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Synodality and structure are not the essential problems

My initial reaction to Dr. Adam DeVille’s recent response was an overwhelmingly positive one, but his proposal may run the risk of insinuating that the chief problem that confronts us is a bureaucratic one.

St. Peter's Basilica, Città del Vaticano, Vatican City (Image: Sean Ang | Unsplash.com)

I would like to thank Dr. Adam DeVille for both his kind remarks concerning my posts on synodality and his willingness to push the conversation further. He has asked for my response to his proposal for a more synodal Church via the path of a Catholic congregationalist ecclesial model, and I am happy to provide one. My remarks will be necessarily brief but I hope I can at least push the needle of conversation in some small way toward a positive engagement.

The entire trajectory of modern society has been in the direction of an ever-accelerating movement toward centralization, bureaucratization, and the technocratic, Saint-Simonianism of an elitist managerial class of barbarians whose primary goal is the promotion and preservation of Liberalism’s cult of bourgeois well-being. And the Church herself has fallen prey to these same forces over the past 200 years as she gradually centralized all power in the Italianate, and often corrupt, Roman bureaucracy and its sycophantic avatars in various chanceries around the world.

Furthermore, the power of the clerical elites only increased as the post-conciliar Church adopted her own version of Saint-Simonianism in an orgy of systematic, iconoclastic destruction which negated the regulative power of tradition in favor of the new-found “expertise” of a new class of liberal clerical manipulators who were flush with the “authority” of the latest workshop they had attended on enculturated liturgy and liberative praxis, the net effect of which was the baptizing of every bourgeois conceit in the modern soul.

Therefore, my initial reaction to Dr. DeVille’s proposal was an overwhelmingly positive one since I am in favor of his central notion that the era of an infantilized laity must come to an end and that there needs to be a restructuring of canon law to reflect a greater role for the laity on the congregational/parish level. I do have a few small quibbles with his proposal, but nothing that would scuttle the main point he is making about the need for a decentralized Church and a newly empowered laity.

Therefore, instead of dwelling on my quibbles I prefer instead to endorse his overall project as something provocative and worthy of serious consideration. And I can happily endorse it since in point of fact I really don’t care all that much about the structural issues it raises. Dr. DeVille gives us a handsome proposal and I hope it gains traction and unfurls the flag of synodality in triumph someday. But if it does not prevail and our ecclesial structure remains largely unchanged, there will be no fisted rage from me or anything more than a mild, “hmm… ain’t that sumpin’”.

Because left unaddressed in Dr. DeVille’s response to my musings on synodality is a consideration of the central point I was making. To be fair, DeVille notes at the beginning that he agreed with all that I had written and was merely offering his thoughts as a complement to my comments. Nevertheless, in response to his proposal I want to double down on what I said originally. Namely, that a strong emphasis from the Church herself on such ecclesial navel-staring as something of central importance, and a concomitant ignoring of more central and pressing issues, is a sign, ironically, of an unhealthy Church that has lost sight of her most proper mission.

I am not saying that the consideration of structure is unimportant. But I am saying that it should be far down our list of priorities at the moment. The crisis the Church faces today is not a crisis of structure. We are not in the mess we are in because our Church was not synodal enough, and by fixating on this issue we run the risk of insinuating that the chief problem that confronts us is a bureaucratic one requiring a few procedural tweaks to set the ship right.

As Dr. DeVille himself notes, even a synodal Church can be a hot mess of corruptions and sinful shenanigans. The Baptists, who are ever so “congregationalist”, just had to admit decades of their own covering up of clerical sex abuse. And Patriarch Kirill seems to have put synodality to wonderful use as a tool of a Russophile idolatry. And I also have had enough experience with modern lay Catholics to doubt that a mere transference of power from the clerical caste to the Karen and Ken caste will solve much of anything, and might even make matters worse. I don’t know about you, but I would not want a Nancy Pelosi epigone or a Michael Voris disciple as the head of my parish council. Yes, there are lousy priests. But for every lousy priest there are 500 even worse dullards among the laity, all of whom are just itching to pull the trigger of “authority” in his or her parish.

So instead of a synod on synodality, why not hold a synod on liturgy? That way we might figure out how to minister in an authentically pastoral way to the true pluralism of the Church on the grassroots level in a manner that transcends the ineffectual and deeply un-synodal autocracy of the motu proprio.

Or how about a synod on the universal call to holiness? Once again, it would be a chance to examine the true pluralism of the Church of lived praxis in the lay world in a way that lay people actually care about, and which could give average folks some real guidance on how to be holy in this misshapen and distorted world of ours.

But a “synod on synodality” is just an exercise in deflection from these deeper issues. It is holiness, missional vocation, and the grounding of these in liturgy, that breathes fire into the ecclesial equations and not endless conversations about the rules for having endless conversations. This is like endlessly circling a drain, but you can only do that for so long before you eventually end up in the sewer.

Personnel is policy. A Church of de facto atheists accommodated to the bourgeois cult of well-being will not produce the proper personnel no matter the “structure”. “Gute Leute muss man haben. Gute Leute.”


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About Larry Chapp 22 Articles
Dr. Larry Chapp is a retired professor of theology. He taught for twenty years at DeSales University near Allentown, Pennsylvania. He now owns and manages, with his wife, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania. Dr. Chapp received his doctorate from Fordham University in 1994 with a specialization in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He can be visited online at "Gaudium et Spes 22".

13 Comments

  1. The central problem of the Church today is that it no longer knows what the gospel consists of. So how about a synod on what the gospel is, and isn’t, about? Before you can evangelize, you have to know what the evangel is. Our bishops (and pope) are constantly weighing in on a thousand things that they know little about and that are frankly none of their business. Maybe they should all be stuck in a room for a month with nothing but a Bible, and not be let out until they’ve mastered it.

  2. Personnel is policy. That’s also true for lay congregations. Consequently, where the Laity is [think in terms of the moment] then that’s what the Church becomes. A golden thread will always be what determines religious efficacy.

  3. Synodality and (God help us!) “congregationalism” all come back to the same thing: los von Rom Bewegung. This is a disturbing tendency I’m seeing in too much neo-trad writing and advocacy these days. For me, at age 72, it is easy enough to understand the temptation, considering the appalling trajectory of the Francis pontificate.

    But I must say that this (understandable) revulsion of the neo-trads against a Jesuitical Roman hierarchy is beginning to have the smell of Jansenism.

    • As the popular “You want – this is how you get” meme goes: You want Jansenism? This is how you get Jansenism.” The current Jansenist move among some is a reaction to what they perceive as nothing important being taught and “anything goes” in the Church. When Fr. James Martin is not only allowed to write and speak, but is lauded by the pope… I really can’t blame them for heading in that (wrong) direction. But it will be very hard to correct anyone for erring on the side of too much rigor when they can just point to “Pachamama” being paraded through the streets of Rome and “Pride Masses” in Catholic churches.

  4. We read: “I am not saying that the consideration of structure is unimportant. But I am saying that it should be far down our list of priorities at the moment.”

    But might it be that the agenda of structure is not merely a false priority, but that it seeks to REPLACE the content of higher-priority evangelization with the non-structure of an ambulatory “endless journey”? Think Germany.

    This bait-and-switch IS the message. Yes? Of the surely-to-be-exploited Synod on Synodality (ideological synod-ism?), Edmund Burke got it just about right on today’s scorched-earth approach to over-centralization. At the risk of quoting a “rigid and bigoted” ‘conservative’, nevertheless: “those who destroy everything will likely remove some abuse.” We would replace a “pyramid” with an “inverted pyramid.” When “collegiality” (Second Vatican Council) makes reference to the pope by himself or the pope with his hierarchy, Benedict XVI offered a more accurate imagery—neither pyramid nor an inverted pyramid, but an ellipse with two centers.

    Without confusion, then, authentic synodality is called (a) to retain this clarity regarding the sacramental, “hierarchical communion,” while (b) fully including the baptized laity as within the “universal call to holiness,” but who (c) still “differ in kind as well as degree” (Lumen Gentium) from the ordained Successors of the Apostles.

    How to still govern at all levels (assuming there still are levels!), but with “listening” that runs in BOTH directions?

  5. Gosh, that was wonderful. Disciple of Michael Voris! Hilarious, and so true. I think I’d rather have Nancy Pelosi.

    We really have a long way to go. Nothing will change in our lifetime. But that was a brilliant article.

    • Have I missed a “Sarcasm Alert” sign? In what sense would you ‘rather have’ Nancy Pelosi? Who is the disciple of Michael Voris? We have a long way to go—where? HELP~!

  6. Relying on our worldly wisdom we could come up with different paths that the Church could take, and we could have different opinions on which way we personally prefer. As members of different institutions, we do it all the time.
    However, when it comes to our Lord’s Church, we have the Holy Spirit, the great teacher and guide, in charge of this process. It would be best not to impose our way, but to trust the Holy Spirit to lead us along the right path.
    In his address for the opening of this Synod, Pope Francis said: “let us with greater fervour and frequency invoke the Holy Spirit and humbly listen to him, journeying together as he, the source of communion and mission, desires: with docility and courage.
    Come, Holy Spirit! You inspire new tongues and place words of life on our lips: keep us from becoming a “museum Church”, beautiful but mute, with much past and little future. Come among us, so that in this synodal experience we will not lose our enthusiasm, dilute the power of prophecy, or descend into useless and unproductive discussions. Come, Spirit of love, open our hearts to hear your voice! Come, Holy Spirit of holiness, renew the holy and faithful People of God! Come, Creator Spirit, renew the face of the earth! Amen.”
    Let us humbly and trustingly accept the guidance of Holy Spirit whose wisdom is infinitely greater than ours.

  7. “Personnel is policy”. Oh so true. However, the problem is getting rid of the current personnel. Too many of the people pushing to be on parish committees are those emphasizing how bad the Church used to be and how, they believe, the Church has progressed by coming down hard on traditional liturgies and authorities. Of course, they believe that they are riding the high point of the tide that is rejecting the past and leading to a vaguely defined better future. They preach “change” and the need to force it on everyone while being indistinguishable from atheists in deifying the flow of time over all givens. It is Gnosticism pure and simple; a Gnosticism ignorant of what it is. Heidegger would be proud of them both for their “message” and for their reaching out to a now unknown but to be revealed future. These ideas dominate the minds of so many of our current ‘personnel’.

  8. “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sent to hell!”

    “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!”

    That Michael Voris! He’s at it again! His tone is just so…so..harsh and mean! Oh, wait a minute! That’s not Michael! It’s Jesus and John the Baptist! (Mt 23:33 & 3:7)

  9. The structure is the problem when its cause is entrenched clericalism. Befuddlement why their mass marketing techniques aren’t working is just clerical cluelessness, as is their search for a bureaucratic “fix.”

  10. Larry Chap makes light of the central importance of good governance to any organisation effectively pursuing its mission, including our institutional Church.
    However, synodality, structures and means of decision making are not in any way an alternative focus to evangelisation, spirituality and liturgy; they are means, not ends: means of achieving the Church’s pre-eminent God-given mission.
    Effective governance is at the heart of good decision-making, and is facilitated by the inclusiveness of synodality and accountable structures. We’ve seen the worst effects of poor governance poisoned by the unaccountability of monarchical and autocratic structures and concomitant clericalism, in the evils of the world-wide cover-ups of clerical child sexual abuse.
    Synodality is not only a means of ensuring that the baptised accept their share of responsibility for evangelisation; in facilitating inclusive Govenance, synodality assists a focus on mission and the eradication of clericalism.

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