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Critics of Pope Francis Won’t Rain on Synod’s Parade, Says Papal Envoy to US

Synod on Synodality
Cardinal-elect and Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Christophe Pierre speaks to the press at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In the weeks leading up to the long-awaited Vatican Synod on Synodality Oct. 4-29, perhaps no local church has been more polarized or vocally critical of the event than the conservative community in the U.S. But according to the Vatican representative to the U.S., Catholics shouldn’t be too concerned with the pushback.

“I think we should never exaggerate the resistance to the synod,” said Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the U.S. since 2016, in an interview with Religion News Service at the Vatican on Friday (Sept. 29).

“The people who are resisting are very vocal and they are also supported by a network of blogs,” he added, which can make papal opposition “look like a conspiracy sometimes.” Pierre is among the 21 nominees who will be made cardinals by Pope Francis at the consistory Saturday.

Following a two-year consultation of Catholics around the globe, bishops, priests and non-clergy faithful will gather at the Vatican to discuss a wide array of topics, ranging from power distribution to same-sex marriage to the role of women in the church. But some conservative Catholics and news outlets in the U.S. have described the synod as a Trojan horse, created by the pontiff to introduce progressive ideologies in the church.

The de-facto leader of papal opposition in the U.S., Cardinal Raymond Burke, wrote in a preface to a book on the synod titled “The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box” that the event has brought “grave harm” to the church and might eventually lead to schism. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, wrote in a public letter in August that the synod will reveal “the true schismatics” who wish to “undermine the Deposit of the Faith.”

More extremist positions are represented by radical traditionalist Fr. James Altman, formerly of the Diocese of La Crosse in Wisconsin, who, in a video titled “Bergoglio is not the pope,” said, using Pope Francis’ birth name, that the “best thing we could do would be to throw the great millstone around Jorge Bergoglio’s neck and throw him into the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.”

Pierre dismissed conservative fears and insisted the synod is not about creating a new church or a new doctrine, but about fostering dialogue. “Some people say: ‘you opened a Pandora’s box.’ Of course, you can open a Pandora’s box for anything,” he said, adding that “we need in some way to help the church to be together and find ways to evangelize in a new, globalized context.”

While conservative opposition to Pope Francis and the synod in the U.S. often appears conspicuous, well-funded and meticulously produced, it actually represents a small fraction of the faithful and clergy in the country, Pierre said.

“Most of the bishops are respectful toward the pope, I know that,” Pierre said. “Maybe some bishops have taken a different course. But if there are problems, the pope has to deal with them. We have always done that.”

Altman has been dismissed from his parish in the diocese of La Crosse and was banned from preaching publicly in 2021. And in June of this year, Pope Francis sent an apostolic visitation to the diocese of Tyler to investigate Strickland’s leadership. Unconfirmed, but highly publicized, rumors from the Vatican have suggested the pope might soon ask Strickland to resign. But speaking to RNS, the firebrand bishop said he “cannot voluntarily abandon the flock that I have been given charge of as a successor of the apostles.”

While controversial issues in the church may have taken center stage at the synod, the event promises to be far more centered on ecclesiology, or how the church is organized and operates. Questions on how bishops should relate to the pontiff, and vice versa, and how bishops should be held accountable by their diocese will likely make up a big portion of the discussions.