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Synodality: the one issue this Synod won’t touch

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 06, 2023

What will the bishops (and other participants) discuss at the October meeting of the Synod on Synodality? Media reports and statements by influential prelates suggest that all sorts of topics will be on the agenda: homosexuality, female deacons, climate change, ecumenism, evangelization, and more. But there’s one issue that, I suspect, will not command much attention, and it’s a very important issue indeed.

The issue that I do not hear being discussed in preparations for the Synod on Synodality is: synodality.

What does “synodality” mean? The term has taken on an almost magical quality in the past year. A “synodal” Church, we have been told, will be forward-looking, energetic, compassionate, responsive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. That all sounds good. But what is a “synodal” Church? What does the term mean?

In the “synodal” Church, we are assured, the hierarchy will heed the sense of the faithful, and allow lay Catholics to participate in ecclesiastical governance. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on how one understands the sensus fidei. But it is definitely not in keeping with the traditional Christian understanding of synodal governance.

The Vatican web site offers this definition of the Synod:

A synod is a religious meeting or assembly at which bishops, gathered around and with the Holy Father, have opportunity to interact with each other and to share information and experiences, in the common pursuit of pastoral solutions which have a universal validity and application. The Synod, generally speaking, can be defined as an assembly of bishops representing the Catholic episcopate, having the task of helping the Pope in the governing of the universal Church by rendering their counsel. Pope John Paul II has referred to the Synod as “a particularly fruitful expression and instrument of the collegiality of bishops.”

On several occasions Pope Francis has mentioned that the Eastern churches have a rich understanding of the role of the synod, and the Synod on Synodality could bring a similarly rich understanding to life among Roman Catholics. So let’s take a closer look at that Eastern understanding.

Each independent Orthodox Church is governed by its own Synod of Bishops. The synods appoint new bishops, set ecclesiastical policies, and elect the patriarchs who serve as “first among equals” in governance. We know that this mode of governance is compatible with Catholicism, because the Eastern churches in full communion with Rome—the Ukrainian Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Syro-Malabar Catholics, etc.—have their own synods. These synods, too, appoint bishops and elect patriarchs; the Pope does not make those selections; he merely extends communion to the prelates named by their respective synods.

To the Orthodox faithful—and even to Eastern Catholics—the role of the synod is a crucial element of their religious heritage, and one that they are extremely loath to surrender. When Orthodox and Catholic theologians meet to discuss the obstacles to ecumenical unity, they do not speak primarily about the filioque clause, or the various national divisions that complicate Orthodox relations; they speak primarily about synodality, and it can be reconciled with the Catholic insistence on Petrine primacy.

If ecumenical progress is an important priority for the Catholic Church, as every Pontiff since Vatican II has said it must be—if we hope eventually to remove the scandal of division in the Christian world—we must address the question of synodality. What does it mean? How should the college of bishops participate in the governance of the universal Church?

Pope John Paul II, in his ardent desire for ecumenical progress, once said that he would be willing to return to model of the papacy that prevailed in the first Christian millennium, before the Great Schism, if that would allow for the restoration of Christian unity. Could that happen? What would that first-millennium model look like, brought forward into the 21st century? Certainly that question is worth discussing, and just as certainly the Orthodox world would follow the discussion with keen interest.

Unfortunately that is not the focus of discussion in the weeks leading up to the Synod of Synodality. Instead the issue of “synodality” is being turned upside-down. Rather than how a “synodal” Church should reach important decisions, this Synod proposes to make a variety of decisions, without examining the process, and with unpredictable results.

Now consider what impact those decisions might have on ecumenical relations. While a thorough discussion of how the Synod of Bishops should operate would encourage further discussions with the Orthodox synods, a series of changes in Catholic teaching might have the opposite effect. The Orthodox world, fearful of unilateral decisions from Rome, will not look kindly on any move to bless same-sex unions, to ordain female deacons, or, for that matter, to redefine the meaning of the “synod.” And so another promising opportunity could be lost.

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: Eric Wilmurt - Sep. 11, 2023 5:27 PM ET USA

    I think they will try to establish the following statements: 1. A synod of Bishops, called and selected by the pope and in communion with him, is an authentic means of Revelation of God through the Holy Spirit. 2. This Revelation of God through the Holy Spirit is just as authoritative as the Revelation of God through Jesus. 3. This Revelation provides the means of revealing an authentic and authoritative development of the deposit of faith as discerned by the lived experience of the church.

  • Posted by: td4207 - Sep. 08, 2023 8:50 PM ET USA

    Thank you for that clarification, and differentiation, of synodolity among the different rites in Communion with Rome.

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 07, 2023 8:04 AM ET USA

    "The term “synodality” has taken on an almost magical quality..." Special recognition given lately by Francis to James Martin and inviting him to the synod is a clue which direction this synod is likely to be heading. James Martin should publicly disclose whether he himself is a homosexual or not, and stop giving the impression of presenting Catholic, or somewhat neutral, opinion on the subject of sodomy.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Sep. 07, 2023 3:41 AM ET USA

    Another wrong way touchdown for PF. He is the MVP of the dissidents and critics of the Church. It is becoming more and more painful to read news touching on PF or his sycophants.