Francis J. ButlerOctober 08, 2021
Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit (Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Detroit)

The new and erudite term synodality has been appearing in the lexicons of more and more Catholics as of late. More than a few of the faithful undoubtedly associate the word with meetings of ecclesiastical authorities in Rome. That is partly true. But 5,000 dioceses throughout the world have also been asked in the past year to introduce synodality into their operations, as the entire church together prepares multi-step discussions on a more inclusive manner of membership engagement. Within the next two years, the results of these discussions will shape the agendas for delegations of bishops and laity who will gather with Pope Francis to see what the worldwide flock—listening, sharing and praying together throughout this process—has said.

Catholics in this country can be rightly proud of the particular contribution made by one of their own 55 years ago in setting the church on this new and potentially groundbreaking course. Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Francis Dearden of Detroit (1907-88) played an exceptionally significant role in paving the way for what Francis is trying to do in reviving the ancient practice of including all the baptized in the work and mission of the church.

Then-Archbishop Dearden was part of the Doctrinal Commission at the Second Vatican Council. That commission drafted “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which contained one of the most important affirmations of the entire council: that the church was the people of God. That same document declared that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are available to all the faithful of every rank.

The Doctrinal Commission, one of 11 such working groups appointed by Pope John XXIII to coordinate the council’s work, was by far the most prolific. In addition to the dogmatic constitution, the Doctrinal Commission played a key role in the passage of another pillar of Vatican II, “Gaudium et Spes” the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, as well as “Dignitatis Humanae,” the council’s declaration on religious freedom.

Though Archbishop Dearden and his fellow commission members never employed the word “synodality” itself, he is remembered today as a passionate force in the American hierarchy for his attempts to put into practice the concept of the church as a people journeying together. The ways in which we understand how synodality might work are themselves part of his legacy.

Cardinal Dearden is remembered today as a passionate force in the American hierarchy for his attempts to put into practice the concept of the church as a people journeying together.

Implementing Vatican II

There is little doubt that Archbishop Dearden’s exceptional leadership at Vatican II resulted in his being chosen by fellow U.S. bishops to serve as their first president when they formed the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as the council was drawing to a close.

Deeply enthused by his experience of the council, Archbishop Dearden wasted no time in calling the people of his own archdiocese to trust the Holy Spirit to help lead the faithful together in discerning the changes necessary for renewal and reform. Just four months after returning home from the historic gathering in Rome, he gathered a cross-section of his archdiocese to set in motion a three-year “speak up” grass-roots exercise involving tens of thousands of Detroit Catholics.

He called together an archdiocesan synod in 1969, which transformed the archdiocese’s culture and governance structure from hierarchic and directive to participative and responsive. He did so by engaging tens of thousands of his flock in dialogue and communal prayer on an unprecedented scale. In the years following, during which he was made a cardinal, he planned and oversaw a similar exercise at the national level. As part of this process, Cardinal Dearden was also chosen as chair of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc Committee for the Catholic Observance of the U.S. Bicentennial.

The cardinal used the occasion of the bicentennial celebration to design and mobilize a nationwide listening exercise, using congressional-like hearings conducted around the country and parish-based discussions focused on the theme of “liberty and justice for all.” The process was followed by a major conference to reflect upon, pray over and deliberate about church priorities for social action.

Addressing over 2,000 U.S. diocesan-appointed lay and clergy delegates and their bishops in October 1976 in Cobo Hall in Detroit, Cardinal Dearden introduced the task of the N.C.C.B. Call to Action conference this way:

We will do this in a setting of prayerful reflection and call on the Holy Spirit. Our central preoccupation here should be how we can more authentically as a Christian community live our faith in God and His Son...bearing witness to His image in every person, and together as Church members, serve the cause of justice and human development.

Synods have a long history in the church, dating back to the 2nd century. They fell into disuse in the West but remained common in Eastern Rite Catholic churches.

Dearden’s vision in action

Pope Francis has placed synodality front and center before Catholics at a time when many have given up on an institution whose leaders have seemed to attach far more importance to being heard than to hearing. It is clear that the pope believes that synodality has the potential to revolutionize communications within the church and to help it set a course far more likely to create an impact on people’s lives. If Pope Francis is successful in capturing the interest of Catholics in this massive experiment, members of the church—clergy and lay alike—could begin to experience a new and more active sense of baptismal belonging exceeding anything that they have yet encountered.

Up until now, international synods (there have been 15 since Vatican II) have been mostly bishop-attended affairs. Their agendas have ranged from topics like the priesthood and canon law to the role of men and women religious, as well as the mission and function of bishops’ conferences.

Synods have a long history in the church, dating back to the 2nd century. They fell into disuse in the West but remained common in Eastern Rite Catholic churches. When the synods were reinstituted for the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II, they were looked upon as innovations in collegial discernment and the sharing of authority and were intended to tilt church governance back to a more communitarian mode. This tradition had been almost forgotten in a church heavily influenced by the First Vatican Council’s (1868-70) centralizing effects and its emphasis on the prerogatives and powers of the pope.

Before launching his recent initiative to expand the synod principle, Pope Francis hinted how far he was willing to go. In 2018, the pontiff issued a new apostolic constitution, “Episcopalis Communio,” stating that a synod’s final document, if approved by the members with “moral unanimity” after the pope has “granted deliberative power to the Synod Assembly,” can become part of the ordinary magisterium of Catholic teaching once it has been ratified and promulgated by the pope. This marks a significant change and increased responsibility from 1965, when Pope Paul VI reintroduced synods in the motu proprio “Apostolica Sollicitudo.” Those synodal gatherings were formed for the most part merely to offer advice.

Allowing synods to serve as platforms for open debate by bishops, clergy and laity working toward unanimity, rather than simply operating as rubber-stamping events of pre-ordained outcomes, would open a new chapter for today’s church and represent a further step forward in responding to the Council’s vision of the church as the people of God.

Allowing synods to serve as platforms for open debate by bishops, clergy and laity working toward unanimity would open a new chapter for today’s church.

Prefiguring synodality

Looking back on the N.C.C.B. Call to Action assembly 45 years later, we can consider it a kind of beta version of the process of synodality now advanced by Francis’ papacy.

Here is what Pope Francis says about synodality’s framework of mutuality and listening to one another: “Inasmuch as the Church is nothing other than the journeying together of God’s flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord, then we understand too that, within the Church, no one can be ‘raised up’ higher than others.” A synodal church, Francis says, is a church that listens, “in which everyone has something to learn...all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit in order to know what he says to the churches.”

Were Cardinal Dearden alive to hear these words, I have no doubt that he would affirm that heart-to-heart listening and discernment holds huge potential for healing and unifying the people of God. He told the N.C.C.B. assembly in Detroit in 1976 that “we [bishops] have wished there were some way we could relate more directly and intimately with our people, share their burdens and have them share ours, know their anguish and let them know our own.” If nothing else had happened in the process, he said, “we at least learned this, that when we take the risk of listening and being open, [our people] demonstrate a sensitivity...and a willingness to share our problems, if we will only let them.”

"We have wished there were some way we could relate more directly and intimately with our people, share their burdens and have them share ours, know their anguish and let them know our own.”

Resistance to change

Cardinal Dearden’s experiment to bring the Catholic community into alignment with Vatican II’s vision of the church as a people on pilgrimage together was an important breakthrough. However, the aftermath of this early attempt at synodality also eventually showed the hardships and hazards ahead for those participating in such a difficult process.

No sooner had he concluded the N.C.C.B. Call to Action program than he was met with the heavy-handed efforts of those resistant to change within his own episcopal conference. Stunned by some of Call to Action’s requests for change and dialogue on issues considered by its participants as important matters of justice within church life itself, many of Cardinal Dearden’s fellow bishops hit the panic button. Key members of the conference, including then-president of the N.C.C.B. Then-Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, moved with speed to distance themselves from the event, labeling it unrepresentative, overly ambitious and dominated by special interest groups throughout the process. In the months following the Detroit event, Archbishop Bernardin suggested that the Call to Action meeting increased polarization and factionalism.

Of the 180 resolutions presented at Call to Action, six struck ecclesiastical nerves, including ones that dealt with lay participation in the selection of bishops; opening the priesthood up for married people; allowing women to be ordained; and affirming the rights and responsibilities of married people to form their consciences on what is morally appropriate in the matter of regulating births in their marriage.

The N.C.C.B. quickly became a scene of polarized battle between forces of those energized by the open-ended listening process—those who felt no threat from the candor of the Call to Action delegates—and other bishops who viewed these resolutions as beyond the bounds of church doctrine and discipline.

The N.C.C.B.’s own lay advisory council affirmed, in a 47 to 0 vote, that Call to Action represented legitimate concerns as well as the “hurts” of many who were alienated from the church. The council added that the recommendations of Call to Action “demand an ongoing process of prayerful reflection, study, dialogue and action.”

Cardinal Dearden’s committee overseeing Call to Action was replaced by an ad hoc committee chaired by Archbishop Bernadin himself; members included Cardinal John Carberry of St. Louis and his auxiliary, Bishop Joseph A. McNicholas; Cardinal William Baum of Washington, D.C.; Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia; and Bishop John J. Maguire, auxiliary bishop of New York. All of these bishops had been skeptical of Cardinal Dearden’s program since its beginnings.

Despite the controversy in the months following, Cardinal Dearden’s unflappable calm and faith in the new process of broad consultation helped his colleagues in the hierarchy to see the wisdom of adopting a positive, if somewhat nuanced, stance on Call to Action.

These yeoman efforts to encourage cross-sections of Catholics to speak with candor about injustice within society and in their own church were met with polite praise, but a hoped-for dialogue within the church on the more controversial topics raised in Detroit never materialized. The process, just like the bicentennial observance of the nation itself, faded into history.

Imagine what a difference it would have made if synodal processes like those inspired by Cardinal Dearden’s leadership had been continued.

Impacts and opportunities

Imagine what a difference it would have made over these past four and half decades if synodal processes like those inspired by Cardinal Dearden’s leadership had been continued. Would we have had to wait for The National Catholic Reporter or The Boston Globe to uncover decades of clergy sexual abuse if listening forums had been regular features of church life? Would the massive numbers of parish closures, and consolidations of parishes and parochial schools, have reached epidemic levels had there been a governance structure reflective of accountability, transparency and vigorous engagement from all Catholics?

Further, the long and severe decline in vocations and the exodus of young people from the church over decades are trends exacerbated by an aging church culture of rigid resistance to change. Had there been a more candid way for ordinary Catholics to make church leaders understand the deleterious impact of their one-way communications, might Catholicism in the United States have avoided losing more members than any other religious faith? We will never know for sure, but chances are that processes of mutual listening would have led us down a path of greater solidarity, honesty and unity.

Another question: Would the church be further along in its discussions about women and ministry had channels of dialogue and communication been left open? And could we imagine a richer, fuller and more inclusive discussion on the Eucharist than the one playing out today, which finds this grand sacrament in danger of being swept up in the nation’s culture wars?

Despite the sobering lessons that Cardinal Dearden’s pastoral experiments hold for today’s exciting new initiatives on synodality, he would likely find himself an enthusiastic proponent of current papal plans to rebalance the church’s internal dynamics and to engage, encounter and listen more to all who lack voice in the church and yet who continue to strive to live a life of faithful discipleship.

“No program accomplishes the church’s mission,” Cardinal Dearden once said to his own flock in Detroit, when he first tested the waters of mutual listening half a century ago. It is only a beginning, he explained, but it is an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

On the threshold of what seems at first an almost unattainable churchwide goal to realign the ancient practice of synodality with an institution historically divided by scandals and structures and a divide between clergy and laity, Cardinal John Dearden’s trust in the workings of Holy Spirit keep us ever hopeful as we take this next step forward.

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