Synodality and sinning against the Holy Spirit

It can be tempting to think that synodality is a mechanical thing, that somehow the Spirit is conjured simply by the process of holding listening sessions and collating reports. Yet the Synodal structures and processes are the means, not the end.

Pope Francis leads a meeting with the presidents and coordinators of the regional assemblies of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican Nov. 28, 2022. Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, attended the meeting. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

With an opaque name like “the Synod on Synodality,” even at this later stage in the process, some still wonder about the purpose of the Synod. What is the goal? Cardinal Mario Grech, head of the Synod, has summed it up succinctly: “Listen to what the Spirit is telling the Church of today. This is the task, the goal of this synodal process.”

Where, within the process, is the voice of the Spirit heard? Austen Ivereigh, papal biographer and member of the committee that produced the Synod’s working document, wrote that “What the Spirit was saying to the church was, after all, right there in the reports” (that is, the diocesan and national summaries of the “parish listening phase” of the synod).

This prompts the question: is everything in the reports the voice of the Spirit? Cardinal Grech has answered negatively, as he also noted that “not everything spoken is the voice of the Spirit: One must grasp within the sound of voices, the voice of the Spirit. Therein lies the function of discernment.”

Even with this caveat from the leader of the synod process, in the commentary around the Synod on Synodality, many of those defending the process against those who expressed skepticism at the enterprise have made a stronger claim: that the very working of the Synod represents the voice of the Holy Spirit.

This was well represented by a tweet from Ivereigh:

Ivereigh allows for the possibility that the Synod might develop doctrine in certain areas, asserting that opposition to this is “blaspheming the Holy Spirit.” He further elaborated that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” ought to be defined as “any attempt to circumscribe or deny the action of the Spirit.”

This statement is too susceptible to misuse. Yes, the Spirit speaks to and acts in the Church. To deny this is to deny the possibility of God working through the Church’s structures, and the denial of this kind of mediation is the definition of modernism. That the Spirit speaks to the Church is not in doubt. The question is whether the Church will listen or hear it correctly. This is the work of discernment of which Cardinal Grech spoke. Yet some apparently want to skip that step.

One of the central problems with the German Church’s attempt at a “synodal way” is that its proponents express with great confidence that they know where the Spirit is moving the Church: namely, to deny, or “reform,” teachings that are long-standing and have a weighty magisterial pedigree. When their proposals are challenged, they retort that their critics are trying to muffle the voice of the Spirit speaking to the Church today.

Now, they may sincerely believe that they correctly perceive the movement of the Spirit in the Church, and that they know the way forward. That is well and good, and by all means, they should share their thoughts with the wider Church. That’s an important aspect of synodality. But the point of synodality is that it is not only this or that party foisting onto the Church its own vision, but that the whole Church together discerns, sub Petro et cum Petro, where God is calling the Church to act.

We need to avoid two extremes. One extreme would say that only the pope and bishops can rightly know what the Church needs, and the laity need only practice a silent obedience. The opposite would say that only the laity know what is really going on in the Church, and the bishops need only follow their directions. Both this clericalism and anti-clericalism fall prey to an erroneous tendency we have seen occasionally in the work of the Synod itself: to forget that “the People of God” refers to both the laity and the clergy. When we talk about the sensus fidelium or “listening to the People of God,” we are talking about the sense of all the faithful, about listening to the whole of the people–clergy and laity together. Synodality is the members of the Church listening to each other and discerning together the movement of the Spirit.

Now, certainly, we cannot ignore the fact that the Church is hierarchically constituted, that the pope and bishops exercise the authority of the apostles (cf Lumen Gentium, 18-29). But equally we cannot ignore the call of the Second Vatican Council for the laity to exercise a co-responsibility in the life of the Church, to embrace the kingly aspect of their baptismal character and contribute toward the direction of the Church in their own way (cf LG, 30-38).

But when factions and ideological groups claim that their views represent the voice of the Holy Spirit, they should be aware that they may well be committing the sin of swearing.

Swearing–that is, not just using bad words but invoking God’s name to back your statement (as in, “It wasn’t me, I swear to God!”)–is condemned as a serious sin. Jesus Himself tells us not to do it. The reason that swearing is a serious sin is that it tries to put God on the hook for your claims, rather than letting your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no”. It is in the same vein as testing the Lord, one of the temptations Satan tried to ensnare Jesus with (when he dares Jesus to cast himself off this precipice and compel God to catch him).

To try to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and follow it is a necessity for the Church, and this is what synodality is: the Church together, clergy and laity, entering into this process of discernment. To make decisions of your own and claim that they are beyond critique because really they are the will of the Holy Spirit–that’s swearing. And that is wrong.

Even the organizers of the Synod should be wary of this. The temptation can be to think that synodality is a mechanical thing, that somehow the Spirit is conjured simply by the process of holding listening sessions and collating reports: if we go through the right motions, then whatever results is the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet the Synodal structures and processes are the means, not the end. They are the conditions for the possibility of the discernment of the movement of the Spirit to take place. The synod can provide the framework, but it’s still possible for the purpose not to be achieved.

Perhaps this is what these various figures mean when they say that this or that individual or group is hindering the movement of the Spirit. But perhaps the test of such claims is to see whether they are applied to hasty conclusions. Is there a push to pronounce an epiclesis over a particular position and call down the Spirit upon it before the work of discernment has properly been done? Is discernment being replaced by begging the question?

We can relate this to the notion of interpreting “the signs of the times.” Some synodal sessions have used this phrase to argue that the Church must reevaluate its doctrines in light of the present experience of people in today’s world. Yet, as Professor Brian Pedraza has pointed out in a recent essay, the Second Vatican Council used this phrase to express the truth that the Church must interpret God’s action in the world by the light of Divine Revelation. That is, to interpret the signs of the times is to examine the ways in which today’s circumstances call for a new presentation of the Faith–not a substantial change, but a difference in points of emphasis, or identifying a new set of questions posed in the present age.

A synodal Church is one that operates in this way: the whole people of God, clergy and laity, coming together to listen to the experience of the Church–both of Christians within the Church and of Christians in the secular context. And doing so in order to determine in what ways the truths of the faith need to be brought to bear upon today’s circumstances. This will inevitably include addressing topics upon which the Church has already spoken definitively.

But the point of addressing them is not to put them up to a vote to see whether they survive; the point is to hear in what ways the Church’s teaching is not being received so as to address the particular questions that people have.

Perhaps we can say that because synodality has not been the standard operating procedure in the Latin Church for many centuries, we are out of practice. We should thus expect that our attempts at synodality will be a little rusty. The only way for us to proceed is for all to act in good faith: for critiques to be in a spirit that wishes the process to succeed, and for proponents to be open to critique. Only when all proceed with humility can the voice of the Spirit be heard.


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About Nicholas Senz 28 Articles
Nicholas Senz is Pastoral Associate at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fishers, IN. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children.

29 Comments

  1. Amusing:

    Austin Ivereigh simultaneously oracle and angel of death.

    Pleasing to the cult of Danneels and McCarrick no doubt.

  2. For the Synod on Synodality (what nonsense) to invoke the name of the Holy Spirit in making virtue out of sinful matter is a sin against the Holy Spirit. Invoking God’s Holy Name to bless a sin is about the worst sin imaginable. It is Satanism and certainly not Christianity. Anathema sit.

    • This article is the best at expressing what true sinodality is, what the True Holy Spirit is and what he asks of us to present the Gospel to the world, and you Deacon have made the best summary of the whole thing.

      I don’t exaggerate when I say that your words here should be officially part of Catholic Dogma, precisely because they are solidly based on Authentic Catholic Dogma and on the True and Eternally Consistent Holy Spirit. Thanks to God and thanks to you!!

    • Indeed. My concurrence with what you have said Deacon. What we have here is a revolt against Church Tradition and teaching with an arrogance by the instigators & facilitators which cries out to Heaven for redress.

  3. There is an old saying – “If you can’t impress them with facts baffle them with b……t”, well – you know what I mean.

    This whole process brings that saying to mind – repeatedly.

  4. Very well written and thought out piece. Thank you for the clarity. You named what has been troubling me, but I didn’t have a way to think of what was troubling me.

  5. How nice to see “begging the question” used correctly! I fear the entire synodality process is an endless unfolding of questions begged, and truth beggared.

  6. Discernment? On listening to the Holy Spirit and the whole Church, are we no longer free to still notice that the Holy Spirit already spoke and speaks through the Second Vatican Council (?):

    “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law be does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience [….] the Council wishes to recall first of all the permanent binding force of universal natural law and its all-embracing principles” (Gaudium et spes, n. 16, 79).

    What to do now when the double-speak of sin-nodism (Marx, Bats-sing, Hollerich & Co.) pretends to retain the vocabulary of “principles” while redefining “all-embracing” so as to obsolesce the natural law and, therefore, upend the Catechism?

    “Catholic but in a different way?” Bat-sing appeals to a new “style”, co-opting the sin-nod of “walking together,” probably closer than most would stoop to even imagine.

  7. Senz’ positive assessment that the Synod, its structures, processes are means, not the end of a more coherent presentation of the Faith not doctrinal change [Card Grech] – warns it’s subject to ideological groups claiming that their views are those of Holy Spirit [Austen Ivereigh and companions], and that they [Austen Ivereigh and companions] be aware that they may be committing sin.
    Byzantium on the Tiber is complex. Excellent assessment that in context questions who’s who, that is, whether the opposed camps are really in opposition. Card Grech, member of a Malta episcopacy that is quite radical in its implementation of Amoris Laetitia. Must the reader add His Holiness, who has frequently paraphrased Ivereigh’s sin of freezing doctrine?
    Would that Nicholas Senz’ happy positive assessment were so. His final condition for success, the virtue of humility leaves meager hope that it will be. Hope cannot be jettisoned. Neither can prudence [common sense].

  8. Orthodox faithful responses to remarks like Invereighs span a spectrum. Horror sometimes fills some of us. At other times, we are moved to laugh at ludicrous inane thinking. Often, we are bored, overcome by ennui. During Advent, fasts and prayers are offered to increase motivation and fortitude to counter such prideful (synonyn ‘stupid’) ludicrous, horrible, and boring anti-Christian statements. Hope responds: Christ will remain forever and always victorious. In light of that, it does not matter in the slightest what Invereigh thinks or dares to speak.

  9. Thank you for an article in line with the Feast day of Juan Diego – a marvelous ‘sign of the times ‘ – God choosing to intervene dramatically in a culture that was under powers of the dragon – sadly , not unlike our own times again …
    learned something new too – that ‘people of God ‘ is not just the lay people . 🙂

    The fear that the Synodal process could lead to problems – would that fear have its roots from the memories of similar occasions and its not so good fruits in The East – not being under the protection of the Papacy …instead where the ‘wise and learned ‘ were given the weight ..

    ? The Spirit also desiring to make amends – even in Liturgical disputes – the Latin Church , rather ‘mysteriously’ , in versus populum since Vat 11 – as more of the role of The Father and Son sending forth The Spirit ..The East – called mostly to be ad orientem, in the iconic role to requite The Love , in accepting The Spirit in humility , to thus also make reparations for the filioque divides and its lingering fruits over the role and relationship of The Spirit …

    The desire as well as the prophesy of St.John Paul 11, on role of the laity – would they be based upon giving more attention to the Juan Diego like roles that have been given to the Chosen laity – such as St. Bernadette – a young girl at the time of the Lourdes apparitions , the Fatima children ..Luisa of Divine Will ,
    Bl .Cabrera from Mexico – mother of nine children who found time for all sorts of pursuits ; Flame of Love devotion – a lay woman of not much formal education , Carlo Acutis ..visionaries of Medjugorge too to an extent atleast …

    The above and more , to swallow up the flood waters as idolatry of carnality , its unholy demands / expectations from shocking quarters , to thus bring more of an impetus for all to work together ..

    The Synod might also be as an act of making reparations for what may be seen in hindsight as rather hasty and harsh steps in dealing with conflicts in the past , to bring deeper forgiveness ..such as what the two older children of Noah did for their father ….

    The Church well blessed in what holiness and its fruits can be through the many Chosen laity in our times .. and we can thank God that the Holy Father knows to stay well within the frame work of all such wisdom and holiness , trusting The Mother to lead him and The Church !

  10. Mary co-Redemptrix is an article of faith. I prefer the title Redemptrix (without the “co-” prefix). Doctrine advances when it becomes recognized and this is what must and will and shall come to pass, for the BVM Redemptrix.

    Expressing one’s own faith in it is not “freezing” anything. One day it shall be that denying the title Redemptrix is a mortal sin and a blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

    In the present current, the Holy Father said co-Redemptrix is “discardable” and this indicates something is becoming fossilized. Frozen fossilization once it is attained, would then be very icy plus moribund.

  11. We used to have the decency to at least blame our sins on Satan: The Devil made me do it. Now we have the audacity to blame our sins on permission from the Holy Spirit.

  12. Poison Ivereigh is a glorified Twitter Troll whosr opinions carry about the same weight as those of the German Synodal (Schismatic) Way.

  13. The sin-nod of sin-nods is how the tormentors of the Mystical Body of Christ use the false Church within the Church to write a parody of itself. The Father of Lies dearly loves confusion and division and the elimination of the notion of sinfulness.

    • I’m glad to see I’m not the only one finding parallels between this pontificate and Macbeth. As to which prelate would qualify as Lady Macbeth there are so many to choose from.

  14. So many groups and people today believe they got the Holy Spirit by the tail and know… yet, it is the humble who know the Holy Spirit guides and directs a soul into purity of mind body and spirit… as The Holy Spirit blows where this Trinity being moves and blows as the gentle wind makes its way over the silent face waiting and anticipating.. we may hear the sound but never capture the sight..

  15. That so many consider bogus this latest “initiative” of the Vatican and the pope with either support or cowering by the bishops says a great deal about the state of the Church. Will there be a resolution soon or an open rejection and by what means?

  16. This open and accessible rehearsal of the Synodal process is refreshing, yet frustrating! The former, because it is highly promising for the church to be seeking “to discern the Spirit” rather than simply make decisions or legislate outcomes. The latter, because of the complexity and unfamiliarity of a non-linear (now do A them do B, C, etc.) and irrational process, yet the expectation of outcomes for implementation! It is laudable that Cardinal Greche, a man of faith and integrity, steers this effort like Ulysses, impervious to the siren cries (Germany, et.al.) to get ion with it!

  17. Good clarifying views on the recent remarks of Holy Father on the humanity of the unborn , how destroying a human life is a criminal act , words that can cut across all spectrums regardless of religious affnity and such –
    https://wherepeteris.com/pope-francis-and-the-personhood-debate/

    The prophetic words of Isiah -‘He was counted among the criminals ‘ – to take on a fuller meaning in many lives to help bring forth its deeper onness with The Lord ..

    The Spirit thus telling us that in the Holy Father , He has given us a good exmaple to follow in the Synodal process – the wisdom in gentleness , compassion as well as the anguish in one who has witnessed the Agonising Heart of The Lord in the Eucharistic Miracle of Argentina , desiring to heal those wounds …of the poor and of the sinners and the criminals to thus hasten the reign of the Divine Will as his God given role for our times . His actions such as the desired focus for the Feast of Our Lady of Loreto – to speak much to our times – the Holy Family with the rivers of Love flowing through them ..hearts of Mary and Joseph free of any trace of carnality , the Fire of The Spirit being at work …such a ‘paradigm shift’ – in lives of the young and families – sexuality seen as a gift for reparation for the carnal excesses of our times, invoking the Precious Blood to heal the wounds of The Sacred Heart ..and the fruits of joy of same to surpass that of the flesh ..or its demands even from the mighty of the world ..

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2f8s_NQzKc

    FIAT !

  18. When I think of the input of laity, one thing comes to mind: Golf.

    Imagine the PGA polling average golfers, asking for input into the way the game is played: What would they change; what do they like? The input would come from beginners, those more experienced, and the more knowledgeable golfers. Would all replies be rated similarly? Would there a skill level indication? Those very familiar with all aspects of golf would imagine beginners might wish shorter courses, less water, fewer sand traps, larger holes on the green, and, most importantly, fewer niggly golf rules. If 60% of respondents were less experienced and insisted on the acceptance of the hand wedge from bushes, would the PGA be forced to comply?

    And so it is with asking all laity to offer input. Is there a “skill level indication?” Are respondents asked if they have read the Catechism, the Bible, some Encyclicals? In short, do they know their faith as they have been called to as Catholics? Do they seek at best to live out the teachings? Or, has their Catholic experience largely been largely limited to Sunday Masses where they too often meet priests who do not teach the faith from the pulpit and who seek to entertain their flocks?

    For, surely, if Catholics do not know their faith with the apologetics and depth of teaching of this faith; and if this person’s chosen exposure has been limited to weekly Mass, can we imagine their synodality surveys will differ greatly from those who know their faith?

    The problem is not that there needs to be another Church gathering to respond to the “signs of the times” (which would naturally differ vastly from country to country), but that the glorious faith and teachings have not been proclaimed boldly, passionately and unashamedly from the pulpits. Alas, some priests who have done so have been reprimanded by their bishops.There is an answer, but, sadly, priests have often been poorly formed and are unable to proclaim, and the hands of those who have been formed too oft are tied.

  19. The teachings of the Holy Mother Church cannot be subjected to a majority decision. These teachings are immutable and cannot be changed by the passage of time. This Synod must adhere faithfully to the Church’s teachings, otherwise, confusion is certain and bound to happen, leading to separation from the Church.

  20. Synodality boasts twenty-four (!) synthesizing “experts.” Nice touch, that; it’s even biblical!:

    “Surrounding the throne were twenty-four [!] other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders” (Revelation 4:4). So, is today’s synodality a subliminal message that with the aid of flip charts the Parousia is right here and now—the unalloyed HOLY SPIRIT speaking through a one-percent plebiscite plus two-dozen enthroned “experts”? Instead, how about listening to the indwelled Church of 2,000 years and, today, the other 99 percent (the new periphery!)—their “PRAYER for the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit”:

    “Christ Jesus, before ascending into heaven, You promised to send the Holy Spirit to Your apostles and disciples; grant that the same Spirit may perfect in our lives the work of Your grace and love,
    Grant us the Spirit of FEAR OF THE LORD that we may be filled with a loving reverence toward You,
    The Spirit of PIETY that we may find peace and fulfillment in the service of God while serving others;
    the Spirit of FORTITUDE that we may bear our cross with You and, with courage, overcome the obstacles that interfere with our salvation;
    the Spirit of KNOWLEDGE that we may know You and know ourselves and grow in holiness;
    the Spirit of UNDERSTANDING to enlighten our minds with the light of Your truth;
    the Spirit of COUNSEL that we may choose the surest way of doing Your will, seeking first the Kingdom;
    Grant us the Spirit of WISDOM that we may aspire to the things that last forever;
    Teach us to be Your faithful disciples and animate us in every way with Your Spirit.”

    Giving due margin for a more synodal “fabric” of the Church…yes, but where, exactly, does the banner “universal call to holiness” actually show up on the working document and the continental flip charts—“compiled, aggregated and synthesized,” under “facilitator” bishops, now further displaced by “experts”?

  21. Breviary readings like Mon 2nd Wk Advent enrich us, as does St John of the Cross referencing sinning against the Holy Spirit.
    “Under the ancient law prophets sought from God revelations and visions which indeed they needed, for faith had not yet firm foundation. Now that faith is rooted in Christ, and the law of the Gospel has been proclaimed in this time of grace there is no need to seek him as formerly. There is no need for him to respond, no need for further revelation. By giving us his Son, his only Word he has in that one Word said everything.
    Anyone who wishe[s] to question God or to seek some new revelation from him commits an offense, for rather than focus his eyes entirely on Christ he would be desiring something other than Christ” (John of the Cross Ascent of Mt Carmel Lib 2 cap 22).
    Whether Synodal findings can elicit information that may facilitate conveying the exact revelation of Christ is one thing, modification of that revelation is another, a sin, as perceived by St John of the Cross and as reaffirmed by Card Josef Ratzinger John Paul II in the 2nd proposition of the Doctrinal Commentary to Ad Tuendam Fidem. What is revealed by God through Christ is inviolable.

    • Exactly!! I speak in letters to bishops and cardinals exactly that the revealed Truth of God rooted in Christ, cannot contradict itself.. Mercy is seen through the eyes of faith and Truth in mercy.. priests bishops cardinals take an oath of office to uphold the Truth of revelation of Jesus given to the apostles; would not any bishop priest cardinal who violates and insists on changing revealed truth not be offending in some blasphemy against the Holy Spirit who guides and directs our course and our soul with revealed Truth of God and in union with the word made flesh who is Jesus the Christ??

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