Vatican II and synodality: a friendly response to Joan Chittister

We are now just a few months away from the October 2023 assembly of the Synod on the “synodal process”. A second assembly is scheduled for October 2024. Both will be held at the Vatican.

The working document for this first assembly is to be unveiled to the press on June 20 and the names of those who will be participating in next October’s gathering are also expected to be made public soon.

This is a momentous time in the life of the Church and the expectations of many Catholics are very high: in some ways they are comparable to those for a conclave to elect a new pope, certainly not those for previous assemblies of the Synod of Bishops.

Looking back from an historical perspective, when we try to figure out such expectations for the synodal process and, in the long run, synodality, an immediate and natural term of comparison is the Second Vatican Council.

Joan Chittister, the well-known Benedictine Sister and author from the United States, addresses exactly this issue in a column published on June 9 in National Catholic Reporter.

She looks at the relationship between synodality and Vatican II, not in theological language or concepts, but in terms of results.

The title — “Nothing really changed after Vatican II. But synodality may make a difference” — captures the argument Chittister tries to make.

“Whatever changes the people had wanted from the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council were, it seemed, formless, silent, lost in the bustle of a busy church frozen in a medieval mind.

“Instead, after 400 years without a council of reform, the kinds of changes the people had expected from this council lay yet in Rome, drying in wet ink there and largely ignored here,” Chittister says.

Synodality: the vehicle that finally delivers?

She blames John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the bishops for the failure to implement Vatican II, but argues that the undermining of the council started even before these two popes began making episcopal appointments:

The bishops from around the world who attended Vatican II voted yes for all of its documents, but once back on home soil, many simply ignored them, that’s why.

Even more to the point, few, if any, priests taught the council documents to their congregations.

Few if any priests admitted that they themselves had not bothered to read the documents either.

Oh, a few churches redesigned their confession boxes and a few more took down the altar rails, but really, other than that and the move to the vernacular in all liturgical events — nothing much did happen. Most of the changes were window dressing.

But Chittister says synodality may be the vehicle that finally brings about all the changes that Vatican II promised but never delivered.

This time, Pope Francis is having the faithful themselves become part of the agenda-making process before the synod even convenes. The laity has been invited into the intellectual theology of the church rather than simply poised to bring pious concern to the event.

This time, the laity themselves have been deemed to determine what topics must be considered — married priests, genderism, marriage theology, equality, women priests, whatever.

They will be allowed to speak to what 99% of the church rather than the 1% of the church, its clerics, allow to be heard.

Mistaken and misleading from an historical and theological point of view

I have the greatest respect for Joan Chittister. Not many have done what she has done to keep the trajectories of Vatican II alive. She has changed a lot of lives for the better.

I also experienced, first-hand, the warm welcome of her religious community, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie (Pennsylvania), when I was invited to speak about Pope Francis a few years ago.

Chittister makes a number of valid points:

  • the disappointments about ecumenism,
  • the dismissal of the role of women in the Church,
  • the absence of lay ministerial life in many of our churches.

Much of this is painfully true in many places, especially in the United States.

At the same time, her reading of Vatican II (at least as she describes it in her latest article) is profoundly mistaken and misleading from both an historical and theological point of view.

This carries serious risks as we approach a key moment in the “synodal process”.

Historically, the council did change Catholicism, despite the shortcomings in its implementation.

It’s a very complicated picture, and one that is still being drawn: what worked and did not work on a global scale; different stages in the council’s reception in different parts of the world (or even in the same country); failures that cannot be attributed solely to the papacy or the clergy; the time span needed to measure the effects of a council like Vatican II.

An excessive focus on a narrow set of issues

The widespread impression from the Anglo-American point of view is that, while Vatican II changed Catholicism’s relationship with other Christian denominations, world religions, and the secular world, it failed to fundamentally change the Church’s internal dynamics and institutional structures of power.

But Vatican II also changed the Church internally, from a theological point of view, in ways that we now often minimize or take for granted.

The simple verdict that Vatican II was a failure is, in some ways, the flip side of arguments made by neo-conservative and neo-traditionalist Catholics in the United State.

Both sides place an excessive focus on a narrow set of issues and are dismissive of what the council meant for Catholics of other countries and even many American Catholics.

Theologically, the question is not – in my opinion – whether the council still needs to be implemented and, on some issues, augmented.

Vatican II took place sixty years ago and the papal magisterium itself has built on its teaching in undeniable ways, sometimes going beyond the letter of the council.

The question is how synodality can pick up the thread of Vatican II, together with hierarchical and collegial dimensions in the life of the Church.

A synodal Church will redefine those hierarchical and the collegial aspects, not remove them.

This renewed form of Catholicism is still in part amorphous. It is taking shape before our very eyes, and there is no clear canonical or ecclesiological script for us to follow.

But we know that there is a compass for this journey, and it is the Second Vatican Council – not just what its documents said (or failed to say), but also what the reception of Vatican II has taught us from 1962 right up to our own day.

Preparing for the long haul

To a given reading of what happened at Vatican II and its effects corresponds a set of expectations from synodality.

Those who see the council as a disappointment or a failed revolution are likely to look for a reenactment of that revolution.

But that is even more impossible today as it was back then. On the opposite side, who – with a certain amount of Schadenfreude – see the present situation of the Catholic Church in the secularized West as evidence of the failure of Vatican II, are likely to grab this opportunity to try and abrogate the developments of conciliar teaching, beginning with the liturgical reform.

If we see the council as a failure, and synodality as a chance to repair that failure (or worse, to avenge it), then we are bound to fail for sure. Synodality can change the Church, but not overnight.

The Synod assembly next October – the first of the two on synodality – is not likely to make any groundbreaking decisions. We must be prepared for the long haul.

In a Church that has become an integral part of the global media show business, managing expectations has become much more important than before.

Discernment is needed for expectations too, and this is much more difficult, because their dynamics are very different from the those of a spiritual conversation in a synodal gathering.

The expectations surrounding synodality are a delicate issue for another reason.

When John XXIII died in June 1963, the cardinals elected Paul VI precisely because he was in favor of continuing and completing John’s council.

But if too many of the current cardinal-electors are frightened or alarmed by the Synod on synodality, they may vote for someone at the next conclave who is eager to bring Francis’ project to a halt.

  • Massimo Faggioli is a Church historian, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University (Philadelphia) and a much-published author and commentator. He is a visiting professor in Europe and Australia.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment, Great reads, Palmerston.

Tags: , ,