Tribal truths, synodality, and the Church’s teaching

Classical Catholic thought assumes two things of which modernity doubts, if not despairs: that the reason of all human beings are ordered towards truth and that the truth is attainable.

(Image of St. Peter's Basilica: Benjamin Fay/

Among the striking moments in John’s Passion narrative is when Jesus’s declaration about His coming into the world “to testify to the truth” (Jn 18:37-38) is met by the skeptic Pilate’s retort: “what is truth?”

His query is peculiarly apt today, surprisingly on the cusp of the upcoming Synod on Synodality.

The Synod has been preceded by a variety of “listening sessions,” which some portray as “the voice of the Spirit” swelling up from the oppressed proletariat of the pews and peripheries, teaching the “learning Church” new truths (or at least new insights into old truths). This sentiment permeates many of the “syntheses” cobbled together on multiple levels, from diocesan to continental, seeking to capture those sessions.

Let me suggest that the notion of “truth” assumed by some involved in this process claims dubious paternity to what Catholics have hitherto understood by “truth.”

Why? Because it involves a novelty for Catholics that I will call “tribal truth.”

The most cursory review of Synodal synthesis documents discloses recurrent citations of statements by certain demographics, especially women, homosexuals, and national ethnic minorities (in the United States, especially Black and Latino Catholics).

Contemporary thought seems to “privilege” the viewpoints of certain groups qua groups. Part of it derives from a mentality that downplays or even denies objectivity in favor of subjectivity. The question is how far one goes with that mentality. Perspective does affect what one sees. But modernity tends to accentuate perspectival subjectivity to the degree that it denies either objectivity itself or at least one’s ability to know it. At best, we have a gaggle of partial visions stitched together, the sewing itself down through subjective tailors’ eyes.

I might like to know your “perspective,” but I want and need to know the “truth.” Modernity, however, seems to despair of reaching the latter, certainly not without an obligatory detour through “perspectives.”

Recently, this individual subjectivity has been accompanied by a group consciousness subjectivity: there is supposedly a “women’s perspective” and this perspective and that perspective. This is particularly rife among theoreticians of critical racial theory (CRT) and demographic permutations, e.g., “wymyn’s studies,” “queer studies,” etc. Sometimes, these subjectivities become so unique that those outside the tribe are told not to dare and attempt to divine the unique insight. The task of these others is to wait and be enlightened by the privileged insight bearers.

How all these modern, subjective versions of “truth” contrast to classical Catholic thought is in their belief that truth is not primarily the object of the reason of homo sapiens, irrespective of one’s genitalia, melatonin levels, or sexual proclivities. Classical Catholic thought assumes two things of which modernity doubts, if not despairs: that the reason of all human beings is ordered towards truth and that the truth is attainable. Truth is not an “unreachable star” after which people are in never-ending quest, satisfied by the journey rather than its destination.

Consider also the implications, if one assumes a gendered psychology: what is its relationship to the biological underpinnings of the body? The “mind-body” problem—regardless of how one conceptualizes it—has implications for one’s approach to gender ideology.

I understand and accept that people come with different perspectives. But I reject that these different perspectives constitute unique and nontransferable loci of truth, inaccessible to others unless “woman-splained,” “gay-splained,” or “black-splained” to those outside the group. We tread on dangerous ground when reason is fenced off by race, sex, ethnicity, or other criteria extrinsic to the inherent rationality of homo sapiens. From that vantage point, it is no distant jaunt to “my truth” and “your truth” rather than “the truth.” Such subjective “truth” may be all the rage on American college campuses. It has no place in the Church, which is committed to one Truth.

And, for those who may recoil at that statement, remember that the One who is Truth spoke of Himself as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” except through whom no one comes to the Father (Jn 14:6). Those who have issues with the univocity of Truth need to take that up with the Church’s founder.

While these ideas may be appealing to a modernity long on results and short on abstract thinking, let’s ask ourselves the epistemological question they pose. If everybody is irretrievably immersed in a subjective perspective, can there be something like objective truth? Or is all “truth” but a more-or-less time-bound approximation to any reality that is in itself unknowable.

Classical philosophy defined “truth” as the correspondence of things to reality. Does modern “critical” thought ever consider that reality to be accessible?

These are critical questions for how the Church understands herself and her history. Their consequences for moral theology, for example, are huge.

The Church has relied on the correspondence theory of truth. It has also presumed inherent human rationality. We should be careful before we rush uncritically into embracing modern thought forms alien to our heritage.

For if truth is in the eye of the teller (for today’s beholder can only challenge what he is told at the price of being branded a carrier of some “phobia”), then where does that leave the Church’s teaching?

“Critical” thought promotes a “hermeneutic of suspicion”: we should first investigate claims, not on the basis of their veracity but from the angle of cui bono, who benefits? In this lens, truth is not so much a matter of reality as of power, a mask to conceal power relations.

Proponents of this approach to thinking never tell us why we need a hyper-hermeneutic of suspicion in some cases (e.g., what dead white Europeans might claim) but should fawningly accept the claims of others (e.g., today’s preferred minorities or “periphery” dwellers). It’s all a power game—but don’t you dare point out our reshuffling of the power dynamic.

Through the optics of “critical thought” and “hermeneutics of suspicion,” received Catholic teaching is, in principle, all up for grabs, because its truth is secondary to power. It’s all the product of male clergy seeking to preserve their privilege!

Applying this approach, those intent on deconstructing received Catholic faith and morals will be able to feign that they are doing no such thing! No, they are merely “developing” these doctrines by accentuating facets of them which our “skewed” or “limited” perspectives failed to account for (even if those “perspectives” are diametrically opposed to what the Church has long and constantly taught as essential to salvation). Some may even claim it’s all the work of the Holy Spirit!

So, what the Church condemned as morally evil yesterday can now be morally good, even praiseworthy. No contradiction there (the principle of non-contradiction being so antiquarian anyway).

Should the Church be embracing a way of thinking that (a) subordinates truth to power and (b) despairs of ever being able to attain definitive truth anyway?

We see a blush of this in the latest decisions out of Rome to give voting rights in the Synod on Synodality to non-bishops, even to set representation quotas for women, young people, etc.

I’ll avoid discussion here of the obvious ecclesiological problems posed by this move: those who are part of the decision-making process of a synod of bishops ought to be bishops. Synod relator Cardinal Hollerich dismisses the objection by noting bishops still retain a majority of the Synod and, in the end, Synods only recommend things to the Pope. That’s a separate problem.

My point is rather to the degree to which the mindset that thinks the changes are necessary depends on the “tribal truths” approach criticized above. Synod General Relator Cardinal Hollerich defended the change, insisting “their presence ensures the dialogue between the prophecy of the People of God and the discernment of the pastors.”

So, has the Holy Spirit now chosen not to focus on bishops (who are bishops because of a unique sacrament) and instead opted for a preferred channel through certain demographics of the “People of God” whose prophecy is to enlighten the “pastors?” Given the demographic stipulations being imposed, are we to assume that prophecy now comes through tribal truths the duller pastors might not grasp?

Are they also to enlighten the Church past, whose teaching, in theory, they might seek to revise because of their fuller vistas? Is this not also Rousseau’s “inevitable-forward-progress” paradigm with a dash of holy water?

Has reason ceased being human and become instead a partial characteristic divided among distinct tribes?

We might first think through the understandings of epistemology and theological anthropology that these approaches imply and the implications that follow from them before discern them to be “just what the Church (or world) needs.”

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About John M. Grondelski, Ph.D. 8 Articles
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He publishes regularly in the National Catholic Register and in theological journals. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.


  1. Because there is now seems to be a “pluralism” of equivalent religions, one way to solve Grondelski’s “tribalization” of truth (brilliant insight!) is to seek precedents elsewhere in these other natural religions. Take, for example, globally ascendant Islam and how Muhammad solved vengeance-feud tribal totems and loyalties. The tribes were subordinated to himself and to the dictated and simplifying revelations through Gabriel (as the Qur’an). And, hostilities were redirected toward others and shared opportunities for conquest and booty. The rest is history…

    The rough equivalent today is similar:

    (a) The “aggregation, compiling, and synthesis” of synodal (read tribal) grievances, enthusiasms, iconoclasms, and even orgasms. Butt, instead of Allah, the flip-chart Synod on Synodality proclaims itself as percolating from the Holy Spirit. Then—
    (b) The common enemy—not the privileged “periphery,” but instead the flipped and new periphery of anything past, or the Tradition (Islam likewise dismisses early Arabia before the Prophet as the “Days of Ignorance.”

    (c) Where Muhammad removed all of the pagan 360 idols of Mecca from the shell of the Ka’ba, today we banish The Latin Mass and generations of “backward, rigid bigots”, and then cross-dress the shell of the Church as a big-tent receptacle for, yes, laudable actions—but also cobbled secularist agendas, pseudo-social science, moral graffiti, Pachamama, and even an Anglican service in the basilica of the pope (read the bishop of Rome), St. John Lateran.

    As for Grondelski’s pitch for the foundational universality and validity of human reason, well, all that stuff is just the mind-trap of the parochial Western Classical thingy as one mere tribalism among many (and as a dhimmi within megatribal Islam!).

    So, as for someday proclaiming the narrow path as “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” well—the pygmies are in charge…synodism’s Batzing, Grech, Hollerich & Co. Not conversion, but convergence.

    • Dear Peter, thanks for your insightful comments on Dr John M. Grondelski’s really well reasoned ‘cry from the Catholic heart’. How many millions of us would say: “Amen!”

      We also need insights at the level of raw human perfidy. Do we sufficiently take into account the terror that has possessed Catholic hierarchs since the utterly horrid exposure of the criminal molestations of children & vulnerable adults; and the outright lying cover-ups by those same hierarchs. Read between the lines of the most recent exposure (‘Late Jesuit’s diary reveals trail of abuse . . .’):

      This is just one example, uncovered by chance, of what was going on for a long time on a huge scale. The hierarchs know well the massive extent of this and are terrified that their culpability will be fully exposed. The evidence suggests that Pope Francis is close to the epicenter of this panic.

      Their ‘solution’? Totally change the Church’s (Christ & Apostle-given) rejection of sexual immorality, by manipulating pseudo-synodality to legislate that aim. They plan to convince us that the mountain of abominable clerical iniquities were actually just part of the spectrum of normal human healthy relationships!

      A few selected lay will be part of the ‘synods’ that say wrong is right, thus implicating all Catholics! Pretty clever tactics, hey . .

      Who is there in the Church who will rebuke them and remind these devious divines of the words of our Master, such as:

      “. . fear Him who after He has killed, has the power to cast into hell.” Luke 12:5b

      “The Master will cut him off & send him to the same fate as the unfaithful!” Luke 12:46b

      “The Master will cut him off & send him to the same fate as the hypocrites, where there will be weeping & gnashing of teeth!” Matthew 24:51

      “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone put around his neck that that he should lead astray one of these little ones!” Luke 17:2

      In Philippians 2, Saint Paul tells us: “. . work for your salvation with fear & trembling . . . without blemish in a crooked & perverse generation . .”

      Not only are our hubristic hierarchs turning their backs on Jesus Christ & His Apostles & Saints, but it seems that they themselves have assumed the mantle of the crooked & perverse generation that sincere Catholics are now called on to shame by our example of obedience to God’s Word. A strange role reversal . . .

      Pray everyone, please pray.

      Ever in the love of The Lamb; blessings from marty

  2. Truth is between Genesis 1:1 and Revelation 22:21…..not the adding or subtracting from it in the catechism.

    • “Sola scriptura” is not found in this spectrum. This doctrine is not in the Bible and is a human invented addition.

    • Where does the bible say that truth is between Genesis 1:1 and Revelation 22:21?

      If it doesn’t say it, then you have just added a falsehood (as you have done so often in the past).

      I thank God every week for his gift of the catechism.

    • Really? Are you a pontiff of that supreme knowledge you just expressed? Are you now all “pumped up” by “the” spirit to start a new Protestant Denomination and add to the 25,000 already in existence, with 20 new ones every single week? The Catholic Catechism does not “add” anything, it just goes deeper and higher, like a flower opening and blooming.

      It’s is Protestant Denominations that constantly add and subtract to God’s Truth according to their sinful, self-glorifying, narrow minds. All this while dividing Christianity into a spiritual flea market and multiplying self-serving heresy. Repent and become a True Catholic!

      • Like a flower, man’s catechism will open, bloom and then die if in any way it contradicts what God has decreed.

      • Hang on a minute. The characterization of Protestant Denominations (although you must mean Protestant believers, since denominations don’t have minds) as having “sinful, self-glorifying, narrow minds,” is an utterly defamatory and bigoted generalization. I wonder if you ever met any? I know some who may well enter the Kingdom of God before a lot of otherwise professing Catholics I know. Give a read in the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II (n. 17).

    • Addendum: A Catholic readily assents to the fact that truth is found in the bible. What a Catholic finds amazing is that anyone would limit the truth to only what is found in the bible. The bible never says we should limit our finding of truth only to what is found in it’s pages. Now Brian seems to imply that we should limit our intake to only it’s pages. Yet Jesus, nor any Apostle ever advocates for this position. So when Brian posts his position, my jaw drops at the stupidity of it.

  3. God desires that TRUTH reside in our innermost being. How can those who are the pillars and support of that truth not agree on the facts between themselves? If the church is divided into many different truth camps, how can it stand for and support the truth to the world?

  4. Not to fear. I understand the”voting rights” of the laity are merely the right to “advise” the Pope, not to actually effect anything. That should not disturb us so much.

    • Said the frog on the stove!
      It has also been said that all revolutions are Fratricide—hatred and killing of the father (think 1789). The St. Gallen Mafia gets its man elected to the papacy—but only as a placeholder. Then Luther’s endgame: bury the papacy and even the idea of the magisterium.

      FIRST, Hollerich explains the laity as advisory voting members of a synod of bishops (bishops?) as “only a change, not a revolution.” Likewise, Grech would “stretch the gray areas.” Plus the “Batz(ing) outa hell!”

      SECOND, the first councils clarified Christology; today the synod in 2023/24 seems on track to redefine Christian anthropology and Man. Not all the synodal advice will be explicitly accepted by Pope Francis, butt will much be left silently on the books—gaining de facto legitimacy?

      THIRD, in 2025 at its 1700th Anniversary, will even Nicaea (A.D. 325) be edited into an ambulatory time piece of inclusive synodality? That is, no longer exclusive (!) rejection of Arianism, and no longer steadfast fidelity to what has been received from the beginning?

      Specifically, no longer the moral absolutes of Veritatis Splendor (VS)? “This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church [!] has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this [‘moral’!] teaching, and presented the principles for the pastoral discernment necessary …” (VS, n. 115). “The Church is no way the author or the arbiter of this [‘moral’] norm” (n. 95).

      Ecclesial fratricide = Plebiscite Assisted Suicide (PAS).

      • What’s to keep a really “creative” hermeneutic of discontinuity from tweaking even the protocol for the next conclave?

        Why not a somewhat “inverted pyramid” with handpicked laity included to, you know, influence the outcome? In olden times under Pope Gregory XV (bull of Nov. 15, 1621) the rules prevented a candidate from voting for himself. And the recent Pope Pius XII even decreed that the winner must have two-thirds plus one, so that even if a cardinal had voted for himself it would make no difference.

        But, instead and to be really creative, why not factor a perpetual synod (the “endless journey”) into the conclave in some way? Probably only “advisory,” of course! Optically not much different from the recent “communication error” inclusively awarding the papal (!) Lateran Basilica to the Anglican ecclesial communion…

        Or, inviting the German “non-synod” (!) to the podium of synodality’s continental European Assembly…

        Or, Cardinal Hollerich’s penetrating “sociological-scientific” input that leading-from-behind (!) physically is in step with closely “walking together,”

  5. Grondelski’s opening premise is right, that reason is ordered toward truth, as evident in the human will frequently referred to by Aquinas as ‘rational desire’. To will something is to desire it. What differentiates us from irrational animals is reason’s capacity to judge the conditions of acting on our desire – where ethics begins [the virtue prudence], the deliberation of whether an act is good or evil.
    Consequently, for Man, truth has a moral component since all human acts are by nature ordered toward the good. And as such, the decision to pursue an opposite course, unless due to invincible ignorance requires a culpable moral decision adverse to truth.
    Yes, truth is not a star beyond reach, its light illuminates the soul despite the darkness of the reprobates refusal. Guilt is widely manifest in such cases, or layered over with blankets of rationalization that it’s not noticeable. Card Hollerich, Synod General Relator, “defended the change, insisting their presence ensures the dialogue between the prophecy of the People of God and the discernment of the pastors”. Grondelski’s point is we shouldn’t be at a juncture where the Holy Spirit must be invoked anew – as if revelation and Apostolic tradition required a fresh look. Conceptually, the Synod is designed precisely to elicit variations on Catholic moral dogma that are assumed to be pastoral enlightenment.
    Again. Grondelski rightly objects citing anthropology, classic thought. Epistemology, addressed above, how and what the intellect knows gets down to the irreproachable basics of acquiring truth. As St Thomas laid it out [although not always easy to comprehend since his ethics was never condensed, rather it’s spread throughout his works] anthropologically, epistemologically, reason submits that the workings of the human intellect in acquiring truth is consistent with revelation and Apostolic tradition. Not in the searching minds of persons seeking answers to questions that are settled doctrine. Why the Synod may be more than a tragic, unwitting error.

  6. The sheep are pasturing one day when a whole bunch of wolves in goats’ clothing start ambling through looking like goats. Some of the goats go around hitting it off with the rams, ewes and the lambs, mostly ewes and lambs, saying don’t worry, we’re not wolves in sheep’s clothing, see! And many of the sheep think it’s the totally coolest thing they ever saw, goats telling the truth and sashaying up daddy-like and teaching the sheep to eat english ivy, how to be a packing sheep without overdoing it and how to trick a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  7. Grammar marm here: The reason of all human beings is ordered to truth.
    Singular subject “reason”, singular verb “is”.

  8. “The Church has relied on the correspondence theory of truth. It has also presumed inherent human rationality. We should be careful before we rush uncritically into embracing modern thought forms alien to our heritage.”

    The phrase here needs to be “correspondence fact.” Humans are reasonable, but logical fallacies and errors (i.e. something false that is mistakenly believed to be true) do occur and cause problems.

    And fallacies and errors are almost certainly the result of ignorance or malice. The former might be able to be remedied, but it takes concrete actions – e.g. arrests – to stop the evil of the latter.

    This is why mass communications need to be subjected to careful and thorough scrutiny along the lines of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and The Index of Forbidden Books.

    There has been a great deal of good work related to media literacy, but that burden ought not to be born by the receivers of alleged information, but by censors. This is because the damage caused by misinformation or disinformation might be impossible to undo.

  9. Excellent, insightful article.
    A question: What “unique sacrament “ do bishops possess? Is there an eighth sacrament?

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