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Bill McCormick, S.J.October 31, 2023
Pope Francis and leaders of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops applaud at the conclusion of the gathering's last working session Oct. 28, 2023, in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The October 2023 meeting in Rome of the synod on synodality ended as it began: in the midst of war. Most notable is the Israel–Hamas war, but we also are witnessing conflicts in Ukraine, Myanmar, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Mexico, Somalia, Yemen and dozens of other places. Such bloodshed is a reminder: The mission of the church, and therefore of the synod, is not complete. “To believe in Christ means to desire unity,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote in “Ut Unum Sint.

The very notion of the synod, a word itself derived from the Greek “to walk together,” points to the crisis of belonging that pervades our world. We do not feel as though we belong to each other, and we are as suspicious of prophets of solidarity as we are of solidarity itself. We are used to the uncomfortable effects of polarization, but it can easily give way to violence, whether in Gaza or on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building.

It is the mission of the church to show how we belong to each other in Christ, and we should not be surprised if that is slow, painful work.

And the conflict and mistrust is not simply outside the church, in “the world.” The news that the Rev. Marko Rupnik had been incardinated into a Slovenian diocese appeared at the month’s end as though a satirical counter-image of the synod. As Stephen White tweeted, “The great obstacle to synodality—in the best possible meaning of that word—is a lack of trust. Not a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit, but a lack of trust in the wisdom, judgment, and (yes) discernment of other Catholics.”

It is in that seemingly inhospitable context that the synod met. Yet it is the mission of the church to show how we belong to each other in Christ, and we should not be surprised if that is slow, painful work. Indeed, it will be our challenge until kingdom come. As one synod participant, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., noted: “As far I am concerned, the work of the synod will begin when the gatherings here conclude.”

Ecclesial introversion

Even before the October 2023 meeting of the synod began, it had been the object of ceaseless punditry. Now that this phase is over, yet another deluge of analysis and commentary will begin. Yet many of these debates feel a bit too familiar: Catholics focused on the things that divide us rather than what, or rather who, unites us. And yet the purpose of the synod was precisely not to settle every doctrinal debate, but to further the cause of our unity.

There have been deep dives into the meaning of synod, synodality and associated terms. These arguments can be helpful, but they too often get us bogged down in semantics, as with other terms like collegiality or communio, as Thomas Reese, S.J., has written.

Explorations of the history of synodality are equally fraught. That history is ambiguous, as we should expect it to be: synodality is not a strategy for instant success. Further, to the extent that this history draws upon other Christian bodies, it will direct one to a laudable effort of the church, especially since the Second Vatican Council: ecumenism. But given how modern communications work, the analysis will also inevitably be caught up in interminable debates about the bitter history of Christian division.

The purpose of the synod was precisely not to settle every doctrinal debate, but to further the cause of our unity.

There have also been countless pieces reflecting upon the sociological and political context of this conversation. As a social scientist, I am sympathetic to such styles of argument. As a citizen of the United States, however, I am aware how unpersuasive these arguments tend to be. The arguments tend to run too much toward the condescension of “What’s the matter with Kansas?”—as though someone who disagrees with one has to be deluded. And any argument that claims that some group is blinded by their prejudices has to be more honest about its own prejudices than it usually is.

The spirit of the synod

A special word could be said regarding arguments about the Holy Spirit. No Catholic doubts that the Holy Spirit guides the church, which is definitely worth saying. But exactly how is the Spirit working through this synod? That is a question that divides us.

No spiritual director would doubt that the Spirit seeks to be active in our lives, and a fortiori in the church. But how willing are we to cooperate with the Spirit? And toward what end? In many ways, this synodal process is a time of seeking to be more free for such cooperation. As Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said during the synod, “We’ve got to be careful about blaming everything—all our opinions, our interests, lobbies, and factions—putting all that on the Holy Spirit.”

That is why many critics of the synod would be more valuable interlocutors if they would put their cynicism aside. Yes, the numerous debates around the synod do evoke memories at times of what is for U.S. Catholics a tired, familiar status quo: the us/them polemics that seem more interested in who is in and who is out than in pursuing the arguments and advancing the mission of the church. For all of these limitations, however, these debates are important to have, not least because by Catholicism’s own self-understanding its faith is complementary with and open to reason.

And, lest we forget, the purpose of the synod is never to settle every doctrinal debate. The purpose is to embody, reflect upon and ultimately engender deeper communion. From that perspective, the doctrinal debates have always been ancillary. To borrow language from John O’Malley, S.J., this synod, like Vatican II, is “fundamentally about the church.... How is the church?”

The legacy of the synod, like that of Vatican II, will be found less in legal, juridical documents to the extent that it sees itself less in legal, juridical terms. And that is perhaps where the real payoff comes in the distinction between a “pastoral” and “doctrinal” theology. It is not that pastoral theology, or a pastoral council, is divorced from doctrinal questions. Indeed, quite the opposite: a genuinely pastoral theology, and no less a pastoral council, seeks a deeper dialogue between doctrine and life, between mission and ministry. How else can the church hope to offer a unified face of mercy to the world?

The legacy of the synod, like that of Vatican II, will be found less in legal, juridical documents to the extent that it sees itself less in legal, juridical terms.

Synodality and the joy of the Gospel

Intractable arguments about the nature of the synod can also distract us from the needs of the world we want to serve. Pope Francis has spoken against “ecclesial introversion” many times, pressing that “the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures” should “be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation,” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 27). And so a deeper conversion through the synod looks beyond intra-ecclesial conflict to the mission of the church.

Issued in the first year of Francis’ papacy, “The Joy of the Gospel” remains the guidding document of his ministry. The opening lines are key:

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.

Synodality, insofar as it is at the heart of the church, should foster and be fostered by such joyful evangelization. And that is because, if synodality is a path, then its destination is the same as its origin: Jesus. Synodality, as Pope Francis has never tired of preaching, brings out the essential elements of our faith, pre-eminent of which is the kerygma and the joy with which we are to proclaim it with our lives.

If our attention shifts to the world crying out for Christ, we will still argue. But we will be less inclined to confuse intramural fights between people already in the pews with evangelizing the world. We can turn our attention to tending to the fruits of synodality, the fruits of spreading the Gospel. This would be to shift the focus from arguing over the legitimacy of the concept to experimenting with the fruitfulness of its attendant practices. Those fruits are what the world needs now, as much as ever.

The synod invites us to move beyond talk and into action—or rather, it challenges us to integrate our words with our actions.

Viewed from this perspective, Catholics have to wonder how they have so often allowed themselves to be bogged down in intramural polemics. For the synod invites us to move beyond talk and into action—or rather, it challenges us to integrate our words with our actions. As St. Ignatius Loyola famously said, love expresses itself more characteristically in actions than words.

Know it by its fruits

The kind of action the synod is leading us toward is precisely that joyful mission captured so beautifully in “The Joy of the Gospel”: a church of the poor for the poor in the midst of the world. Pope Francis describes that life in a way that unites what is true in it with what is beautiful and good in it: “The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice.” This is a vision of the church whose center is beyond itself, a community of disciples alive in the spirit. It would seem to be what we have been missing.

We know that many people in the church have sat out the synodal process. How many people outside the church are really following these debates? And how many of them encounter Christ through them? Any polemical approach toward its outcome risks obscuring the fundamentally missionary impulse that began this papacy. As many fans and critics of the synod engage in the age-old argument about whether we should be fundamentally welcoming or challenging to the world, most people are not anywhere near our doorstep.

A test of how far we move down this synodal process, then, is how far we can avoid “ecclesial introversion” and instead live out synodality, even if in fits and starts. Through that impetus, we can continue to reclaim the insight of Vatican II that every baptized member is “the church,” for indeed the synodal process invites us all into deeper communion with one another.

The October 2023 synod meetings began with a war; there will undoubtedly be more violence and conflict before the next series of meetings in October 2024. Let us not lose sight of the scandal of such violence, the lives at stake and the real difference Christ’s love can make.

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