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John W. O’MalleyFebruary 17, 2022
Bishops at the Council of Nicaea, which decreed that bishops should hold synods twice a year. (Wikimedia Commons)

For all its prominence in church jargon these days, the term synodality does not have a long history; it is a neologism coined only about 20 years ago. No wonder, then, that Catholics are puzzled by it and by Pope Francis’ call for a more synodal church. The puzzlement is especially acute in the United States, where until recently scant attention has been paid to synodality. Yet it is an urgent issue, vital for the well-being of the church today. The Catholic Church in the United States should not lag behind the rest of the world in addressing it.

The definition of synodal as “relating to a synod” is one that provides little help. The term synod is itself only slightly more familiar, and insofar as it has meaning for Catholics, conjures up the image of the Synod of Bishops created by Pope Saint Paul VI in September 1965 as the Second Vatican Council was drawing to an end. Although related to the traditional institution, the Synod of Bishops very much modified a crucial aspect of the original institution, as I will explain later.

Synodality is the revival of the oldest tradition of church governance, and therefore the pope’s revival of it is itself altogether traditional.

We must begin, therefore, by asking the basic question: What is a synod? Until the creation of the Synod of Bishops, the answer to the question was simple: A synod was a council; the words were synonyms, and the former was the Greek-derived word for the Latin-derived one. In the Western church, the two words were used interchangeably. The Council of Trent, for instance, referred to itself as “this holy synod,” and the official editions of the proceedings of Vatican II (some 53 volumes) are entitled the “synodal proceedings of the ecumenical council Vatican II” (acta synodalia).

But what is a council? The word is familiar; what it entails is not. If we survey the history of the 21 councils that Catholics consider ecumenical (church-wide) and the hundreds upon hundreds of local councils, the answer that emerges is clear: A council is a meeting, principally of bishops, gathered in Christ’s name to make decisions binding on the church.

Every word in that definition is important, beginning with “meeting.” A council is a gathering in which business is to be accomplished. It is not a debating society nor even a gathering to celebrate the glories of the church. A council takes action.

An ecumenical council is a meeting, principally of bishops, gathered in Christ’s name to make decisions binding on the church. Every word in that definition is important.

‘Principally of bishops’

What about “principally of bishops”? In every council, bishops have been present and have had the deciding vote, but other figures have played important roles. It was, after all, not a cleric but Emperor Constantine who convoked the first ecumenical council in Nicaea in 325 and set the council’s primary agenda. The council met in his palace, and he served in effect as the council’s honorary chair. When Pope Innocent III convoked the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, he ordered the emperor, all kings, dukes and various others to attend in person or through a vicar. Besides such secular persons, some 800 abbots attended, outnumbering the bishops two to one.

At the Council of Trent, heads of state sent their envoys, some of whom were laymen. The envoys had the privilege of addressing the council when they presented their credentials, and they otherwise influenced the council’s proceedings behind the scenes. At a certain point, even Lutheran envoys were admitted and allowed to argue their case. The presence of non-Catholic “observers” at Vatican II is well known. Although their influence is difficult to measure, it certainly was operative.

Finally, once theologians emerged in the 13th century as a class of teachers distinct from bishops, they invariably attended and were indispensable in the formulation of the decrees of councils. Almost 500 were officially accredited to Vatican II. This number was greatly augmented by the theologians at the council who served as personal advisers to individual bishops.

In every council, bishops have been present and have had the deciding vote, but other figures have played important roles.

‘Gathered in Christ’s name’

What about “gathered in Christ’s name”? This is the source of a council’s (that is, a synod’s) authority. Bishops knew that “where two or three” were gathered, Christ was in their midst. Beyond that, the bishops had a more specific grounding in Scripture for a council’s authority: the so-called Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). At that momentous gathering, the “apostles and elders” decided not to impose circumcision and similar Jewish rites on non-Jewish converts, and they thus opened the way for greater numbers of Gentiles to be converted.

The Council of Jerusalem is the cornerstone for the assertion that synods are the oldest form of church governance, but that claim is further validated by the emergence as early as the 2nd century of numerous synods across the Roman world. In that century alone, we have evidence of at least 50 such gatherings in Palestine, North Africa, Gaul and elsewhere.

From that time forward, synods became a standard feature of church life. There were at a minimum 400 synods between the second and seventh century. The Council of Nicaea had in fact decreed that bishops should hold synods twice a year, and the Council of Trent, as part of its reform of the episcopacy, ordered every bishop to hold a synod annually in his diocese. Over the centuries, the pace varied but remained vigorous. In the 19th century, synods diminished after the definition of papal primacy at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), but they never entirely died out. One of the first things that the future Pope John XXIII did when he became patriarch of Venice was to call a diocesan synod.

Synods are essentially a collegial mode of governance. Bishops work together with fellow bishops, and sometimes with their clergy and even others. What about the hierarchical mode, with which, in fact, we are more familiar? That mode also had a venerably early origin. By the early second century, bishops emerged as the overseers, guardians and leaders of their flocks in their cities and claimed that they were successors to the apostles. Even though bishops realized that they had to work with their presbyters, elders and lay officials if they were to be effective, they still held firm to their leadership responsibilities. Almost from the beginning, therefore, church governance had two modes—hierarchical and collegial. They were sometimes strange bedfellows, but over the centuries they managed to work together despite numerous, and sometimes serious, clashes.

The hierarchical mode gained strength when, in the fourth and fifth centuries, the bishop of Rome began making effective claims of general oversight over the larger church. The emergence of those claims indicated that another level of church hierarchy had taken hold. This was true most especially in the West. After the 11th century, papal claims became more peremptory, and popes began assuming the exclusive right to convoke councils.

The Council of Nicaea decreed that bishops should hold synods twice a year, and the Council of Trent ordered every bishop to hold a synod annually in his diocese.

‘To make decisions binding on the church’

What about “to make decisions binding on the church”? The decisions of a council, whether local or church-wide, whether concerning doctrine or discipline, have from earliest times been taken as final, though not necessarily irrevocable. Even local councils have enjoyed this authority for their own area. For example, the seven diocesan, provincial and plenary Councils of Baltimore in the 19th century shaped the form of the church in the young United States. The bishops made their decisions without recourse to Rome, though of course they were in communion with the Holy See.

In rare instances, the decisions of local councils on doctrinal issues have been taken as binding on the whole church. The most striking instances in that regard are the decisions of the North African councils in the fourth and fifth centuries regarding the heresies of Donatism and Pelagianism.

However, the institution Pope Paul VI created with the Synod of Bishops was not a decision-making body but a consultative one. In itself, the Synod of Bishops can make recommendations to the pope but cannot make binding decisions. Pope Paul meant the Synod of Bishops to implement Vatican II’s decree on collegiality, and to some extent it did. But it eliminated a traditional and crucial element in the definition of the word.

The decisions of a council, whether local or church-wide, whether concerning doctrine or discipline, have from earliest times been taken as final, though not necessarily irrevocable.

The present day

That brings us to the present and to Pope Francis. Although he is the first pope in 50 years not to have participated at Vatican II, he has a profound appreciation of the council and the transforming scope of its decrees, as he showed unmistakably when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. Two aspects of the council pertinent to synodality that he particularly appropriated are the council’s description of the church as “the people of God” and its wide-ranging insistence on a collegial mode of church governance. Its signature statement in that regard occurs in the third chapter of “Lumen Gentium,” which describes the collegial relationship between the bishops and the pope. But in other documents, the council held up the ideal of a collegial relationship between the bishop and his priests, and between priests and their people.

Pope Francis is also deeply persuaded that the people of God have a profound grasp of the faith and practice of the church—and therefore the people must be listened to. This is not an idea peculiar to Francis, but is a standard part of the Catholic heritage, nicely expressed in the Latin phrase sensus fidelium, perhaps best rendered in English as “the faithful’s sense of the faith.” Pope Francis’ insistence on this is possibly influenced by Saint John Henry Newman’s influential essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.”

With that, we have the essential background for understanding what synodality is and why the pope is eagerly promoting a more synodal church. Synodality is the revival of the oldest tradition of church governance, and therefore the pope’s revival of it is itself altogether traditional.

Like every revival, however, this one is modified by the conditions in which it is revived. Revivals never perfectly reproduce the original article. Try as they might, the architects of the 19th century could not perfectly replicate the Gothic architecture of the 13th century. The most dramatic modification today of synodality is the breathtaking inclusiveness of what Pope Francis proposes.

In the past, participants in synods have been restricted to small numbers, no matter how varied the participants’ state in life. Today, Pope Francis wants all members of the church to express their faith and their hopes and desires for the church. The preparatory documents for the churchwide synod provide for the inclusion of non-Catholics and non-Christians. There has never been an exercise of collegiality with such an unqualifiedly inclusive invitation.

Francis clearly intends the synodal process as an act of collegiality, but the official handbook for the process, the Vademecum, indicates it is to be a massive consultation in the mode of the Synod of Bishops. Even if Pope Francis intends the results of the process to be somehow binding on the church—as decisions of synods were until 1965—he will not abdicate the responsibilities of his office. We must remember that in the tradition of collegiality as practiced in the Western church since the 11th century, the pope’s voice has been an essential element in the collegial process. Popes are not simple executors of the determinations of synods.

Thus, although Pope Francis’ call is altogether traditional, it is radically new in the breadth it envisages. This should not scandalize us but energize us. We are entering upon a great project, and our responsibility for its success is as great as the project itself. We take heart by working under the aegis of a verse in Matthew’s Gospel: “Then he told them that every expert in the law who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings forth from his treasure both new things and old” (13:52).

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