The Vatican has announced that the world’s bishops will meet in October 2022 for a synod on synodality. The official theme of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will be “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission”.
The announcement triggered two broad reactions on social media. Outspoken supporters of Pope Francis hailed it as a milestone in the life of the Church. Noting Rome’s intention to consult Catholics worldwide before the synod, they argued that it would be one of the most significant ecclesial events for decades. Vocal critics of this pontificate, meanwhile, claimed that a synod on synodality was the height of absurdity: a talking shop about talking shops that would fail to further the Church’s mission of saving souls.
Synods are not, of course, a recent invention. Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in 1965, in the final stretch of the Second Vatican Council. The Code of Canon Law defines a synod as “a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world.”
Since Vatican II, bishops have gathered for Ordinary General Assemblies every four years or so. These meetings have been interspersed with Extraordinary General Assemblies or Special Assemblies summoned by popes.
Francis is not the first pontiff to enthuse about synods. In 1983, Pope John Paul II said: “The Synod of Bishops, which the Church has inherited from the Second Vatican Council, is truly a great good. We are ever more convinced of it. Each session confirms this conviction … The Synod of Bishops is a particularly valuable manifestation of the Church’s episcopal collegiality, and a particularly effective instrument of it.” He added: “Perhaps this instrument can still be improved. Perhaps collegial pastoral responsibility can be expressed even more fully in the synod.”
Pope Francis has made this desire his own. He has introduced innovations aimed at strengthening the synod, such as wide consultation of the laity. Pope Francis clearly believes that he is responding to a divine mandate to strengthen the Synod of Bishops. But many Catholics do not share his spiritual understanding of synodality; they regard synods as a kind of ecclesiastical parliament in which Church discipline (and even doctrine) must change according to the will of the majority.
In a 2015 address, Francis firmly rejected that view. “Through the Synod Fathers,” he said, “the bishops act as authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, which they need to discern carefully from the changing currents of public opinion … The synod process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called to speak as ‘pastor and teacher of all Christians’, not on the basis of his personal convictions but as the supreme witness to the fides totius Ecclesiae [the faith of the whole Church]. The fact that the synod always acts cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter] – indeed, not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro – is not a limitation of freedom, but a guarantee of unity.”
In that speech and subsequently, Francis spurned the idea of the synod as a legislative assembly. Nevertheless, campaigners will present the 2022 synod as a chance to jettison whatever aspect of Catholicism they find most disagreeable. At the same time, critics of Francis will argue that the gathering will seek to weaken Rome’s authority over local churches, freeing bishops to adapt to the prevailing zeitgeist.
Amid the din, we must always remember that synods are not parliaments, that the pope offers “a guarantee of unity” and that, as Jesus told St Peter, the gates of hell will not prevail.
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