Published September 9, 2022
Persons worried about the current “synodality” process in the Catholic Church have good reasons to be anxious. The car wreck of the German Catholic “synodal path” on matters of sexuality and Church governance is one of them. Other key problems with Rome’s 2023 Synod on Synodality are the personalities and behaviors of some of the loudest people advancing it.
More on that in a moment. The idea itself – synodality – is worth considering. But be warned and caffeinated: Roman documents ahead.
In March 2018, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (ITC) issued a text entitled “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church.” This provides the foundational material for current discussions of synodality. But it followed a previous ITC document that gives it some important context: “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” issued in 2014. Both make worthwhile, if tedious, reading. Especially when the 2018 document is read through the lens of the earlier one. The 2014 text was approved for publication by then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller.
The 2018 synodality text notes that the word “synodality” is a neologism, a “linguistic novelty which needs careful theological clarification.” In other words, it’s ambiguous. In fact, the meaning of the concept is far from obvious. The text argues further that, “Although synodality is not explicitly found as a term or as a concept in the teaching of Vatican II, it is fair to say that synodality is at the heart of the work of renewal the Council was encouraging.”
That claim involves a rather generous leap of logic. And whether the Church has had time for “careful theological clarification” before embarking on a global effort in synodality’s name is open to question. It also doesn’t help that the issue of synodality was smuggled onto the agenda near the end of a thematically unrelated 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. But that’s water under the bridge. In the ITC’s words, “synodality is the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the Church, the People of God, which reveals and gives substance to her being as communion when all her members journey together, gather in assembly and take an active part in her evangelizing.”
So, back to the 2018 document.
The ITC authors rightly stress, early on, that “all members of the Church are agents of evangelization.” Based on that, they argue that “making a synodal Church a reality is an indispensable precondition for a new missionary energy that will involve the entire People of God.” Synodality, they note, “when it is correctly understood [my emphasis]. . . offers a way of understanding and experiencing the Church where legitimate differences find room in the logic of a reciprocal exchange of gifts in the light of truth.”
They proceed to make a credible case.
The document’s Chapter 1 is a persuasive account of “Synodality in Scripture, in Tradition, and in History.” The rest of the text has good material offered throughout. Chapter 3 has sound practical suggestions, among them the necessity of candid, functioning diocesan and parish pastoral councils. And Chapter 4 notes that:
[S]ome paradigms often still present in ecclesiastical culture need to be quashed, because they express an understanding of the Church that has not been renewed by the ecclesiology of communion. These include: the concentration of responsibility for mission in the ministry of pastors; insufficient appreciation of the consecrated life and charismatic gifts; [and] rarely making use of the specific and qualified contribution of the lay faithful, including women, in their areas of expertise.
All good – although, in the United States, many laypeople already have leadership roles in local Church life, both outside and often inside diocesan structures. It’s also worth noting that the clericalist mindset rebuked in the text is often found just as generously among laypeople as among clergy. Unloading all the “power” in Catholic affairs on priests can be a very useful escape route for laypeople from the duties conferred by their baptism.
Another strong passage in Chapter 4 (paragraph No. 111) speaks to the nature of synodal dialogue, which “depends on courage both in speaking and in listening. It is not about engaging in a debate where one speaker tries to get the better of the others or counters their positions with brusque arguments, but about expressing whatever seems to have been suggested by the Holy Spirit as useful for communal discernment . . . “
In a Church still burdened by civil war about the meaning of Vatican II, these are welcome words . . . even if they’re aspirational, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Other key lines in the text include No. 47: “The Church’s synodal path is shaped and nourished by the Eucharist.” Another is No. 68, highlighting “the significance and value of consulting [emphasis in original] everyone in the Church.” Another is No. 70b: “[S]ynodality denotes those structures and ecclesial processes [emphasis in original] in which the synodal nature of the Church is expressed at an institutional level, but analogously on various levels: local, regional, and universal. These structures and processes are officially at the service of the Church, which must discover the way to move forward by listening to the Holy Spirit.”
The 2018 text stresses the need for listening, walking together, and accompaniment as vital elements in renewing Church life. Again, all good. And yet certain questions remain, among them this one: Who exactly constitute “the faithful” in Catholic life? There’s a reason for asking. All the baptized, whatever their status, are authentically Catholic Christians. The Church can’t ignore them. But fidelity is a matter of will and behavior, just as faithful spouses have obligations not merely in theory, but in practice.
The indifferent, the chronically alienated, and those eager to reshape Church belief in a manner more fitting to a secular and hypersexualized age . . . to what degree, in a process of synodal consultation and outreach, should their views have weight in Catholic life? At what point might such peripheries, and a maternal concern for them, start to de-center the Church from her main mission: prophetic witness and conversion of the world?
In their earlier, 2014 text on the sensus fidei (i.e., the correct sense of, and instinct for, the Christian faith), the ITC authors note that a living faith has some essential aspects. Among them are repentance, consistent prayer and worship, confidence in revelation, personal witness, and a commitment to charity and service. Absent these, “faithful” is a word without meaning. In practice, all Christians – all of us — fall well short of the fidelity standard. But there’s a difference between knowing the standard, sincerely trying to live it, failing, and trying again; and ignoring the standard, or rejecting the standard, or working to redefine it more flexibly.
In that light, we might consider the following two items:
First, the 2014 text underlines “the importance of not presuming that public opinion inside (or outside) the Church is necessarily the same thing as the sensus fidei .. .” It also quotes Pope John Paul II in stressing that the sensus fidei “’does not consist solely or necessarily in the consensus of the faithful’.” Rather, it’s the task of Church pastors to “’promote the sense of the faith in all the faithful, examine and authoritatively judge the genuineness of its expressions, and educate the faithful in an ever more evangelical discernment’.”
Second, “alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognize in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd . . . [thus,] for St. Thomas, a believer, even without theological competence, can and even must resist, by virtue of the sensus fidei, his or her bishop if the latter preaches heterodoxy.” Such words, of course, can easily be used to justify whatever behaviors or views we find congenial. But they clearly do apply in judging recent defective work by the Pontifical Academy of Life relating to contraception and similar matters.
Again: Quoting Roman documents, despite their great value, can have the effect of snowdrifts accumulating on the brain. But they do offer us hope that synodality, correctly understood and honestly employed, might achieve some good.
Derailment comes in the form of excesses – excesses that were foreseen, forewarned, and ignored — like the German synodal path. A fixation on process, implicit in calls to make the synodal process permanent, risks the creation of a dominantly inward-looking, evangelically sterile Church. And any process in the wrong hands – not to mention the structures and personnel needed to serve it — can become a tool for negative ends. Hostility to the teaching legacy of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI was already an undercurrent at the 2015 Synod on the Family. That hasn’t changed. Veritatis Splendor has always been a bone in the throat of some theologians. And Humanae Vitae represents a whole corpus of inconvenient Catholic beliefs about human sexuality. It would surprise no one if matters related to either or both of these encyclicals should (somehow) end up in the 2023 synod’s discussions, or in a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, or its footnotes.
Such concerns might be dismissed . . . were it not for the toxic snark, ad hominem attacks, and self-satisfied ignorance (a quality immortalized here) so common to some of Pope Francis’s most vocal supporters. For the sake of the Church, cheerleaders for synodality might profitably read the two ITC documents I’ve mentioned here.
“Synodal dialogue,” after all, has some obligations.
Check paragraph 111 in the 2018 text for instructions.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.