Pope Francis’s New Meanings for Synod

Pope Francis presided over a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Synod of Bishops Saturday, right in the midst of the current Synod on the Family. Though there have been synods in Christian churches going back to the earliest days, this celebration marked the half century since Pope Paul VI instituted the modern idea of regular meeting of synodal bodies to advise the pope in 1965. The event was vintage Pope Francis in that he not only affirmed Pope Paul’s intentions, he pushed the very idea of synod further, calling for a “synodal Church”: “A synodal church is a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing. It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.”

Unfortunately, it was also vintage Francis in that it also contained several things that may prove confusing and one fundamental misstatement. The pope said, as he and others have before, that the very name synodos in Greek means: “walking together – laity, pastors, the bishop of Rome – [it] is an easy concept to express in words, but is not so easy to put into practice.”

There is no question that this is what the Holy Father wants “being synodal” to mean, and he even remarked that, “The journey of synodality is the journey that God wants from his church in the third millennium.” But that is a modern notion of synod, as a “walking together.” There is no such meaning to that word in ancient Greek and Christian usage. You can look it up, for instance here. In the past, synod merely meant coming together, notably for the Church, in deliberative bodies like the present one; or coming together, as the dictionaries indicate, in the clash of armies in battle or even a man and a women, sexually.

In one way, this might be dismissed as a trivial matter. A pope can proclaim the deliberations of the Church as a “walking together,” getting the Greek wrong while getting an important point right. But we know now from several painful episodes how Francis’s words get used by the media in ways intended to imply the unCatholicizing of Catholicism. And also how the ordinary faithful in the pews begin getting agitated because they feel the established points of reference in the Church seem to be slipping away. So it’s important to look carefully at what he is and is not saying.

Francis has clearly decided to de-emphasize the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church, which he seems to think is an obstacle to the Church’s mission in a democratic age. That dimension of his thinking came through quite clearly in his remarks Saturday: “The sensus fidei (sense of faith) makes it impossible to rigidly separate the ecclesia docens (teaching church) and the ecclesia discens (learning church) because even the flock has a ‘nose’ for discerning the new paths that the Lord is opening up to the Church.”

Pope Paul VI opens the First Synod of Bishops
Pope Paul VI opens the First Synod of Bishops

This is perfectly compatible with Catholic teaching, properly understood. And there have even been times when great saints who have not had great learning or high social status – one thinks of Catherine of Siena or Francis of Assisi – have given crucial lessons to the entire Church.

But there are ways in which this can be easily misunderstood as well in a radically disordered democratic age like our own, where both the economy and politics pander to popular appetites, and not justice or truth. Francis understands and has even railed against the way the current global system, in his view, reflects that distorted emphasis.

On Saturday, however, he may have made it easy to misinterpret his words by using an odd image. He denied that the Catholic hierarchy is like a pyramid, in which some, and particularly the pope, are simply set over others. That’s an important truth since the Catholic hierarchy does not simply wield power like worldly authorities. But Francis then used an odd image: “in this Church, as in an upside down pyramid, the apex is found underneath the base.”

An informed Catholic will know what he means: he’s saying what Pope Gregory the Great meant when he famously defined a pope as “the servant of the servants of God” (servus servorum Dei). Authority in the Church is by its nature directed toward service to God and Man, not to the increase of personal power or some private ideological bugbear. But the uninformed, Catholic and not, are going to picture this inverted pyramid and see yet another example of radical democracy, in which the people tell the pope what Catholicism ought to be.

That, let us be clear, is not the vision that Francis presented. In fact, he later mentions there is an authoritative role for the hierarchy, who “act as authentic custodians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, attentively distinguishing it from the often changing fluxes of public opinion.” But don’t expect to see that in the secular new reports. And don’t expect to find it on the lips of Catholic progressives either.

In terms of the work at hand – the Synod on the Mission and Vocation of the Family – the Synod Fathers already know that the pope is encouraging a more open process, in the sense of listening to one another and to faithful lay people about how the Church may go about “walking together” in our time. But they also need to pay attention, careful attention, to what he is – and is not – saying about what such “listening” really means, since our various opinions only really matter if, in the end, we are all listening to the Word spoken by God.