I write these words on 9 October, as the Synod on Synodality officially launches its two-year process of… well, I’m not sure just what. You are reading this no more than a few weeks from the Feast of Christ the King on 21 November. It is difficult not to notice the ironic tension of these two events in the life of the Church. And – at least in terms of the Preparatory Document and the most prominent national example of “synodality” in the worldwide Church today – it is also difficult to reconcile them.
The most noteworthy aspect of the Synod, as expressed through its various instituting and explanatory documents, is that it is vague. In fact, it is difficult even to discern an end to the process. The Preparatory Document seems satisfied with describing a “journeying together”, but toward no defined terminus. “Our ‘journeying together’,” it suggests, “is… what most effectively enacts and manifests the nature of the Church as the pilgrim and missionary People of God.” Well, yes, but the pilgrimage must be set toward a fixed destination and a final purpose, and the path of the journey oriented accordingly. If we do not know where we are going, how do we when we have arrived?
The Synod on Synodality seems to be indifferent to this conundrum. For example, the Synod seems to be guided by a “basic question”:
How does this “journeying together”, which takes place today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one), allow the Church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to Her; and what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?
But it is not at all clear how one could know the answer to the question at the end of the journey, or even what that end is. Nor can much comfort come in trying to determine who should answer the question, “What exactly is a ‘synodal Church’?” To put it bluntly, how are we to grow as “synodal Church” when we don’t know what that is, and the process doesn’t seem interested in telling us? And, not to put too fine a point on it, breezily referring to a “synodal Church” is already question-begging of the highest order.
Similarly difficult to discern is the process of this journey, and who is setting the course. Even the Preparatory Document’s list of eight “main objectives” causes more confusion than clarity. For example, one objective is “living a participative and inclusive ecclesial process that offers everyone… the opportunity to express themselves and to be heard”. Another is “exploring participatory ways of exercising responsibility in the proclamation of the Gospel”. These and other hortatory bromides are fraught with the mood and tone of secular social psychology and seem to assume a model of the Church the end of which is synodality itself.
Most disturbing is the final of the eight objectives: “fostering the appreciation and appropriation of the fruits of recent synodal experiences on the universal, regional, national, and local levels”. Even faintly informed Catholics think of one nation when they read such words.
The Church in Germany has taken the mantel of “synodal Church” as license to dissent – notoriously and publicly – on essential doctrines of the Church, especially as they relate to human sexuality, life issues and marriage. Who believes that the synodal Church in Germany is, in any serious sense, in communion with the catholic Church throughout the rest of the world?
The German example is a proxy of the danger of this ill-defined “journey”. Synodality is undeniably an element of the legitimate magisterium of the Church. Various sees throughout the world face issues and challenges that are unique to the geographic, demographic and political characteristics of location around the globe, and should be addressed accordingly. But to say that synodality is an element of the Church’s structure is not to say that it is a “synodal Church”. And to assume that it is seems to set the course toward the kind of radically diffused authority that exists in, for example, the so-called “worldwide communion” of the Anglican Church.
In other words, the Synod on Synodality seems to proceed from the fundamental assumption that the Church is a loose federation of churches under the authority of local structures rather than a monarchy under the universal authority of Christ the King.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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