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Bill McCormick, S.J.October 26, 2018
people standing behind bishops in a church area at the vaticanBishops and observers attend a session of the Synod of Bishops on "young people, the faith and vocational discernment" at the Vatican Oct. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

The 21st-century church will face a double challenge, the theologian and church observer Massimo Faggioli recently told America: reconciling collegiality and synodality.

Synodality, the model of church as “walking together,” has been a key term of the Francis pontificate, and many bishops and theologians see the need to articulate and cultivate synodality as the primary task of the church under Francis. Mr. Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova University, spoke to America from the gathering of the Synod of Bishops in Rome on Oct. 19. He sees an additional dynamic—one that began at the Second Vatican Council—at work in the Francis papacy.

While synodality has become an important expression of how the church functions under Pope Francis, the pope has also continued the work of the council and St. Paul VI in making papal governance more collegial, most notably through the Synod of Bishops. When viewed together, these two dynamics suggest that the church must not only implement synodality more fully but also reconcile it with collegiality.

The 21st-century church will face a double challenge: reconciling collegiality and synodality.

This challenge was evident at this month’s synod on young people, which saw increased pressure to include women and non-ordained church members within the process, even as the synod model becomes an important site of collegiality among bishops.

Speaking near the end of the monthlong meeting of the Synod of Bishops, Mr. Faggioli said his fundamental concern was the limits of the synod in instantiating synodality, the need to preserve the collegial functions of the synod model and to cultivate synodality widely beyond this synod.


Synodality, as it is expressed in the papacy of Francis, gives voice to the peripheries and the excluded and grounds the church in the reality of the world beyond the sacristy. These functions are certainly in keeping with the major themes of the Francis papacy.

Many explanations of synodality begin with its etymology, from the Greek words “with” and “path”: “The faithful are σύνοδοι, companions on the journey,” as a recent document “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church” by the International Theological Commission stated. Mr. Faggioli notes: “It means that the church has to live its life as a church, as a journey where the entire people is called to be part of this life. There are no bystanders, there is no audience in this journey.”

Synodality gives voice to the peripheries and the excluded and grounds the church in the reality of the world beyond the sacristy.

If everyone is a subject and agent in this sense, then “the path of this church has to draw benefit and draw contribution from every component of the church.” The I.T.C. document offers a threefold understanding of synodality as style, structure and event. Fundamentally, synodality is a style or “modus vivendi et operandi” of a church “expressing her nature as the People of God journeying together and gathering in assembly, summoned by the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel.” Thus many commentators have said that synodality is an attitude or process as much as an event.

Mr. Faggioli notes that, in part, synodality is “a great rebalancing from one of the driving forces in the theology of the Second Vatican Council: the idea that if you give more power to the bishops, the reform of the church will be done.” While collegial governance should remain important, “there are some issues on which the voice of the bishops cannot be the only voice that is heard and that can be in the room.” Synodality is thus “part of [the pope’s] emphasis against clericalism and...against institutionalism.”

Through its inclusion of all voices, Mr. Faggioli says that “synodality is also a part of a call to reality.”

Through its inclusion of all voices, Mr. Faggioli says that “synodality is also a part of a call to reality.”


In addition to synodality, Pope Francis clearly means to foreground collegiality in his style of governance, Mr. Faggioli says. Many of Francis’ most important documents have come out of synods of bishops (“Evangelii Gaudium” and “Amoris Laetitia.”) Further, the pope goes to great lengths to cite documents of bishops’ conferences in his documents and to encourage bishops’ conferences to innovate in pastoral matters. He has also sought to increase the responsibility of the College of Cardinals through his “C9” council of cardinals.

This collegiality reflects the desire of council fathers to increase the role of bishops in papal governance of the church. Mr. Faggioli argues that this renewed emphasis on collegiality was meant to balance the work of the First Vatican Council on papal primacy. “Papal primacy needs collegiality, and collegiality needs the bishops’ synod,” Mr. Faggioli argues.

“Pope Francis is not working with the Roman Curia as much as he is working for and with the synod. This is incredibly important.”

He says that Pope Francis has gone further than Paul VI in his implementation of collegiality, in part, by reorienting the synod’s relationship with the Roman Curia. Where Pope Paul VI was careful to avoid “making of the synod antagonists or opponents of the Roman Curia,” Pope Francis “is making clear that the bishops’ synod is more important for him than the Roman Curia.... Pope Francis is not working with the Roman Curia as much as he is working for and with the synod. This is incredibly important.”


Synodality and collegiality are distinct but related goods. The document “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” for instance, states that “the concept of synodality is broader than that of collegiality because it includes the participation of all in the Church and that of all the Churches,” not just the bishops. While synodality and collegiality, in principle, should complement each other, tensions between them are evident in current church practice.

First, there does not seem to be great enthusiasm for collegiality in today’s church. Or, at least, the zeal for synodality waxes stronger. This imbalance was particularly notable at the 2018 synod. Just at the moment when the synods have become more effective instruments of the episcopacy, people have questioned the episcopal nature of its membership. This lack of enthusiasm for collegiality could arise in part because “the sex abuse crisis has weakened the authority of the episcopate,” Mr. Faggioli says, but also because of the perceived need for “opening new spaces for non-episcopal voices.”

The lack of enthusiasm for collegiality could arise in part because “the sex abuse crisis has weakened the authority of the episcopate.”

Mr. Faggioli argues, however, that “there is much that was left unaccomplished from Vatican II,” including adequately articulating and instantiating collegiality in the church. For those who see the necessity of building collegiality, there is little more important than ensuring that the bishops’ synod cultivates collegiality. For those less interested in collegiality, however, the focus will be on widening the synodality of the synod.

There is thus a trade-off. The pope can widen the synod’s membership to embrace synodality but will thereby limit its potential for the exercise of collegiality. Or, he can maintain the synod’s limited membership to maintain its collegial nature—but he would then restrict its possibilities for synodality.

Second, Mr. Faggioli notes that the Francis papacy is rediscovering both of these themes simultaneously. “Pope Francis is trying to do two things at the same time,” which is difficult: He is trying “to recover Vatican II’s notion of episcopal collegiality” and addressing the fact that “this theology of collegiality is no longer sufficient for a synodal church.”

“So at the same time, Francis wants to accomplish what wasn’t accomplished at Vatican II in the post-Vatican period,” Mr. Faggioli says.

The pope can widen the synod’s membership to embrace synodality but will thereby limit its potential for the exercise of collegiality.

This difficulty is twofold: There is the practical challenge of recovering both themes at the same time but also the theoretical challenge of distinguishing them and growing in knowledge of both. That difficulty was again on display at the 2018 synod, where the notion of synodality fit somewhat awkwardly within the previously existing structure of the synod.

“So now we are paying the price of this ambiguity around the terms synodality and synod,” Mr. Faggioli explains, “because the bishops’ synod was thought of and still largely works as a way for the papacy to govern the church in a collegial way. Synodality is something else: It’s a fundamental dimension of the life of the church that is not a particular expression of full papal primacy or even of episcopal power.”


The tension may be resolved by a growth in our understanding of synodality and, in turn, by corresponding institutional changes. Pope Francis has called for such growth in our understanding, although what institutional innovations will follow is not yet clear.

But if collegiality is to be embraced, one line of institutional reform could involve looking beyond the Synod of Bishops toward other synodal structures and particularly structures that cultivated the sensus fidei. Indeed, if collegiality and the sensus fidei are what Fathers Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Carlos María Galli call the “two pillars” of synodality, perhaps the more promising route for growth in synodality would not be inserting laypeople into episcopal structures but devising new means through with the laypeople could contribute to ecclesial governance.

This approach would resonate with the call of many synod fathers for synodality to be expressed at the local level as well as globally. Local synodality would make the Synod of Bishops more synodal, as the bishops would exercise their collegiality with a deeper sense of the needs of their faithful. To the extent that local churches become more synodal, that would also permit global structures of collegiality like the Synod of Bishops to remain authentic to their collegial nature. How widespread synodality is to become remains an open question, however.

As Fathers Spadaro and Galli say, “The institutional reform promoted by the pontiff places the synod of bishops within a more synodal Church.” The challenge will be to make it so.

[Explore America's in-depth coverage of the Synod on Young Adults]

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Jason & Amy Rogers
5 years 8 months ago

Well, I tried to get the ideas in this article but that's clear as mud.

Bev Ceccanti
5 years 8 months ago

I continue to be saddened by the inability of this forum to address the elephant in the room. It seems the venue leans toward philosophical chatter at high tea while a holocaust is taking place under our noses. Are the Jesuits tone deaf to the millions of human beings being murdered right here right now? Are you really unaware there were more babies aborted in Harlem in 2016 than live births? Are you unaware the subject is considered so taboo by journalists the millions of victims are rarely even acknowledged? As a woman who has worked 'in the world' most all of my life, I find the ongoing focus on ' everything else but' this critical issue to be deeply disturbing. I don't think pandering to 'women's issues is an appropriate focus at this time and place.

Bev Ceccanti
5 years 8 months ago

I'm comforted by the fact Pope Francis is not expressing himself in terms of "ex cathedra'. I think the 'synods' invite confusion. Even with the sexual sins of some of the 'episcopate' , I pray for collegiality. The truth we were given doesn't come from 'pop' religion. It comes from God.

Frank T
5 years 8 months ago

I believe that this issue ultimately rests within the primacy of conscience.
There truly is no other direction.
The Church needn't change its' position or be sullied in the politics of it.

Frank Gibbons
5 years 8 months ago

In all the years I have been reading comments in "America" this probably the most prophetic and necessary post I have ever read. The Jesuits think it is only right wing cranks and "self-appointed" watch dogs who are critical of them. But there are prayerful, humble people who work with the poor and the incarcerated who are very disappointed in their bending to the prevailing protocols of the secular left. They need to abandon the groupthink and become more sensitive to the teachings of Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

Nancy D.
5 years 8 months ago

“It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.
One cannot reconcile collegiality and synodality, if one denies The Unity of The Holy Ghost.
One can know through both Faith and reason, that the erroneous notion that private morality and public morality, can serve in opposition to one another, and are not complementary, has led to grievous error in both Faith and reason. In fact, there are a multitude of Baptized Catholics, who claim that it is possible to remain in communion with Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostlic Church, while denying that God, The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage.
We are Saved through both Faith and Good Works, because Love, which is alwas rightly ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love, is an action word, and devoid of lust.
Thus we can know through both Faith and reason, that the act of abortion, which denies the inherent Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter, and thus The Sanctity of human life, from the moment of conception, and the engaging in or affirmation of same-sex sexual acts, as well as any sexual act that denies The Sanctity of the marital act, which is Life-affirming, and Life-sustaining, and can only be consummated between a man and woman, united in Marriage as husband and wife, can never be reconciled with The Light (Life), The Truth, and The Way of Love Made Flesh.
If it were true that it is Loving and Merciful that we remain in our sins, and not desire that we, or our beloved, overcome our disordered inclinations through God’s transforming Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy, so that we are led into temptation and sin, we would not need Our Savior, Jesus The Christ. This is as clear as “That Light That Shines In The Darkness”; The Good News Is, “The Darkness cannot overcome Him”.

Kevin Murphy
5 years 8 months ago

Spadaro and Faggioli. Not a great "diversity" of opinion in this piece.

Vincent Gaglione
5 years 8 months ago

There was a time once in the Church when Bishops were chosen with the consensus of the Faithful. This is an old idea whose time has come again, eh!

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