Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

What’s wrong with synodality today?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 16, 2023

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky’s wonderfully satirical new post, The Spirit is A-Movin in the pre-Synod Process, reminded me that I wanted to say something more about this process, which seems designed to strain gnats while swallowing camels. I am referring here to the faulty concept of governance which appears to underlie the entire experiment.

Confusion

We have a peculiar notion of governance in the contemporary West. In an almost universal disregard of human experience, we cling to a remarkably naive reliance on the alleged power of the democratic process to filter upward into sound government. The wisdom of this idea has been considered dubious by most cultures, even sometimes by the Greeks who invented it for more appropriate use in small city states. In the Aristotelian analysis, for example, every form of rule can be oriented to either the common good or personal selfishness. Thus monarchy easily degenerates into tyranny; aristocracy (rule by the best) into oligarchy (rule by a few); and polity into (wait for it) democracy:

The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, or the few, or the many, are perversions…. Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy of the needy: none of them the common good of all. [from Aristotle’s Politics]

(In the Greek sense, “polity” refers to the common care of the “polis”, or the Greek city-state, taken as whole.)

Applied to the Church, these concepts can be even more confusing, and so at times more dangerous. The Church, by its Divine constitution, is fundamentally monarchical, though it is not without its aristocratic elements in the college of bishops, or even its “polity” in the priesthood of all believers. Originally, synods were meetings of bishops in a particular region to address more effectively the problems of that region, in accordance with the stability of the Catholic Faith, as ensured by unity with the Bishop of Rome. But in the West today, there is a presumption that “democracy” (to the Greeks, already a degeneration from the common good) best represents the ultimate source of authority in the people.

This is a dubious concept, of course, because in an ultimate sense the human person cannot be the fundamental source of anything. The human person cannot even control his own existence; left to himself, he knows not whence he comes nor where he is bound. What little he can intuit of his own existence comes through careful reflection on his essential contingency, by which he can at least reason to the existence of the self-sufficient being we call God. Beyond that, he depends on revelation from that God, the very same God who stated point blank to Jonah: “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” (Jon 4:11)

But God does care and He does reveal Himself. And it is this all-important fact about our existence that complicates any democratic rendering of the idea of synodality as applied to the Church, the very existence and mission of which derives not from conflicting human ideas, but from Divine Revelation. In the current ever-increasing expansion of the idea of synodality, it is at the very least startling to see the Church engaged in a process of renewal that depends more and more on input from those who, to use the precise phrase given to us in Scripture, “do not know their right hand from their left”.

Obfuscation

Now, the great danger with the self-absorbed egalitarianism of our modern secular culture is that it moves very quickly from the principle that every person has intrinsic value to the principle that all input is good input. And then, because input overload is closely akin to paralysis whenever there is no guiding perspective specified in the process, input is routinely privileged in accordance with the fashions of the ”obvious”—the values of the dominant culture in which the discussion is rooted. In the modern secular world, which is culturally defined by a very self-conscious flight from Christianity, the dominant culture insists on privileging viewpoints which undermine Christ and the natural law. Therefore, under the guise of fairness, the synodal process privileges viewpoints which, were it guided by Divine Revelation, would simply be excluded.

We have seen this again and again in the Synodal process, and it was predictable from the first—so predictable that the ongoing expansion and elongation of the process will be presumed by many to be oriented deliberately to this purpose. We now find the weakness of secularized Christians on constant display, precisely because our dominant culture regards such weaknesses as strengths. Those who in previous generations have set the standards for agitation from below (Saul Alinsky is a famous example) have long since recognized how to exploit this dynamic. That exploitation is now common to Westerners who have largely lost confidence in any cohesive spiritual vision, whether outside or inside the Church.

The reality, of course, is that this is nearly always orchestrated from the top. Key leaders exploit a faulty ideological commitment to a consultative democratic process which has almost nothing in common with authentic Catholic synodality. Moreover, the fact that everybody knows by now how this process typically works goes far to explain why those who are solidly Catholic typically shy away from the Synodal process, while those who do not accept many of the Church’s teachings see it as an opportunity to remake the Church in their own image. All of this is by design; we have seen it in operation in too many different contexts for far too many years.

There is a certain point at which consultation becomes a fault. Again, as originally practiced, synodal processes were firmly rooted in the episcopacy which referenced the Gospel, the unbroken Faith of the Church, and the episcopate’s magisterial unity with the successor of Peter. The idea was to gather those with equal responsibilities as shepherds into a temporary deliberative body to review and develop a common response to regional challenges. While there was always a danger of weak or even worldly bishops being part of the discussion, the approach served a real and significant purpose, and worked at least partly because it could be accomplished on a manageable scale in a particular region in an era of very slow global communication.

The current process, by contrast, is more like a universal fishing expedition, designed to bring to light not what we might call Gospel problems but personal discontents. Whatever is uncovered is redacted by editors according to their own lights and sent endlessly up the centralizing global chain until it reaches the Pope and a universal synod of bishops-and-other-interested-parties, at least some of whom will refer to what has bubbled up as evidence that Church teaching, and the Divine Revelation on which it is based, must be “reinterpreted” to fit the spirit of the age.

It is difficult to trust in the process precisely because, in its various modern political forms, it is a process typically used to assist a given group of people in finding an excuse to cater to interests at odds with what a properly formed community would regard as the common good. In fact, it is a process which, in politics, has most often been initiated from the top by those who hope to find in it support for changes they themselves more or less secretly desire. This does not mean that such a process cannot be used for a good purpose, but in the Church this carefully orchestrated synodal process has very often resulted in a laundry list of ill-considered doctrinal and moral criticisms of Divine Revelation.

Moreover, this is without question the most cumbersome and costly process imaginable if the desired outcome is to understand what the Church must do to re-evangelize a lost human culture. After all, it beggars the imagination that our bishops and pope should not already know what is at stake, and what sort of commitment to the Gospel is required.

Renunciation

Our bishops are not supposed to be living in cocoons, whether socially or ideologically. The idea that broad consultation is required to discern the nature of our problems and formulate a courageous Christic response is, simply speaking, nonsense. Worse still, everybody knows it is nonsense, which is to say that the vast majority of serious Catholics are almost completely certain that the current emphasis on synodality is at least a semi-deliberate farce—a farce in which certain changes already desired by some at the top can be justified and propelled into being from below.

Unlike the State, of course, the Church is Divinely protected against the very worst excesses of her leadership. And perhaps unlike the majority of politicians, the majority of bishops are most often serious about their service to souls under the guidance of what God has revealed. But even so, there is substantial latitude for confusion and mischief—a latitude which has been markedly increased in the present pontificate. This in itself is one of the main reasons that so few believing Catholics have any real hope for the synodal process.

Still, while the Church can certainly be stronger or weaker at different moments in history, the Church cannot easily be ruled from below. All her guarantees are from above—from Christ, through the Pope who is Christ’s Vicar, through the bishops around the world in union with him. Ultimately anything that interferes with or weakens episcopal governance cum Petro et sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter) will come to naught, will be cut off the living vine. Meanwhile, the ongoing confusion is extraordinarily damaging to the Church’s mission. Even though we need not fear that the Church will fail in her Divine constitution, we continue to live in what we can only call ecclesiastically painful times.

There have been many such times, and our trials are intimately connected with the period of steady secularization over the past several hundred years, a secularization which has led to a dominant behavior of either silence or pandering within the Church herself. Far too many in the Church think the solution is to demonstrate how far they can go in worldly accommodation, so that those who are in the process of drifting away on the rising tide of the dominant culture can be retained for as long as possible. But this has again and again proven to be a farce: It obscures the Gospel and eviscerates the Church’s missionary character. It ought not to surprise us, then, that much of the synodal process is similarly and predictably farcical.

There is still the possibility of great good coming out of this in Rome, but nobody expects such a result under the current leadership. Meanwhile, looking for happy Church-people among those who refuse to be guided by the teachings of Christ is like building a Catholic sports dynasty by declaring that henceforth the victories won by all other players and teams will be counted as Catholic victories. But the Catholic Church will win no spiritual victories by ceasing as much as possible to be herself—that is, by ceasing to be the Body and Bride of Jesus Christ. What ought to identify this body and bride is her refusal to lose her head over the world—her unshakable recognition that unpopularity is always preferable to adultery.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: msrsm19881424 - May. 21, 2023 1:56 AM ET USA

    Sounds more like a sin-nod than a synod.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - May. 20, 2023 2:48 AM ET USA

    When the leader of a private company presides over a huge loss of customers and good employees, he is fired. The directors, who select the next leader, are selectively replaced. The new leader knows not to make the same mistakes as his predecessor. The Church's current leader and his sycophantic board are causing disastrous results for the Church. The bishops and faithful need to find their courage (like the few who never lost it) and speak out to oppose the current direction of this papacy.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 16, 2023 6:22 PM ET USA

    "...unpopularity is always preferable to adultery." Great line, but the Church in 2023 has a bigger problem: unpopular AND adulterous. I somehow got on the email list of Bishop Barron's "Word on Fire Institute". In today's message, we learn a believable statistic: for every person who enters the Church today, six Catholics leave. They leave because the Church has become adulterous, and the Church is unpopular because it is adulterous. The words of Gamaliel will be proven true again. Acts 5:33-39