Among some Catholics today, “synodality” is regarded as an ill-defined term perhaps signifying nothing but the covert dismantling of Catholic structures and teaching. Raymond Cardinal Burke, for instance, recently said in an interview with LifeSiteNews that “the enthusiasts for ‘synodality’ keep talking about it, but I can’t find any definition of what it is.” His comments were made in response to the October Synod, a gathering that produced a final document filled with many references to “synodality” despite the topic being apparently little discussed during the actual Synod.
And theologian Chad Pecknold, writing last month in First Things, raised some useful points about “the ambiguities and anxieties that go with the pursuit of synodality” in the current pontificate, concluding with the question, “So what do you get when you haphazardly tack on Eastern synodality to Western papal primacy?” Unfortunately, rather than engaging with what and why of Eastern Orthodox synods, he seems to simply suggest “do not follow them.”
I have studied and written about synods in an Eastern Christian context for many years (see, for example, my 2011 book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy). It is not easy these days to be an apologist for synods and synodal structures in the Catholic world, but I remain so for four reasons: their history, their ecumenical appeal, their practical benefits, and above all their theology. I have addressed the first two at length in my 2011 book and will not repeat that here. I have addressed the third—the practical benefits of synodal structures at the diocesan and national levels as ways of addressing the sex-abuse crisis—in my forthcoming book, Crucifying the Church: The Costs of Reform Today. As for the fourth, the theology of synods, let us come back to that in a moment.
First, however, Cardinal Burke is absolutely correct: we are in desperate need of some clarification. Let me be as clear as I can: everything going under the name of “synod” in Rome since 1965, and as recently as this October, is not a synod as the term is used (i) throughout most of Latin Church history in the first and most of the second millennium; (ii) in most of Eastern Orthodoxy historically or today; (iii) in much of the Anglican Communion; or (iv) in the Eastern Catholic Churches such as my own.
The reason for my claim is simple: synods are not thematic conferences discussing boutique interests of some group or other. Rather, synods are business-like affairs (rarely held in full glare of the world’s media) with powers of passing legislation and electing bishops (and in some cases disciplining them). The current statutes governing these so-called Roman synods of bishops permit them to do neither.
The problem with those statutes, and with Catholic understandings of synods, is that both operate in the fallout of the Second Vatican Council. While I defend the Council in many respects (see my essay in The Reception of Vatican II, edited by Levering and Lamb from Oxford University Press, 2017), my defense is not so blind or partisan as to avoid admitting that the Council indulged at times in blustery talk and dodgy sociology (see, e.g., Gaudium et Spes, brilliantly analyzed by Tracey Rowland in Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II) leading, circuitously in some cases, to disastrous outcomes (e.g., the liturgical “reforms,” brilliantly analyzed by Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy). Since 1965, when both the Council ended and the statutes for the “synod” of bishops were promulgated, everyone has seen the latter in the highly distorting light of the former.
If the gatherings since 1965 are not real synods, what are they? One long-time participant, the late Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk of Canada, used to call them “international study days of the Catholic bishops.” That, as many of us now see—and Hermaniuk certainly recognized—is neither historical nor helpful. Historically, a synod was both legislative and electoral in nature, but also pedagogical, seeking “to teach the Faith more effectively and…promote a more faithful Christian life,” as Cardinal Burke has put it with the welcome clarity of so eminent a canonist.
Since Hermaniuk’s death in 1996, and even more since 2013, I would echo his (and Burke’s) frustration that these Roman gatherings are really languorous salons whose officials write loquacious documents that often read like drafts ripped out of Hegel’s rubbish bin and then tarted up with some sophomoric sociology. As a long-time academic editor, I have watched with horror at the undisciplined length of documents coming out of Rome for many years now. How I wish curial writers would master the lesson I often convey to my students: writing is an ascetical exercise of self-denial whose patron saint is John the Baptist. You must decrease your word count while increasing your economy and felicity of expression.
In the interests of economy, let me stipulate two things: first, for those who worry that the chaos of these pseudo-synods points to some flaw in synods as such, note well that the Eastern Catholic Churches are synodically governed without the shenanigans we have sometimes seen in Rome. Eastern synods—real synods—have mechanisms to prevent their being hijacked by a handful of bishops, or manipulated behind the scenes by a primate. They seek to maintain a tension between the primate and his brothers, so that if either fails—whether by domineering, or by declining to lead—the damage is contained and nobody can go rogue.
Second, real synods are theologically iconic. That is to say, the synod-primate model, the model of the many-one, is much clearer than the solitary primatial model as an ecclesial icon of the life of the Trinity, the tri-unity of the Godhead where there are three persons sharing one divine nature and one life together in perfect communion. As John Zizioulas argued in 1988:
The “many” always need the “one” in order to express themselves. This mystery of the “one” and the “many” is deeply rooted in the theology of the Church, in its Christological (the “one” aspect) and pneumatological (the aspect of the “many”) nature. Institutionally speaking, this involves a ministry of primacy inherent in all forms of conciliarity.
If Zizioulas, the most widely respected Greek theologian alive today, is too Orthodox for some Catholic tastes, then let us turn to the International Theological Commission, which has recently published—with papal approval—a wonderfully rich (if, again, over-long) document, “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church Today”. Nowhere in this document do we find even a hint that synods are or should be “endless talking shops in search of doctrinal change,” a prospect from which we should all recoil. Instead, the ITC gives an interlocking theological definition of synodality that is most helpful:
On different levels and in different forms, as local Churches, regional groupings of local Churches, and the universal Church, synodality involves the exercise of the sensus fidei of the universitas fidelium (all), the ministry of leadership of the college of Bishops, each one with his presbyterium (some), and the ministry of unity of the Bishop of Rome (one). The dynamic of synodality thus…is an icon of the eternal conspiratio that is lived within the Trinity. (no. 64)
How, and whether, this translates into practice remains to be seen. But if the Latin Church does continue in a synodal direction, it must not let its post-1965 shambolic pseudo-synods make it scared of the real thing.
Instead, as the ITC has put it, we must press forward with “the task of forming a mature ecclesial sense, which, at the institutional level, needs to be transformed into a regular synodal process” (no. 73). This will be aided by renewed study of “the teaching of Scripture and Tradition [that] show that synodality is an essential dimension of the Church” (no.42), which has been overshadowed by the papacy in the West, but less so in the Eastern Catholic Churches. which, mirabile dictu, have preserved their liturgical and doctrinal patrimonies with great coherence and fidelity while being governed by synods.
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