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What Is Synodality?

In a synod, the point is discerning, not the will of the people, but the will of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit in that context is sovereign, or in the language of Pope Francis, the “protagonist.”

Pope Francis leads a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

It was a great privilege for me to participate in the Synod on Young People in the fall of 2018. Along with about three hundred other bishops and ecclesial experts from around the world, I spent four weeks in Rome exploring the complex question of the Church’s outreach to the young.

About three weeks into the Synod process, a sub-committee of writers presented a preliminary text, meant to reflect our deliberations, questions, and decisions to that point. This draft represented, for the most part, an accurate account of our work, but there were a few pages that troubled a number of us. More or less out of the blue, a vigorous defense of “synodality” appeared in the text, though we had never, either in general session or in the small language groups, so much as discussed the theme. Moreover, the language was so imprecise that it gave the impression that the Church is a kind of freewheeling democracy, making up its principles and teachings as it goes along.

Rather alarmed by this section of the draft, a number of bishops and archbishops, myself included, rose to speak against it. We wondered aloud how to square this language with the teaching authority of the bishops, the binding quality of the Church’s dogmatic statements, and the practical process of governing the people of God. Mind you, none of us who expressed concern about the language of the text was against synods as such; after all, we were happily participating in one. It was the vagueness and ambiguity of the formulation that bothered us.

Just after our interventions, a well-known and deeply-respected cardinal asked to speak. He opined that our objections were baseless and that the texts in question were not threatening to the authority of the bishops or the integrity of the Church’s doctrine, though, to be honest, he provided no real argument for his position. When he sat down, applause rang through the Synod Hall, and we moved on to another topic. At the time, I thought, “Well, you win some and you lose some.”

But I will confess that this episode came vividly back to mind last summer when I learned that the German Bishops’ Conference was gathering under the rubric of “synodality” and had committed to walk the “synodal path.” My attention turned to something closer to alarm when I gathered that they were open to a reconsideration of some of the most fundamental moral teachings and disciplines of the Church, including the the nature of the sexual act, the theology of the priesthood, and the possibility of ordination for women.

Further, the bishops of Germany were endeavoring to undertake their deliberations in collaboration with the Central Committee for German Catholics, a lay organization, and they were insisting that the decisions of this joint body would be “binding.” To state it bluntly, every fear that I and a number of other bishops had when we first read the open-ended language regarding “synodality” in the preliminary document of the Youth Synod now seemed justified. Would it be possible for a local church to establish its own moral rules in such a way that they would then be binding on the Catholics in that region? Could contraception, for example, become ethically permissible in Germany while still remaining morally offensive in other parts of the Catholic world?

It was therefore with a real sense of relief that I learned that the Congregation for Bishops, under the headship of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, had intervened to set limits to the synodality of the German Conference, reminding the bishops that they were not authorized to act in independence of the Holy See. Nevertheless, when the German Bishops’ Conference informed the Vatican that they would press ahead on the synodal path, the same fears and hesitations that I experienced at the Youth Synod re-emerged.

All of this was in the back of my mind when, in the company of my brother bishops from Region XI, I met with Pope Francis during the ad limina visit. In the course of our conversation, the theme of synods and synodality indeed came up, and Francis was clear and explicit. He told us, in no uncertain terms, that a synod is “not a parliament,” and that the synodal process is not simply a matter of canvassing the participants and counting votes. And then he added, with particular emphasis, that the “protagonist” of a synod is not any of the delegates to the gathering, but rather the Holy Spirit. This last observation is of signal importance. The point of a democratic assembly is to discern the will of the people, for in a democratic polity, they are finally sovereign. But in a synod, the point is discerning, not the will of the people, but the will of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit in that context is sovereign, or in the language of Pope Francis, the “protagonist.”

Having heard the Pope on this score, I couldn’t help but hearken back to that moment at the Youth Synod of 2018. Whatever Pope Francis means by “synodality,” he quite clearly doesn’t mean a process of democratization, or putting doctrine up for a vote. He means, it seems to me, a structured conversation among all of the relevant ecclesial players—bishops, priests, and laity—for the sake of hearing the voice of the Spirit.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 188 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post, Bishop Barron. I would kindly ask why is it that we always have to find out information like this secondhand? If you and other bishops find all of this disconcerting, do you not think the laity reading the news is thinking the same thing? Why does the pope not come out and correct all of this in person, putting yours and our concerns to rest? It seems as if he allows all of this confusion to continue on letting bishops from one country do something contrary to others. Communion for the divorce and remarried is one example where bishop’s conferences are odds with one another acrsoss the globe, and still no real clear public statement by the pope to clarify, unless we take his acommpanying letter as the decisive authoritative document. Do you have any insight into this situation? Thanks and God bless.

  2. Bishop Barron,

    I like to add: why on earth “Synodality” is discussed by a group of bishops and no well defined definition of it was provided in the first place?? Incredible!!

  3. This kind of thing had been goingbon in the church from it’s begining. All claimed they were led by yhevHoly Spirit. Even thosecthat were later declared heretics. This looks to me as history repeating itself.

  4. Good comments, both. I don’t think even Pope Francis, (see, I am getting better! I did not call him Bergoglio this time!) can give us a definition of Synodality! My impression is that it gives a Conference of Bishops the right to make to certain “proclamations” concerning Church believes that have been taught for 100s of years and thinking that they truly believe will be approved by the Pope thus becoming official Church doctrines. I wish that Pope Francis, (there, I did it again!) would impart his ad lima comments made to the group Bishop Barron was in, to the German Conference Of Bishop, in no uncertain terms and bring them back the the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, with absolutely no ambiguity! I frankly, worry about a schism of the German Church of which I have definite attitudes if, in fact it happens. God bless the clarity of Bishop Robert Barron!

  5. Exclusive! Not quite hot off the press. The truth about synodality is not mysterious. It is conceptual as initially introduced to then Archbishop Buenos Aires Bergoglio SJ by his mentor now deceased Cardinal Archbishop Milan Carlo Maria Martini [also SJ]. Long thought the vehicle for effecting radical change for the Church to catch up with the times being as said by Martini 200 years behind. Purely conceptual in accord with the dictates, aphorisms, ambiguities, prohibitions, leeway all given here and there when suitable to progress [actual digression from Apostolic Tradition] to an agenda of change for the presumed better by Pope Francis. Bishop Barron a good man need not tax his mind in search of answer. It requires the willingness to accept reality an call it as it is.

  6. After the results of recent syonds and the publishing of the final documents which seem to have been written by the relators BEFORE the conclusion of the event, and with this interjection of what has NOT been discussed, and later an exhortation by the pope, novelties are promoted in the Church which challenge the doctrine, such as in the footnote of Amoris Laetitia chapter 8 and footnotes, Bishop Barron’s example above, and the German synod full of dissent. The Holy Father defines a purpose of a synod with his words, but the results of synods and their control by those in charge show different results. Perhaps it is time for a suspension of synods so that they can be purified of dissent.

  7. ‘So we won’t speak plainly,’ the bishop (Archbishop Bruno Forte) claimed the pope (Francis) told him, but ‘do it in a way that the premises are there, then I will draw out the conclusions.’

  8. Bishop Barron may be the one sane voice crying out in the wilderness. He has clearly identified the problem at its root cause but was unable to quash it. Unfortunately even though Pope Francis has spoken clearly to him he has yet to speak clearly to the rest of us and we continue to receive mixed signals from this Progressive Pope.

    I find it very disconcerting to have the Pope continue to say one thing then do another. He speaks out against the abuse of children by the Priests, Bishops and Cardinals but continues to do absolutely nothing about the pedophiles and Homosexuals who continue to sin within the Vatican walls while wearing the Roman Colors. He talks of the virtue of women but has done nothing about the Priests, and possibly Bishops, who have raped Nuns. Who have fathered illegitimate children yet have provided no care or substance for them. Our Holy Father has held the Chair of St Peter for long enough and has known of these problems for long enough to do what is needed but continues to turn a blind eye. Why?

    • Please note, the above comments are not intended to be an attack on the Pope but rather a healthy commentary on the issue of communication and the ongoing problem of mixed messages coming out of the Vatican.

      If what I have said is seen as argumentative and being an attack I apologize in advance. it isn’t my intent to be so but rather to use real examples of problems we are all aware of but typically afraid to mention.

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