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Whose Synod, Which Synodality?

In his book, Whose Justice, Which Rationality? philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that competing theories of justice cannot be properly understood, let alone evaluated, except from within some tradition of rational inquiry. If one fails to consider the tradition from which one engages important questions about justice – or worse still, if one imagines himself entirely free from such a tradition – one is likely to himself, misunderstand and mislead others, and invite further confusion, relativism, and conflict.

Now, the Church is not merely a school of philosophical or theological thought. Nor is her identity exhausted by her intellectual tradition, magnificent though it is. Nevertheless, when the Church thinks about how she might best organize her efforts in order to proclaim the Good News more effectively, she does so from within a distinctive context, from within a particular Tradition. If she forgets or ignores that Tradition, things go wobbly.

Which brings us to this October’s meeting of the Synod on Synodality, about which a great deal has already been written, much of it critical. While I share many of those criticisms, I would register a few cautious words in its defense.

One of the greatest criticisms of the Synod – a criticism its leadership, including Pope Francis have been particularly sensitive to – is that the whole exercise is working toward a predetermined outcome.

The Synodal process, the criticism goes, is designed to provide some credibility to a predetermined agenda imposed from the top by synod organizers. While such an agenda might lack broad support and credibility, the Synodal Process makes it come out sounding like the voice of the People of God, the infallible sensus fidei!

The danger with that view is that it’s both plausible (look at the German ‘Synodal Way’) and also breeds poisonous levels of cynicism and distrust, and not just among conspiracy theorists and internet cranks. During the 2015 Synod on the Family, a group of Cardinals privately expressed similar concerns directly to Pope Francis; their letter was leaked to the press, which attempted to smear them as enemies of the synod and, by extension, the Holy Father.

In an effort to preempt such criticisms, the Instrumentum Laboris for the current synod emphasizes that it’s not presenting foregone conclusions, but simply presenting topics and questions for consideration and discernment. This is why the I.L., correctly, insists that it, “is not a document of the Church’s Magisterium, nor is it the report of a sociological survey; it does not offer the formulation of operational indications, goals and objectives, nor a full elaboration of a theological vision.”

Such assertions of neutrality are convincing precisely in the measure one trusts the organizers of the Synod.

As for Pope Francis, he has insisted that “the Synod is not a parliament or an opinion poll; the Synod is an ecclesial event, and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit is not present, there will be no Synod.”

This can be read as an admission, welcome to my mind, that the success of the Synod is not a foregone conclusion. If it becomes a merely human endeavor, it will fail.

Pope Francis with Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., Relator General of the Synod on Synodality [Vatican Media photo]

The Church cannot suspend belief, or feign neutrality toward, what has been revealed to her – in Scripture and Tradition – in the hope of better discerning how to proclaim the Good News. She cannot conduct the synod as though she is not the bearer of, and indeed the embodiment of, a particular Tradition. It would be a serious mistake to treat the Magisterium as one “agenda” among others.

It’s important to acknowledge that the Synod, if undertaken faithfully and with the proper disposition, could prove a great boon to the Church. In fact, everywhere the Church is thriving and missionary, “synodality” is already to be found — even if few people think to call it that.

Where can we see synodality already at work? Anywhere the Church listens carefully and evaluates what it hears in light of what has been revealed through Scripture and Tradition. Anywhere the baptized genuinely understand that right thinking is not the same as spiritual discernment and that both are needed.

Anywhere the baptized, laity and clergy alike, take seriously the responsibility to strengthen communion and participate fully in the mission of the Church according to the vocation, station, and circumstances of each.

This is what authentic synodality looks like: a genuine expression of the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium, and a powerful witness to the truth of the Gospel. Does anyone seriously doubt that the Church and her mission would be well served by having much more of this?

Yet there are wide swaths of the Church, particularly here in the West, where there is no such vitality. Often, it is these sclerotic parts of the Church, recognizing their impending obsolescence, that are most desperate to make “synodality” happen.

Where a stunted and worldly ecclesiology prevents synodality from flourishing organically, vain attempts to force it will become more apparent. The result will be a counterfeit synodality, which pits laity and clergy in a power struggle against one another, which sees fidelity to Scripture and Tradition as obstacles to mission, and which measures the Gospel by the Spirit of the Age.

Catholics should avoid naive optimism about the Synod and resist calls to the sort of reckless innovation that did so much damage to the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. But we should also be wary of the sort of thoroughgoing cynicism which, in attempting to fend off disaster, also precludes a genuine openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

The Synod is a risky endeavor, no doubt. But it also presents a chance for a moment of real grace and rejuvenation, a chance for the Church to become more perfectly what she already is. This will only happen if her willingness to listen is matched by an equal determination to remain faithful to Scripture and Tradition. The Church cannot discern well if she pretends not to know what she does, in fact, know.


Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.