Top From Left to Right – Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Bishop Robert Barron, Cardinal Blase Cupich
Bottom From Left to Right – Father James Martin, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Wilton Gregory / Top From Left to Right – Alan Koppschall/EWTN, Courtesy of DeChant-Hughes Public Relations, Daniel Ibáñez/CNA
Bottom From Left to Right – Flickr by Shawn (CC BY-NC 2.0), lev radin / Shutterstock, Georgia Bulletin/Michael Alexander

Rome Newsroom, Jul 8, 2023 / 09:21 am (CNA).

Of the 364 bishops, priests, religious and lay people who will vote in the upcoming Synod on Synodality this October, at least 32 of them come from what the Vatican describes as “North America”— the United States and Canada. 

In fact, among the 50 “at large” participants, those who were neither non-bishop participants in the continental stage nor bishops selected as representatives by their episcopal conference, but were specifically tapped by Pope Francis, seven of them are Americans or Canadian. Three of these papal nominees are U.S. cardinals created by the Pope — a group that failed to earn a representative among the five delegates picked by members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last fall. 

The only North American “at large” papal pick who isn’t a bishop is Jesuit Father James Martin, a controversial cleric who’s made a name for himself by “building a bridge” to people with LGBTQ experiences but, according to many concerned Catholics, muddling Church teaching on sexuality in the process. 

In all, the North American voting members of the Synod vary not only in their ecclesial outlook, but also age, sex, and station of life within the Church. Twenty are bishops, two are priests, seven are women, seven are non-religious laity, and two participants are still only in college. 

But despite the significant range in life experience — not to mention vocations and offices within the life of the Church — what all these Americans and Canadians have in common is that they’ll each have a vote during Synodal proceedings aimed at advising Pope Francis on how the community he leads can become a more “listening Church.” 

Here’s a breakdown of the voting members from North America. 

Two sets of U.S. bishops 

In total, 14 bishops from the United States will participate in the Synod. But within the group of prelates are two distinct sets that represent different emphases within the Church in America, and took very different paths to Synodal participation. 

Five bishops were elected by their peers to represent the U.S. at last November’s USCCB meeting: USCCB president Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese of Military Services, USA; Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas; Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota; Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. 

As their selection by their peers indicates, these bishops, their priorities, and their theological outlook are generally reflective of the wider American episcopacy. Strong voices for religious liberty, immigration reform, and the pro-life cause are among them, as are champions for evangelization and the U.S. Church’s ongoing Eucharistic Revival, as well as a general concern for doctrinal orthodoxy. 

Another set of U.S. bishops were tapped in one way or another by Pope Francis, including all five American cardinals created by the current Holy Father. Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago, Robert McElroy of San Diego, and Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., were specific papal nominees to the 2023 Synod, while Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Cardinal Kevin Farrell, formerly the bishop of Dallas, are automatically included due to their prior papal appointments as, respectively, an ordinary member of the Synod of Bishops and as the prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family, and Life. 

These five American cardinals, as well as Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle, who was also nominated by the Pope, stand for a different set of priorities and pastoral style than the more representative USCCB picks. Cardinal McElroy, for instance, has spoken about the Synod on Synodality as an opportunity to push forward with attempting to ordain women to the diaconate, and to also shift pastoral practice for those persisting in sin away from “Eucharistic coherence.” 

The Pope’s American intervention has been described both by critics and fans as a way of stacking the deck in favor of certain outcomes. But Pope Francis’s nominations from the German episcopacy, for instance, might challenge that narrative. One of his three nominees was Bishop Stefan Oster, one of only four German ordinaries to vote to block funding for the successor stage of the heterodoxical Synodal Way. Another was Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, a Benedict XVI-appointed prefect of the curial office now known as the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the faith, and himself an open critic of the Synod on Synodality. So while it’s clear that Pope Francis has intervened to reshape the American episcopal influence at the Synod in a certain direction, he’s reshaped other delegations in the opposite direction, possibly indicating the goal of a balance of perspectives rather than a specific outcome. 

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, a Benedict XVI appointee but also a member of Pope Francis’s advisory body of cardinals, was also tapped by the Pope to take part in the synod. Archbishop Robert Prevost, the American-born recent appointment to head the Dicastery of Bishops, will take part given his curial position. And Archbishop William Skurla of the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, the metropolitan of all Ruthenian Catholics in the U.S. and Canada, will also participate in the Synod. 

In Canada, bishops conference picks include Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver, Bishop William McGrattan of Calgary, Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme-Mont Laurier, and Auxiliary Bishop March Pelchat of Québec. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect emeritus of the Dicastery of Bishops, Cardinal Michael Czerny of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and Cardinal Gérald LaCroix of Quebec, an ordinary member of the Synod of Bishops, will also participate. 

The most controversial choice? 

Many of the Pope’s American cardinal nominees were expected; he’s done something similar in recent Synods in 2018 and 2015, after these figures likewise failed to earn a nomination from their peers. 

This makes Jesuit Father James Martin Pope Francis’s most controversial North American nominee — though also not a completely surprising pick. 

Father Martin is famous for his advocacy to make the Catholic Church more welcoming to people with LGBTQ experiences. The popular media figure wrote Building a Bridge in 2017, was the subject of a Martin Scorsese-produced documentary last year, and recently launched Outreach, a website that publishes articles critical of the Church’s teaching and pastoral approach related to same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. 

Father Martin has repeatedly claimed he holds orthodox beliefs. Critics contend, however, that the Jesuit cleric’s approach isn’t simply welcoming, because it downplays or even undermines the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Whatever his actual intentions, according to these critics, the effect of Father Martin’s advocacy has been to sow confusion in the life of the Church, and to also usher people back into the Church under a false pretense — that it will change its unchangeable teaching on the nature of sexual acts and sacramental marriage. 

Those calling for changes to the Church’s approach to LGBTQ issues have long viewed synods as an opportunity to exert pressure, even resorting to political-style lobbying in the lead up to the 2018 Synod on Young People. With Father Martin among those inside the Synod room and voting this time around, it seems like such tactics will be less necessary. 

Youth and women, but representative? 

A guiding principle in expanding Synod voting to non-bishops was to include more women and young people. In fact, half of the non-bishop participants — who amount to 21% of all voting members — were intended to be women, and half were intended to be young adults. 

This comes through in the North American non-bishop delegation, which includes 10 people who were picked by the Pope from a larger list of participants in the continental phase of the Synod. 

Three of the ten, all from the U.S., appear to be young adults. Father Ivan Montelongo is a priest of the Diocese of El Paso, who was ordained only three years ago. The young priest, who was the point person for the synodal process in his diocese, is active on Twitter, where he frequently likes and retweets from figures like Chris Lamb and Austen Ivereigh, and publications like the National Catholic Reporter and America magazine. 

Julia Osęka, a Polish national, is an undergraduate student at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where she participated in synodal proceedings as a part of the local archdiocese. A physics major with a theology and religious studies minor, Osęka has described herself as an “active feminist in the Church” who aspires to be a physics teacher one day.  

And Wyatt Olivas is an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming, and a member of the Diocese of Cheyenne, where he’s served as a catechist and music minister. 

In addition to Osęka, North American women participating in the synod include Cynthia Bailey Manns, an Africa-American who serves as the director of adult education at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community in Minneapolis, a parish that has run into problems before due to its illicit liturgies and controversial “pre-Mass” lay sermons from the pulpit, including one instance in which a same-sex couple talked about their partnership and having a child through IVF and surrogacy.  

Catherine Clifford, a theologian at St. Paul University in Ottawa, will also be a voting member. Clifford recently co-edited the Oxford Handbook on Vatican II with Massimo Faggioli, and focuses on ecclesiology, Christian unity, and synodality. She previously said that in order for issues of doctrine and discipline like “expanding the roles for women” and having married priests,  “the style of the Church’s governance has to change.” 

Other women include Sister Chantal Desmarais, a habited Canadian religious who does karate and plays hockey; Sister Leticia Salazar, the chancellor for the Diocese of San Bernadino in California; and Linda Staudt, a retired Catholic schools administrator in Canada. Canadian Sister Elizabeth Davis will be participating in the Synod not as a non-bishop selectee, but as the head of the Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland. 

The expansion to non-bishops voting members has certainly generated significant buzz, but it remains unclear if the process will necessarily be more representative of the People of God by including Catholic academics, diocesan workers, and staff members of atypical progressive parishes. One of the other two North American male non-bishop participants, Richard Coll, the director of the USCCB’s department for justice, peace, and human development, seems to fit a similar pattern. The other, Sami Aoun, a Maronite professor of political science in Canada, can perhaps be described as more representative of the typical person in the pews. 

Questions remain about the make-up of the Synod body, and what it is truly representative of. Arguments have already been leveled that the process is a clear reflection of God’s will manifesting itself in His people, despite low levels of participation by ordinary Catholics, while others contend it appears tilted toward a predetermined final product that seems ideologically imbalanced. But at the end of the day, whatever synod participants vote for or against, Pope Francis will have the ultimate say.