Not executive power, yet powerful

December 1, 2019 - 12:00am -- Susanne R Janssen

Not executive power, yet powerful
All about synods, and why we need others (who think differently) for us to come closer to the truth

“Synodality” is a word that has recently been used a lot — and it’s become controversial. It is closely associated with Pope Francis, who has consistently invited the Catholic Church to take this path, be it with the synod on young people, faith and vocations, the synod on the family or, in October, the synod for the Pan-Amazon region.

These endeavors have brought about different reactions. Some people enthusiastically welcome the new style, encouraging a Church that is more open to the modern world in the spirit of Vatican II. Others see a synodal way as a betrayal of the core message of the Church: undisputable truth. This truth, transmitted over centuries, never results from a mediocre compromise, but derives from the Holy Spirit. 

So, is a synod something that goes against the tradition of the Church? Or is it an expression of the Holy Spirit who wants to open the windows to let in a fresh breeze to bring new life, as Pope John XXIII proposed?


What’s a synod, exactly?

Let’s first take a look at the term “synodality.” It is used to describe the process of “fraternal collaboration and discernment as a body.” Within the Catholic Church, a synod (from the Greek word for assembly or meeting) refers to a convocation of bishops and a few lay people to discuss and discern issues regarding the teaching or administration of the Church. 

But some critics have suggested that the term is vaguely defined, and could be used in a move toward a more democratic or parliamentary way of governing the Church and defining its doctrinal teaching.

Upon closer look however, it is clearly stated that a synod has neither power nor mandate to change any doctrine of the Catholic Church. This continues to be the prerogative of the Magisterium, made of the hierarchy: the pope and his collaborators. 

In fact, Jessica Murdoch, associate professor of fundamental and dogmatic theology at Villanova University, told Catholic News Agency that “Synodality as a concept really just means collegiality. It is the way in which the different parts of the Church come together as the mystical Body of Christ.” 

She compares a synod to an advisory panel that gives the pope a way of discussing the issues of the day and receiving feedback and advice from the episcopacy. This concept has existed throughout the history of the Church long before Vatican II.  


So a synod is the same as a council?

There are some traps along the way. A synod and a council are two different things: the former is a body trying to discern where reflection is needed and where the Church’s pastoral care could be improved; the latter defines and shapes the direction of the Church.

While a synod is a useful tool to come together as a body and to collectively discern the voice of the Holy Spirit, it also poses a risk. A synod can become an occasion for particular groups to advocate their agenda as if representing widely held beliefs that can confuse the sensus fidei, that is, the expression of the understanding and belief of the people of God.

People could forget that ultimately the Church is founded on a divine principle and does not simply follow the majority lead. Without the authority of the hierarchy and the pope, a synod is not able to speak on behalf of the universal Church.

That said, until now the synods convoked by Pope Francis have not modified the Church’s teaching, but have perhaps put a spotlight on an aspect not significantly examined previously. If a final document identifies needs — such as spiritual accompaniment for divorced and remarried couples who cannot receive communion — it doesn’t automatically change the teaching of the Church. Instead, it indicates an area where further studies and reflection of the magisterium is needed and proposes the pastoral approach that might benefit from a change.


So a synod is an advisory body?

I’d like to deepen one aspect that goes beyond a synod being an advisory body.

The Catholic Church is characterized by growing tensions and polarization. It contains plurality of thought, and already its very name derives from the word katholikos (from a Greek adjective meaning “universal”). 

Throughout its history, the magisterium has always defined her doctrine within the context of a worldwide family that contains great plurality. This diversity is the beauty of it: for example, looking solely at charisms, you can find hermits in contemplative prayer and Mother Teresa’s missionaries of charity serving the poorest of the poor. There are intellectuals like St. Augustine and deeply pious saints like St. John Vianney, the cure of Ars. There are priests living with homeless in the streets and those writing and teaching. There are mystics like Hildegard of Bingen and Teresa of Avila, faithful mothers like St. Monica, and those caring for the youth, drug addicts and the sick.

Essentially, there are people who find God in silence and others in their neighbors. There are sharp thinkers and scientists, as well as simple people with a deep, simple faith.

Who could say that one or the other is not important for the Church as a body?

In fact, a synod can be considered like a thermometer measuring the temperature in various parts of the body, gauging if and how everything is circulating, to keep the body alive and well.


Synods get us beyond our echo chamber

And there is another aspect of synodality that is inspired by a concept developed by a French Jesuit: we all need those different from us as a radical alternative to the tendency to stay in our own echo chamber.

Michel de Certeau SJ (1925-1986) reflected about an “alteritarian” three-step process, which is substantial for an understanding of the synodal way. He states that, in many situations, we must first recognize that the “other” (and here we could add: the other party, another group with a different opinion, a different culture) is missing. 

Second: it does not work without them, meaning we won’t get any further without others. 

And the third step, which is existentially true and humbling for everyone who seeks insights or answers: neither they nor I have the full truth.

This third step is opposite today’s way of saying “either/or,” made so popular with super-short messages and posts (which cannot depict complex relationships or connections). 

In this polarization, there’s usually little space for any shade between white and black. Certeau instead opposes the thought that only a certain opinion or thought must be considered. This mentality can lead to excluding people from our communities or institutions because they don’t have the “right” opinions. 

However, he also rejects every “both-and” approach. Synodality doesn’t mean that “everything goes.” No, there is still an absolute truth that we want to approach, and we can do this only by sincerely listening and searching together for the truth the Holy Spirit wants to reveal. 

It comes down to a basic insight that in an age where people tend to be sure that they are right might be needed more than ever: neither you nor I are completely right, because God is much bigger anyway. None of us can ever claim to understand God fully.


- Susanne Janssen​

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