Pope Francis announced in March that the next Synod of Bishops, to be held in October of 2022, will discuss the topic of “synodality” – that is, the Synod will be talking about synods, synods, and all things synodal. Earlier this month, we learned more – that the “Synod on Synodality” (the phrase used by the Holy See itself), will be proceeded by innumerable local synods, a synod on synods for every Catholic diocese on the planet, which are scheduled to begin in October of this year.
The announcement of the topic is proceeded by years of increasing emphasis by Pope Francis on synodality and synods, whose definition has been gradually augmented from the conventional and more pedestrian “council,” to embrace the totality of the Church itself. Francis now says that “synodality is not so much an event or a slogan as a style and a way of being by which the Church lives out her mission in the world,” and the Synod’s preparatory document tells us that synodality is literally the “form, the style, and the structure of the Church.” The Catholic Church is, in effect, a gigantic and perpetual synod.
In addition to these ambitiously expansive conceptions of “synodality,” Francis has added a special twist, one that introduces the notion of the synod as a “journeying together.” According to Pope Francis, the participants in a synod are not just having a meeting to discuss matters ecclesial – they are quite definitely on a “journey” to somewhere, and they are going there as a group. This point is hammered home with the relentless use of the word “journey” (often accompanied by “together”) which appears in some form in the Synod preparatory documents 98 times, once for every two uses of the word “synod.”
To support this interpretation of a “synod,” Francis in 2015 began invoking the etymology of the Greek word “synodos,” which is a combination of the prefix “syn” (“together”) and the word “hodos,” which can mean many things, including “road,” “journey,” “way,” “manner,” “method,” and “system.” Of all of these, Pope Francis prefers “journey.” The Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon tells us that “synodos” can refer either to a “fellow-traveler” or to an “assembly or meeting,” and the pope’s International Theological Commission admits that the latter definition is the one that has been used by the Catholic Church from its earliest days.
Nonetheless, Pope Francis will have it that a synod is a “journey together,” and that the Church itself is a synod, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the Church itself is a “journey together.” St. John Chrysostom is enlisted to add weight to this claim, because he points out in a commentary on the Psalms that the Greek word “ekklesia,” which is used in the Septuagint Old Testament to refer to the assembly of the faithful, means “synodos” or “systema” (literally, “‘Ekklesia’ is the name of a synod and system”). This allows the pope’s International Theological Commission to quote Chrysostom as declaring “that the Church is a ‘name standing for “walking together.”’”
Clearly we’ve come a long way from the old-fashioned kind of synod, which the Synod of Bishops Preparatory Document tells us “is no longer only an assembly of bishops.” No, it is rather “a journey for all the faithful, in which every local Church has an integral part to play.”
The road map for the Journey
What should the Church, that is, the Journeying Together, discuss during this journeying together about journeying together? In other words, whence and whither are we going in this great collective excursion? The Holy See has issued two preparatory documents to answer this question, the official Preparatory Document itself and an accompanying handbook or “vademecum,” which states that the two documents must be used “in tandem.” Together they serve up a mix of group-therapeutic catchphrases and ideological chic.
The Preparatory Document tells us that the task before us includes “accrediting the Christian community as a credible subject and reliable partner in paths of social dialogue, healing, reconciliation, inclusion and participation, the reconstruction of democracy, the promotion of fraternity and social friendship,” “living a participative and inclusive ecclesial process,” “exploring participatory ways of exercising responsibility in the proclamation of the Gospel and in the effort to build a more beautiful and habitable world,” and “bringing to light and trying to convert prejudices and distorted practices that are not rooted in the Gospel.”
The “Vademecum” or handbook for the Synod adds to this list, “cultural awareness to celebrate and embrace the diversity within local communities,” “inclusion, making every effort to involve those who feel excluded or marginalized,” “partnership based on the model of a co-responsible Church,” and “respect for the rights, dignity, and opinion of each participant.”
“Being synodal requires time for sharing,” states the Vademecum. “We are invited to speak with authentic courage and honesty (parrhesia) in order to integrate freedom, truth, and charity. Everyone can grow in understanding through dialogue.”
A theme that repeatedly arises is one that will be familiar to observers of earlier Franciscan synods: openness to novelty and the “God of surprises,” whose unexpected “blowing of the Spirit” purportedly clears the way for the pontiff’s more “surprising” doctrines.
“A basic question prompts and guides us: How does this ‘journeying together’. . . allow the Church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to Her; and what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?” states the Preparatory Document.
“Addressing this question together requires listening to the Holy Spirit, who like the wind “blows where it wills; you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (Jn 3:8), the Document continues, explaining that this means “remaining open to the surprises that the Spirit will certainly prepare for us along the way. Thus, a dynamism is activated that allows us to begin to reap some of the fruits of a synodal conversion, which will progressively mature.”
In order to achieve such “dynamism” certain “attitudes” are required, the Vademecum tells us. This includes “Openness to conversion and change: We can often be resistant to what the Holy Spirit is trying to inspire us to undertake. We are called to abandon attitudes of complacency and comfort that lead us to make decisions purely on the basis of how things have been done in the past.”
Other suggestions along the same line include, “An innovative outlook: To develop new approaches, with creativity and a certain audacity,” “Being inclusive: A participatory and co-responsible Church, capable of appreciating its own rich variety, embraces all those we often forget or ignore,” and “An open mind: Let us avoid ideological labels and make use of all methodologies that have borne fruit.”
As per custom in the Francis papacy, the preparatory documents repeatedly and even obsessively mention “the Gospel,” “evangelization,” and “mission,” but with very little reference to the content of the gospels themselves.
Out of more than 22,000 words, the terms “Gospel,” “evangelization,” and “mission” together appear a total of 114 times, as would be expected—but the words “repentance” and “redemption” are nowhere to be found. “Cross,” “crucifixion,” and “resurrection,” never appear. The word “sin” only appears twice as “sinful.” “Holiness” appears in a single quote from Vatican II. “Heaven” appears once, in the phrase “the coming kingdom of Heaven,” and “hell,” never. The word “judgment” is entirely absent.
In contrast, the word “conversion” is copiously present, appearing 21 times, but apparently never in the sense used by St. Augustine, of turning away from created goods and towards the Creator as the highest good. Instead, we are told that “conversion” means abandonment of the old and reception of the new and different. “True and proper conversion,” states the Preparatory Document, is “the painful and immensely fruitful passage of leaving one’s own cultural and religious categories.”
Ultimately, it seems that the ambitions of Pope Francis for his great Journeying Together and for “synodality” in general know no bounds. The conclusion of the official Preparatory Document summarizes the purpose of the Synod on Synodality using the words of Francis himself: “to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.”
With such encouragement, it seems likely that the Synod on Synodality will be, as in the case of the pope’s synods on the Family and on the Amazon, a vast wellspring of novelty from which the pontiff may pull whatever conclusions he wishes.
The humble beginnings of “synodality”
Although Pope Francis’ favorite buzzword has taken on novel and unprecedented proportions, “synodality” is a term with a real and ancient foundation in Catholic ecclesiology, which has always tempered the Church’s hierarchical system of authority with the practice of episcopal consultation by means of councils, which are more often called “synods” in the Byzantine Greek tradition.
We read repeatedly in the Latin texts of the first millennium the use of the word “synodaliter,” which literally means “synodally,” to give weight to a decree by a pope, patriarch, or other prelate that was issued following a consultation with suffragan bishops, particularly in matters of doctrinal or moral controversy. A declaration given “synodally” had a greater air of authority and finality. Consequently, most of the Church’s most dogmatic definitions and creeds have been issued by councils and synods. Moreover, the Church’s system of canon law was, during the first millennium, mostly developed out of the canons and decrees of synods, local and ecumenical.
The practice of holding regular synods is also not unprecedented. The reforming popes of the mid-eleventh century, for example, held regular synods of bishops, a practice meant to encourage reform in a time of grave decadence in the Church. The reforming Council of Trent went further and mandated that a synod of local clergy be held every year in all the dioceses of the world.
Participants at the Ecumenical Council of Constance, which was held to restore a papacy broken by the Western Schism, lamented the neglect of synods by the Church of Rome and attempted to mandate regular ecumenical councils every ten years, arguing that “the frequent holding of general councils .. . .roots out the briars, thorns and thistles of heresies, errors and schisms, corrects deviations, reforms what is deformed and produces a richly fertile crop for the Lord’s vineyard.” The decree, however, was later ignored.
After Vatican II, in the name of episcopal “collegiality,” the popes began to hold regular synods of bishops to provide them with consultation, and their members were chosen by regional episcopal conferences, which in turn provided a forum for discussion and joint action at the national level. However, these reforms were not without their critics. Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the then-Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, expressed the view that synods should not be seen as regular measures, but extraordinary ones, and that frequent episcopal meetings could distract bishops from the affairs of their dioceses. He also noted in a famous 1982 interview that “episcopal conferences have no theological basis,” and expressed concern that the Catholic Church should not be conceived as a “federation of national churches.”
The Francis papacy has been accused of manipulating synods to justify innovations in moral theology that by all appearances contradict Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor and even defined Catholic dogma. Despite strong opposition from participants at his two Synods on the Family, the pontiff issued the now-infamous encyclical Amoris laetitia permitting Holy Communion for adulterers, and used the occasion of the Synod on the Amazon to promote radical ecological ideology and the strange cult of the “Pachamama.”
However, the concern that a national Church might exploit a synodal process for harmful ends is now being expressed by Pope Francis himself, who has become leery of the German bishops and their two-year assembly called the “Synodal Path,” which has opened discussion for proposals to bless homosexual unions, ordain women as deacons, abolish celibacy for priests, and give Holy Communion to protestants.
“I feel a great sadness when I see a community that, with goodwill, takes a wrong path because it thinks it is making the church through gatherings, as if it were a political party: the majority, the minority, what this one thinks of this or that or the other, [saying] ‘This is like a synod, a synodal path that we must take,’” said Francis in November of last year. “I ask myself, ‘Where is the Holy Spirit there? Where is prayer? Where is the community’s love? Where is the Eucharist?’”
“Synodality,” as it turns out, is a “journey” that is difficult to control, even for a master of the art like Pope Francis. A prayer for the Synod suggested by the Vademecum captures well the pontiff’s trepidation: “We are weak and sinful; do not let us promote disorder. Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path nor partiality influence our actions.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!