Synodality and the evasion of responsibility
Pope St. John Paul II famously used the Synod of Bishops in 1985 to begin a long struggle to reclaim for the Church a proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council. For twenty years, the Council’s message had been distorted by secularized clerics into a call for the Church to adopt the values of modern culture in order to make herself “relevant” to the world. Pope St. Paul VI had established the mechanism for the Synod of Bishops just before the close of Vatican II in 1965. The Synod administration has a permanent office in Rome, and each Synod is a selection of bishops from around the world who meet in Rome (typically every three years) in order to provide a sounding board for critical issues facing the Church, in a manner which can provide suitable insight and advice to the Pope.
The general pattern for each Synod of Bishops includes the establishment of a topic for consultation and reflection, a period of preparatory discussion at all levels of the Church, and then an assembly of representative bishops from around the world, chosen mostly by the various episcopal conferences, to discuss the given topic in Rome. Each Synod concludes with a Synodal document summarizing the approved points of concern and offered to the Holy Father. There have been thirty of these Synods between 1967 and 2019—sixteen ordinary general synods, three extraordinary general synods (typically more rapidly called and smaller), and eleven particular synods to consider regional problems (in which the participants are primarily drawn from the indicated regions).
In some ways this exercise in synodality has been an odd business, requiring a tremendous expenditure of time and energy with a very mixed set of results. Each ecclesiastical official involved in the organization and direction of the synod naturally seeks to guide it toward the results he sees as most desirable for the Church, and each episcopal participant cannot avoid having similar aims. Hence a certain amount of conflict—and a certain amount of internal manipulation—are inevitable. What is also certainly true of the process is that it provides an opportunity for the entire world to look in on selected issues which are agitating the Church, an opportunity for each bishop and national group of bishops to hear perspectives on these issues significantly different from their own, and an opportunity for the Pope to see if any significant wisdom emerges—or at least any obvious justification for proceeding in one way or another after the Synod ends.
In most cases, what we get is classic consciousness raising, and then a modest document from the Pope highlighting key Synodal themes in a manner he deems good for the Church as a whole.
In some ways, then, the process has been healthy; in others, both taxing and annoying; and in still others, confusing. A bishop once told me that participation in one of the synods had strengthened both his sense of the universal Church and his connection with Rome. On the other hand, a lot of the energy at and around each Synod, including the news coverage, seems to be directed by a desire to change the Church to make her more compatible with the world, rather than converting the world to Christ. On the whole, I would say it is not clear whether the synods have been more a burden or a blessing to the laity, or to the bishops themselves.
A synod on synodality
Most of us squander a significant number of our opportunities for Christic conversion and renewal, and I have long believed that every sort of “meeting” has an enormously high potential for squandering energies and diminishing results. One benefit of the current model of the Synod of Bishops is that the Synod cannot really do anything other than raise consciousness anyway. Though some at Vatican II hoped the idea could gain something like a permanent conciliar status, they were preempted by Paul VI’s establishment of a synodal mechanism that is purely advisory to the Pope. The benefits grow murkier, perhaps, when the topic to be vetted by the Synod is synodality itself—a favorite word of Pope Francis, but one that is almost infinitely malleable. This topic, which the entire Catholic world is supposed to be strenuously discussing over the next year or so, is encapsulated in a single word which almost nobody understands because, in fact, it has no set meaning.
The word “synod” emerged in late Middle English—the language, for example, of Geoffrey Chaucer—from two Greek roots: “syn” (together) and “hodos” (way), so it means “a way together”. In practice, the word survives primarily in its traditional ecclesiastical usage, a “synod” being a meeting of the bishops of a particular region to discuss and take common action on problems of faith, morals or ecclesiastical discipline which afflict the region as a whole. But the ambiguity returns when we speak of a “synodal” Church. For some, the implication of the term is that more people get to participate in decision-making. Given the nature of modern values, communications, reporting, and “spin”, that “participation” will typically be judged real and successful only if the Church heeds those voices which advocate approval of cultural values which the Church has heretofore officially opposed.
We can expect, therefore, that a great deal of ink will be used in calling for not only wide but effectively oppositional participation in the synodal “process”, such that a certain priority is given to the strong views of those who have essentially abandoned the Catholic faith but still want to remake the Church in their own image. We shouldn’t be shy about predicting this rather obvious preoccupation. Good or bad in the end, the synodal process will make this all but inescapable—perhaps not always in reality, but certainly in the matter of reportorial spin, and again certainly through the words and actions of those bishops who are more of than merely in the world, and who would like to apply democratic theory to explain away those truths which cut across the modernist grain.
In contrast, I have long held that there is one, and only one, proper understanding of the term “synodal” when applied to the Church. For the Church, finding a “way together” means that each member of Christ’s Body properly discerns and actuates his role in the Body, his gifts for the Body, and his opportunities to strengthen the Body under the headship of Christ. The term “synodal”, the “way together”, means trusting wholly in Him who said:
Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. [Jn 16:31-33]
Insofar as every member of the Church perceives “synodal” and “way together” like this, we will have a Synodal Church. Insofar as the concept becomes an excuse for a consultative tinkering with the Word of God, the Synodal concept will be one more spectacular wrong turn on the road to authentic Catholic renewal.
An evasion of responsibility?
The crisis of modernity is perhaps above all a crisis of authority. The modern world conceives of authority as residing corporately in “the people” and, therefore, as present cohesively only in “the state”, which encompasses all the people. But authority lies only in the “author”, in this case the Author of life. He may delegate that authority in many ways, but He is its source, and His purposes are the only purposes for which authority can be legitimately exercised. Every pope, who serves as Christ’s vicar in the governance of the Church, and every bishop, who serves as a vicar of Christ in his own diocese, must know that this is true, and must never evade the use of authority for the purposes intended by Christ.
Every priest who represents his bishop in the care of souls; every religious who has been consecrated to the service of Christ; every deacon who has been called by Christ to a special solicitude for His people during their sojourn here on earth; and every lay person, who has been baptized priest, prophet and king—every Catholic knows, or is supposed to know, that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Christ, and that this includes a particular mandate. Here is how Our Lord expressed it:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. [Mt 28:18-20]
Our Lord does not say, “Go, and make the world’s causes your own.” He does not say, “Go, and match the Church’s priorities to the priorities of the world in which you live.” And he certainly does not say, “Make my Church fashionable that it may thrive!” He says, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.
This is why I have so often described true synodality as the Church firing on all cylinders. We may need to overcome an old model of papal autocracy; we may need to overcome a more recent model of bishops as corporate branch managers; we may need to overcome even the frequent modern failure of clerics (or even of religious and laity) to understand their roles; and we certainly need to overcome the very common model of making the dominant culture the blueprint for the Church—which has been a threat in every age of her history. But when each Catholic commits to becoming a channel of Christ’s grace for the building up of the Church—that is, for his own ongoing conversion and the conversion of others, using his position in the great edifice of the Church for that purpose in accordance with his calling and his gifts—only then will we have a Synodal Church.
Striving for this goal makes perfect sense, even while the so-called German “synodal path” and so many other interpretations of synodality make no sense whatsoever. “Synod” means “a way together”. So let us not let “synodality” be just another buzz word that says nothing, confuses everybody, and leads us in one more worldly circle, exchanging last year’s fashionable errors and vices for this year’s. If we are not members united in Christ’s body, then we are not in any sense “together”. And if Christ Himself is not our “way”, we have no real way at all.
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Posted by: cvm46470 -
Sep. 10, 2021 10:55 PM ET USA
Thank you Dr. Mirus. I'll be making the Mt 28:18 passage my prayer each day as I pray for wisdom for the participants in the upcoming synod.
Posted by: edenjohnson364256 -
Sep. 10, 2021 7:26 PM ET USA
How can we be sure that the aggressive but minority voices will not be able to take over the Church? There has been a deafening silent complicity by Bishops in the giving and receiving of Communions unworthily by Priests who are into the LBGTQ agenda, abortion rights, and adulterous couplings. Bishops, with their timidity in standing up to Biden and Pelosi type of Catholics are scandalizing their flock. How can we be assured that he Church will be saved from these errors?
Posted by: Sciamej4805 -
Sep. 10, 2021 4:54 PM ET USA
What a clear and concise view at synodality. Simply pout, we cannot convert the Church to the world but we must work at converting the world to some modicum of reasonableness and to our church and its beliefs. We need a "say together" with with Christ and His church.
Posted by: DrJazz -
Sep. 08, 2021 7:17 PM ET USA
This is excellent. It's insightful, true, and gets to the heart of the matter. The last section (six paragraphs) should be read by every Catholic.