Pope Francis and synodality

Nearly everyone agrees the period surrounding Vatican II saw great damage done to the Catholic faith, but nearly no one understands why. Much has been said about “ambiguities” in the conciliar texts, their questionable Magisterial status, etc., all of which misses the point: people do not live in a purely abstract, rationalistic sphere of minimalist orthodoxy. Faith rather is lived in a real world of concrete institutions and networks of relations, and if the faith is not fused with that lived reality, then it will not be lived at all. The Council endeavored, in the service of aggiornamento and ecumenism, to destroy the carefully-cultivated synthesis of faith and life that had prevailed for centuries, and this was its primary error: the hubris of thinking that it could dismantle what generations of saints had built over two millennia and replace it with something engineered on the fly in under a decade without expecting disastrous consequences.

The dynamic of ignoring the practical realities to fixate on extraneous questions of doctrine has played out too with Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. While some folk are functionally apostasizing over a throwaway line about the Old Covenant, the poison was baked into the cake at section 32:

Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.

He wants, in other words, to uproot the subsidiary administrative model of at least two centuries with an Orthodox-style synodal model alien to our patrimony, devolving doctrinal and presumably liturgical authority to corrupt episcopal conferences invented five minutes ago. Can you imagine these clowns with yet more power? If Francis gets his way, the forces of schism will positively explode. Worse, synodality will make it nearly impossible to undo the damage foisted on the Church through the very same central administrative organs he now wants to dismantle. I am coming to think we will never live to see things righted.

13 thoughts on “Pope Francis and synodality

  1. From the Orthodox perspective, this looks excellent — we’ve been complaining about ultramontanism for a very long time. However, Rome’s practice of superpapism for so long, coupled with the relatively recent lowering of orthodox and orthopractical standards for hierarchs, has resulted in an episcopacy unfit to rule. So, I agree that devolving decisions to national or regional episcopal conferences in the Roman Church is unwise now (though not absolutely), yet I smirk when I think about the Latin intellectual legacy behind subsidiarity in the political realm. Intelligent governing arrangements — except for “Peter,” whom alone among all rulers the Holy Spirit vouchsafes to guide properly.

    Seriously, though, if Rome is to return to the ancient collegial way (not quite alien to the Western patrimony if you go back far enough), it must get its house in order. You would not hand over your car keys to an irresponsible teenager — surely the pope shouldn’t hand over (share) Peter’s keys with unready bishops. How, though, are the Latins to raise up bishops fit to be, uh, bishops? Or better yet — to raise up its flock so that the people themselves keep the bishops in line just as the bishops oversee the people (another form of our grating Eastern symphony)?

    You see — there are real unintended consequences to clericalism, such as a spiritually emaciated laity, and it shows when the chain of command breaks (e.g. modernity). Ditto for ultramontanism with regard to the episcopacy. It’s a mess.

    I wish Pope Francis the best in his attempts to re-evangelize his lost sheep.

    • I was hoping you’d chime in, Joseph. In principle I have no objection to synodality. The Orthodox model seems to work well, for the Orthodox, who have over 1000 years experience with it, a whole network of customs and safeguards built into it, and (I’m given to understand) procedures in place by which a diocesan synod can oust an unruly bishop; but we can’t engineer an equally functional system in the West on the fly in five minutes. It’s hubris to think we can and idiocy to suggest we ought to try. More importantly, though, the Orthodox have a commonly-held and valued tradition to glue them together even in the absence of a central administrative apparatus or figurehead, and it is precisely that tradition which serves as a visible symbol of unity. The equivalent tradition in the West has been deliberately dismantled and it’s not even clear the bishops all share the same faith anymore.

      I am also especially alarmed by what can only be described as neo-ultramontanism among some ordinary Catholics (e.g., the Catholic Answers Forum variety), who already regard every episcopal utterance (even the horrid Scalfari interview) as divinely inspired and every prudential governing decision as being a response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I hate to imagine how that dynamic would play out if, in 20 or 30 years, the bishops conferences of two different nations issue competing doctrinal guidelines.

      • If I recall, Paul VI was also pretty chummy with the Eastern churches to the point of scandal. That thought was my first, in the days following Francis’ election, when some Trads tried to console themselves bringing up the fact that Cardinal Bergoglio apparently had a good relationship with the Easterners in Argentina. Sadly it seems the leadership does not look to incorporate the good aspects of the East (namely their liturgy). Instead it seems to be just another chance to denigrate one’s own tradition in favor of the (exotic) other. Not to mention an insult to Eastern Catholics who have come into the fold and stayed faithful against persecution.

  2. Proph, I agree that the synodality proposal is the most disheartening part of Evangelii Gaudium from a practical standpoint. If the proposal is realized, we orthodox Catholics should prepare ourselves for years of schism and episcopal dissent that will make the Winnipeg Statement look positively ultramontane. As you say, it’s quite likely that we’ll spend our remaining years struggling to remain faithful in a Church that is in complete disarray.

    But I disagree that the Old Covenant passage is a mere “throwaway line”. From my own (very limited) understanding, it seems close to heresy. If the Old Covenant is still in effect, why was the Temple Veil torn from top to bottom at Jesus’s death? Why was the Temple razed in AD 70, if not to underline the obsolescence of Jewish rituals? Is Talmudic Judaism really to be seen through a “hermeneutic of continuity” with Temple Judaism, as if the former is merely a continuation of the latter? Isn’t it the historic understanding of the Church that she (and she alone) is the New Israel?

  3. You don’t know exactly what the Pope has in mind just from that paragraph. To say that something is too centralized and needs to be decentralized does not imply that one is going to go all the way and “uproot the subsidiary administrative model of at least two centuries with an Orthodox-style synodal model.”

    I read a comment to a blog post about this at The American Catholic website that I think was a very good response to these fears that you express here and Donald R McClarey expressed in his post. The commenter’s name is Botolph. He writes:

    “What most Catholics do not realize or recognize is that the Church already actually ‘runs’ on this ‘synodal’ model. There are 22 churches in complete communion (key word here) with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. Most people see them as ‘rites’ which indeed they have (such as Byzantine, Melkite,Maronite, etc) but these churches themselves ‘run’ on a synodal model. For example, they select their own bishops, which then in turn must be (and almost always are) ratified by Rome. Any difficulties which arise, whether doctrinal, moral or disciplinary, are first dealt with at this ‘local level’. They do not come to doctrinal or moral positions different than the Catholic Faith professed by all (although they might have a different way of expressing it) Discipline issues are all dealt with at the local level in accordance with the general Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches. These churches are indeed churches, and not simply ‘rites’. Thus, already, the Catholic Church is a communion of churches, with the Bishop of Rome being the sign and instrument of that communion, ecclesial unity.

    While this synodal form of government might initially look no different than the Eastern Churches Orthodox brothers and sisters, it differs in two substantial and distinct ways. While distinct churches, the Eastern Churches are not ‘National Churches” such as “Greek Orthodox”, “Russian Orthodox” “Serbian Orthodox” etc. While these churches are all Orthodox, nothing prevents one from ‘breaking communion’ with another [In fact the tensions between the Russian and Greek Churches is horrendous]. This simply is not known or countenanced in the Eastern Churches. The sign and instrument of ecclesial communion is the pope, the Bishop of Rome.

    The second substantial distinction between this synodal ‘model’ of the Eastern Churches and the Orthodox is the inability of the Orthodox Churches to either really call, gather for a general synod (council) of the Orthodox Church to discuss very important matter, or what authority to validate and uphold the Synod (council). Their ecclesiology had depended on the Byzantine Emperor (or the Russian Czar) to validate and uphold such a synod. The Eastern Churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome, do not have this problem. The pope can call for a Council and it is the Pope who validates an Ecumenical Council of the Church [thus the canonical reason that Vatican II is indeed a Council of the Church].

    This ‘synodal form’ of the Church can and apparently will be renewed within the whole Church. I do not see (in fact I believe this will be avoided at all cost) Bishops Conferences transformed into this synodal form taking on “national” identities [ as we see with the Orthodox] to the detriment of Catholic ecclesial communion. However, if a doctrinal matter comes up, for example some theologian at a Catholic college or university is obviously dissenting from Catholic teaching, it would be dealt with first in the local Church [say the Archbishop of Washington has to deal with a dissenting theologian at Catholic University]. This is the principle of subsidiarity at work in the Church [the one I hear everyone screaming about in terms of the economy]. Then it would be taken to the American Bishops ‘Conference’ who have a commission for matters of doctrine. If that did not work, then and only then, it would go to Rome, the Church which presides in charity, as Saint Ignatius of Antioch described it, founded upon Peter and Paul and led by the Bishop of Rome, the pope. In fact, this is nothing more than Matthew 18′s description of how to deal with an errant ‘brother’.

    In issues of ‘discipline’, for example, the recent difficulties with the LCWR (nuns group), the Bishops’ Conference should have had the ‘power’ to constructively deal with the issue years ago. The Bishops Conference is closer to the difficulty, knows the American culture, can dialogue easier with the nuns. However, because of the present structure, the bishops were all but powerless to really enter that dialogue. They had no other choice but send the issue to Rome, which of course takes time, etc. Rome has to investigate, try to understand women’s religious life in the American context (both the pros and cons) and what happened? They sent it back to America with an American bishop in charge of the ‘dialogue’.

    These ‘changes’ are actually part of the ancient patrimony of the Church. They do not contradict the identity or makeup of the Catholic Church. However, the purpose of the changes is to further ‘the mission of the Church which is evangelization’. And where does evangelization take place?”

    • Mr. Nowell, the Russian emperor never called or confirmed an ecumenical council. For the Orthodox, all such councils involved the (Christian) Roman emperor (or empress) and, in some way, the involvement of the Roman Church. There have been other pan-Orthodox councils that have gathered to deal with various issues without the initiative of an emperor or the involvement of Rome, but they are generally not regarded as ecumenical. These do not happen often, but that is probably for the best. Some folks have been clamoring for such a meeting for a century, and I, for one, am glad that it did not occur . . . with the background influenced by Communist theomachy and Mohammedan persecution from within and by Western apostasy from without. A similar toxic mix, I believe, infected Vatican II. Let us return to an age of sanity before we start tinkering with the canons or liturgics. Our wretched generation cannot be trusted.

      As for the Holy Spirit’s indelible stamp of approval on bishops’ gatherings, well, history has shown otherwise (robber councils, anyone?). All men may disobey the will of God, even his designated overseers of the people and even, contrary to the First Vatican Council, his bright boy at Saint John Lateran. It is a human foible to want a ready answer to every question, and this urge gives rise to Latin apologetics for papal supremacy (“But the doctrinal buck MUST stop somewhere!!!”) and the tendency to assign ecumenical councils infallibility due to their episcopal (and/or papal) approval. However, councils only gained such authority after the fact, according to what I call the existential logic of the Church (more here). Sometimes, we must be patient and accept our ignorance instead of fabricating a system to give us “God’s answer” when God has provided no such answer — whether in scripture, tradition, or the magisterium of the Lord’s appointed shepherds.

      Your other comments remind me of Fr. Aidan Nichols’ criticism of the Orthodox. I love Fr. Aidan, but I disagree with his assessment and mention why here.

      As to your general point, I think that synodal government within the Latin rite Roman Church is what disturbs Proph and others. Sure, the various exotic (to the average Western Christian) Churches have their special arrangements, but do we trust the British, Irish, German, Austrian, Australian, or American bishops to do anything sensible? There are many good ones, but folks mistrust the prudence of national conferences. As evidence for their argument, consider the last fifty years.

      • Joseph,

        I’ll bow to your superior understanding of the history of the Orthodox church. I re-posted Botolph’s comment here mainly for his take on how the current synodal model for other Catholic rites works now and how it compares and contrasts with the Orthodox model and his theory that devolving more power to the epsicopal conferences will help them combat local heresies more quickly and effectively.

        If the Pope wants to endow episcopal conferences some power to combat local heresies while maintaining final right of appeal and ultimate authority in Rome it could be a good thing as it will enable quicker response to local heresies to stop them before they start.

      • Also, as the robber council of Ephesus was invalidated by the Pope’s “Contradicitur!”, so too would any possible erroneous ruling of an episcopal conference be invalidated by fiat of the Pope.

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