Pope Francis has announced the theme of the next Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, scheduled for October 2022: “For a synodal Church: communion, participation, and mission.” (Insert obligatory “synod on synodality” joke here.) There; now that’s out of the way. It’s not a terrible idea, to be perfectly frank. Indeed, it’s long overdue.
For several years now Pope Francis has been talking about how the Church needs to be more “synodal” in her modes of life and especially in her governance. As often happens when the head man coins a new term or puts an old one back into circulation, the language of synodality quickly became a buzzword. Everything new and good became “synodal”, while everything old and decrepit became … the opposite of that.
The problem is that no one – not the Pope, not the cardinals, not the bishops – has been able to say simply what “synodality” is, let alone what being “synodal” means. The International Theological Commission took a stab at synodality in a five-year study session, and published a white paper in 2018, but the document is an erudite reflection, not a plan for governance or any part of one.
When it’s merely a matter of weathering a storm of pet jargon from the top, the business is fairly uncomplicated: saturate the environment with the new language, pepper statements and documents with it, hold or host or sponsor a few academic conferences on the topic, and then wait for the fad to pass.
The business this time is complicated by three factors.
One is that Pope Francis actually means for the Church to become more synodal on his watch.
The second is that synodality is a real, actual thing in the Christian East. Certainly in the Orthodox sphere, but also to a significant extent in the Eastern Catholic world, synodality is institutional. Local and regional synods have a high degree of decision-making power. Synods are unambiguously organs of governance, with wide disciplinary latitude and a significant measure of authority to interpret and apply Church teaching. Only, whatever Pope Francis means, he doesn’t mean that.
Hence, there is a third wrinkle.
The organ known as the Synod of Bishops is a creation of Paul VI, who established it in the waning days of the Second Vatican Council in response to the express desire of the Council Fathers. He intended it to be a merely consultative body, even though synods in the East are governing organs. Pope Francis in 2018 gave the Synod of Bishops its own permanent juridical structure outside the Roman Curia.
Pope Francis has not given the Synod of Bishops any direct power of governance.
He has made it possible, however, to use the body as a mechanism for the manufacture of consensus (or the appearance of consensus) among the worldwide episcopate. With the recent synodal to-do over married priests, he’s also made it clear that the pope can govern with that consensus – real or manufactured – as well as against it. The Synod of Bishops, in short, is very much sub Petro (under Peter).
To the extent “synodality” means decentralised governance, the Synod of Bishops may as well be a counterweight as a catalyst.
The First Vatican Council’s dogmatic definition of papal supremacy has made universal adoption of anything like the Eastern model of synodality a non-starter. There are many steps the Church nevertheless might take towards decentralising the exercise of power.
Francis has taken tentative ones in this direction, particularly concerning translations of liturgical texts and – on paper, at least – the power of metropolitan archbishops to act as checks on local ordinaries. Still, anyone hoping that the Latin Church would simply look to the East and imitate it will be disappointed.
In any case, it is high time Church leadership got serious about figuring out what synodality is. The need for such a discussion was on display at the close of the October 2019 Amazon synod. The synod fathers called the whole Church in their final document to four “conversions”: the pastoral, the cultural, the ecological, and the synodal.
“Synodal,” said Cardinal Michael Czerny SJ at the press conference presenting the document, “is the most difficult word.” He continued: “It doesn’t mean very much to your readers (or to your listeners), but it is an important word that is helping us in the Church to – again – learn better how to be Church.”
That’s fine. Only, what does “synodal” mean?
What is “synodality” for the purposes of – say – synods of bishops? The Catholic Herald asked Cardinal Czerny for the Amazon synod fathers’ working definition of “synodal”. He suggested that “everybody had a sense of what it meant, because we were doing it. Whether everyone could explain it in words, I’m not so sure, but I’m not sure that mattered.”
Cardinal Czerny may have been right then, but it matters now.
Under normal circumstances, it would be far too early to make synod predictions. This time, however, the faithful have not only a reasonable expectation, but also a genuine right to a straightforward statement of what synodality is, so that we can work towards it together.
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