After ten years of pontificate, the point of arrival of the Pope Francis’s reign seems to be the October 2023 synod of bishops on the theme “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission”. To understand the semantic muddle of a “synod on synodality”, one must first distinguish between the two terms. A synod is a delimited historical event; synodality is a “path”, a “process” which, in the ideological landscape of Pope Francis, corresponds to the primacy of praxis over doctrine.
The term “synod”, which is derived from the Greek, σύνοδος — analogous to the Latin concilium — in fact means “assembly” or “meeting”, and is part of Church Tradition, while the word “synodality” is an indefinite neologism that accommodates different interpretations and readings. At the origin of the term “synodality” is that of “collegiality”, introduced into theological language by Father Yves-Marie Congar, as an equivalent of the idea of sobornost, coined by Russian Orthodox theologians in the nineteenth century.1 Sobor in Slavic means “assembly” or “council”. Sobornost expresses the reality of a universal church founded on synods, or councils, presided over not by a common authority but by the Holy Spirit. Congar made the concept of sobornost the linchpin of a Church reform whose direct adversary was the Roman primacy defended by the “ultramontane” theological school.
In the years of Vatican Council II, the dogma of Roman primacy constituted the main stumbling block in ecumenical dialogue, and fostering this dialogue meant highlighting the “collegial” dimension of Church governance. This allowed a convergence with the synodal practice of the Orthodox and Protestant churches. Moreover, there was a resurgence within progressive theology of the tendencies of fifteenth-century Conciliarism, eighteenth-century Febronianism and nineteenth-century Anti-Infallibilism, which had sought to limit, at different times and in different ways, the authority and influence of the papacy. There was also a more political reason. In progressive circles the model of the Church as an “absolute monarchy” seemed to clash with the process of the “modernisation” of society. Collegiality, or synodality, expressed the “democratic” demands of modern society.
The watchword was that of freeing the Church from the juridical trappings that suffocate it and transforming it from a vertical structure into a democratic and egalitarian one.
“For a thousand years everything among us has been seen and constructed from the papal angle, not from that of the episcopate and its collegiality. Now this history, this theology, this canon law needs to be done.”
Congar wrote this on 25 September 1964, considering it his mission to fight against the “wretched ultramontane ecclesiology”.2
In 1972 the German Jesuit Karl Rahner in turn dedicated an explosive essay to “structural change in the Church as task and opportunity”,3 stating that the church of the future had to be “declericalised”, “open”, “ecumenical”, “democratised” and “socio-critical”. This was the tack taken by the Dominican theologian Jean-Marie Tillard,4 a disciple of Congar, who contrasts the synodality of the local churches with the top-down power of the central Church, while the Jesuit historian John O’Malley has sought to demolish the “ultramontane” origins of the Church prior to Vatican II.5
So the category of “synodality” was not born with Pope Francis, but with him it has become an official paradigm corresponding to the concept of a “Church which goes forth”, “whose doors are open”.6 Francis has replaced the image of the “pyramidal church” with that of the “prismatic church”:
“The prism is unity, but all its parts are different; each has its own peculiarity, its charisma. This is unity in diversity. It is on this path that we Christians do what we call by the theological name of ecumenism: we seek to ensure that this diversity may be more harmonised by the Holy Spirit and become unity”.7
Since the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops in 2015, Pope Francis has affirmed that “the path of synodality” is “a constitutive element of the Church”, although without clarifying in what this element might consist. But the road was open, and the first to travel it was the German Bishops’ Conference, which on 1 December 2019, with a Letter to the faithful signed by Cardinal Reinhard Marx and the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZDK), Thomas Sternberg, announced that it had self-convened to lead the way down a “synodal path” with the aim of extending to the universal Church the “binding” decisions of their “permanent synod”. A recent study by Diego Benedetto Panetta does a good job of showing how the “German synodal path” conceals a project of reform of the universal Church intended to “democratise” the Church and redefine the papacy.9 The last stage of this process took place last 11 March in Frankfurt, with the request, greeted with great applause, to extend to the universal Church the abolition of celibacy, the sacramental diaconate for women, communion for the divorced and the blessing of homosexual couples.
Perhaps the “synodal church” of Pope Francis is not the same as the one the German bishops are hoping for, but it is certain that it welcomes their appeals and that its model is lightyears away from the traditional one. The “synodal dimension of the Church” is also clearly a utopia and, like all utopias, it has a devastating destructive vis, but is totally devoid of constructive capacity. The attempt to realise this deformed dream requires the exercise of an authoritarian and tyrannical power. The synodal church is therefore an egalitarian and acephalous church translated into reality through the dictatorship of synodality. But it would be catastrophic to want to fight the abuses of power we are facing by denying or limiting the principle of authority. This can only be done consistently by Liberal, Gallican or Modernist Catholics, certainly not by those who hold to the Tradition of the Church.
Catholic doctrine states that the power of jurisdiction belongs, iure divino, to the pope and the bishops. However, the fullness of the power of jurisdiction resides only in the pope, on whom the whole ecclesiastical edifice is founded. The Roman Pontiff is the sovereign authority of the whole Church and, by virtue of his primacy of universal government, remains its supreme legislator. This doctrine — already expounded at the Council of Florence in 1439 and in the Tridentine Professio Fidei — was solemnly defined at Vatican Council I, with the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus (18 July 1870), which reaffirms the primacy not only of honour, but of true and proper jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff over the universal Church and his infallibility under certain conditions.
It is these dogmas, providentially promulgated by Blessed Pius IX, that faithful Catholics must harness against synodalism. In fact, this alone and no other is the way that will allow the Church, ever living and indefectible, to be reborn in all its splendour and power.
- ‘Le peuple fidèle et la fonction prophétique de l’Eglise’, in Irenikon, No. 24 (1951), pp. 440–466.
- Yves-Marie Congar, My Journal of the Council (Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2012) pp. 595, 485.
- Karl Rahner, The Shape of the Church to Come (Seabury Press, New York, 1974).
- Église d’églises: L’ecclésiologie de communion (Cerf, Paris, 1987).
- Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2018).
- Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium (24 November 2013), 46.
- Pope Francis, Address to the Pentecostals of Caserta (28 July 2014).
- Pope Francis, Address (17 October 2015).
- Diego Benedetto Panetta, Il cammino sinodale tedesco e il progetto di una nuova chiesa (Tradizione Famiglia Proprietà, Rome 2020).