For years now, ordinary Catholics have been barraged with a number of trendy buzzwords and catchy slogans: “A listening Church,” “accompaniment,” “pastoral,” and more. While these words are not necessarily wrong or inappropriate for ecclesial discourse, they often serve as a Trojan horse through which heterodoxy and heteropraxy emerge.
As preparation for the “Synod on Synodality” begins, news regarding the extension of the German Church’s “Synodal Way” into 2023 has ensured that such ordinary Catholics will continue to hear the word “synodality” for the unforeseeable future. In his opening remarks for the synod’s preparatory phase, Pope Francis said, “There is no need to create another church, but to create a different church.” Of course, one wonders where the distinction between the two lies. And furthermore, how can an ordinary, right-believing Catholic survive this era of “synodality”?
Given the pervasive nature of contemporary Church jargon, it is worth sifting through true and false meanings of popular words, as one separates the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3:12). It is obvious that “synodal,” like many other terms used in the Church today, is used indiscriminately and without precision. The word “synodal” is a combination of two Greek words, one meaning “together” and the other meaning “road” (or “way”). At face value, the words connote a sense of a journeying group, traveling together in a common direction.
In the early Church, “synodal” was used to describe the earliest Christians, who were known as followers of “the Way.” As these followers banded together and formed permanent communities, the term “synod” would eventually refer to an assembly or body of the Church, whether on a local, regional, or universal level. Thus, in the early Church, the word “synod” could simultaneously refer to the Church universal in her liturgical worship as well as the more familiar use of the term as a governing or administrative body of the Church.
“Synodality,” insofar as it refers to the Church as journeying together on the way of Christ, is hardly offensive. However, in contemporary usage, the term can serve as a mask to conceal the face of dissent. Any journey requires a starting and end point. In the Church, we do not need to create these markers. And so, Pope Francis is right in saying that “there is no need to create a new Church.” There is one Church, which, as the Mystical Body of Christ, is intimately united with Him.
This union is not one of mere cause-and-effect, as the union between a carpenter and a house. Instead, this union is integral and immediate; as for any functioning body, a head is united to the neck, which is united to the shoulders, and so on. This is why, when Saul is confronted by Christ after his persecution of Christians, Christ does not ask why Saul is persecuting His followers, but rather “Why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:45). Christ, the Head, perfects His Body, the Church (Ephesians 4:16). And so, a truly synodal Church will walk the path of Christ and go where her Head commands.
As Pope Pius XII teaches, because the head holds a natural preeminence over the body, it follows that “all the members over whom it is placed for their good are naturally guided by it as being endowed with superior powers, so the Divine Redeemer holds the helm of the universal Christian community and directs its course” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 37).
In other words, Christ-as-Head does not immobilize the members of the Body, but rather orders their actions toward their proper end. And so, insofar as the “journeying together” leads us to act in conformity with Christ’s teachings and example, it is to be considered an authentic synodality. However, if we find, in our “journey,” that we are entertaining falsehoods and error (or “accompanying” people off a cliff), then we can safely conclude that this is an inauthentic synodality.
All too often, synodality is misconstrued to promote a democratic, egalitarian Church, in which every teaching and practice is considered up for debate, as if a majority of Rhineland bishops supporting the blessing of same-sex unions would somehow reveal the affirming voice of the Holy Spirit. Other ill-fated attempts at synodality push for secular notions of “inclusivity” and the modernization of Church teachings to fit comfortably within the zeitgeist.
Such projects are not simply contrary to the Church’s divine mission, but they also fall short of authentic synodality. It would be akin to the Head commanding the finger to not touch a hot stove, and the finger suggesting that the Head’s command is too judgmental about the stove’s temperature, before proceeding to touch it and suffering the burn anyway. Because the Church flows from her Divine Redeemer, Jesus Christ, all actions of the Church—including the motions of synodality—must necessarily proceed from and journey toward Christ’s revelation and its authentic transmission.
One of the more beautiful elements of authentic synodality is that it points to the Church’s mode-of-being. By this, I mean that synodality, properly understood, can actually help Catholics understand what the Church is, and how they participate in her sacred mission. The Church, though hierarchical, is not a mere top-down organization whereby the ecclesial elites issue commands, and the laity obey.
With respect to the proper division between the lay and ordained, a synodal Church takes into account the entirety of the faithful. Through the grace poured out in holy Baptism, all Christians are called to participate in Christ’s triple munera of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, in accordance with their state of life. Thus, a married man and father of three can come to know the true Faith, teach it, and sanctify his home through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. In times of ecclesial crisis, it is entirely possible that the Faith is more successfully handed on by a homeschooling laywoman than by members of the Roman Curia.
When presented with “synodality,” faithful Catholics should simultaneously be cautious and yet hopeful. Caution is required, as “synodality” has been and will continue to be used to justify immorality and doctrinal degeneracy. And yet, not all on the synodal front is lost. In a truly synodal Church, at least in America, a tougher response following the scandal of Theodore McCarrick—as was the plan by the USCCB—would not get shot down by the Vatican. A synodal Church would never tolerate the systematic destruction of the Roman Rite or justify it as a form of “obedience” to the pope.
As one commentator noted, “If synodality is something of an empty vessel, there is no reason it cannot be filled with good things.” If Catholics are to survive “synodality,” it will only be possible by fighting the false product with the real thing.
[Photo Credit: Vatican Media (synod.va)]