True Synodality: A missing ingredient in renewal?
Recently I had an interesting discussion with a frequent visitor to our website about the potential benefits to the Church of being without a pope for an extended number of years. In part the discussion was prompted by the deleterious impact the current pontificate seems to have on Catholic renewal, in part also (I suspect) because my correspondent does not have the same appreciation I have for the last several popes, and certainly in part because the contemporary perception of the papacy as a central control center may tend to inhibit local initiatives.
My correspondent offered the insight that the centralization of authority in the Church as practiced today is not essential to the Church. Such centralization has not even been possible throughout most of her history, when local bishops and missionaries had to be effective leaders in their own right because communications with Rome varied from slow to rare. Thus my correspondent imagined the potential benefits of, say, a hung-conclave that could not elect the next pope, leaving the office vacant for a good long time. This might offer not only a measure of protection against the influence of a bad pope, but also an increased pressure on local bishops to look to their own resources and tend their own flocks.
I found this idea fascinating, but how is it to be evaluated? Practical good can come out of any adverse situation, depending on how we (or our bishops) respond to it, and certainly Divine Providence often works through adversity. But in desiring particular situations we must first ask not whether we might respond to them advantageously but whether they are good in themselves. In this case, then, the initial question is whether it is acceptable theologically for a Catholic to wish for a temporal suspension of the papacy per se. Since the Petrine office is the capstone of the Divine constitution of the Church, and since in that office are placed both the unique power of the keys to heaven and the Divine mandate to confirm all bishops (and indeed the whole Church) in a right faith, it follows that the loss of these prerogatives cannot be legitimately desired, not even for the best of practical reasons.
This means that other ways to prompt improvement in the local churches must be found.
Perhaps paradoxically, Pope Francis has spoken often about the need for exactly this growth in responsibility and leadership among the local episcopate. He has done so by repeatedly emphasizing the concept of synodality. The word synod comes from two Greek words which signify “a way of togetherness”. As used today, synod means an assembly of clergy, typically of bishops. For the purposes of Catholic renewal, then, the idea of synodality depends for its efficacy on a proper understanding of the role of the bishops as vicars of Christ—that is, teachers, rulers and sanctifiers—in their own dioceses.
While synods of of bishops in particular regions often played an important role in the life of the Church before strong papal centralization was really possible, that role diminished rapidly after the medieval period, and the attempt to revive it has had a rocky history in our own time. One attempt has been the recurring Synod of Bishops in Rome, begun in 1965 by Pope St. Paul VI, so that the universal Church could benefit from the wisdom of a substantial cross-section of the episcopal college, meeting regularly in union with the Pope. Another attempt has been the development of national episcopal conferences to help organize and direct the ecclesiastical life of the various regions of the world.
The Synod of Bishops has brought three advantages: (a) Widespread episcopal input into the understanding of issues which variously affect the Church around the world; (b) A kind of cross-fertilization among the bishops themselves, which ought to be both a means of enrichment and a check on excessive “peculiarity”; and (c) Opportunities for most bishops to experience a real sense of their ties to the Pope and the universal Church. But despite its name, the Synod of Bishops does not quite capture the importance of synodality to the guidance and renewal of the local churches. That aspect has been left to episcopal conferences. But episcopal conferences have become a kind of permanent, bureaucratized synodality which frequently defeats the whole concept. As many have observed, episcopal conferences tend too often to diminish what it means to be a bishop in one’s own diocese.
We must make no mistake about this: Synodality, for its effectiveness, depends on bishops fully understanding what it means to be bishops.
Development of the idea
As one result of the rapid centralization of authority in the Church from the early modern period on, Catholics found ourselves with a reduced or weakened conception of the episcopate by the dawn of the twentieth century. It has often been said—and there is a good deal of truth in the saying—that the Church in the past century was too often inadvertently conceived on a corporate model, with the pope as CEO and the bishops as branch managers tasked with implementing corporate policy while increasing profits.
Readers may be surprised to learn that one reason this mental shift occurred was the Franco-Prussian War. This war brought the First Vatican Council to a sudden stop. Everybody knows that Vatican I did a superb job of articulating the nature, power, and authority of the papacy. But what everybody does not know is that this was simply the first stage of a plan to shed increased light on each hierarchical level of the Church. Instead, the Council ended prematurely. Accordingly, and through what we might call an accident of history if we were less concerned with Divine Providence, papal centralization was actually increased in the Church over most of the next century. Vatican I closed in 1870, and it was not until 1965 that the Second Vatican Council completed the work intended by the First.
Vatican II provided an overall Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and a Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops (Christus Dominus). It also published key decrees on priests, religious, and laity to complete the work of Vatican I and flesh out our understanding of what we might call the nature and roles of the various components which make up the Church. (The Council also treated a number of particularly sensitive topics in the modern world, but these are not relevant here.) The key for this discussion of synodality is that the Council expressly defined the special dignity of each bishop as possessing at one and the same time the powers of Christ in his own diocese and a fundamental collegial unity with the Bishop of Rome, which ensured the stable exercise of episcopal authority within the universal Church, and as a gift to that same Church.
Perhaps I should add that, in the secular cultural collapse which so influenced the Church beginning in the 1960s, the work of Vatican II was often more or less deliberately misunderstood and misapplied, even by bishops. But Pope John Paul II devoted his papacy in large part to recovering a proper understanding of the Council by a return to the texts, and by tirelessly teaching bishops how to be good bishops. This saint’s legacy was shaped primarily through teaching—not disciplining—and through the use of the Synod of Bishops to make the bishops far more aware of the fundamental connection between their local responsibilities and their collegial bonds with the Bishop of Rome.
Pope Francis has laid plenty of fresh emphasis on the concept of synodality, but this has tended to make many commentators nervous. Unfortunately, there is always the suspicion that this Pope is motivated partly by a Western secular model which encourages people to change things locally in accordance with the spirit of the age. In this context, synodality can serve as a high-sounding concept to mask a series of local rebellions against what has been and must be (in the famous phrase of the Church Father St. Vincent of Lérins) “believed everywhere, always, and by all”.
Unfortunately, what the current pope actually intends is often unclear. Whatever the shortcomings of his pontificate, however, Francis’ emphasis on synodality has been squarely within the Catholic Tradition, a tradition of heavy episcopal responsibility, a Christ-filled exercise of authority for the good of the local church while maintaining the unbreakable bond of the episcopal college with Peter at its head.
Readers may remember the frequency with which, at the synods on the family, Pope Francis emphasized that there was nothing to be feared in discussion and recommendations if they were made “cum Petro and sub Petro” (with Peter and under Peter), deliberately capturing the constructive power and authority of bishops as guaranteed by union with the universal Church through the Bishop of Rome. In the same way, when the German bishops have sought (and are still seeking) to interpret synodality wrongly, the Pope has repeatedly signaled that they cannot claim to make binding decisions on matters which are the province of the universal Church—that is, matters of faith and morals, and of the disciplines essential to their integrity, which are required of all who bear the Catholic name.
In this light, it will be interesting to see how Francis handles the upcoming German Synod which, in advance publicity, seems to be willing to put everything up for grabs. (Francis met personally with Cardinal Marx only yesterday.) If the German Synod is really a kind of rebellion, the Church will be dealing with yet another aberrant form of synodality, which impossibly emphasizes local episcopal authority while overlooking an essential quality of the exercise of that authority—namely, that it be firmly united with the successor of St. Peter himself.
As I said at the outset, a discussion with a reader prompted these reflections on synodality. But this discussion is important because it is precisely a Catholic synodality which is needed for renewal to be effected in the local churches whether or not it is mandated in specific ways by the Pope. Bishops are neither corporate branch managers nor local entrepreneurs seeking to displace the competition. Individually in their own dioceses, united with Peter, they must teach, rule and sanctify. Together with other bishops of the same region, united with Peter, they can devise optimum goals, special emphases and particular tactics suitable to the most effective renewal, as the specific nature of local problems demands.
This is why it is true that a synodal approach is indeed badly needed, especially as compared with meetings in Rome on the one hand and regional bureaucratic activity on the other. By gathering in local synods—synods which do not persist in any permanent bureaucratic state—bishops can deliberate together on how best to address the spiritual needs of those entrusted to their care, and they can encourage and reinforce each other in the process—the better to return to their particular dioceses and carry on their particular ministries. There can be no question of “leaving it to the Pope”, still less of “leaving it to the Conference”.
This is what synodality means, and it is thoroughly to be desired. It is a way to overcome the lethargy of bishops who think they have done their duty when they have checked off all the tasks on the list received from the Vatican. But bishops actually have to know what it means. The use of the term as a handy smokescreen for individual caprice or cultural capitulation will certainly make things worse. Only when it is properly understood can synodality strengthen the Church and accomplish anything good in Christ.
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