Bishop Athanasius Schneider (photo credit | Edward Pentin)

    Letter #101, 2023, Friday, June 16: Bishop Athanasius Schneider: New Synod norms “undermine the hierarchical structure of the Church” 

    Many Catholics, as they have watched the multi-year process leading up to the upcoming Bishops’ Synod on Synodality, to be held in Rome this coming October (2023) and then concluded in a second session in October 2024, with some concern.

     The concern is that the Synod’s methods and goals may, whether intentionally or unintentionally, allow orthodox Church doctrine to be brought into question, increasing confusion in the minds of the faith and in the teaching of the Church.

    Now Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of Astana in Kazakhstan, has specified one of these concerns: the norms recently published for the upcoming Synod are problematic because they “resemble more the norms of synods of the Anglican and other Protestant communities, where clergy and laity are given equal voting rights” than traditional Catholic synodal norms.

    The new norms, Schneider continues, threaten, as our title suggests, to “undermine the hierarchical structure of the Church.”

    This is because a vote at the Synod will be given to lay participants, and not just to bishops, who are consecrated to be the shepherds and teachers of the Church.

    The full interview in which Schneider sets forth and explains his concerns is below.

    His remarks are thoughtful and reasonable, and deserve to be taken into consideration by the organizers of the Synod.


    After originally being planned to end in 2022 as the culmination of a two-year process that began in 2021, the Catholic Bishops’ Synod on Synodality was delayed — in part due to the coming of the Covid virus and its consequences — from October, 2022 (last year) to October 4-29, 2023 (this year, in three and a half months).

    According to a communique of the Holy See Press Office a year ago, on October 16, 2022:

    “This decision stems from the desire that the theme of a Synodal Church, because of its breadth and importance, might be the subject of prolonged discernment not only by the members of the Synodal Assembly, but by the whole Church. Moreover, this choice is in continuity with the ongoing synodal journey…

    “The Synod is not an event but a process in which the whole People of God is called to walk together toward what the Holy Spirit helps it to discern as being the Lord’s will for his Church.

    “Therefore, the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will also take on a processual dimension, configuring itself as ‘a journey within the journey’ to foster more mature reflection for the greater good of the Church.” (link)    

    On April 26, seven weeks ago, just five months before the start of the October 2023 Synod on Synodality, the General Secretariat of the Synod announced it had decided to change to the composition of the assembly to include lay men and women as voting members, replacing dozens of bishops.

    Bishop Athanasius Schneider, spoke with concern of this decision to American Catholic journalist Diane Montagna in an important interview published last week, on Thursday, June 8, in the UK’s Catholic Herald (full text below). It is worth reading.—RM

Bishop Schneider: Pope Francis’s synodal reform is undermining the Church (link)

    Diane Montagna

    June 8, 2023 at 8:38 pm

    Bishop Athanasius Schneider is appealing to Pope Francis to rescind new norms that grant equal voting rights to bishops and laity at the October 2023 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, saying they are a “radical novelty” that “undermine the divine constitution of the Church, conforming it more to a Protestant or even secular model.”

    The norms, issued on 26 April by the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, and its General Rapporteur, Luxembourger Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, SJ, emphasize that special priority is to be given to women and young people who, along with other non-bishop members, will comprise twenty-five percent of the vote.

    According to Bishop Schneider, auxiliary bishop of St Mary in Astana, Kazakhstan, the changes to the composition of the assembly make the upcoming synod resemble “a democratic or egalitarian parliament rather than a monarchical hierarchy established by Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    He further contends that “the synodal processes and documents, and the upcoming Synod in Rome, have adopted a method which is alien to the spirit of the Apostles, Church Fathers, and genuine tradition of the Church.”

    In this exclusive interview, Bishop Schneider also clarifies the nature of a Synod of Bishops as envisioned by Pope Paul VI, discusses what he believes Paul VI would say to the October 2023 assembly, and calls on the cardinals to act and not remain passive “as the Church is harmed, and the salvation of souls is jeopardized.”

    Diane Montagna: On 26 April, the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops issued a press statement announcing changes to the composition of the October 2023 assembly in Rome. Ten consecrated clerics are to be replaced by five men and five women religious, while auditors (experts) are to be replaced by seventy non-bishop members chosen by Pope Francis. All participants will have the right to vote. Your Excellency, what do you make of this change?

    Bishop Athanasius Schneider: This change represents a radical novelty in the history of the Catholic Church. A synod of bishops is an instrument by which the hierarchy exercises its teaching and governing office. Although lay people can be invited to participate at a synod to lend their advice, the voting norms of a synod have always reflected the essential difference between the hierarchical/ministerial and the common priesthood. Granting lay people the same right to vote as bishops undermines the hierarchical structure of the Church and resembles more the norms of synods of the Anglican and other Protestant communities, where clergy and laity are given equal voting rights.

    In making this change, the Synod Secretariat modified the application of Pope Francis’s 2018 Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio. Can such norms be changed through a press release?

    Bishop Schneider: Essential norms regarding the structure and procedures of the Synod of Bishops, including voting rights, must be duly promulgated by the Roman Pontiff or by an organ of the Holy See which has received a specific papal mandate for this purpose. The Synod Secretariat statement does not mention a specific papal mandate. The fact that these essential norms were changed via a press release from the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops creates a perception of canonical arbitrariness.

    In their statement, the Synod Secretariat insisted this decision does not change the episcopal nature of the assembly, but rather “confirms” it by “giving visibility to the circular relationship between the prophetic function of the People of God and the discernment function of the Pastors.”

    Bishop Schneider: Such rescue attempts are not convincing. The very fact that lay people will be voting along with bishops on matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church is itself revealing and transmits a highly ambiguous doctrinal message. Furthermore, the fact that the vote at the October 2023 assembly in Rome is merely consultative does not lessen the truth that the upcoming synod resembles a democratic or egalitarian parliament, rather than a monarchical hierarchy established by Our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Historically, what positive role have the laity played in such matters?

    Bishop Schneider: There have been cases in the Church’s history when lay people were consulted on matters of faith; however, they were not invited to vote formally along with the bishops. For example, before proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Ineffabilis Deus, Pius IX asked the entire episcopate to tell him “what the piety and devotion of their faithful was in regard to the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God”.

    There were also times, as during the fourth-century Arian crisis, when the purity of the Catholic Faith was maintained by the laity rather than bishops. It was a time, St John Henry Newman said, when “there was a temporary suspense of the functions of the Ecclesia docens.”

    In his famous work, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, Newman wrote: “In that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the Ecclesia docta than by the Ecclesia docens; that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism. At one time the Pope, at other times the patriarchal, metropolitan, and other great sees, at other times general councils, said what they should not have said, or did what obscured and compromised revealed truth; while, on the other hand, it was the Christian people who, under Providence, were the ecclesiastical strength of Athanasius, Hilary, Eusebius of Vercelli, and other great solitary confessors, who would have failed without them.”

    Do you see a resemblance between the fourth-century crisis and our own day?

    Bishop Schneider: Yes. The widespread doctrinal confusion in the fourth century bears a striking resemblance to our own day. What St. John Henry Newman said of that time may well be applied to the current doctrinal and disciplinary confusion being created by the various synodal processes and preparatory documents issued by the Holy See over the past year. Cardinal Newman wrote of the Arian crisis: “The body of Bishops failed in the confession of the faith. They spoke variously, one against another; there was nothing, after Nicaea, of firm, unvarying, consistent testimony, for nearly sixty years. There were untrustworthy Councils, unfaithful Bishops; there was weakness, fear of consequences, misguidance, delusion, hallucination, endless, hopeless, extending itself into nearly every corner of the Catholic Church. The comparatively few who remained faithful were discredited and driven into exile; the rest were either deceivers or were deceived.”

    The various documents issued during the current synodal process represent the sort of confusion against which the fourth-century Doctor of the Church St Hilary of Poitiers warned, saying: “It is impossible, it is unreasonable, to mix true and false, to confuse light and darkness, and bring into a union, of whatever kind, night and day” (In Constantium, 1).

    The Synod of Bishops was established by Pope Paul VI in 1965, to “assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world” (canon 342). What do you think he would say to the 2023 assembly?

    Bishop Schneider: During the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1971, Pope Paul VI insisted upon the right understanding of a synod. In doing so, he stressed the guiding and decisive role of the hierarchy, saying: “The communion, of which the Church is the result, is organic. Different are the functions, different the organs of the one mystical body; and the function that best characterizes this complex unity is that of hierarchy; it is the apostolic one, the one which Jesus Christ himself distinguished from the multitude, and which He has entrusted to direct it pastorally in his name, to convoke it, and then to instruct it, to sanctify it, and to assist it” (General Audience, October 6, 1971).

    It would be very beneficial for the following admonition of Pope Paul VI to be read at the beginning of the upcoming Synod in Rome: “Can we suppose that the hierarchy is free to teach in the religious sphere what it likes, or what may please certain doctrinal, or rather anti-doctrinal currents of modern opinion? No. We must remember that the episcopate is invested with a primordial duty: that of witness, that of the rigorous and faithful transmission of Christ’s original message, that is, of the complex of truths revealed by Him and entrusted to the Apostles, with regard to salvation. Christianity cannot change its constitutional doctrines. Bishops are more than any others those who must “guard the deposit,” as the Apostle says [1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14]. Nor should we hypothesize changes, evolutions, transformations of the Church in matters of faith. The Creed remains. In this respect, the Church is tenaciously conservative and therefore does not grow old” (General Audience, October 6, 1971).

    How would you diagnose the illness afflicting the Church that has led us to this point?

    Bishop Schneider: The greatest evil and spiritual sickness which has infected the Church in our day is the “conformation to the spirit of this world” (Rom 12:2), which is basically the spirit of Modernism. Pope Paul VI spoke about this danger already in 1964, saying: “The Church itself is being engulfed and shaken by this tidal wave of change, for however much men may be committed to the Church, they are deeply affected by the climate of the world. They run the risk of becoming confused, bewildered, and alarmed, and this is a state of affairs which strikes at the very roots of the Church. It drives many people to adopt the most outlandish views. They imagine that the Church should abdicate her proper role and adopt an entirely new and unprecedented mode of existence. Modernism might be cited as an example. This is an error which is still making its appearance under various new guises, wholly inconsistent with any genuine religious expression. It is surely an attempt on the part of secular philosophies and secular trends to vitiate the true teaching and discipline of the Church of Christ” (Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, 26).

    And what is the remedy?

    Bishop Schneider: In light of the evident general infection of the body of the Church today with the heresy of Modernism, ie, with a willingness to conform to the unbelieving spirit of the world — with its revolt against God’s creation, Revelation, and His Commandments — the 2023 Synod ought, more than ever before, to warn of this infection and propose effective remedies.

    In particular, it should propose the ever-valid truths and effective norms of the Church’s perennial tradition. Pope Paul VI wrote in this regard: “An effective remedy is needed if all these dangers, which are prevalent in many quarters, are to be obviated, and We believe that such a remedy is to be found in an increased self-awareness on the part of the Church. The Church must get a clearer idea of what she really is in the mind of Jesus Christ as recorded and preserved in Sacred Scripture and in Apostolic Tradition and interpreted and explained by the tradition of the Church under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit” (Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, 26).

    And yet they seem to be taking a different approach.

    Bishop Schneider: Instead, the synodal processes and documents, and the upcoming Synod in Rome, have adopted a method which is alien to the spirit of the Apostles, Church Fathers, and genuine tradition of the Church. In making psychological and sociological data a criterion for deciding matters of faith, morals, and discipline, the Synod Secretariat has ignored Paul VI, who said: “The conclusions of [sociological] investigations could not in themselves constitute a decisive criterion of truth” (Apostolic Exhortation Quinque Iam Anni, December 8, 1970).

    Pope Paul VI warned against taking such a worldly approach, when he said: “We see a tendency to reconstruct, from psychological and sociological data, a Christianity detached from the unbroken Tradition that links it to the faith of the Apostles, and to exalt a Christian life devoid of religious elements” (Apostolic Exhortation Quinque Iam Anni, December 8, 1970).

    Pope Francis and all the members of the upcoming Synod in Rome should earnestly heed the following prophetic warnings of Pope Paul VI: “We are not the judges of God’s word: it is it that judges us and exposes our conformity to worldly fashion” (Apostolic Exhortation Quinque Iam Anni, December 8, 1970).

    What would be your recommendation to the Cardinals?

    Bishop Schneider: Giving equal voting rights to the episcopacy and laity is unprecedented and seriously undermines the divine constitution of the Church, conforming it more to a Protestant or even secular model. The absence of clear goals for the synod, which would bring clarity at a time of great doctrinal confusion, is also very harmful to the Church. It is therefore clear that the upcoming synod is a vehicle to accelerate the Protestantization and secularization of the Catholic Church. The Cardinals cannot simply remain silent as the Church is harmed and the salvation of souls is jeopardized. They are obliged to appeal to the Pope, with clarity and all due reverence, as the Apostle Paul did towards Peter, when he was not walking “uprightly unto the truth of the Gospel” (Gal 2:14).

    Your Excellency, what is your message to Pope Francis?

    Bishop Schneider: The matter before us is urgent, and I appeal fraternally to Pope Francis to rescind the new norms of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, which grant equal voting rights to the bishops and the laity.

    I also appeal fraternally to him to issue clear goals for the Synod that will enable bishops to profess courageously and unambiguously before the entire Church, and the world, the uniqueness of Christ and His saving work, the validity of God’s commandments, and the divinely established order of the Church.

    Along with such a profession, the Synod should propose concrete and effective remedies against the spiritual viruses and maladies which severely and almost globally affect the body of the Church today.

    If the 2023-2024 synodal assemblies fail to do this, Cardinal Charles Journet’s prediction will come to pass: “One day the faithful will wake up and realize that they have been intoxicated by the spirit of the world.”

    [End Montagna article]

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