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What Is Synodality?

February 18, 2020


It was a great privilege for me to participate in the Synod on Young People in the fall of 2018. Along with about three hundred other bishops and ecclesial experts from around the world, I spent four weeks in Rome exploring the complex question of the Church’s outreach to the young.

About three weeks into the Synod process, a sub-committee of writers presented a preliminary text, meant to reflect our deliberations, questions, and decisions to that point. This draft represented, for the most part, an accurate account of our work, but there were a few pages that troubled a number of us. More or less out of the blue, a vigorous defense of “synodality” appeared in the text, though we had never, either in general session or in the small language groups, so much as discussed the theme. Moreover, the language was so imprecise that it gave the impression that the Church is a kind of freewheeling democracy, making up its principles and teachings as it goes along. Rather alarmed by this section of the draft, a number of bishops and archbishops, myself included, rose to speak against it. We wondered aloud how to square this language with the teaching authority of the bishops, the binding quality of the Church’s dogmatic statements, and the practical process of governing the people of God. Mind you, none of us who expressed concern about the language of the text was against synods as such; after all, we were happily participating in one. It was the vagueness and ambiguity of the formulation that bothered us.

Just after our interventions, a well-known and deeply-respected cardinal asked to speak. He opined that our objections were baseless and that the texts in question were not threatening to the authority of the bishops or the integrity of the Church’s doctrine, though, to be honest, he provided no real argument for his position. When he sat down, applause rang through the Synod Hall, and we moved on to another topic. At the time, I thought, “Well, you win some and you lose some.”

But I will confess that this episode came vividly back to mind last summer when I learned that the German Bishops’ Conference was gathering under the rubric of “synodality” and had committed to walk the “synodal path.” My attention turned to something closer to alarm when I gathered that they were open to a reconsideration of some of the most fundamental moral teachings and disciplines of the Church, including the the nature of the sexual act, the theology of the priesthood, and the possibility of ordination for women. Further, the bishops of Germany were endeavoring to undertake their deliberations in collaboration with the Central Committee for German Catholics, a lay organization, and they were insisting that the decisions of this joint body would be “binding.” To state it bluntly, every fear that I and a number of other bishops had when we first read the open-ended language regarding “synodality” in the preliminary document of the Youth Synod now seemed justified. Would it be possible for a local church to establish its own moral rules in such a way that they would then be binding on the Catholics in that region? Could contraception, for example, become ethically permissible in Germany while still remaining morally offensive in other parts of the Catholic world?

It was therefore with a real sense of relief that I learned that the Congregation for Bishops, under the headship of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, had intervened to set limits to the synodality of the German Conference, reminding the bishops that they were not authorized to act in independence of the Holy See. Nevertheless, when the German Bishops’ Conference informed the Vatican that they would press ahead on the synodal path, the same fears and hesitations that I experienced at the Youth Synod re-emerged.

All of this was in the back of my mind when, in the company of my brother bishops from Region XI, I met with Pope Francis during the ad limina visit. In the course of our conversation, the theme of synods and synodality indeed came up, and Francis was clear and explicit. He told us, in no uncertain terms, that a synod is “not a parliament,” and that the synodal process is not simply a matter of canvassing the participants and counting votes. And then he added, with particular emphasis, that the “protagonist” of a synod is not any of the delegates to the gathering, but rather the Holy Spirit. This last observation is of signal importance. The point of a democratic assembly is to discern the will of the people, for in a democratic polity, they are finally sovereign. But in a synod, the point is discerning, not the will of the people, but the will of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit in that context is sovereign, or in the language of Pope Francis, the “protagonist.”

Having heard the Pope on this score, I couldn’t help but hearken back to that moment at the Youth Synod of 2018. Whatever Pope Francis means by “synodality,” he quite clearly doesn’t mean a process of democratization, or putting doctrine up for a vote. He means, it seems to me, a structured conversation among all of the relevant ecclesial players—bishops, priests, and laity—for the sake of hearing the voice of the Spirit.