It quickly became clear that many saw the process as somewhat farcical. Questions arose early on about the transparency of the synodal process. Who is in charge of collating the answers in the diocese? What sort of document will they produce? Can we read it? And can we complain if we disagree with the final statement? No answers were given. Some expressed anger, saying that the synod itself showed lack of understanding for the Catholic faith. Others, wanting to act in good faith, said we have been asked to answer a few questions and should comply. Take note that this parish of mine is a normal and broad. Attendance at the meeting was large and varied, and the answers to the questions which had been posed were mostly respectful. The problem was that everyone felt that the actual aim of the synod was unclear. When it asks us about leadership in the Church, is that something we can pronounce on? Is it up to the hierarchy to lead, or is it asking us about how we too can be leaders? Or is it asking us to remark on how well the clerics have been leading thus far? So, both the aim of he synod itself and how these answers will be used had not been disclosed.
Similar meetings have been held all across the world and will continue to be held until 2023. In Germany a special group has been assembled which calls itself the ‘Synodal Way.’ The group counts many clerics and high-ranking church officials among its numbers. It has been criticised by cardinals, such as Cardinal Müller, for wanting to see radical change within the Church. There are many questions which need to be raised: how do we reach out to people in an increasingly secularised world? How do we address the calamities which will arise when assisted suicide, which is being pushed for in many European countries including in the United Kingdom, is made legal? A synod on these issues, which would involve listening to the experience of people who are confronted with these battles in their daily lives, is no bad idea in and of itself.
What might strike one as slightly disconcerting is the continuous talk of “synodality”. Faint echoes of a distant battle can be heard: the conflict over Conciliarism. In the Medieval Ages, the Church confronted a movement which came to be known as Conciliarism, purporting to ensure communal decision making and limiting the Pope’s claims to power. As Lord Acton once famously put it, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Such sentiments where being fought against by the Conciliarists. A major obstacle stood in their way however; their position was heretical. Our Lord decided to found a Church on the rock of Peter. In other words, Christ established papal primacy. Out of this divine injunction, the papal institution with its court came to be developed.
The Holy Father is well aware of the doctrinal and disciplinary limits within which the Church must function. He is the guarantor of the Church’s sound teaching. Hence, through His Holiness’s use of his office, he could stand in the way of any resurgent Conciliarist controversy in the future. By inviting the Church to partake in a universal synod, however, the lines are seemingly somewhat blurred, while remaining cleverly intact. The world gets a sense of participating in the process of teaching and thinking with the Church to a greater extent than known hitherto, while the Pope makes sure that tradition of the final word continues to reside with him.
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