Introduction to Synodality in the Catholic Church
Synodality is a term that has been used more frequently in the Catholic Church since Pope Francis announced a Synod on Synodality for 2023. It means that the Church is a community of people who walk together, sharing their gifts and responsibilities, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Synodality reflects the nature and mission of the Church, which is to mirror the communion of the Trinity and to proclaim the Gospel to the world. Synodality also requires a change in the way the Church operates, so that it can become more open and collaborative in discerning God’s will.
Synodality is not a new idea in the Church. It was one of the main themes of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent teachings of the popes, especially Pope Francis. It describes how the Church is organized and how it makes decisions, based on the principle of communion. The Second Vatican Council stressed the role of bishops as a college that exercises synodality with the pope, as well as the role of all the baptized in contributing to the life and mission of the Church. The Council also recognized that the Church needs to be aware of its historical context and to use discernment to apply and develop its tradition.
Pope Francis has deepened and expanded the understanding of synodality in his magisterium. He has emphasized that synodality is not just a method or a tool, but an essential characteristic of the Church. He has also widened the scope of synodality to involve not only bishops, but also priests, religious, laity, and even people from other religions and cultures. He has proposed a vision of a “synodal Church” that listens to God’s voice in dialogue with each other and with the world, and that practices discernment at every level. He has also linked synodality with themes such as missionary discipleship, ecological conversion, and social justice.
Understanding Pope Francis’ Concept of Synodality
Synodality is a key concept in Pope Francis’ vision for the Catholic Church. He wants the Church to be more inclusive and participatory, involving all the faithful in the decision-making process. Francis believes that the Church should listen to the Holy Spirit speaking through the people of God, not just through a few leaders. He also wants the Church to be more open to the world, addressing the problems and needs of the global community. A means to realize this vision, Francis sees synodality as a way to foster unity, diversity, and the common good, while keeping the Church faithful to its teachings and traditions.
However, not everyone agrees with Pope Francis’ vision. Some traditional Catholics think that Francis’ spin on synodality is too vague, too liberal, and too risky for the Church. They argue that the Pope is weakening the authority of the magisterium, the teaching office of the Church, by allowing dialogue and participation from people who do not follow the Church’s doctrine or morals. They worry that the Pope is leading the Church to relativism, syncretism, and compromise, which could harm the identity and mission of the Church. They also doubt whether the Pope is respecting the diversity and autonomy of local churches, or forcing his own agenda on them. They accuse the Pope of being more interested in worldly issues than in spiritual ones, and of ignoring the traditional aspects of the Church’s liturgy and discipline.
Key principles of Pope Francis’ Synodality
One of the main features of Pope Francis’ synodality is the dialogue. He thinks that the truth can emerge, and the choices can be more wise and complete if there is a sincere and frank dialogue. To facilitate synodal dialogue, he invites the bishops, the priests, and the faithful to engage with each other, acknowledging that everyone has something valuable to share.
Another key element of Pope Francis’ synodality is the discernment. It is through discernment in prayer, choices are made that are in union with the will of the Holy Spirit. Synodal discernment implies a readiness to listen and to be receptive to the action of the Spirit, even when it goes against our ideas or our customs.
Finally, Pope Francis underlines the role of subsidiarity in synodality. Subsidiarity is the principle that says that the choices should be made at the lowest level possible, nearer to those who are affected by them. This means that the choices should not depend only on the Pope or a central authority, but rather on those who are directly concerned and involved by them. Again, for traditional Catholics, this movement towards a decentralized authority in the Catholic Church strikes at the heart of the resolutions of the First Vatican Council.
The Significance of Synodality in the Eastern Orthodox Church
Synodality is a term that refers to the way the Christian Church is governed by the bishops in communion with each other and with the local churches. It is not a new idea, but rather an ancient one that has been practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Churches for a long time. The Eastern Orthodox Churches base their synodality on the concept of conciliarity, which means that the bishops have the authority and duty to lead the Church together, in harmony with the clergy and the laity. The highest form of synodality is the ecumenical council, where the bishops gather to resolve doctrinal and canonical issues by consensus. For the Eastern Orthodox Churches, synodality is a way to maintain the unity and integrity of the Church, while also respecting the diversity and autonomy of the local churches.
The process of synodality in the Eastern Orthodox Church is manifested through the conciliar decision-making method. The bishops make decisions together, by meeting in council and discussing and debating on matters of faith, doctrine, and governance. This ensures that decisions are made in a collegial way, with the agreement of the bishops.
The Eastern Orthodox Church views synodality as a way to safeguard the tradition and teachings of the Church, while also being open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is a way to keep the unity of the Church, while also allowing for adaptation and flexibility to the needs of the faithful.
Contrasting Aspects of Synodality in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches
Synodality, or the practice of making decisions together as a Church, is a concept that both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches share. However, Pope Francis’ definition of synodality differs from the Orthodox one in several aspects. First, Pope Francis emphasizes that synodality is not only a method or a structure, but a way of being Church, rooted in baptism and involving all the faithful, not just the bishops. Second, Pope Francis stresses that synodality is not only a horizontal dimension of communion among the members of the Church, but also a vertical dimension of obedience to Christ and his Spirit, who speaks through the signs of the times and the sensus fidei of the people. Third, Pope Francis affirms that synodality is not only an ecclesiological reality, but also a missionary one, as it aims to make the Church more credible and attractive to the world.
While both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches embrace synodality, there are notable differences in how it is practiced. One key difference is the role of the Pope. In the Catholic Church, the Pope holds a position of primacy and authority, with the final decision-making power. In contrast, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, decisions are made collectively by the bishops, with no single bishop having supreme authority. Moreover, another difference lies in the participation of the laity. In the Catholic Church, the laity are encouraged to participate in synodal processes, but their role is often limited to advisory or consultative capacities. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the laity have a more active role in decision-making, with lay representatives often participating in synodal councils.
The Catholic Church also places a greater emphasis on the universality of the Church. The Pope, as the head of the universal Church, has the responsibility to guide and govern the entire Catholic Church. On the other hand, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is a greater emphasis on local autonomy and the independence of individual churches. Therefore, synodality reflects different understandings of ecclesiology and authority in these two traditions.
The Role of Bishops in Synodality – Catholic vs Eastern Orthodox Perspectives
Bishops are essential for synodality in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, but they have different understandings and practices of their role.
The Catholic Church views bishops as successors of the Apostles who have the authority to teach, govern, and sanctify. They lead their dioceses and guide the faithful according to the Church’s teachings. They also take part in synodal gatherings, where they dialogue and discern on important issues for the Church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church also considers bishops as successors of the Apostles, but their authority is more shared and collegial. They make decisions through consensus, meeting in council to discuss and deliberate on matters of faith and governance. The bishop’s role is to be a shepherd and guardian of the faith, representing the local church in the wider synodal process.
The Participation of the Laity in Synodality – Catholic vs Eastern Orthodox Perspectives
One of the key aspects of synodality in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches is the involvement of the laity. However, the ways and degrees of their participation vary significantly between the two traditions.
The Catholic Church invites the laity to participate in synodal processes as consultants and advisers. They can share their insights, proposals, or challenges, but the ultimate authority for decision-making belongs to the Pope and the bishops. The laity can also participate in synods at the diocesan and national levels, where they can express their views and engage in dialogue.
The Eastern Orthodox Church gives the laity a more direct role in decision-making. Lay delegates are often appointed to join synodal councils, where they can state their opinions and influence the outcome of decisions. The participation of the laity is considered vital for the overall health and well-being of the Church, ensuring that decisions are made with the input and consent of the whole community.
The Challenges of Getting Synodality to Function within the Traditional Understanding of the Church
One of the challenges of getting synodality to work in the Latin/Roman Church is the different understanding and practice of authority and governance. The Latin/Roman Church has a more centralized and hierarchical structure, where the Pope has supreme and universal authority over the whole Church, and the bishops are his collaborators and subordinates. The Pope can make decisions on matters of faith and morals without consulting the bishops, and he can intervene in the affairs of any local church. The bishops exercise their authority in their own dioceses, but they are subject to the Pope’s approval and supervision.
The process of synodality in the Latin/Roman Church is manifested through the consultative and advisory role of the bishops. The bishops can offer their opinions and suggestions to the Pope, but they do not have the power to make binding decisions. The Pope can convene synods of bishops, where the bishops can discuss and propose topics of interest to the Church, but the final word belongs to the Pope.
The Latin/Roman Church views synodality as a way to foster communion and participation in the Church, while also affirming the primacy and infallibility of the Pope. It is a way to balance the diversity and unity of the Church, while also respecting the authority and responsibility of the Pope.
Challenges and Controversies Surrounding Synodality in the Catholic Church
Synodality is a positive development in the Catholic Church, but it also poses some challenges and controversies. One of them is how to balance unity and diversity in a diverse community with different cultural, social, and theological perspectives. Synodality calls for finding common ground and fostering unity while respecting the diversity within the Church.
Another challenge is how to avoid polarization and division in a context of open and honest dialogue, which can lead to differing opinions and perspectives. Synodality requires a spirit of charity and unity to prevent division and conflict within the Church.
A controversy that can emerge is when there is a lack of transparency and accountability in the decision-making process. Synodality demands that the Church conducts synodal processes in a transparent and accountable manner, with clear mechanisms for making decisions and communicating them to the faithful.
The Four Marks of the Catholic Church are One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. Is Synodality is a Problematic Fifth Mark?
Synodality is a controversial and disputed concept that has different implications for the identity and mission of the Church. Some see it as a way of being the Church that reflects the four marks of its unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. They argue that synodality means walking together as the people of God, listening to each other and to the Holy Spirit, discerning God’s will and acting accordingly. They claim that synodality is not a new concept, but rather a rediscovery of the ancient practice of the Church.
Others see it as a dangerous and heretical innovation that contradicts the four marks of the true Church. They argue that synodality means walking away from the authority of Christ and his Vicar on earth, listening to the opinions of the world and the spirit of the age, disregarding God’s will and following human whims. They claim that synodality is not an ancient practice of the Church, but rather a modern deviation from its tradition.
The question then is: how can these two opposing views be reconciled? Is there a way to understand and practice synodality that respects both the tradition and the development of the Church? Is there a way to foster dialogue and communion without compromising truth and fidelity? Is there a way to celebrate diversity and richness without ignoring universality and immutability? Is there a way to bear witness to Christ’s mission in the world without undermining his teaching and governance?
These are some of the questions that the Church needs to address in its synodal journey, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the magisterium of the Pope and the bishops. Synodality is not an additional mark of the Church, but rather an essential aspect of its nature and vocation. Synodality is what makes the Church truly synodal, that is, a pilgrim community that journeys together in history towards the Kingdom of God.
The Impact of Synodality on Decision-Making and Governance in the Catholic Church
Historically, the synodal process has addressed various issues and challenges facing the church, such as doctrine, liturgy, evangelization, ecumenism, social justice, etc. However, some critics argue that the synodal process has been reduced to a mere consultation (a type of Vatican pastoral council), with popes writing apostolic exhortations after the synod that had little impact or relevance for the life of the church.
Pope Francis wants to change this situation and make the synod a more active and living component of the church. He has called for a synodal church, where everyone listens to each other and to the Holy Spirit, where everyone is involved in discernment and decision-making, where everyone is co-responsible for the mission of the Church. This was the goal of the global synodal process with the theme of “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission”, which will involve consultations at various levels (diocesan, continental, universal) from 2021 to 2024.
How might this impact decision-making and governance in the Catholic Church? Some hope that it will lead to a more collegial, participatory and inclusive church, where the voice of the laity, especially women and young people, is heard and valued. Some also hope that it will lead to a more decentralized and diverse church, where local churches have more autonomy and flexibility to respond to their specific contexts and needs. Some even hope that it will lead Catholics back to a time when the laity had a choice in who would be their priest and bishop, as was the case in some early Christian communities.
However, others are more cautious or skeptical about these expectations. They point out that the synod is not a parliament or a democracy, but a spiritual exercise of listening and discernment. They also point out that the pope still has the final authority to approve or reject any proposals or recommendations that emerge from the synod. They also warn that a more synodal church does not necessarily mean a more progressive or liberal church, as some conservative or traditionalist groups may also use the synodal process to express their views and concerns.
Conclusion: The Future of Synodality in the Catholic Church
Synodality is not without its difficulties and challenges, as it requires a change of mindset and attitude among the Church leaders and the faithful. However, synodality also offers a great opportunity for the Church to renew itself and to respond to the signs of the times or become more worldly. The future of synodality in the Catholic Church will depend on the active involvement of all members of the Church in a process of dialogue, discernment, and action. It is through this process that the Church can grow and evolve, becoming a more effective witness of the Gospel and a more credible sign of God’s love for humanity, or fall into the snares of Satan and shrink into being just a remnant of God’s People.
CTA: We invite you to join us in this conversation on synodality and to share your views on how it can shape or deform the future of the Catholic Church.