Whither the Synod on Synods?

The two-year Synod on Synodality began last weekend. A Preparatory Document (PD) and a Handbook (H) have been issued by the office of the Synod of Bishops. The three guiding themes of the Synod are Communion, Mission, and Participation. And the predominant image of this whole experience is the Church on a “journey.”

The general reaction, so far, by Catholics who have heard about it is confusion and even headshaking. Synodality is a word with no clear meaning to most people – even to those who know that the Synod of Bishops is:

a group of Bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops. These bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defense and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world. (canon 342)

Synodality would thus be the experience of bishops meeting together to offer the pope advice on how to better safeguard and faithfully transmit the Church’s doctrine on faith and morals in the hope of advancing the Church’s mission to proclaim the truth of the Gospel to the world. To do this effectively, ecclesiastical discipline needs to be maintained and fostered. Where necessary, disobedience and willful flouting of that discipline must be called out and corrected.

A proper synodality thus describes a hierarchical consultative process for assisting the pope in his role as the chief shepherd of the Church. Bishops are the primary, but not the sole, actors. They should consult with the faithful to identify doctrinal, moral, and disciplinary concerns that are hindering the Church’s mission, which is the salvation of souls. They are to bring those concerns to the pope’s attention and suggest appropriate remedies.

Every diocese, the Preparatory Document (PD) specifies, should conduct broad consultations with the diocesan faithful: “The synthesis that each particular Church will elaborate at the end of this work of listening and discernment will constitute its contribution to the journey of the universal Church.” (PD 32)

It’s noteworthy that these diocesan contributions must be quite limited in length and thus necessarily restricted in offering any developed Biblical or doctrinal reflection: “To make the subsequent phases of the journey easier and more sustainable, it is important to condense the fruits of prayer and reflection into a maximum of ten pages. If necessary to contextualize and explain them better, other texts can be attached to support or integrate them.” (PD 32)


Considering all the effort, it’s surprising that the Handbook itself calls into question the importance of these diocesan documents, the documents produced in a later phase by the national Bishops Conferences and, still later, by regional international Bishops Conferences for submission to the Synod Office in Rome: “We recall that the purpose of the Synod, and therefore of this consultation, is not to produce documents, but [quoting Pope Francis at the 2018 Youth Synod] ‘to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.’”(PD 32)

The Synod on Synodality is thus more focused on process, not product. In this scenario, it is not clear why documents need to be produced at all, if the purpose is simply to share various experiences.

Despite the denials, it’s clear that the purpose of the Synod on Synodality is to produce a final document that will give suggestions to the pope about how to deal with serious questions in the life of the Church. And this is where the peril lies in launching a two-year process that is heavy in vague, undefined and emotive categories that highlight people’s lived experience, and rather light in the Scriptural and doctrinal treasures of the Church, which are under tremendous threat from determined opponents outside of the Church, and reckless innovators within the Church.

Those who want to subject the Catholic Faith to a radically new interpretation that essentially resembles secularized liberal Protestantism will seize upon this process. They will claim that their dreams and hopes and visions are the pathways the Church should journey down in search of a Church that will be relevant to the modern world, claiming that this is the only way to respond to the signs of the times.

They will no doubt cite the Synod Handbook’s worrying indication: “This journey together will call on us to renew our mentalities and our ecclesial structures in order to live out God’s call for the Church amid the present signs of the times. Listening to the entire People of God will help the Church to make pastoral decisions that correspond as closely as possible to God’s will.”

Vox populi, vox Dei (“The voice of the people is the voice of God), a mass of material as interpreted by the Synod Committee?

Isn’t the mission of the Church’s hierarchy to teach God’s people the truths of the Faith, especially in times such as ours when religious ignorance and doctrinal confusion have produced a situation in which a Pew survey revealed that 70 percent of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist? Is it the job of the hierarchy to change ecclesial structures, whatever that means? Which mentalities need renewal, and what new mentalities need to be adopted?

It will be a disaster for the Church if the next two years consist largely in a prolonged questioning of the Church’s doctrines by dissident Catholics who have ceased to believe in many of the truths taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That is what is happening in Germany right now. May the universal Church be spared such a fate.


*Image: Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300, from Giovanni Sercambi’s “Chronicles,” around 1400 [Archivio di Stato, Lucca, Italy]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Who Needs Synodality?

Russell Shaw’s Concerning “Synodality”

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.