When Ireland’s bishops met last week for their spring meeting – virtually, due to the Covid-19 pandemic – the big announcement was that the Irish Church would have a National Synodal Assembly within the next five years.
Ireland is following in the footsteps of Australia, where the country’s Catholic bishops will be holding a Plenary Council beginning later this year; and Germany, which is in the middle of its own Synodal Way.
Synodality has become the buzzword of the present pontificate – Pope Francis has used the Synod of Bishops as the chief tool of pushing his agenda. The post-Synodal Exhortation has even replaced the Encyclical as the main teaching tool of the Church.
Of course, the chief question is: What does “synodality” mean?
Despite eight years of hearing the word bandied about, the Vatican hasn’t quite offered a definition. In fact, the next meeting on the Synod of Bishops is slated to tackle this very issue, with the theme “For a synodal Church: communion, participation, and mission.”
Traditionally, synods in the Church have been legislative. Bishops would get together elect bishops and pass laws their ecclesiastical territory. This is still what happens in the Eastern Catholic Churches – they are, simply put, short and boring bureaucratic devices.
Even in the Latin Church, this was the purpose of the synod until they fell into disuse after the Reformation. Until recently, canon law mandated a diocesan synod be held once a decade, and the documentation shows this was to discuss ecclesiastical legislation in the local church. This law, however, was seldom observed.
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But this hasn’t been the thrust of the recent push for “synodality.” A common refrain is that “synod” comes from the Greek for “walking together” – this is a bit of an etymological fib, but not worth the digression – and seems to now be treated as a synonym for “collegiality.”
Instead of looking to the East — where the synod is still boring and bureaucratic — Francis looked to the Synod of Bishops.
The problem was that the Synod of Bishops has no real similarity to how synods have run in the Church before. The Synod of Bishops, moreover, had long since become a multi-week talking shop, usually on broad topics that led to anodyne statements. In other words, instead of being boring and bureaucratic, the Synod of Bishops was boring and useless.
Beginning with the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, he used the Synod of Bishops as a vehicle to push through changes in the Church. It’s fair to say, it was a stage-managed affair: The pope controlled the process, often with key appointments, to get the outcome he wanted. This is not a knock on the present pontiff – John Paul II and Benedict XVI did the same thing, but their personal investment in the Synod as an institution was significantly less than Francis’s.
This top-down collegiality is a natural consequence of Catholic ecclesiology, where “walking together” means “walking together, following the pope.”
But what does that mean when this more ethereal use of synodality is applied at the local level?
In Germany, the Church has said that “everything is on the table” in its Synodal Path, including women’s ordination, same-sex relationships, and other doctrinal issues. This has led to clashes with the Vatican, which insists that “walking together” can’t be done alone.
Although the Australians and Irish haven’t been as bold as the Germans, they face some of the same pressures: A secularized society at odds with the Church’s moral teachings — especially on sexuality — while at the same time having no credibility due to the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
All three national churches are dealing with declining Mass attendance, a fall in vocations, and — in Ireland and Australia especially — governments chipping away at religious liberty, such as the seal of confession and conscience protections. In addition, rapid societal changes in the 21st century have put new pressures on Catholic schools and hospitals.
The question is, where will the synodal path lead?
There are three options:
Follow Germany, and choose to challenge Church doctrine and risk a clash with the Vatican;
Hold meetings and issue statements no one will read, speaking about how people need to be more welcoming at Church, emphasizing the importance of the Eucharist, and recognizing the need for parish reconfigurations;
Be synodal in the original sense.
What does “synodal in the original sense” mean?
Instead of writing position papers on the problems facing the Church, write legislation to deal with them.
In the United States in the 19th century, the Catholic Church faced severe obstacles, including deadly attacks on convents and monasteries and legislation making episcopal church governance difficult to maintain. The Church held three plenary councils – each lasting less than a month – which mandated the Catholic parochial school system, the production of the Baltimore Catechism, and other laws which saw the Church thrive in a hostile environment.