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On Synodality and the German call to expand it

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 05, 2020

The Church has been thinking more about operating synodally over the past sixty years (hence, for example, the triennial Synod of Bishops instituted by Pope St. Paul VI in 1965). The word “synod” derives from the Greek roots “syn” (together) and “hodos” (way), which led to the Greek “synodos” and the Latin “synodus”, which denote “a meeting”, terms which finally emerged as “synod” in Middle English. For the Church, the strength of the synodal concept is that it brings bishops (and sometimes others) together in groups to explore and discuss issues which affect her operations both in individual regions and in the world as whole. The goal is to generate a superior understanding of problems and a more coordinated response through a broader ecclesial participation.

The intention, then, is that “synodality” will create greater opportunities for the Church to increase in perception, commitment and salvific action—that this broader involvement should help her witness to Christ more fully. Accordingly, I have described synodality as “hitting on all cylinders”. The Church has often used synods to operate more effectively in the past, through both regional assemblies of bishops, and even ecumenical councils. Moreover, there was good reason to emphasize this “core value” again in the twentieth century, when the operational model for the Church had tended to degenerate into that of a contemporary corporation, with the Pope as CEO issuing directives to bishops as branch managers.

Proper understanding

But synodality can do no good if it is understood as an ecclesiastical term for “democracy”. Rather, we must understand it as a means of increasing personal responsibility and effective Christian engagement throughout the Church. Such responsible engagement can manifest itself only in the service of the Gospel, of the Faith and of the Christian way of life. These in turn have been given to us by Christ through Divine Revelation in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, under the interpretive authority of the Magisterium. In theory, then, synodality is an active principle for taking what has been received, pooling human insight and experience in the service of the Gospel, and engaging Catholics at every level for the good of souls.

Of course, the potential benefits of any operational theory are never fully realized in practice. Synodality is a far superior operational model for the Church than the model of a modern corporation, but by its very nature synodality requires each member of the Church to take true responsibility for the role he has been assigned by Divine Providence within the Body of Christ. The fundamental “givenness” of the Body must be kept firmly in mind, and no member can engage effectively for the good of the Church without understanding his own God-given role.

By virtue of the Church’s Divine constitution, to take only the most obvious example, the Bishop of Rome has universal episcopal authority to teach, rule and sanctify, and the bishops appointed under his authority worldwide must witness to the same fundamental realities by teaching, ruling and sanctifying in union with him. Every other member of the Body lives similarly in the service of these given realities, fostering them in himself and others by applying his own particular gifts to the role he has been given to play.

In contrast, as soon as synodality becomes a lever, as it were, to unbalance the Church’s witness, topple her teaching authority, or dislodge her sacraments based on alternative human theories and desires—most frequently, of course, those characterizing the spirit of each human age—it becomes an agent not of mutual responsibility for Christ’s saving work, but of rebellion against it. Sadly, it is just this that is exemplified in the German flirtation with a “synodal path”. (See my commentary a month ago: The German Synodal Path: Noteworthy or not worthy?)

Severe shrinking pains

Now the head of the German episcopal conference, Bishop George Bätzing, has announced that the universal Church should hold a synod to discuss the changes approved by the Germans in their “synodal path”. He says that “what arises synodally must also be clarified and answered synodally”. It is possible that Bishop Bätzing advocates this course in the hope of finding an acceptable mechanism for putting the German ecclesial train back on the tracks. Perhaps he is secretly alarmed. But as a matter of principle this assertion is ludicrous.

In some cases the Germans may advocate practical solutions for the deficiencies in their own region’s acceptance of and witness to the Faith (assuming these have been identified in accordance with the Gospel rather than the zeitgeist). This would be fine synodal work, improving commitment and responsibility all around. Here, considering things at a more universal level, other bishops might find good ideas for their own circumstances, or might have better ideas to convey to their German brothers and sisters in Christ.

But in other cases the outcomes of the German “synodal path” may directly subvert the Church either in her Divine constitution or in particular matters of faith and morals, which also include the nature of the sacramental order. Moreover, we know from many reports that this has been the dominant intention from the first. In cases of this type, it is not sharing that is needed (though righteous anger, rejection, and condemnation by peers would be salutary). What is certainly needed is clear and forceful correction by Peter himself, the bishop of the whole world.

And what may be needed is a parting of ways with those who refuse to accept such correction. For as a general framework of analysis, we must recognize that Germany is in deep trouble, the same sort of trouble discussed in Christ’s “letter” to the church in Ephesus (see my commentary on the last book of the Bible, Apocalypse Now: The Book of Revelation, Part 1). This is how Our Lord made the point in that instance: “Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev 2:5).


“Lampstand” is a symbol of the local church, which shines out with the light of Christ. For a wide variety of reasons at various times in history, the light of particular churches has been permitted by Divine Providence to dim, and the churches themselves have disappeared. The Germans need to understand that the Catholic Church among them is in the process of disappearing, and time is very short.

Or perhaps they should look at Our Lord’s letter to the church in Sardis:

I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death…. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief. [Rev 3:2-3]

Or, since Germany is the richest of churches, supported by taxes imposed by Caesar, perhaps it is Christ’s letter to the church in Laodicea that I have in mind:

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore, I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. [Rev 3:17-18]

I freely admit that the pot should not call the kettle black. No regional church is without spot or wrinkle, considered in its members. But in some special way God seems to have set before the Catholics of Germany a blessing and a curse (Dt 11:26-28). The “synodal path” is headed for the curse.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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