Who Needs Synodality?

This not a rhetorical question. Nor is it meant as a flippant dismissal of the subject, like so many Internet responses to things going on in our time. Pope Francis has put a serious matter before the whole Catholic Church – and the whole world. He has claimed that Catholicism is in such deep need of reform that the Church should move “not occasionally but structurally towards a synodal Church, an open square where all can feel at home and participate.” [His emphases in his Opening Address on the Synod on Synodality]. When a pope calls for a radical restructuring of the Church – and with a goal that has probably never been practiced, or only within very small groups of Christians over the 2000 years of Church history – a faithful Catholic ought to pay careful attention.

There are all sorts of books about synodality being sold in and around the Vatican these days. This sort of publishing burst happens whenever a pope raises some new issue. Writers rush in to explain what he means, or hopes for, or what the consequences might be. Doubtless some of the books on synodality contain material that helps to clarify a concept not at all clear, since it’s not been prominent in the tradition. But with all due respect, those efforts are secondary matters. We want to know, before all that, exactly who are the people who need this reform?

As I mentioned in yesterday’s column, Francis identified three dangers as this vast global process of synodality begins: an elitism that overemphasizes verticality, an intellectualism that pursues abstract ideas unhelpful in addressing current reality, and a complacency that wants to do things the way they’ve always been done. People engaged in such mistaken approaches at a time like the present, when the Church is in such peril, clearly aren’t helping. But if we’re going to take this analysis seriously, we need to come back to the concrete question: So who are these people?

For instance, who today emphasizes the “verticality” of the Church? It’s actually a common complaint in much of the developed world – a complaint that Cardinal Sarah has addressed in several beautiful books – that there’s a lack of verticality in the Church at present. There is neither the verticality of the spiritual life nor the proper hierarchical ordering necessary in a global entity like the Catholic Church.

It’s long been a complaint in many parts of the world that the social justice emphasis of recent decades – the horizontal dimension of the Church – has all but eclipsed the transcendence that keeps politics from becoming totalizing, all-consuming, and deceptive. Theologians over the centuries have pointed out that Christ’s Cross has both vertical and horizontal arms, and that the absolute rootedness in God (verticality) has to balance (horizontal) concerns for our neighbor.

That’s a difficult balancing act, and not often evident in the Church’s engagement with public affairs. And even at the personal or parish level, an emphasis on “inclusiveness” and “non-judgmentalism” – largely identical with the secular versions of those terms – is far more common than a rigid and self-righteous “verticality.” As one reader of yesterday’s column wrote, “If the Church were any more horizontal in many places, it would be deemed ‘dead’ and in a cemetery.”


There’s plenty of hierarchical authority coming from Rome these days; Little evidence of such exercises of power elsewhere. Still, Francis has proposed a sweeping remedy – “changing certain overly vertical, distorted and partial visions of the Church, the priestly ministry, the role of the laity, ecclesial responsibilities, roles of governance and so forth.” But for Catholics to accept changes so radical, touching on every part of the Church, the pope will have to be more specific about where all this is headed. As it stands, this warning looks like nothing beyond recognizing complaints by certain groups – the usual suspects – that they’re not getting their way.

There’s a similar lack of concreteness in the warning about “intellectualism.” Intellectuals can be a testy and contentious lot, to be sure, and stubbornly in love with their own ideas. But they also provide a valuable service to the Church in testing the truth about events, especially when seemingly intractable problems exist.

The pope worries that for many thinkers “Reality turns into abstraction and we, with our reflections, end up going in the opposite direction.” But the whole point of thinking about things is that we don’t just go along with where “reality” is going. The Church has made real contributions – not “abstractions” but principled distinctions – in current debates with its teachings about the sanctity of human life, the theology of the body, and modern social doctrine. Much of “reality” at this point is compromised, in one way or another, with untruth. There’s no avoiding the necessity of saying yes or no about the neuralgic issues we face. And to do that responsibly and in the fulness of truth requires careful thought.

So again: who are these thinkers who are “offering learned but abstract approaches to the problems of the Church and the evils in our world”? All thinking is in a sense abstract. The essential difference is not between abstract and non-abstract, but of abstraction that is true and abstraction that is false.

Finally, who exactly is complacent these days? As a veteran of decades of disputes in the Church, the present writer would like to put the Holy Father’s mind at rest on this score. There’s almost no Catholic with any real love for Christ and His Church who’s feeling complacent these days, who doesn’t believe that something has to change if the Church is going to continue to carry out the evangelizing mission given to her by Jesus Himself.

If the Holy Father is in the unfortunate position of having to deal often with people who resist any and every change, he can count on the support of many of us, eager for real reform that will truly enable the Church to flourish and succeed in her primary task: saving souls.


*Pope Francis launches the first preliminary meeting of For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.