Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Is the Synod Asking the Wrong Questions? (Part I of II)

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 30, 2023

Have you noticed that in recent years, before each meeting of the Synod of Bishops, public attention tends to fixate on one very specific topic?

  • In 2015, before the Synod on the Family, everyone was asking whether Catholics who are divorced and illicitly remarried should receive the Eucharist.
  • In 2019, before the Amazon Synod, the question was whether married men could be ordained as priests.
  • Today, in the preparation for the Synod on Synodality, the question is whether the Church will bless homosexual unions.

Granted, to some extent the focus on these hot-button issues reflects the obsessions of the mainstream media. (If the topic for the next meeting on the Synod is the Trinity, no doubt the pundits will be pushing for a statement on the ordination of women.) And to some extent it reflects the fallout from the German bishops’ “Synodal Path,” which has fully embraced the secular outlook and its favorite concerns. But even in more moderate Catholic circles, the discussion leading up to the October Synod meeting has leaned heavily toward those same issues: homosexuality, divorce, contraception, and feminism.

What do those questions have to do with synodality?

What is a Synod?

A synod is a meeting of bishops, usually convened to discuss pastoral or doctrinal issues. Pope Francis prefers to refer to a Synod meeting as a “coming together” or a “walking together.” In the Roman Catholic Church, the Synod of Bishops—established by Pope Paul VI—is a consultative body, to aid the Roman Pontiff in governing the Church. In the Eastern churches, including those in communion with Rome, the Synod has its own governing powers, and can appoint bishops and elect patriarchs. In any case, whether or not its decisions are authoritative by themselves, a synod is a decision-making body.

A discussion of “synodality,” then, should focus on the way the Synod of Bishops reaches its decisions, and/or the way those decisions may be translated into policies for the universal Church. The Synod on Synodality should focus on Church governance, not on particular controversial issues.

Unfortunately, since Pope Francis began to voice his enthusiasm for “synodal” governance, the term “synodal” has come into widespread use as a word that expresses support for changes in the Church—or, at a minimum, for a reflective approach, open to change. Thus for example, in speaking to an Australian audience about the Synod on Synodality, Sister Nathalie Becquart, the undersecretary of the Synod office, said:

So, what lies ahead is that each of us must become a synod—we must become a synodal sister, a synodal teacher, a synodal priest, a synodal bishop.

Taken literally (and how else could it be taken?) that statement makes no sense. The essence of a synod is that people—bishops—come together to deliberate. An individual cannot have that sort of meeting with himself; I cannot “become a synod.”

In the many preparatory meetings leading up to the bishops’ meeting in October, the primary focus has been on how the Church might reach out to people who are indifferent or even hostile to the faith, how we might recapture the “cradle Catholics” who have drifted away from the Church, how we might appeal to the sensibilities of a secular culture. Those are all legitimate questions, but…

What do those questions have to do with synodality?

The question of governance

The Synod of Bishops, as we know it now, is an outgrowth of Vatican II. But the story of its development goes back further, to Vatican I and the proclamation of papal infallibility. Vatican I was convened to discuss the state of the Church in general, not only the role of the Roman Pontiff.

At that first Vatican Council, some participants called for a statement on how all bishops—not only the Pope—share in the responsibility for safeguarding the deposit of the faith. Pope Pius IX dismissed that suggestion, announcing: “I am the tradition.” But in making that statement, Pope Pius was speaking against the very tradition that he sought to defend. Petrine primacy has never meant that the Pope can ignore or silence other bishops. At the Council of Jerusalem, St. Peter himself changed his position, persuaded by the arguments of St. Paul.

Vatican I adjourned abruptly, as the security of Rome was compromised by the Franco-Prussian war. So the question of how bishops should participate in the governance of the universal Church was left for Vatican II.

At this Second Vatican Council, the Melkite Catholic Patriarch Maximos IV suggested the formation of a Synod of Bishops, with a rotating membership, to assist the Roman Pontiff in governing the Church. The discussion of that proposal did not go too far, however, because Pope Paul VI took the issue off the table with his announcement, at the opening of the Council’s final session, that he was establishing the Synod of Bishops—as a consultative body, subject to the Pope. Thus the issue was settled. Since that time there has been sporadic discussion of how the Synod might work more effectively, and how all bishops might share in the governance of the universal Church.

Those should be the questions at the top of the agenda for a Synod on Synodality. For the better part of two centuries, the Church has been wrestling with the question of how diocesan bishops should interact with the Sovereign Pontiff in the guidance and governance of the universal Church. It would be a shame to fritter away the opportunity to advance our understanding of that question, merely to follow the latest fashionable trends.

In a coming column, I will examine the dangers that threaten to hijack the Synod on Synodality, and how prudent bishops might respond. Meanwhile, as food for thought, let me cite a few relevant passages on from the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium. In the quotations below, the emphasis is mine.

In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head… (Lumen Gentium 22)
Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them… This power, which they personally exercise in Christ’s name, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful. In virtue of this power, bishops have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them and to moderate everything pertaining to the ordering of worship and the apostolate… The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs… Their power, therefore, is not destroyed by the supreme and universal power….(Lumen Gentium 27)
The individual bishops, who are placed in charge of particular churches, exercise their pastoral government over the portion of the People of God committed to their care, and not over other churches nor over the universal Church. But each of them, as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church. For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church….. (Lumen Gentium 23)

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dkmayernj8551 - Mar. 31, 2023 11:14 AM ET USA

    Good exposition. Many in positions of authority in the Church use whatever vehicle happens to be available, whether it is a synod, the Pope, a Church-wide congregation, etc. to press for the nearest equivalent to secular Leftism on all possible fronts, tactically emphasizing some on one occasion, others on another. Treating these as legitimate exercises of authority - and those behind them as anything other than thinly disguised heretics infecting the Church - is highly questionable at best.