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Opinion: From “synodality” to “congregationalism” and back again

Catholic governance at all levels must focus not on boutique challenges to doctrine or trendy ideas, but three concrete realities: election, legislation, and discipline.

(Image: Josh Applegate |

I agree with everything Larry Chapp says in his recent pieces on the problems of “synodality.” But, perhaps very slightly more hopeful than he is, I want to make some suggestions overlooked by many in the rush to jump on or off the synodal bandwagon at the international level.

In 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the McCarrick revelations, I was on sabbatical writing a book about the sex abuse crisis in the Church. I was having lunch with a friend who made one of those off-handed comments that startled us both. (My friend, come to think of it, is a lot like Larry in his theological views and in his love of Dorothy Day.)

What was suggested between us was that Catholics needed to become much more congregationalist not just in practice but also in ecclesiology.

On the one hand, practically speaking, most of us already are at least semi-congregationalist. Most Catholics attend liturgy and receive the sacraments at whatever parish is at hand; at the same time, most Catholics are blissfully unaware of whatever encyclical some eminence has issued that week from either the diocesan chancery or Vatican bureaucracy.

Thus healthy Catholics (as I aspire some day to be) are not that interested in papal machinations or the structures of the Church at virtually any level beyond the local. Normal Catholics have little time to talk about “synodality” when they haven’t been able to secure enough volunteers for the food bank that week or figure out which squirrelly second-grader is tall enough to do the deed in this year’s May crowning.

Let us build on and extend these concrete and congregationalist instincts of the long-suffering people of God. I am not the only one advocating a move in this direction. No less a figure than Fr. Joseph Komonchak has said as much. One of the most influential ecclesiologists in the last half-century, he gave an interview recently in which he said:

I think we Catholics could use a good dose of congregationalism!…Louis Bouyer said that after the Resurrection and the Ascension and Pentecost, St. Peter didn’t rush off to Rome to establish a bureaucracy. And that the church was, in fact, local communities replicating themselves when people went out from them and founded new communities.

I think Chapp and DeVille are very much in agreement with Komonchak and Bouyer. But let me flesh out my proposals to invite further discussion, aware that this is not any sort of definitive set of solutions, but merely a set of provisional proposals to loosen things up and thus try to get us moving in a better direction.

On that point of it is worth pausing for a moment to consider that perhaps in ecclesiology more than in any other theological discipline, provisionality and flexibility must be the order of the day. For the last two centuries the Church has been obsessed with cementing into place highly inflexible and centralized structures and monopolies on power at all levels. Whatever the historical and contextual justifications for such grasps at permanency, they are fundamentally misguided in light of the ecclesiology of the New Testament and much of the first millennium. As the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément wrote in his book You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy, “the true greatness of the period of the ecumenical councils is precisely that the power of decision rested with no one: neither pope, nor council, nor emperor, nor public feeling.” Instead, he shows, it had to be discerned by the whole Church and could and did admit of different forms of decision-making from place to place without the unity of the Church being imperiled.

A move towards more congregationalist and synodal governance is not against tradition, but in fact is much more deeply rooted in 1800 years of Christian life than the present centralized papal and episcopal monarchies and their bureaucracies, all of which are, at most, 150 years old.

What do I mean by Catholic congregationalism?

First we must be clear that we want a strict focus on three realities only. Note, again, the focus on practicality here. This focus is imbued with a tough-minded awareness that local congregations can also have pathologies of power and other problems (which is why I have written so strongly against fantasies of “Benedict option” communities) which must be guarded against, as the proposals below do.

What proposals are we looking at, then? I have insisted for years in many articles that Catholic governance at all levels must focus not on boutique challenges to doctrine or trendy ideas, but three concrete realities: election, legislation, and discipline.

My 2019 book made some practical suggestions in all three areas, but let me restate and amplify them here.

Congregationalism for Catholics requires, at a minimum:

  1. Election:
    1. An annually elected parish council (50/50 men and women) whose monthly (or more frequent as circumstances require) meeting in every parish is mandatory (not optional, as it currently is).
    2. This council has charge over all non-sacramental matters in the parish.
    3. The council votes on the installation and removal of clergy in a process of joint discernment with the bishop. (This model is used in some Orthodox and Anglican jurisdictions, as my book showed in detail.)
  1. Legislation:
    1. The council, in concert with the pastor, legislates the use of all liturgical and musical texts already approved for use in the universal Church. Thus, e.g., if a congregation wants to have a regular celebration of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite (“Latin Mass”), or share their building with Byzantine-rite or Ordinariate Catholics, that is entirely their own decision to make (without regard for what uniformity the bishop of a foreign diocese in the centre of Italy demands).
    2. The council has charge over the budget and policy on fundraising and disbursement. This includes an annual decision of how much to forward to the diocese.
  1. Discipline:
    1. Clergy and parish staff alike would be subject to disciplinary action for various serious offenses. If these were criminal in nature, the council is obliged to bring in local law enforcement first, and inform the bishop after. No longer can clerical offenders of any sort be entrusted to the bishop to be quietly stuffed into some other parish or sinecure.
    2. The bishop can no longer unilaterally discipline a cleric without specified reasons and the express agreement of the parish council, which itself cannot dismiss a pastor without agreement of the bishop for specified reasons. (This prevents men being punished when their views run afoul of either the bishop or congregation in turn.)

This latter points illustrates that we are operating in a congregationalist-cum-Catholic way to prevent local pathologies from taking root without an episcopal gardener to prune them.

Only once we have some actual experience of congregationalist governance, of a polity that involves the people of God with voice and vote who are not subservient to clerical elites, will all this talk about synodality have a chance of taking root. In other words, the reforms we need in the Church should not be started in Rome and proceed top-down (that way has brought endless disasters for decades), but begin at home with the laics in their congregations.

What say you, Dr. Chapp?

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 109 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. And the difference between this proposal and Trusteeism?

    There’s room for localizing, but priests are extensions of the bishop who is a successor of the Apostles. I do appreciate the distinction that the congregation does not involve itself in things sacramental but, on the other hand the Catholic Church (and its particular Churches) are a Eucharistic assembly, not a congregation. The local communities did not replicate themselves, rather presbyters were appointed. Yes?

    Looking forward to more, perhaps a further article. Not particularly interested in using Anglicanism as a model for anything Catholic.

  2. Dr. DeVille, it struck me as odd that you specified the makeup of the parish council: “(50/50 men and women).”

    Why? What possible difference does it make?

      • If the math is correct, the doctor’s prescription for “50/50 men and women” equates to one man and an indefinite number of women.

        But the charge of heretic may hold; is the doc Catholic? Then again, the Church welcomes heretics, Catholic or non-, so WTH. It makes no difference. Brineyman is right.

  3. With regard to #3, I would think, then, that the legal status of a diocese being “corporate sole” under the bishop must be dissolved. Church properties and legal responsibility must be borne by each parish community and therefore each parish should insure themselves against lawsuits due to clerical and lay malfeasance. The bishop should own only that which is solely diocesan e.g. the chancery, the cathedral, etc. Priests, deacons and others working for the congregationalist parish must also carry sufficient malpractice insurance. There was a time when, as a licensed professional, I offered counseling services in parish offices in my diocese. I was required by the Diocese to show proof of liability insurance that named the parish and diocese as co-insured. This would have to apply similarly if what has been proposed actually happens.

    Second point: how in such a congregationalist format is the integrity of Catholic doctrine protected. My sense is that in the protestant congregationalist world, doctrine means little, good will trumps everything and you get to profess just about anything imaginable (except being against masking and vaccines which is unconscionable).

  4. Pending Dr. Chapp’s reply, I feel a warm acceptance of Dr. Deville’s view in the pit of my spiritual stomach. Like it or not dear centralizers, the congregation is where Christianity happens.

  5. A most welcome beginning to what needs to be a serious discussion, that actually leads to the body of Christ behaving as a believing, evangelical, grown-up, authentically Catholic body. The need was illustrated, again, recently, when I pitched a friend about starting a Seven Sisters group in our parish ( (The groups, now in parishes across the globe, organize women so that, each day, a woman spends an hour in adoration praying for the parish’s pastor.) My friend’s response to my suggestion: “Oh, we would need to get Father’s permission.” Really? “Father’s permission” to pray for him? Not an uncommon attitude toward her, uh, Father’s parish.

    Chapp’s suggestions acknowledge and address numerous problems that require fresh thinking, including our “priest shortage” and the financial/operational inexperience of most priests; and he wisely looks to others for models we might borrow. He brings to my mind a thriving Episopalian parish, one of the largest in the U.S., where a successful businessman/woman volunteers as parish administrator for two years. In that capacity, the individual, often a retired CEO of a large corporation, in cooperation with the parish council, serves as what might be described as a non-sacramental chief operating officer–more in keeping with the organization of early Christian communities.
    Those who are accustomed to shouldering all of the responsibility are rarely of a mind to share, even with those more experienced, capable, and familiar with local needs. So, how do we bring about such renewal–which might actually encourage adults Catholics to become, well, adult Catholics?

    • But then there’s the question whether Anglican bishops and priests themselves are also robed “parish administrator[s],” rather than anything else more in line with the Apostolic Succession and validly ordained.

      About which: Apostolicae curae, the title of a papal bull, issued in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII, declaring all Anglican ordinations to be “absolutely null and utterly void”. The Anglican communion replied in Saepius officio in 1897, and later. But in recent statements (e.g., 1998, 2009) the Vatican finding remains intact.
      My incomplete understanding is that some Anglican seminarians have secured valid ordination under (only schismatic) Eastern Orthodox bishops. And, possibly, that a branch of the Scandinavian Lutheran ecclesial communion never broke off as totally as did German Lutheranism, and might still be technically in the succession.

      Maybe other readers can enlighten…

  6. Elect council members (50/50 men and women) rather than best candidates. Sounds like someone who said next SCOTUS pick had to be a black woman rather than best candidate.

    Council members involved in disciplining or dismissing a pastor? I don’t think so. Keep in mind that 50% of Catholics recently voted for an extremely pro-abortion president.

    Maybe Dr. Deville belongs to a parish where most of these things would work. I don’t think that most Catholics do.

    Exactly what qualifications do you think the council members would have for the selection of liturgical and musical texts?
    Certainly there have been bishops who have dismissed priests for no good reason. But I don’t think that parish council involvement is the answer.

  7. The laity waste their time looking to church leaders for help in this crisis. Changing church structures won’t excise cancer cells. Many leaders appear happy and act so as to encourage tumor spread. Change will come not from Francis’ synodal peripheries but from the big top center tent. Since we at the bottom have no power or influence, we must remember that Nero had every right to fiddle. Francis seems hell-bent to continue to sculpt his church based on the model first made in Germany. Francis has called for every nook and cranny to crawl out from the secular world to help in its creation. Our bishops act as if straitjacketed. They appear not to see a crisis; so why do we laity waste our time looking to them for help?

    At this point, every man does well to look to GOD as his salvific foundation. When we recognize that we are at war, we ought do what Paul wisely wrote in Ephesians 6:13-20 – Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel.

    Are we Christian soldiers, or are we transgendered, weak, and stupid fools?

  8. I share the criticisms of the 50/50 egalitarian brotherhood sisterhood parish council. The parish council granted deliberative [virtual in that the pastor/priest can be dismissed after consultation with the bishop consultation that levies enormous pressure on him] rather than consultative authority replaces the role of the pastor. Also as addressed here in comments, all activity outside of sacramental in the authoritative hands of the parish council leaving the priest stripped of his canonical authority as pastor relegating him to a functionary.

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