Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

A ‘listening Church’—but Synod organizers aren’t listening

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 28, 2023

In several recent essays about the Synod on Synodality, I have made the argument that the Synod organizers are asking the wrong questions. Is anyone paying attention?

If this really is a Synod on Synodality (as Pope Francis and his preparatory team insist it is) then the main topic of discussion should be how the Church should address difficult questions—since a synod is a meeting convened for that purpose. Then, with the procedural issues subject clarified, a future Synod could take up the specific controversies that trouble the Church today. But the preparations for this Synod have leapt over the question of how to answer questions, instead inviting all Catholics—and non-Catholics, for that matter—to raise the questions they want answered. This is, as I have argued, a recipe for confusion. It is as if Church leaders decided to play a game, setting the rules as the game progressed. Or, if you prefer a more serious comparison, as if a judge opted to begin a courtroom trial without waiting for the relevant laws to be enacted or the rules of evidence established.

This Synod, we have been told repeatedly, is to be a listening Synod: the bishops are consulting with the People of God, trusting that they will hear, in the voice of the faithful, the prompting of the Holy Spirit. That sort of consultation, however desirable, raises an obvious question: How will the Synod participants know that what they are hearing is indeed the work of the Holy Spirit?

As it happens, a Vatican commission asked and answered that question, less than a decade ago. In 2014, the International Theological Commission (ITC) issued a study entitled Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.

Recognizing that “the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel”—the sense of the faithful, or sensus fidei—the ITC report observed that recognizing the authentic sense of the faithful can be a challenge, especially when controversial issues are at stake:

What exactly is the sensus fidei and how can it be identified? What are the biblical sources for this idea and how does the sensus fidei function in the tradition of the faith? How does the sensus fidei relate to the ecclesiastical magisterium of the pope and the bishops, and to theology? What are the conditions for an authentic exercise of the sensus fidei? Is the sensus fidei something different from the majority opinion of the faithful in a given time or place, and if so how does it differ from the latter? All these questions require answers if the idea of the sensus fidei is to be understood more fully and used more confidently in the Church today.

Amen to all that. Unfortunately those questions have not been answered in the working document for the October Synod meeting. Worse, the tentative answers put forward by the ITC have been ignored.

Who speaks for the faithful?

Chapter Four of the ITC report addresses the key question that should have been asked two years ago, as the preparation for the Synod on Synodality began: How to discern authentic manifestations of the sensus fidei. The commission sought to answer “the question of how to consult the faithful in matters of faith and morals”—which is what the Synod organizers said they were doing in the long series of consultative meetings leading up to the October assembly.

Unfortunately, in their preparations the organizers of this Synod showed no particular interest in discerning which voices represent the true sense of the faithful. And that is terribly unfortunate, because as the ITC observed (paragraph 87): “Such a discernment is particularly required in situations of tension when the authentic sensus fidei needs to be distinguished from expressions simply of popular opinion, particular interests, or the spirit of the age.”

Consider some of the specific traits that the ITC cited as evidence that a Catholic may be a genuine representative of the sensus fidei:

  • The first and most fundamental disposition is active participation in the life of the Church. Formal membership of the Church is not enough….It presumes an acceptance of the Church’s teaching on matters of faith and morals, a willingness to follow the commands of God, and courage both to correct one’s brothers and sisters, and also to accept correction oneself. (89)
  • The necessary attitude is conveyed by the expression, sentire cum ecclesia, to feel, sense and perceive in harmony with the Church. (90)
  • Authentic participation in the sensus fidei relies necessarily on a profound and attentive listening to the word of God. (92)
  • A further disposition necessary for authentic participation in the sensus fidei is attentiveness to the magisterium of the Church, and a willingness to listen to the teaching of the pastors of the Church, as an act of freedom and deeply held conviction. (97)
  • One of the most delicate topics is the relationship between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion both inside and outside the Church. Public opinion is a sociological concept, which applies first of all to political societies.
  • The Church appreciates the high human and moral values espoused by democracy, but she herself is not structured according to the principles of a secular political society….Public opinion cannot, therefore, play in the Church the determinative role that it legitimately plays in the political societies that rely on the principle of popular sovereignty, though it does have a proper role in the Church, as we shall seek to clarify below. (114)
  • It is clear that there can be no simple identification between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion. These are by no means the same thing. (118)
  • It is undoubtedly necessary to distinguish between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion, hence the need to identify dispositions necessary for participation in the sensus fidei, such as those elaborated above.(119)

On every one of those criteria, the organizers of the Synod on Synodality have actively sought out the participation of people who do not meet the standards set by the International Theological Commission: Catholics who no longer participate in the sacramental life of the Church, who question or openly reject established Catholic doctrine, who deny the authority of the teaching magisterium, who base their beliefs more on public opinion than on Catholic tradition. As a matter of fact, a careful study of the instrumentum laboris, the preparatory document for the Synod on Synodality, leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the organizers were seeking the counsel of popular opinion and/or the spirit of the age.

If you want to consult public opinion, be my guest. But don’t expect to hear therein the whispering of the Holy Spirit. And don’t expect this Synod to hear the authentic voice of the People of God. Because the Synod organizers haven’t been listening.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: δέσμιος.τοῦ.Χριστοῦ - Jul. 03, 2023 7:06 PM ET USA

    mverner1960, it should carry a lot of weight. The ITC study is an official synod document, per synod.va. That they are willfully ignoring its wisdom is quite telling.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Jun. 29, 2023 8:59 AM ET USA

    Your finest and most concise exposure of the complete fatuousness of the Synod. I won't continue to obvious conclusion of what this says about the founders and promoters of the Synod, especially the Bishops who are all in on this charade.

  • Posted by: mverner1960 - Jun. 29, 2023 6:43 AM ET USA

    Unfortunately, as excellent as this study is, it seems that the majority of documents released by Vatican commissions are a mix of socio-political grandstanding and appeasement pablum. Most Bishops know this by now I suspect. And so pointing to an "old" Vatican document carries little weight with them, or the faithful.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 29, 2023 6:20 AM ET USA

    Clearly: "This is not a bug, it's a feature" - as the saying goes. I notice that the less sense the "synodality synod" makes, the more pompously it is being peddled. Probably in order to prevent and silence any voices of reason, such as the above article.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 28, 2023 8:39 PM ET USA

    Until about 2015, I assiduously read every magisterial and related document that was published in this forum and other similar forums. However, for the first time in about 3 decades my interest waned. I saw nothing new or constructive in much of what emanated from the Vatican. Slowly but deliberately the shining lights began to be extinguished; e.g. Muller, Sarah, Pell. Two questions for the synod: When will the Church stop chasing Catholics out? When will the Church call a sin a sin again?

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Jun. 28, 2023 6:01 PM ET USA

    Well witnessed! Saint Irenaeus obtain for us the wisdom and holiness of Jesus and His Sacred Heart!