The True Meaning of the Synod

I am going to make a bet with you.  Nothing that comes out of the Synod on the Family--no speech, no document, no pronouncement from the Pope--will prove to be as significant as the Pope's speech on Saturday.  The prompting for the speech was the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops in the aftermath of Vatican II, and in the speech Pope Francis lays out in the clearest form his vision of the Church and the role of the Synods in that Church.  It is, I think, the most radical thing that Pope Francis has ever said.  If Pope Francis is able to implement this vision, the nature and operation of the Catholic Church will be different.  Not unrecognizably different, but different nonetheless.

There are at least three important take-aways from the speech. The first has to do with the final outcome of the current Synod on the Family happening in Rome.  Amid talk that the Synod was doomed to fail as a result of diminishing prospects for any sort of consensus among the key issues, Francis clarified, or redefined, what this Synod was actually for.  The Synod is not primarily a decision-making body, but an exercise in communal listening and discernment.

The Synod of Bishops is the convergence point of this dynamic of listening conducted at all levels of church life. The synodal process starts by listening to the people, who “even participate in the prophetic office of Christ", according to a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium: "Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet" [what concerns all needs to be debated by all]. The path of the Synod continues by listening to the pastors. Through the Synod Fathers, the bishops act as true stewards, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, who must be able to carefully distinguish from that which flows from frequently changing public opinion. . . .

Finally, the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called upon to pronounce as “pastor and teacher of all Christians,” not based on his personal convictions but as a supreme witness of “totius fides Ecclesiae” (the faith of the whole Church), of the guarantor  of obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the Church.

What this means, in practical terms, is two-fold.  First, whatever comes out of the Synod from the bishops in terms of a work-product, Pope Francis feels that he is the ultimate decision-maker on the questions that are being discussed.  The work-product of the Bishops will be a key piece of Pope Francis's discernment, perhaps even the most important component of that discernment.  But the discernment is ultimately in Pope Francis's hands.

As a result, much of this talk about whether or not this or that proposal or vision of family life can get a super-majority of the bishops to back it is somewhat beside the point.  This is not a legislature, where a proposal never gets sent on to the executive unless it it is successfully "voted out" of the body.  Pope Francis will listen carefully to what the Bishops have to say, and then he will do what he thinks is right.

Second, all of this chaos and disagreement is by design, at least from Pope Francis's perspective.  The one thing that has become clear beyond all doubt is that there is no consensus in the Church on issues like divorce, LGBT questions, the relationship between conscience and Eucharist, gender issues, and family life generally.  Part of this vision of synodality involves airing all of these opinions.  I would not be at all surprised if whatever Francis ultimately says as a result of the Synod acknowledges directly this divergence of opinion.  That's where the People of God are right now, and I suspect Pope Francis sees no problem with admitting this obvious fact.

It also means that I suspect Pope Francis will, on some level, punt on these big questions--at least from a doctrinal point of view--and allow these issues to percolate further.  If he is going to make an substantive intervention, I think it will either be to move the conversation to the local level (see below), or to put some meat on the notion of "the Eucharist is medicine for the sick, not a prize for the perfect."  On that second point, he might follow the lead of Archbishop Cupich of Chicago and emphasize conscience, or even perhaps explicitly denouncing actions like Archbishop Meyers's Communion police edict from last week (my thoughts on Meyers in general are well-documented).

The second major take-away is that Pope Francis appears to be serious about devolution of power from the Vatican to the lower levels.
Francis's vision of synodality has a clear place for the Pope himself, but have no obvious role for the vast centralized Vatican bureaucracy.  Indeed, the obvious conclusion that flows from the Pope's comments is that much of the day-to-day work of the Church should be handled at the national and diocesan level, allowing for greater listening to the People of God.

Some, reasonably, may be skeptical of this move under a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" theory.  In the U.S. context, it is reasonable to be sanguine about the USCCB, its capabilities and outlook.  But I think that this downward move is much more fundamental than that.  The most interesting line in this section is where Pope Francis mentions the "diocesan Synod," as if this was a normal thing that everyone does.  I have been a Catholic for 37 years and have lived in seven different dioceses--I have never heard of any of these dioceses conducting a diocesan synod.  Presumably, full implementation of synodality would include the development and strengthening of these institutions, which would have an enormous impact on Catholic life on a local level.

If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion to the Holy Father--the best way to strengthen the synodality on a local level is to provide diocesan bodies with a guaranteed vehicle for input into the process of choosing a bishop for the diocese when there is a vacancy.  Local bishops, or at least many of them, are going to fight tooth and nail to prevent local bodies from having any real authority.  Pope Francis talked about the importance of consulting with lay people prior to the Synod on the Family, but he has to know that some bishops simply ignored his request to seek consultation.  You need some sort of canonical "hook" to force these institutions to be implemented, and this is the best vehicle.  I have discussed this issue before, but even if the diocesan synod were to act in parallel to the current process, submitting a terna alongside the nuncio's terna, that would be a meaningful step.

The other dimension with regard to this devolution of power was telegraphed by Pope Francis's specific mention, somewhat apropos to nothing, of the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Whatever disagreements and discontinuities there are between Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors, one key continuity (along with relations with Judaism) is the active focus on reconciliation with the Orthodox.  Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict recognized that such reconciliation would only be possible if the Catholic Church forswore many of the centralizing prerogatives it had claimed in the past, and they accepted this reality in a theoretical way.  But Pope Francis seems to be suggesting that Catholicism should preemptively forswear those prerogatives and concretely implement decentralization before trying to engage in serious talks with the Orthodox.  As my Orthodox friends never tire of telling me, the problem for them is not the Pope per se, but the Pope embodied in the massive Vatican machinery as a universal, omnipresent monarch.  Stripping away much of that machinery would be a confidence boosting measure for the Orthodox, I suspect.  It would, in a constructive way, but the ball back into the Orthodox's court--"you said the problem was ecclesiastical, and we fixed the ecclesiastic problem.  Are you serious about talking or not?"

But the big bombshell, for me, was the following paragraph:

In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium I stressed that "the people of God is holy because this anointing makes [the people] infallible "in matters of belief”, adding that "each baptized person, no matter what their function is in the Church and whatever educational level of faith, is an active subject of evangelization and it would be inappropriate to think of a framework of evangelization carried out by qualified actors in which the rest of the faithful People were only recepients of their actions.  The sensus fidei prevents rigid separation between “Ecclesia” (Church) and the Church teaching, and learing (Ecclesia docens discens), since even the Flock has an "instinct" to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.

This represents the clearest expression of what I have come to think of as the "soft Pentecostalism" of  Pope Francis.  "Hard" Pentecostalism is what people normally think of with Pentecostalism--speaking in tongues and faith-healing.  But Pentecostalism also has a theological and ecclesiastical dimension, one that emphasizes the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the community of believers as a dynamic force.  Pope Francis, it seems to me, clearly embraces this "soft" dimension of Pentecostalism, and it also seems to me that he sees Vatican II as embracing and expressing an authentically Catholic expression of this idea.

"Soft Pentecostalism" brings with it a number of consequences, but there are two big ones.  The first is that it necessarily flattens out the notion of teaching authority, as seen in the Pope's speech.  Simply put, soft Pentecostalism opens up the possibility that God may be speaking "from below," i.e. from the laity up to the clergy, as opposed to just "from above."  This complicates the application of teaching authority by the hierarchy.  In a purely top down model, the only way to understand, for example, the widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae is as dissent from proper authority; in a soft Pentecostalism model, one cannot reject out of hand the idea that God may be making something known via these supposedly "dissenting" married couples.

The other, related, consequence, is that Church teaching itself must in some respects be seen as always open-ended.  Soft Pentecostalism requires an openness to the notion that God may be doing a new thing, or at least doing an old thing in a new way or with a new point of emphasis.  This means that the Church simply cannot provide the kind of ironclad, unchanging certainty for which so many conservative and traditionalist Catholics pine.  This is not to say that there is no stability, but it does mean that we recognize that we can never have the final, unchangeable formulated answer to any question.  We must always leave open that space for the Spirit to do what the Spirit will do.

Here, far more than any narrow fight over remarried divorcees and LGBT people, is the real split between Pope Francis and his conservative opponents.  It comes down to a simple binary--is the Catholic Church fundamentally an unchanging (and unchangeable) ahistoric institution, or is it a pilgrim, dynamic institution?  We should recognize here that for many Catholics, especially (I have noticed) many converts to Catholicism, the attraction of the Catholic Church is precisely in the idea that it is static.  Indeed, many of them explicitly left their Protestant backgrounds because the Catholic Church was sold to them as a static institution, in large measure by Pope Francis's two predecessors.  I'm thinking here in particular of someone like R.R. Reno from First Things, though Ross Douthat would fall into this category.  These folks are going to think, and understandably so, that Pope Francis is pulling the rug out from underneath them.

So, I sympathize with those that would find this "soft Pentecostalism" a terrifying prospect.  But the alternative is to become the Catholic equivalent of the ultra-Orthodox Jews, trying desperately to recreate an imagined golden age through a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the passage of time (indeed, two different Jewish friends of mine noted to be the similarities they see between the ultra-Orthodox and the traditionalist and conservative Catholics).  The Benedict Option is a dead-end.  Our only option is forward.

Grab your ticket and your suitcase, folks.  Thunder is rolling down this track.


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