March 2016 Print

A Season for Everything

The Synod as Optimal Friend and Miserable Foe

by Dr. John Rao

“When springtime comes,” an old friend of mine at graduate school used to say, his face beaming with the widest smile, “young men’s hearts turn to scholarship applications.” He had good reason to be joyful. At that long-distant date, money for further study gushed like oil—although for just as many pointless or even nefarious projects as for positively beneficial ones.

“When storms rage against the Ship of Faith,” much of Church History cries out, “Catholic hearts yearn for ecclesiastical assemblies to meet to quell them.” And that desire has indeed frequently been happily requited. But just as with the cash flowing from scholarly foundations’ faucets, not everything that has poured forth from the gatherings in question—both in terms of teaching as well as pastoral consequences—has automatically worked out to the benefit of Christ’s cause. For as excellent in theory and as optimal under particular circumstances as ecclesiastical assemblies may be, their outcomes have also often been hideously embarrassing, painfully shameful, and horrifically scandalous. In other words—corruptio optimi pessima!

Now “synods” are the kind of meetings we are concerned with here, and, strictly speaking, that term encompasses all church assemblies, ecumenical councils included. Nevertheless, synods, in the sense that preoccupies believing Catholics today, have historically been more local affairs than ecumenical councils, dealing with specific doctrinal and pastoral matters affecting a given regional, national, provincial, metropolitan, or diocesan jurisdiction. Yes, there are examples of still more grand meetings bearing the name of synod. One thinks immediately of the sort of gathering that is the catalyst for this article, or perhaps the various governing bodies of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the “permanent synod” of Constantinople in particular. Still, it is the synod’s less ambitious expression that has been much more common in the West—and, I might add, much more successful.

Synodus Optima

What would one need to do to ensure a truly successful synod, a synodus optima? A glance at Church History uncovers three indispensable ingredients, the first of which is a serious and substantive understanding of exactly how to respond to a clearly recognized problem.

Dr. William Marra, my much missed predecessor as chairman of the Roman Forum and one of the first activists in the home schooling movement, used to complain that most of the projects suggested to him by opponents of the official school system indicated a vivid awareness of the clear and present dangers that it represented but a lack of any real idea of what a proper education that could repair the damage being done to children would really involve. Quite frankly, a good number of the justly forgotten synods that I have encountered in the long history of the Church suffered from this flaw compounded—that is to say, that their participants displayed not just intellectual confusion or emptiness, but an utter ignorance of or indifference to the problems that they should have been working to correct.

Still, many of these witless non-events were called in obedience to commands to convene them at determined intervals issued by previous and much more serious synods. Such synods had real Catholic leaders: men who could indeed boast a substantive sense of “what’s what”; men who combined their knowledge of the faith, awareness of threats to its existence, and effective problem-solving skills with possession of the second necessary ingredient for a synodus optima: honest to goodness apostolic fervor as their primary stimulus to action.

This ingredient is indispensable because it is only when such disinterested fervor dominates a synod that any of its otherwise most impeccable teachings or undeniably pragmatic programs can have a truly solid impact. But when that fervor does so rule, the saintly effects emerging therefrom are phenomenal. Holy synods can remove existing tumors from the Mystical Body of Christ and continue to work beneficial effects on the subsequent rote-like gatherings mentioned above—if, that is to say, their less gifted participants prove smart enough simply to reiterate the injunctions of their earlier apostolic betters and keep their unenlightened mouths tightly shut.

Effective Synod

The number of effective gatherings dealing with real problems based on substantive knowledge and backed by a truly apostolic fervor is astonishing. Nearly two centuries of African Synods starting in 220 A.D. did yeoman service on behalf of the truth in that exceedingly turbulent Roman region. Northumbria’s Whitby Synod of 664 brought the rich culture of this British province, fed by both Irish and Benedictine monastic influences, into mainstream contact with the rest of the Roman Church. A so-called Germanic Synod of 742/743 played an integral part in St. Boniface and Chrodegang of Metz’s program for solidifying the Catholicism of the Kingdom of the Franks. There would have been no successful battle against the heresies of Monotheletism and Iconoclasm in the seventh and eighth centuries without those impressive Roman Synods that were often strongly promoted by Greek exiles moved to righteous anger over the Byzantine Caesaropapism with which they were all too familiar. In fact, the whole of the High Middle Ages would have been a fantasy had Pope St. Leo IX (1049-1054) not taken the idea of the synod “on the road” round Europe: to fight many a dramatic local battle against simony and for the restoration of the badly lapsed tradition of clerical celibacy. The same thing would have been true had Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-1085) not used another round of Roman Synods to promote universal papal jurisdictional power.

These were Catholic Synods at their best: valuable because they brought a greater awareness of all manner of issues concerning orthodoxy, heresy, true Christian moral behavior, and gaps to transformation in Christ in every realm of human activity—to both clergy and laity alike. They accomplished their praiseworthy labor by kneading this manifold awareness deeply into the very base of the Church pyramid, stirring up souls and tapping into talents that might have been sorely neglected by a centralized, “top-level,” purely “universalist” approach towards healing Christian wounds.

Perhaps never was this value more perceived and exploited than in the Counter Reformation era, especially in response to the Council of Trent’s call for annual diocesan synods to be held everywhere throughout the Roman Church. Contemporary success stories regarding the reinvigoration of the life of the clergy and the faithful due to the actions of synod after synod abound—from the Milan of St. Charles Borromeo to Bourbon France to the many areas of Central Europe being won back from an initial flirtation with Protestantism. Christopher F. Black’s Church, Religion and Society in Early Modern Italy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) is just one of innumerable modern works detailing this extraordinary Counter Reformation use of the synod, strongly backed by papal and episcopal authority, which continued with happy results until the middle of the eighteenth century.

Means to Pervert

Alas, every coin has two sides. When the dominant presence of a truly apostolic spirit was lacking, even the most solid and justifiable of synods could prove to have disappointing or counterproductive consequences. One major example of what can go wrong can be found in the Metropolitan Synod of Embrun, in southeastern France, which was held in 1727. Called at the instigation of Louis XV’s Prime Minister, Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury, Embrun was meant to help strike a deathblow to the Jansenist inspired “Appellant Crisis.” The Appellants were a group of bishops, doctors of the Sorbonne, and parish priests who petitioned for a rejection or major revision of the Apostolic Constitution Unigenitus, promulgated by Pope Clement XI as part of the ongoing battle against Jansenism in 1713. Eighty-year-old Bishop Jean Soanen of Senez, a suffragan diocese of Embrun, was one of the most virulent initial proponents of the Appellant cause. The Synod in question removed him from his See, sending him to a monastic exile where he remained until his death in 1740.

Whatever the innate justice of the measures taken, much of their effectiveness was badly thwarted by the heavy-handedness of the synodal procedures and the contrast of the manifest (though wrong-headed) selflessness of Soanen with the well known political ambitiousness of the presiding judge, Archbishop and later Cardinal Pierre Guérin de Tencin of Embrun. The “Crime of Embrun” became the stimulus for the creation of a brilliantly effective Jansenist propaganda campaign, orchestrated to a large degree by the weekly clandestine journal, Nouvelles Ecclesiastiques. This popularized the battle of “sincere, holy, and free Catholics”— symbolized by the aged “confessor” Soanen—against the “hypocritical, self-interested, and despotic spirit”—represented by men like de Tencin. But shoring up the fading Jansenist cause was just part of the damage done, as the wretched periodical and its fellow travellers went on to play a major role in the denigration and weakening of all papal, episcopal, and monarchical authority in pre-revolutionary France.

Let us not demonize de Tencin. He seems to have been a rather typical man on the move with all too ordinary human desires for swift promotion that working together with the king’s chief minister might easily satisfy. Nevertheless, mention of his case does segue nicely into a discussion of the third prerequisite for holding a synodus optima: the right political and sociological conditions. As far as I am concerned, these were not lacking for Embrun, given that Fleury and his sovereign were properly concerned for ridding France of the Jansenist pestilence. Embrun’s problem was simply the dubious motivation of its personnel and the character of its proceedings. But the same cannot be said for many another synod’s external climate through all the long, long centuries of universal and local Church battling with outside secularizing elements. These have often been so overwhelmingly negative as to counsel against calling any ecclesiastical gathering while they held sway. Such assemblies could not help but be corrupted under them.

Even many a conservative Catholic would not deny that the existing conditions surrounding the Roman Cadaver Synod of 897—domination of the Papacy by competing and blood thirsty local “noble” families—made it highly unlikely that tasteful ecclesiastical actions would emerge from its deliberations. After all, its raison d’être and chief action were the trial of the unearthed corpse of the ruling pontiff’s predecessor, Formosus, dressed smartly once again in his papal vestments. When Formosus, who obviously could not defend himself, was inevitably found guilty of crimes against God and man, he was stripped of his clothing and three of the rotting fingers of his right hand before eventually being tossed into the Tiber River with weights to drag him to its murky depths. Corruptio optimi pessima!

Contemporary Synod

Yet many otherwise astute observers of the contemporary scene still find it difficult to admit that a myriad of external, anti-Catholic, naturalist, and immoral forces so weigh down on every aspect of our lives today that hoping for conclusions of contemporary Roman Synods to be worthy of anything other than being tossed deeper into the Tiber than Formosus’ corpse is tantamount to tempting Providence. And that is especially true when pontiffs behind such Synods are eager to demonstrate the “mercy” of the Catholic Church by responding “graciously” to the tug of the ever-tightening secularist leash around their throats. All that such Synods might be good for is the purpose that the Count Cavour, the master liberal manipulator of the Italian Risorgimento, understood that modern parliaments innately serve: giving a semblance of general support for whatever it is that the powers that be want to have done; in other words, for the more effective perpetrating of a fraud.

“For everything there is a season,” the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us. Given constantly changing political and sociological conditions, the fluctuations of Catholic leadership between apostolic fervor and less exalted motivations, and the highs and lows in human perception, wisdom, and pastoral pragmatism, this judgment holds true for every valid tool at the Church’s disposal throughout her history as well. By this, I do not mean to say that synods once had value and no longer do so. I am applying the Ecclesiastes argument with a slight twist. What I wish to indicate is simply that under the three good conditions noted above a synod can be optima; when they are lacking, pessima—or, perhaps, just witless and best held in winter when the need for large quantities of hot air is at its height.

All of us in the Traditionalist Movement should be aiming at learning from the present nightmare—the worst in Church History—so as to make any future Restoration better than what existed before the debacle began. We shall have learned a highly profitable lesson indeed if we would recognize that popes, bishops, councils, synods, emperors, kings, and laity are all indispensable to the life of the Mystical Body, but can all have their particular “seasons” when they are best called upon to bring the Church back to her senses. Even the horror that we call “modernity” may be of value—in God’s Providence—as a “season” which we can use for our graduate college education in how to rebuild Christendom. What that might be I am not exactly certain just yet. But I am ready to keep an open mind regarding Church historians a thousand years hence possibly discovering it.