Synodal Perils and Possibilities

Pope Francis’ lead-up to the Synod on Synodality is entering the “continental” phase. And this moment raises some serious questions, in particular: Will the “synodal” Church be a politicized, bureaucratized Church? As Catholics tread the synodal pathway to an uncertain future, worrisome signs suggest that could very well happen.

The most obvious case in point is of course the German Synodal Path. While the German project is best known for airing views on things like sexual morality and married priests, the vision of a Church functioning on liberal democratic lines through a network of synodal structures and processes could be even more radical in the long run. The Vatican found that prospect alarming enough to warrant a “declaration” a  few months ago emphasizing that the Germans can’t “compel bishops and the faithful to assume new modes of governance.”

The Germans aren’t alone. Three years ago, for example, the International Theological Commission, in a paper on synodality, devoted several pages of mind-numbing jargon to outlining a system of “structures, process, and events.” More recently, Luxembourg’s synodal consultation proposed the creation of an independent, international lay body to oversee Church reform. (Note that Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., who considers Church teaching on homosexuality “no longer correct,” will be “relator” at next year’s Synod of Bishops on synodality, tasked with summing up its deliberations.)

As these events have unfolded, the danger of politicization and bureaucratization hasn’t gone unnoticed. An editorial note in Communio – in an issue devoted to synodality – put the problem delicately: “How. . .is the Church’s governance different from that of a state, even if a genuine analogy abides between these two orders?” More bluntly, Larry Chapp, writing  in Catholic World Report, recalled Louis Bouyer’s warning against “an ecclesiology of power.”

Here I want to call attention to certain post-Conciliar roots of what’s happening, especially a profound shift in thinking about the Catholic laity that went virtually unchallenged as it was taking place back in the early 1970s.

A few years earlier, Vatican Council II had taken a major step forward in the Church’s thinking about lay people by declaring them included in the “universal call to holiness” whereby “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.” (Lumen Gentium, 39)

Hardly less significant, it taught that the laity are called to apostolate directly by baptism and confirmation, not as a delegated participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy. The laity, it said, have “this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth.” (33)

Here, then, was historic recognition of the Catholic laity and lay apostolate. In a few short years, however, apparently driven by a latent clericalist impulse, “lay apostolate” disappeared from the Catholic vocabulary and the reality it stood for seemed to vanish from Catholic collective memory. Suddenly “lay ministry” was all the rage.


At first, the ministries open to lay people were limited to lector, cantor, and extraordinary minister of Communion; recently catechist has been added to the list. As time has passed, though, virtually anything lay people do by way of helping out around their parishes or in other church settings has come to be called a ministry.

This debasing of an honorable title through terminological inflation might seem harmless. But the consequences of the shift from lay apostolate in the world to ministry in the Church are not. That includes the emphasis, now seemingly driving the synodal bandwagon, on involving lay people in ecclesial decision-making and governance, together with the establishment of a dense system of bodies and processes overseen by a new synodal bureaucracy.

Lay people can and should be involved in decision-making and governance. But even though Vatican II said the laity are entitled to express their views on Church matters “through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose” (Lumen Gentium, 37), six decades later we are still waiting for those institutions. Synods could be the answer.

But it’s important to note some necessary limitations on that possibility before things get out of hand, as already seems to be happening in places like Germany and Luxembourg.

Writing in Communio’s synodality issue, Nicholas Healy, who teaches at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., nailed the problem with deadly accuracy. Synod-related documents from official sources, he wrote, “convey the impression of a theologically impermissible democratization of governance and magisterial judgment in the Church.”

The point isn’t that lay people should have nothing to say about such matters. It’s that, in Healy’s words, “the authority to teach and govern the Church is a sacramental gift. Not all members of the Church receive this sacramental gift.” (emphasis in the original)

Lay people really should participate more actively in the Church, but not as a lay Magisterium or as bureaucratic functionaries managing the synodal machinery. Lay people have more than enough to do – and few enough are doing it – in response to Vatican II’s call to make the Church “present and fruitful” in secular settings. Meanwhile, any true reform in the Church must begin, as Healy says, with a return to ecclesial authority’s “life-giving source. . .faithfully preserving the priceless gift of Christ that is the deposit of faith.”

No one, or almost no one, deliberately intends to politicize and bureaucratize the Church. But so what? In a religious setting as much as any place else, such things often happen without anyone noticing until it’s too late.

So if we are now to tread the synodal path, let us do so alert to our basic responsibilities as Church: maintaining the body of truth we have received from those who came before us, sharing it generously with our contemporaries, and, when the time comes, passing it on intact to those who will come after.

Politicizing and bureaucratizing won’t help.


*Image: The Communion of Saints tapestries by John Nava, 2002 [Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, CA] (Photo by Victor Alemán in Angelus)

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Who Needs Synodality?

Stephen P. White’s Synodality Is What You Make of It

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.