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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