Published February 24, 2022
On Monday, February 28, I will be moderating a conversation between the president of The Catholic University of America, John Garvey, and the papal nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. This public event will mark the launch of the university’s participation in the synod process, which will take place over the subsequent eight weeks. The topic of conversation for the event is, “Synodality: Why Should You Care?”
So: Why should you care?
When he addressed the USCCB general assembly last November, Archbishop Pierre chose to speak about a topic that has recently come to dominate much of the conversation in the Church: synodality. And, as many conversations about synodality do, he began his remarks by making jokes about synodality: “Holding a synod on synodality is not simply having a ‘meeting about meetings.’ We call that purgatory!”
The laughter from the assembled bishops suggested that the nuncio was saying something many of them were already thinking but were reluctant to say.
I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking, writing, and speaking about synodality in recent months. Mention the Synod on Synodality to any American Catholic and you are likely to receive a wide range of responses.
- Some are excited at the prospect of a more participatory, even democratic Church.
- Some are skeptical about the prudence of holding a synod at such a divided, even chaotic, moment in the life of the Church.
- Some are concerned about the Germany Synodal Path and worry that the Synod on Synodality will be an opportunity for the German model to metastasize.
- Some, having seen various synod “promotional materials,” have decided it is likely as not to be an exercise in silliness.
But in my experience, the most common response among American Catholics to a synod on synodality is polite indifference. Most Catholics simply don’t know what all this talk of “synodality” is supposed to mean. For the most part, they keep this indifference to themselves for fear of seeming less than enthusiastic about something Pope Francis so obviously cares about.
As I’ve written before, synodality is a neologism in search of a theology. The word is meant to describe a particular modus vivendi et operandi for the Church, one in which the entire People of God takes responsibility for the mission we all share by virtue of our Baptism, particularly as laid out by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium.
If clergy are expected to carry out the Church’s evangelizing mission while the laity are more or less just along for the ride, is it any wonder that the Church grows sclerotic and evangelical vigor wanes? That this has never been the Church’s understanding of herself hasn’t prevented it from becoming, to a disturbing degree, the status quo in many quarters. The laity need to rediscover the power and promise of their own baptism for the good of the Church – and the world, to whom she is sent to proclaim the Good News.
Unfortunately, too much of the discussion about the role and vocation of the laity since Vatican II – and in a particular way during and after the abuse crisis – has focused on the question of, “Who gets to do what?” Who gets to read at Mass? Who gets to preach at Mass? Who gets to hold office in the Church? Who gets to choose and remove bishops? Who gets to receive Holy Orders? And so on.
Some of these questions are important. Some are not. Most discussion of these questions is marked by a clericalism so deeply ingrained that it is almost invisible, namely, the notion that proximity to clerical authority is the true measure of the lay vocation. The result is a distorted view of both the lay and clerical vocations. Another result is the perpetuation of precisely the sclerotic and stunted ecclesiology that treats the clerical caste – perhaps now open to more people than before – as the “real” Church, which drags the rest of us along in its wake.
What if we abandoned this sort of latent clericalism and, instead of asking “Who gets to do what?” we asked, “What would it look like if we took more seriously Lumen Gentium, and its vision for the People of God – laity and clergy living their distinct vocations in a truly collaborative way, with a shared responsibility for the mission of the Church?”
That’s a question worth asking. And the answer Pope Francis has given is, “Synodality.”
If synodality is meant to be “Lumen Gentium put more fully into practice,” then it is easy to see why synodality would be a challenge to the sort of latent clericalism that marks so much of the Church. It is also easy to see why a Church so steeped in this sort of latent clericalism would mistake synodality as an opportunity for an ecclesial power grab or doctrinal revolution. True synodality is a powerful antidote to the false alternative.
On this understanding – Lumen Gentium in action – true synodality is far from a silly diversion from the evangelical mission of the Church; it is essential to it. Nor is the work of synodality accomplished simply by talking about it. It requires an intentional choice to foster and practice a genuine sense of shared mission. It requires praying together, listening to Scripture together, listening to one another, discerning together, and, yes, “walking together.” Like all good habits, learning to do this can be awkward and difficult at first.
But I’m also convinced, despite my own initial reservations and hesitations about the synod, that this work is worth our every effort.
That is why we are taking the synod seriously at Catholic University. This is why I’d invite you to join us next Monday evening (here’s a link) even if – perhaps especially if – you have reservations about synodality.
And it’s why I’d ask you to implore the Holy Spirit to guide the university, and the whole Church, through this synod process.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.