Synodality: Can Catholicism be decentralised?


The youth synod’s final report resoundingly endorses ‘synodality’. This could be a positive step – once bishops have worked out what it means

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has often expressed the desire for a more “synodal” style of Church life, and commentators on Catholic affairs now increasingly speak of “synodality”.

What do they mean?

It is often suggested that “synodality” refers to the Church’s experience of journeying together.

The verb syn-odeuō does indeed mean to “journey together”.

But the noun synodos, in both classical and Christian Greek, denotes an assembly convened to make a decision. It is the purpose of the “coming together”, and not the journeying process itself, which is the key to its meaning.

In the West, the word has usually been translated as “council” when referring to the Ecumenical Councils, where the bishops of the world gather to define doctrine and discipline for the whole Church.

Historically, the word “synod” has referred to gatherings more local in scope and attendance.

In practice “synodality” or “conciliarity” mean the same thing: that the Church, by its nature, exists and takes decisions by coming together to seek the will of God to decide on the questions of the day.

After Vatican II, Pope Paul VI created a worldwide Synod of Bishops to meet regularly in Rome and advise him on various subjects.

These synods, unlike Ecumenical Councils, were to be merely consultative, proposing only conclusions which the pope would take into account when formulating a response, usually in the form of a “post-synodal exhortation”.

The youth synod’s final report resoundingly endorses ‘synodality’. This could be a positive step – once bishops have worked out what it means

This was the type of assembly which took place in Rome this October.

Its theme was the Church and youth. Only weeks before it began, however, Pope Francis issued an apostolic constitution – effectively a change to Church law – called Episcopalis Communio.

It stipulated that “If expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the final document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor to Peter.”

What has changed?

The document produced by the synod is no longer merely a consultative document.

From now on, the Pope can make the synod’s conclusions authoritative in themselves, without the need for a subsequent exhortation, simply by adding his approbation.

What difference will this make?

The answer will depend on how it plays out in practice. At the family synods of 2014-15, which were dominated by the controversial question of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be admitted to Communion, the final synod report appeared ambiguous, and there was a tense wait for the Pope to resolve the uncertainty in his exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

Whether he did so is still being hotly debated, but imagine how much fiercer the clash at the family synod would have been if there had been a chance that its final report might be the last word.

The theme of youth and the Church may have seemed relatively anodyne in comparison, but last month’s synod nevertheless generated controversy.

In the final week, the synod’s organisers unveiled a draft report that devoted considerable space to the concept of synodality.

Some bishops expressed disquiet that the text gave prominence to this theme, although it was barely mentioned during the proceedings. They considered it not merely irrelevant to the topic of youth, but also an attempt at manipulation.

Yet Catholics should not be worried that attempts to introduce more conciliar processes into Church life are a danger to its divinely instituted constitution.

Holding synods at a regional level to decide on localised issues is a time-honoured tradition.

During the later Middle Ages, the papacy clashed with the Conciliarist movement, which attempted to make the popes subordinate to Councils.

This led to the Councils’ authority being tightly circumscribed.

After the Reformation, there was a perceived need for centralisation around the authority of Rome.

In 1870, the First Vatican Council marked the apogee of this tendency by defining papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction. Continue reading

  • Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris, and has also studied in Germany and Rome.
  • Image: St Wilfred’s Catholic Church
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