Pope Francis has been vocal and insistent in his calls for a more synodal Church. “Synodality” is a buzzword — even a keyword — of his pontificate. What is Synodality? More pertinently, what does Pope Francis mean by synodality?
At first blush, it might seem quite clear: “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).” It is also, according to Francis, a Church on its way. He described the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops as, “[A] path of solidarity, a ‘journey together’.”
It is an image that draws on a popular étymologie sauvage, which reads the Greek root word formed by the prefix, syn– “together” and the word hodos, “road” to mean “a common way” or a “common journey”. The word never quite meant that, though, but named a crossroads or junction, a meeting point — by extension, the body or bodies that met there. As a term of art, it might name the place where hostile armies came into contact.
Francis, however, has never bothered much with strict adherence to the accepted meanings of terms in a technical register — and anyway, his sense of the word does have a pedigree that we can trace at least to Nicholas of Cusa.
Practically speaking, synodality names a specific kind of institutional organization, in which local bodies have a high degree of decision-making power fairly approaching autonomy in Church governance. The Orthodox — and to some extent the Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome — are the model for this.
The problem is, the way the Church defined Papal Supremacy at Vatican I makes the “Orthodox model” impossible. Still, there are lots of things a Pope could do to increase local and regional responsibility, i.e. to “decentralize” power in the Church: a decision to send anything and everything Rome could possibly send back to local Churches (and increase the power of Metropolitans as a check on local Ordinaries run amok) would be a start. There would need to be discussion about just exactly what Rome could afford not to handle, but that could be the subject of, ahem, a Synod Assembly.
Under the rubric of synodality, Francis has taken a few steps that seem to be in that direction.
One may think of the changes to the law governing the process of liturgical translations, and the reform of marital nullity courts and procedure. Those two reforms, however, do not really restore any power to local Churches or bishops’ conferences.
On paper, the Congregation for Divine Worship is no longer involved in the preparation of translations, and cannot red-pen drafts or make specific corrections, but it still must approve conferences’ drafts. Outside of the Anglosphere and a couple of other major international language groups, the changes have more than a little to recommend them, and bring the paper procedure more closely into line with the way things actually get done. Still, to pretend the changes represent a real decentralization of power is asking a lot.
When it comes to marital nullity, the fact is that canonists from the most remote diocese to the Roman Rota are still trying to get their heads around them, and figure out how to make them work — while Christians with cases “in the system” have a right of appeal to Rome that can be discouraged, but not thwarted or defeated.
Then there are other things Francis has done, which suggest anything but an interest in seeing decision-making power devolve. The little-noticed but highly significant clarification in 2016, regarding the need for “consultation” with the Vatican before local bishops approve religious congregations within their jurisdictions — so-called “congregations of diocesan right” — came down clearly on the side of the Vatican. The law governing the erection of institutes of consecrated life — usually small communities of women religious — is ambiguous, and many bishops and canon lawyers read it as merely advising but not requiring consultation. The clarification established once and for all that consultation is necessary before a bishop exercises his power to give any such new community legal recognition. A bishop may still go ahead and recognize the community, even if the Vatican gives an “unfavorable” opinion. That’s how it is on paper, anyway. It is fair to say that a local Ordinary is unlikely to choose such a hill as the place to die on.
The 2016 document overhauling the organization of women religious, Vultum Dei quaerere, and the instruction implementing the overhaul, Cor orans, which the Vatican released just last month, also subject local religious life to stricter Vatican scrutiny and more direct Vatican control than ever previously countenanced. Most significantly, Cor orans establishes that houses of religious sisters must have at least eight professed women religious living permanently in them if they are to maintain their autonomy. If the number of women in a house drops to five professed religious, the community forfeits its right to elect a superior, and must inform the Congregation for Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life of the development, after which the Congregation is to form an ad hoc committee to choose an administrator for the community.
Recent Vatican interventions in the organization of seminary education also restrict the latitude diocesan bishops and regional bodies have over their formation houses. That may be necessary, and might even be too small a step in what persons concerned with priestly formation consider to be the right direction, but it is not easy to see how it is “synodal” in any meaningful sense.
Even in areas of Church life in which Pope Francis has been unwilling to exercise his powers of governance — such as communion for the divorced and remarried, where he merely offered a pastoral reflection and then largely sat back and watched bishops and bishops’ conferences issue divergent and incompatible plans for implementation (some of which have force of law) — he has not been entirely passive. While the bishops of Buenos Aires in his native Argentina were discussing controversial proposals to implement his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, the Pope wrote a letter to them, saying their draft document, “explains precisely the meaning of Chapter VIII,” of his Exhortation, and adding, “there are no other interpretations.”
Most recently, the German bishops decided to test the waters of synodality, passing guidelines granting much broader effective permission to non-Catholics to receive Holy Communion in Catholic churches with their Catholic spouses, than anything countenanced by existing law. The Germans argued that their proposal was in keeping with the law, and within their rights under it, but the Pope who talks so much about building bridges apparently found this German outreach to be a bridge too far. He put the brakes on the proposal, and handed the problem to the competent dicasteries in Rome.
In the letter informing the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, of his decision, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, SJ, wrote,
For the Holy Father it is of great concern that in the German episcopal conference the spirit of episcopal collegiality should remain alive. As Vatican Council II has emphasized, ‘the Episcopal bodies of today are in a position to render a manifold and fruitful assistance, so that this collegiate feeling may be put into practical application’.
Now, “collegiality” is an essential element of practical working synodality in Pope Francis’ vision. It is the “second level” of synodality, according to the outline the Pope gave in his address commemorating the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Synod of Bishops. It sounds great, and looks great on paper. Collegiality and synodality are great, until one tries to do something with them.
When that happens, a bishop or a conference or other regional body runs the risk of discovering the hard way something about which Pope Francis — to his credit — has always been abundantly clear: “The fact that the Synod always acts cum Petro et sub Petro — indeed, not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro.” While the Holy Father was speaking of the advisory body known as the Synod of Bishops, he was clearly also speaking by extension of the Church’s whole articulate hierarchical leadership. He went on to say that this fact, “is not a limitation of freedom, but a guarantee of unity.” Pope Francis is certainly right in what he affirms: Peter is the guarantee of unity. Practically speaking, this will always mean that the Church is exactly as synodal as Peter says it is.
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