So. We’ve been told that the Synod on Synodality is not about theology. Or doctrine. Not about “the media’s” favorite issues: LGBT, women’s ordination, married priests. Nor is it intended to subvert or replace the hierarchical nature of the Church or to democratize the decision-making process. The Synod on Synodality is – at least this year – about discerning“what synodality is.”
Meanwhile, in recent days, a theologian invited to speak to the whole Synod announced that, “When we reach the consensus that the Church is constitutively synodal, we will have to rethink the whole Church, all the institutions, the whole life of the Church in a synodal sense.” A participating bishop openly affirmed that it will be necessary to depart from Apostolic Tradition. And they’re far from being the only ones making such radical claims.
But we’ll all have a chance to do a bit of discerning ourselves later this week, after the publication of what’s being called a “brief” final report, and also a “Letter to the People of God.” Maybe then we’ll know whether synodality now dwells firmly among us, or awaits further synodalizing. The Holy Spirit has, so far, not tipped his hand.
There’s an old theological approach to understanding God called the via remotionis (“way of removal”). You take away all the things that the Biblical God is not – matter, form, time, place, change, which is to say all the attributes that pertain to material beings and not to their Source, the Supreme Being – so that contours of what He is become somewhat clearer. The human mind cannot know God until He reveals Himself to those blessed with the Beatific Vision, but at least the via remotionis removes misconceptions.
Sadly, the same does not seem true of the via synodalitatis.
To adapt a well-worn phrase, you may not be interested in theology, but theology is interested in you. Indeed, synodal claims notwithstanding, there’s no escaping theology.
So it may be useful to indulge in a bit of theological “backwardism” here – since the Synod is supposed to be about discovering better ways to bring people to Jesus Christ, though He hasn’t been much discussed in the regimented “modules” and “worksheets” of these past weeks.
Two large theological currents come to mind.
One way of understanding the tensions and confusions surrounding the Synod is to look at the old debate on whether the intellect or the will is primary in the human soul. Grossly simplified, Thomists believed it’s the former, Franciscans the latter. Today, we’re so far from serious theological thought – and the three-minute interventions at the Synod didn’t much allow for anything like serious argument – that intellect-vs.-will may seem one of those how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin questions. But thereby hangs a tale.
One side of the Catholic tradition, and one group inside the Synod hall, looks first to clear ideas. Pope Francis has asserted repeatedly during his pontificate that “reality is greater than ideas,” which is true in a way. But that statement itself is an idea, and we have no way to approach reality except through concepts in our minds that are either closer or farther from reality. Without ideas, clear and full ideas, we’re in a dark night where all cats are black, and we can’t tell one thing from another.
Another side of the tradition, and another group within the Synod hall, looks to the will, to love, to the “pastoral” above all else. Hence the talk about not wishing to “offend” the human dignity of anyone, and even – in a strange recent Facebook posting by Cardinal Fernandez (newly appointed head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith) – a reluctance to use words like “sinner,” “sodomy,” “adultery,” “illegitimate,” that have been part of the Church’s moral vocabulary from the beginning.
Jesus Himself “offended” many people, even using terms like hypocrite, brood of vipers, whited sepulchers. Catholics, including the pope, are not the Incarnate God, and should only imitate the Savior sparingly in this regard. But there’s a moral rigor to how Christ manifested Himself in our world that seems almost anti-Christian to those who make welcoming, openness, accompaniment, and human dignity the sole marks of the Good News.
It doesn’t need to be this way. At a humble human level – again much simplified –Thomists would argue, you can’t love what you don’t know. And Franciscans that you won’t seek to know if you don’t love. There’s a useful mutual enrichment here, and no need to declare one superior to the other.
Everyone is a sinner. And while we must love our neighbor, we must also be able to call certain acts sins. Ambiguities about hard sayings will not soften hardened hearts. And will not attract people who are already perishing for lack of stable truth in a world of accelerating change.
A Church that primarily thinks it needs to listen to others is more like a modern politician seeking votes in “listening sessions,” than the Mystical Body of Christ that was given the Great Commission, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19-20, emphasis added)
Which brings us to a crucial question. Last week Pope Francis met with Sr. Jeannine Gramick, a co-founder of New Ways Ministry, an organization formerly condemned because of its advocacy for a change in Church teaching on LGBTs. He also found time for American comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who says she wanted to meet him for years because of his acceptance of gays and openness to ordaining women.
So, is this “synodality” – meeting and listening to anyone who wants to speak to us? Or is this instead a not-so-subtle message that their “ideas” are welcome, which is what Sister Gramick and Goldberg came away believing – and saying.
Some commentators have bent way over backwards to argue that to meet with people is not necessarily to endorse everything they believe. But in the case of New Ways Ministry, as a previous letter from the pope to Sister Gramick suggests, either Francis does so believe, or he is scandalously uninformed about with whom he is speaking.
Either way, synodality has shown itself to generate a lot of self-contradiction. And case in point: to meet with these two figures in the midst of the synod didn’t resolve the tensions synodality is supposed to remedy. It made them even worse.
Indeed, if anything has become clear about this whole exercise it’s that there must be better ways for the Church to craft its evangelizing mission for the modern world.