Following the promulgation of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia in 2016, a great deal of critical attention has been paid to how that document, and Pope Francis himself, works to destabilize the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sacraments, particularly marriage and the Eucharist. Overshadowed by the fallout over this document has been another papal prerogative, namely the expansion of synodality into the governance of the Church. In a 2015 speech given on the anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo, which established the Synod of Bishops for the Universal Church, Francis stated the following:
“A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing.’ It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7)…. Synodality, as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself.”
For in Pope Francis’s mind, the “path of synodality [is what] God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” The problem with these words, as with many of the current pontiff’s statements, is that they lack precision, leading many to speculate what revolutionary changes he may be seeking to introduce. For liberals, the pope’s praise for synodality dovetails with their desire to see the Church further democratized and decentralized in order to “meet the needs” of particular countries or regions. Those Catholics with a more traditional orientation worry that Francis’s zeal for synodality is an outgrowth of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on collegiality (more on that below), with the pope’s standing and authority over the Church being diminished.
Given the complex historical, doctrinal, and theological issues surrounding both collegiality and synodality, this brief article cannot hope to cover them all. Instead, after offering a brief synopsis of both concepts as they emerged from Vatican II, this article sheds light on some of the problems that a synodal model may pose for the Catholic Church at this time while also criticizing the ecumenical ambitions behind the push for synodality. It should be noted, however, that synodality has been the historical governance model for the Eastern churches, including those in communion with Rome. But just because that is so does not mean that synodality doesn’t raise serious problems for the life of the Universal Church, especially given the dominance of liberalism and neo-Modernism within the Roman hierarchy.
Before the 1950s, the term collegiality was all but absent from the Catholic Church. At the time of Vatican II, the monarchical constitution of the Church was widely accepted with the pope, as the Vicar of Christ, as its head. This monarchical constitution was also seen in the role of every bishop over his respective diocese. In the discussions at Vatican II, however, this monarchical constitution was challenged, with the idea that the college of bishops (of which the pope is a member) exercise full authority over the Church. Some hoped that the introduction of collegiality would upend the standing doctrine of papal primacy, allowing for a deepening of ecumenical ties with the Eastern Orthodox and certain Protestant sects which had long objected to the pope’s universal jurisdiction over the Church.
With the promulgation of Lumen Gentium at the Council in 1964, collegiality was officially introduced, albeit with some crucial clarifications. Following the attachment of a Nota Praevia to the document by Paul VI, collegiality “is not taken in the strictly juridical sense, that is as a group of equals who transfer their powers to their chairman, but as a permanent body whose form and authority is to be ascertained from revelation.” Although the college of bishops, according to Lumen Gentium, is “the bearer of full and supreme power over the Universal Church,” the Nota clarifies that this is the case only where the college acts with the pope as its lawful head. While the monarchical constitution of the Church was distorted by Lumen Gentium, it was not abolished, for the document did not give the college express authority over the pope.
The following year, when establishing the Synod of Bishops, Paul VI made it clear that “the Synod of Bishops has, of its very nature, the function of providing information and offering advice. It can also enjoy the power of making decisions when such power is conferred upon it by the Roman Pontiff; in this case, it belongs to him to ratify the decisions of the Synod.” Again, despite the wishes of certain liberals and ecumenists to see the pope’s powers diminished, that has not exactly been the outcome. Synods, at least in the Roman Church up to this point, serve a consultative role; they do not legislate independent of the pope.
This conception of synodality, it should be noted, is distinct from the type practiced among the Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. Although there is no “one size fits all” model of synodality in the East, those synods typically exercise legislative authority over their respective churches, sometimes with a lead bishop or patriarch at the helm. What is distinct about these synods, though, is that their lead primate cannot withhold the synod’s regular authority. In other words, unlike the pope, an Eastern patriarch cannot reduce a synod to being merely a consultative body even if, as patriarch, he exercises considerable influence over the direction of the synod and the life of his respective local church.
If both Lumen Gentium and the legislation introduced by Paul VI still recognize the authority of the pope over the bishops, then what is at issue? It’s not as if the College of Bishops can legislate a new Code of Canon Law on their own or begin electing new bishops without the consent of the pope.
While that is true now, it doesn’t have to be that way. Pope Francis, for instance, is free to modify the legislation of the Synod of Bishops by granting them more direct power over the Church. More troubling is Francis’s idea of a “listening Church,” one where the voices of the people (not just the bishops) are heard, perhaps for the purpose of introducing changes and novelties into the Church herself. The rightful worry here is that the Church’s divine mandate is clouded over, that she is no longer seen as “the pillar and ground of Truth” (1 Tim. 3:16), but rather a religious governing body that should shape and mold Christianity in accordance with “the times.” If certain moral teachings are perceived as too difficult to follow or out-of-step with the tenets of secular liberalism, should the “listening Church” hear the people and change?
As for the consultative role of the Synod of Bishops itself, there are also present dangers which cannot be ignored. Given the liberal bent of many of the bishops, their message to the pope will also be reformist in nature. For proof, one needn’t look any further than the recently concluded Extraordinary Synod on the Family where, in the process of “discussing” and “consulting,” liberal bishops seeking to undermine the Church’s teaching on marriage, sexuality, and the sacraments promulgated draft documents and made media statements implying that great changes were on the horizon. Instead of the Synod coming together with the intention of reaffirming what the Church has always taught while addressing the degrading effects secular liberalism has had on humanity, they opted instead to bandy about ideas that would have been condemned in any earlier age of the Church.
It should be clear at this sorrowful juncture in history that a synod needn’t have express legislative powers in order to engage in doctrinal mischief. Simply by injecting confusion into the Church through open discussions and draft documents creates de facto changes in how Catholics live their lives. Add to that the fact these discussions lend language and credibility to bewildering papal documents such as Amoris Laetitia—and what remains is not a Church held together by synodality, but torn apart within by it.
In concluding, a few words are in order on the ecumenical dimension of collegiality and synodality. For more than 50 years the idea has existed that if the Roman Church were to reorganize itself along synodal lines with actual reductions to the pope’s authority, then it would be easier to bring the schismatic Eastern Orthodox back into the Catholic fold. These claims are often bolstered by romanticized notions of how synodality actually works in the Christian East, with nary a mention of the reality that the synodal model, by itself, has not helped the Orthodox maintain clear doctrinal and moral teachings, particularly on matters such as marriage and contraception. While local Eastern synods can, in limited circumstances, address internal questions such as modifying local liturgical calendars, elevating patriarchs and metropolitans, and other practical matters, the Orthodox Church as a whole is fractured along jurisdictional lines. Indeed, it is not uncommon for one or more Orthodox Patriarchates to break communion with one another, typically over jurisdictional matters. More recently, the Orthodox Church’s “Holy and Great Council” held in Crete, which was supposed to bring together all of the local Orthodox churches, fell apart before it even began, with representatives from a majority of Orthodox jurisdictions refusing to attend.
Given the longstanding historical, cultural, and doctrinal differences that are yet to be resolved between Catholics and Orthodox, it is highly doubtful that a “more synodal” Roman Church will bring the Orthodox much closer to restoring communion with Catholicism. Indeed, the presence of synodality was never a precondition for the Ukrainian and Ruthenian Greco-Catholic churches to rejoin Rome in the 16th/17th centuries, nor for the Melkites to also enter communion in the 18th century. Moreover, there are Orthodox churchmen, such as Fr. Patrick Reardon, who have stated that reducing papal authority and going to a synodal model would be a disaster for the Roman Church precisely because there are so many liberal bishops who would use a full synodal model to take apart the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.
While it is never possible to be sure what Pope Francis truly envisions when he delivers a speech, pens a papal document, or gives a perplexing airline interview, let us pray that the “listening Church” which his particular model of synodality contemplates doesn’t become a reality.