If Cardinal Mario Grech held nearly any office other than the one he does, his recent comments in favor of the female diaconate and against the need for “uniformity of thought” in the universal Church might not be so significant.

After all, when prelates offer their theological opinions, it’s generally taken as just that — an individual Church leader’s theological opinion.

But Grech isn’t an ordinary prelate — he heads the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Synod. And just one week before his March 21 interview with an Italian-language Swiss publication, Pope Francis had tasked the Maltese cardinal with implementing 10 study groups to focus on themes raised at the 2023 Synod on Synodality assembly. Among them: the possibility of “women’s access to the diaconate” and “shared discernment of controversial doctrinal, pastoral, and ethical issues” in a way that pays “greater attention to the diversity of situations” in different parts of the world.

In other words, the cardinal’s comments can’t help but be read in the context of the study groups and how Grech might intend to lead them, contributing to an already sizable list of concerns about the approach.

In the interview, Grech said that a female diaconate (unspecified whether ordained or not) would not be a “revolution” but a “natural deepening of the Lord’s will.”

The Maltese cardinal also said that Church communion should take the form of a “unity of differences” rather than “uniformity of thought” and described his vision of the Church as a “rainbow,” with more flexibility in pastoral approaches and teaching in different places.

Grech’s apparent support for some form of female deacons is likely to reinforce suspicions that the study groups are being set up to achieve predetermined outcomes that the synod couldn’t deliver. And his views on Church unity, which seem rooted in a disputed understanding of Vatican II’s doctrine on the relation between particular Churches and the universal Church, and was emphasized at the 2023 synod assembly by the likes of the progressive German prelate Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, will likely heighten concerns about the ecclesiological commitments animating the study groups and the selection of its members.

Credibility on the line

Grech’s comments are not the first time synodal leadership’s public freelancing has brought into question the project’s credibility. But they come at a particularly challenging time for the Synod on Synodality. Both the shift to study groups and also the Vatican’s recent promotion of nonliturgical same-sex blessings that “bypassed synodality” have raised questions about whether the final synod assembly, which will take place Oct. 2–27 in Rome, will have much significance at all.

More in Vatican

Even before the Vatican official’s interview, one synod participant stressed that steps would need to be taken to ensure that the study groups are seen as a credible part of the synodal process.

“Much will depend on how transparent the findings of the groups are and how they will be seen to link into the first assembly and synthesis document,” the Australian philosopher Renee Köhler-Ryan, who was a vocal opponent of the push for attempted women’s ordination at the October 2023 assembly, told the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner.

In his interview, Grech described the decision to create study groups, which are expected to work through June 2025, as a “new thing” that emerged out of Pope Francis’ attentive “listening” to the October 2023 assembly.

Participants at that gathering did call for further study on relevant theological and canonical topics. But the plain reading of the synthesis document was that those study groups would be at the service of the synodal assembly, providing feedback at the October 2024 session that would be incorporated into the assembly’s deliberations and final recommendations to Pope Francis.

By giving the study groups a mandate that extends beyond the synod assembly itself — and by shifting a significant number of topics away from the purview of the upcoming October synodal gathering (which will focus more narrowly on “How to be a synodal Church on mission”) — the Vatican has arguably done the opposite: reduced the Synod on Synodality to an auxiliary of the study groups.

In other words, the potential for significant change has been shifted to the study groups and away from the synod — a somewhat shocking development considering that the synod has been billed by its organizers as the most important ecclesial event since the Second Vatican Council.

Other questions

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The relation between the Synod on Synodality and the newly minted study groups isn’t the only question hanging over the new approach.

A crucial one is who will actually be in the groups. In addition to members of the relevant Vatican dicasteries, the guiding document calls for “experts from all continents” in order to ensure that the 10 groups proceed in an “authentically synodal manner,” but names have yet to be released.

The topic is a major concern, because the Synod on Synodality has arguably been animated by a bias toward the views and concerns of those from the secular West. 

For instance, while the term “LGBTQ+” was rejected by the 2023 assembly and not included in its synthesis document, it had been repeatedly used in the preparatory documents produced by the Secretariat of the Synod. Relatedly, Pope Francis’ personal nominees for the Synod on Synodality were disproportionately European and North American, as were the selected theological experts. 

Some study group members are already known, as the Vatican indicates the respective dicasteries (none of which are currently led by an African, a notable break from precedent) that will collaborate on a given theme. 

For instance, Cardinal Victor Fernández, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope Francis’ close confidant, is tapped to play a key role in the study groups dealing with the women diaconate question (Group 5) and reassessing the Church’s understanding of the human person, theology of salvation, and ethics (Group 9).

Additionally, Pope Francis recently named six new consultors to the Secretariat of the Synod, possibly in anticipation of the robust role that the office will play in the various synodal study groups. Father Ormond Rush, an Australian theologian who is a leading advocate of “inverting the pyramid” of the Church’s structure to place a controversial understanding of “sense of the faithful” in the determination of doctrine, was among those added.

The study groups’ mandate well beyond the end of the synod itself has raised eyebrows, but it isn’t the only question of timing being raised.

Some wonder if setting a deadline 14 months from now for the groups to deliver answers on such varied and complex questions is a constructive approach.

“It seems to me that doing a thorough job on the questions before June 2025 may be expecting too much,” Dominican Father Anthony Akinwale, the theological adviser of the Nigerian bishops’ delegation to the Synod on Synodality, told the Register.

Foundational issues

Some have argued that implementing the study groups has effectively lowered the temperature of the synod, giving no room either in the study groups nor at the October assembly for controversial topics like pastoral care for people who identify as LGBTQ+ or the attempted ordination of women to the priesthood.

But this isn’t the full story. While these items aren’t explicitly mentioned in themes being explored by the study groups, the new bodies will take up foundational considerations that could end up shaping the Church’s response to those more particular issues.

For instance, the study group on “shared discernment of controversial doctrinal, pastoral, and ethical issues” is being tasked to “reinterpret the traditional categories of anthropology, soteriology, and theological ethics with a view to better clarifying the relationship between charity and truth.” Two criteria for this reinterpretation are the ways in which pastoral care should allegedly shape doctrine, and “attentive listening to the voice of the local Churches” and the diversity of situations they face.

The theme is highly significant, and the group’s findings could impact the Church’s teaching and pastoral care related to everything from contraception to gender identity. This was anticipated by German Bishop Georg Bätzing, the head of the German bishops’ conference who said after the October 2023 assembly that the synthesis document’s call to revisit the Church’s anthropological formulations was a “huge step forward,” and presumably a vindication of the controversial Synodal Way.

Synod participants like Köhler-Ryan, however, stress that who is asked to participate in that study group will determine the direction it goes in.

“It will be very important that the group on human anthropology retains its prophetic vision, reading what it means to be human in the light of the new Adam and new Eve, Christ and Mary, rather than through prevalent secular ideologies,” she told the Register.

In addition to the 10 study groups, the Vatican’s March 14 announcement also called for the activation of a “permanent forum,” which would essentially promote “synodality” in all areas of the Church. Given the ambiguities still surrounding the term, and the fact that this permanent forum itself would have a role in defining it, its potential impact also deserves continued scrutiny.

Whatever the permanent forum and the study groups come up with, Akinwale emphasizes the need to clarify the content and purpose of the Church’s mission as presented in the Gospel. He shared that he’s been talking to a university student in Nigeria who doesn’t believe in the passion narrative but thinks “it’s a folk story.”

“Are we ready to preach a crucified Christ?” he said to the Register. “That question needs to be part of our synodal missionary equation.”

This article was first published in the National Catholic Register, CNA's sister news partner, and has been adapted for CNA.