conclusion, they devoted a lot of time to spirited discussions. It was there that the Holy Spirit worked. To avoid discussions is to avoid the truth.”

The letter calls upon bishops to not merely obey procedural directives unquestioningly, urging them to have accumulated prayers well in advance of the Synod, emulating Pope St. John XXIII‘s spiritual preparations before Vatican II.

“I am aware that in the Synod on the Family, the Holy Father rejected suggestions presented by several cardinals and bishops precisely regarding the procedure. If you, however, respectfully present a petition supported by numerous signatories, perhaps this will be accepted. In any case, you will have done your duty. To accept an unreasonable procedure is to condemn the Synod to failure.”

The 91-year-old cardinal closes with another appeal to his brother bishops and cardinals for prayer — and a petition to change synod procedures. “This letter that I am writing I intend as confidential, but it will not be easy to keep it out of the hands of the mass media. Old as I am, I have nothing to gain and nothing to lose. I will be happy to have done what I feel is my duty to do.” 

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