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A Synodal History

Synodality is experiencing growing pains, which is to be expected. Ever since the close of Vatican II, synodality has had a very uneven career, both in the various local churches and in the universal church.

Under Pope Paul VI, the synod of bishops was still developing, trying to find ways to facilitate discussion and draft a document in the allotted month, an astonishingly short amount of time. Then, in 1974, the synod fathers had a vivid discussion of the topic of evangelization, but the draft summation of their reflections was rejected by synod fathers. They left their notes for the pope to issue as a post-synodal exhortation. Felix culpa: This led to Papa Montini’s most consequential document, Evangelii Nuntiandi, issued the following year.

Pope John Paul II was no fan of synods, in large part because he had been one of two principal authors (Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro of Karachi, Pakistan was the other) of the draft summation at the 1974 synod that had been rejected as inadequate. As pope, he reduced the synods during his long reign to dry, formal affairs. Papa Wojtyla famously said he read books during the sessions.

Pope Benedict XVI tried to interject some new life into the proceedings by introducing a doctrinal karaoke hour at the end of each day’s session: For one hour, any synod member could go to the microphone and raise any issue they wanted. It made the events less dry but did not really achieve the kind of dialogue needed for true synodality. 

Only with Pope Francis did synodality really come into full flower. His commitment to synodality is rooted in his experience of CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano), the council of Latin American bishops’ conferences. In 1992, the year Jorge Bergoglio was consecrated a bishop, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, prefect of the Pontifical Council on the Family, tried to disband CELAM and they nearly succeeded. Pope John Paul II was persuaded to let the organization continue. Three years later, then-Archbishop, later Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga took the helm as President of CELAM. He would go on to become Pope Francis’ closest confidante.

In the United States, the provincial and plenary councils of Baltimore in the 19th century served as a means by which the hierarchy forged common policies on a variety of ecclesial issues. Between the last such council in 1884 and the start of the U.S. bishops’ conference in 1917, the annual meeting of the nation’s archbishops served a similar function. There were severe divisions within the ranks of the hierarchy, especially over issues of assimilation and the proper attitude towards the ambient, Protestant culture, but those fights were mostly kept within doors and within bounds.

Once a formal bishops’ conference was launched in 1917, it served as an arena for dialogue and forging consensus. There was never unanimity. For example, Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, the senior churchman after the death of Cardinal James Gibbons in 1921, tried mightily to get the conference shut down by Rome, viewing it as a threat to his own importance. Later prelates like Cardinal Francis Spellman would remain aloof from the conference. Only in recent years, when the culture wars came to the hierarchy and to the staff at the conference has it ceased to be an effective vehicle for synodality.

Unsurprisingly, in many dioceses, the current synodal effort is engaged in lukewarm fashion. In San Francisco, they even farmed the task out to the Catholic Leadership Institute, which may be a fine organization, but farming out a task always sends the signal that the bishop is not taking it too seriously.

The German Church’s “Synodal Path” has garnered much attention, most recently when a group of English-speaking prelates signed a public letter to their German confreres expressing concern about some of the approaches evidenced in the published documentation coming from Germany. The decision to make the letter public was an example of bruta figura, a violation of the norms by which bishops normally communicate with one another. You can imagine what a brouhaha would have occurred if some German or Italian bishops had written to the U.S. hierarchy complaining about, say, their abuse of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty in recent years.

George Weigel, however, took to the pages of First Things, ostensibly to defend the letter to the German bishops but, in reality, the article reads like a reprise of some of his own greatest obsessions. That, and a despicably careless use of the epithet “apostasy.” It should by now be clear that Weigel’s principal contribution to the Catholic mind has been to encourage a reflexive culture warrior stance among his followers, including some in the episcopacy. If you do not agree with him, you are labeled a bad Catholic, even an “apostate.” I have reservations about some of the conclusions coming from the German Synodal Path too, but I do not question the Catholicity of those who were involved in the deliberations. 

If synodality is to succeed, we all need to learn to take deep breaths, and to allow the process to run its course. People need to spend less time maneuvering to achieve a particular ideological outcome and more time listening to one another. The enemy of synodality is not the other, it is ideology.  

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.


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