A publication of Sacred Heart University
Daring to Dream Amidst the Ruins
Skunking Synodality

The Promise of Vatican II: Still Waiting

Much is being written concerning the rekindling of ecclesial synodality. While the initiative for this renewal of Church governance comes from Vatican II, Vatican II’s sense of the Church as synodal/conciliar comes from the existence of the Eastern Churches. In its 2017 text “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” the International Theological Commission correctly noted: “In the Eastern Churches, synodal procedure continued to follow the tradition of the Fathers, particularly on the level of patriarchal and metropolitan Synods … ” (par 31). Although often not welcomed by the Vatican, this form of governance persisted, albeit imperfectly, in the Eastern Catholic Churches. Vatican II, in the Decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum, recognized the value and authenticity of this ecclesial tradition and solemnly declared “that the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls,” (par. 9). Recognizing this early Church tradition, the Council affirmed the “special duty” of these Churches in “promoting the unity of all Christians” by “prayer in the first place, and by the example of their lives, by religious fidelity to the ancient traditions, by a greater knowledge of each other …” (par. 24). Thus, the Council reaffirmed the unique gifts of the Eastern Churches and encouraged them in a mission to authentically live those gifts for the fulfillment of the dominical prayer: “that they all may be one” (Jn. 17:21).

However, what happens when an Eastern Church, living its authentic synodal tradition, sees no reason for being separated from its non-Catholic counterpart while continuing its communion with the see of Rome? Does the commitment to Vatican II, to synodality and to episcopal conciliarity make room for this possibility? This is not a theoretical question, but one that arises again and again.

On October 12, 2020, The Tablet reported that Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako said, “I see nothing to prevent the union of the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.” With that statement he joined a list of Catholic bishops who have at various times made clear that their Eastern Church should be reunited with its Orthodox counterpart. His words were reminiscent of the so-called Zoghby Initiative. In 1995, Archbishop Elias Zoghby proposed that his Melkite Church establish a “double communion”: while maintaining communion with the see of Rome, re-establish communion with its counterpart Orthodox Church, the see of Antioch. The July 1995 synod of Melkite bishops voted in favor, 24 to 2. However, a 1997 letter signed by the heads of three Vatican dicasteries, including the CDF, declared the initiative “premature.”

The Vatican’s lack of support for these initiatives demonstrates the limits of its understanding of true synodality. Synodality necessitates an organic listening, an openness to perceiving the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Synodality is not an ecclesial form of democracy. It is a recognition of our faith in the Holy Spirit working through and in the Body of Christ in its entirety. Synodality is an expression of our humility: no one actor in the Church is imbued with perfect knowledge that allows them to act with complete independence. All are at the service of the Holy Spirit. We know the Spirit when we are together and open to allowing that Spirit to call us to an ever fuller and more authentic expression of our faith, bringing the many into one. Being Church is about faith, which involves trust and a willingness to reenter into newness in Christ. Living synodally and fulfilling the promise of Vatican II demands facilitating the Eastern Churches’ freedom to be who they are, even when that entails new ways of living the unity of the Church. No doubt striving to practice synodality in this way would be neither straightforward nor easy. But this is where the Holy Spirit has been leading and it’s time to end the resistance to Christ’s entreaty that we all may be one.

Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.


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