Published July 15, 2021
“Synodality” – a term that has increasingly taken center stage in this pontificate – is a neologism in search of a theology. This is not to say it is a term without any theological meaning; rather, that insofar as the word describes the “shape” Pope Francis sees for the Church in the third millennium, it is a concept still coming into focus.
Beginning this October, the Synod of Bishops will turn its attention to these problems in its next assembly under the theme: “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.” Pope Francis is convinced that synodality describes the “shape” the Church must take in the third millennium. It remains somewhat unclear just what the Holy Father means by synodality and a synodal Church.
We know, for starters, something about what Pope Francis does not mean by synodality. He does not simply mean the synodality of the Eastern Churches. He seems to have in mind something more than the Synod of Bishops, which has met to advise popes in the years since the Second Vatican Council. He does not see a synodal Church as a democracy, nor a synod as a sort of plebiscite or parliament. By synodality, he does mean “a Church walking together” – a definition sufficiently vague as to make all the preceding clarifications necessary.
The International Theological Commission (ITC) studied the topic of “synodality in the life of the Church” for several years leading up to a 2018 report. That report, received favorably by Pope Francis, lays out a more robust vision of what synodality does or might mean for the Latin Church – and also, to an extent, what it does not or cannot mean.
Synodality, we are told, does not describe an event, but a process: “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 evangelising mission.” The People of God, in union with the bishops, and with and under the pope, discern the will of the Holy Spirit for the Church’s work of missionary discipleship.
Still, the ambiguity of the terminology of synodality – to say nothing of the contentiousness of recent meetings of the Synod of Bishops and the tenuous situation unfolding with the German Church’s “Synodal Path” – presents a number of theological and practical problems. There are, to be sure, reasons to be skeptical of the way some might misconstrue synodality in an attempt to deconstruct doctrine, undermine tradition, and jeopardize ecclesial communion. These are all legitimate concerns.
But if synodality is something of an empty vessel, there is no reason it cannot be filled with good things. There is no reason that Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality cannot be an occasion to rediscover, or consider anew, the Second Vatican Council’s doctrinal constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. As the ITC put it, “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.”
In fact, the promise of a synodal Church is precisely that it become a means by which the Church in all her members more fully embodies her true character and mission: drawing on Scripture and Tradition, so that the character of the Church might be manifest more authentically, and the universal mission of the Church might be accomplished, with greater efficacy.
In this sense, a truly synodal Church is not “starting over from scratch,” nor is it about divvying up ecclesial authority in a way more appealing to modern sensibilities. Nor is it a matter of reshaping the Church to accommodate the spirit of the age, with local and regional synods each carving out their own slices of truth, jettisoning what they don’t like, or adding according to local fashion.
A genuine synodality will take seriously the universality of the baptismal mission: every member of the faithful, without exception, is to be fully engaged in the mission of the Church, even as the particular ways in which that mission is carried out depends on one’s gifts, talents, charisms, station, and office.
Examples of a healthy, constructive, and faithful synodality can be found already here in the United States. By my count, at least ten American dioceses and Archdioceses have either announced, begun, or completed local synods in recent years: Bridgeport, Burlington, Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee, Springfield, San Diego, Sacramento, St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Washington. Results have been varied, but generally positive.
One archbishop told me that he considered his decision to call an archdiocesan synod the most important and best pastoral decision he has ever made as a bishop. The local synod provided a chance for his local Church to face significant challenges together while refocusing efforts and resources on the most urgent tasks and especially the most fundamental task of all “unleashing the Gospel.”
How well this sort of synodality, which had proven fruitful on the local level, translates to a global scale remains to be seen. The Synod process beginning this October will begin with a diocesan phase, to be followed one year later by a continental phase, and, finally, a universal phase in 2023. How well a Church of more than a billion souls scattered across the globe can discern or “walk together” through such a necessarily impersonal program is far from obvious.
Concerns about the pitfalls or potential abuses of synodality ought to be acknowledged, but it would be a terrible mistake to dismiss the promise of synodality out of hand. If reinvigorating the Church’s evangelizing mission is not reason enough for Catholics to put their best foot forward on the synod, another thought might be: the failure or refusal of the faithful to engage in the synodal process only ensures that the most cynical or ideological voices will be the only ones heard.
Stephen P. White is a Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.