How synods work: 21 questions for John O’Malley, S.J.
John W. O’Malley, S.J., is an American Jesuit priest and historian who is the University Professor of Theology at Georgetown University. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University.
His books include “The First Jesuits” (Harvard University Press, 1993), “What Happened at Vatican II” (Harvard, 2008), and “The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). He is most recently the author of “Catholic History for Today's Church: How Our Past Illuminates Our Present” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).
Father O’Malley has held a number of fellowships and received numerous awards from a diverse group of scholarly and ecclesial organizations.
On Oct. 20, I interviewed Father O’Malley by email about the synodal process and historical context for the present Synod on the Family in Rome.
With the Synod on the Family currently meeting in Rome, and with recent U.S. diocesan synods, there seems to be a renewed interest among people in this form of Catholic life. Can you tell us what the word “synod” means and where it comes from?
In the traditional language of the church, synod is a synonym for council. Synodos is simply the Greek word for the Latin concilium. Until 1965 the words were used interchangeably. For instance, the Council of Trent spoke of itself as “this holy synod.” The official compilation of documents pertinent to Vatican II is entitled “the synodal records” (Acta Synodalia).
What is a synod as we currently understand it in Catholic practice?
In 1965, just as the fourth period of Vatican II was about to begin, Pope Paul VI created the Synod of Bishops. He introduced a new definition of synod in that he stipulated that it was a strictly consultative body for the pope, whereas previously synods were councils, which are not consultative assemblies but decision-making bodies. The many synods/councils over which Saint Charles Borromeo presided in the 16th century are, for instance, a striking example of how synods traditionally functioned.
In the Catholic Church today, we have both local (diocesan) synods called by bishops as well as the Synod of Bishops called by the pope. How does a synod work in each of these forms?
Before 1965 all synods/councils made decisions, either on the diocesan, province, or national level. They did this of course in communion with the Holy See, but they made their decisions on their own. The decisions of course applied only to the diocese or other ecclesiastical units such as a province. Since the decree of Paul VI in 1965 the Synod of Bishops has acted as strictly an advisory body for the pope. Local synods since 1965 have made their own decisions but always under strict review by the Holy See.
At the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis recently introduced some procedural changes in the Synod of Bishops. What can you tell us about these new synodal procedures?
Pope Francis introduced two major changes. The first was the questionnaire he mandated bishops to send to the laity before the Synod, so that their concerns would be taken into account. The second was the freedom to speak on any topic the bishops thought pertinent to the discussion, without there being a predetermined set of conclusions.
We have recently experienced some U.S. diocesan synods as well as meetings of the Synod of Bishops. What do these two different kinds of synods have in common?
What they have in common is a process that enlists both clergy and laity.
Although the Synod of Bishops remains an important consultative body in helping popes govern the church, some recent media reports seem to have exaggerated the power of the current Synod on the Family, almost equating it in importance with the Second Vatican Council in some ways. But in current church practice, a synod is a discernment process that is more pastoral than doctrinal in nature. Will you please clarify what the Synod of Bishops does?
Today the Synod of Bishops under Pope Francis is helping the papal magisterium make decisions. If the media thinks the current synod is the equivalent of Vatican II, they are dreadfully wrong.
Since Vatican II, popes have consulted the Synod of Bishops in different ways. For example, Pope John Paul II called a synod that led to the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a pastoral response to what bishops perceived as a universal need for clearer norms of religious teaching in the post-conciliar age. As an archbishop, Pope Francis himself took a leading role in one of the synods called by Pope Benedict XVI. Based on its work so far, what do you predict will come out of the current Synod on the Family?
Who’s to say? It’s still in progress. I suspect that there will be few new solutions to old problems, which means many people will be disappointed. But the more important outcome, I think, will be twofold: First, questions formerly taboo will now be able to be discussed, and, second, a new form of “synodality” will be initiated—that is, a reinvigoration of local synods and other forms of local decision-making.
In the early centuries of Christianity, local synods played a big role in the development of disciplinary and creedal unity on basic issues like Christology and the Trinity. What is the origin of synods in the history of the Catholic Church?
The biblical warrant for synods is Saint Luke’s account of the so-called Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). As early as the 2nd century, bishops held at least 50 synods in different parts of the Roman Empire—Palestine, North Africa, Gaul, Italy, etc. Once Christianity was officially tolerated by the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, synods/councils increased in number and importance, making both disciplinary and doctrinal decisions.
What was the original purpose of church synods and how have they developed over time into what they are today?
The immediate purpose of synods was to deal with problems on the local or on the broader level and to make decisions that, it was hoped, would improve the situation. Times change, new problems and new opportunities emerge.
What have been some of the most significant synods in church history and why?
I will exclude “ecumenical synods” such as Trent and Vatican II. Among the local synods, those in North Africa in the early 5th century that condemned the heresy known as Pelagianism are especially important because they show how the decisions of these local bodies were taken as definitive in matters of doctrine.
As a historian, what are some of the major trends you’ve noticed in the Catholic Church’s experience of synods over the centuries?
I see three major periods in that regard. The first stretches from no later than the 2nd century to 1870, when the First Vatican Council defined papal primacy and infallibility. Those definitions initiated the second period because they acted as a damper on synods. Although synods did not altogether disappear, their numbers and importance decreased dramatically. The persuasion grew that Rome could—and should—handle all questions. The third period began when Paul VI instituted the Synod of Bishops, which redefined the word synod to mean a consultative body, not a decision-making body. (Perhaps with Pope Francis a fourth period is under way, with an invigoration of different organs of local decision-making. But that is pure speculation on my part.)
What does “synodality” mean to you?
Synodality means a mode of governance. It is the opposite of monarchy, one-person rule. Synodality means a mode of governance in which laity and clergy, under the leadership of the local bishop or group of bishops, debate about important matters and reach decisions regarding them. In the Catholic Church the Holy See has the definitive word in both doctrinal and disciplinary disputes. That role is an integral part of synodality.
If you could name a patron saint of synods, what saint would you pick and why?
I suppose I would pick Saint Charles Borromeo, whose synods in Milan in the 16th century were so important that they came to be taken as the best interpretation and implementation of the Council of Trent.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about synods, what would it be?
I would say two words. The first would be “encourage them.” The Holy See needs to be in more effective touch with local needs and the real problems facing both clergy and laity in their day-to-day lives. The second would be “remember that synods are a potentially centrifugal force.” The Holy See needs to take measures to make sure that synods contribute to the unity of the church.
As a Jesuit like Pope Francis, you come from a particular spiritual tradition that is rooted in prayerful discernment of God’s will. How do synod participants engage in such discernment?
Synods are “celebrated.” That is not just a fancy word. It indicates that synods are religious events. At Vatican II, for instance, every day the session began with the celebration of Mass and the enthronement of the book of the Gospels. This is not, however, quite what is meant by discernment in the tradition of Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. I think Pope Francis is trying to make use of that tradition in the current synod, but many of the bishops are not familiar with how Ignatian discernment operates.
What regrets do you have about the past history of synods?
I regret that the tradition suffered such a setback in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Synods operated in a healthy and unselfconscious way, as normal procedure, as an integral organ of church governance. It is always difficult to reintroduce something that was interrupted and that now seems like an innovation.
What hopes do you have for the future of synods?
I hope they increase in number and in effectiveness and contribute in a notable way to the health of the church and the holiness of its members.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
The parable that is conventionally called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Some call it the Parable of the Forgiving Father. But of course the father does not forgive the son. He, instead, kisses him and orders the finest garment for him. His love for his son makes him oblivious to any bad things the son has done. The son was lost and now is found. That’s how the father thinks of it. Forgiveness is too small a sentiment for this father, who has no other feeling for his son but love.
What do you want people to take away from your own life and work?
Well, that question sets me up to sound pretentious. All I can say is that everything I have written about the past I wrote somehow to throw light on the present and thus to help the church and each one of us to make better decisions. Through the study of history we have a better idea of who we are and how we got to be the way we are. The past does not tell us what to do, but study of the past puts us in a position to make better decisions for the present and the future.
What are your thoughts on the speech Pope Francis made to Synod on the Family last Saturday, October 17?
I think it is one of the pope’s most important addresses. It gives in succinct form his vision of how the church is meant to function, that is, “walking together.” That expression, typical of Francis’ gift for putting complex ideas in simple, down-to-earth words, is a rewording of the ideal of Vatican II of the church as the people of God, an expression that Francis uses in this talk. He singles out listening as the duty of us all—listening with open minds and open hearts. This is a duty of each and every one of us, beginning on the local level with clergy and laity, and then on the level of the bishops, and finally on the level of the Bishop of Rome himself. Only after listening can good decisions be made.
This is a dynamic process, with synodality as the instrument. Pope Francis quotes the powerful words of Saint John Chrysostom, “Church and synod are synonyms.” He himself goes on to say, “The Synod of Bishops is only the most evident manifestation of a dynamism of communion that inspires every decision of the church.” He says he is convinced that in “a synodal church” important light will be thrown on the papal office itself.
Any final thoughts?
May the Lord bless Pope Francis!
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.