Synods on synods



At first sight the recent Vatican announcement that a forthcoming synod would be delayed was non-news. All synods are considered boring, and a synod on synodality sounds entirely self-referential. Yet the announcement was significant. The synod will take up much time and energy of Catholics at the local, diocesan, national and international level for almost three years, involving local congregations in considerations, dioceses in collating these results and sharing them with other dioceses, bishops in participating in the conversations, reviewing and reporting jointly to the Roman office to draw up the agenda for the synod.

Main image: Bishops, cardinals and patriarchs attend the Opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Given the human investment required by synod it is worthwhile to reflect on the recent history of synods and why Pope Francis places such importance on them. As in so many of his actions, his endorsement of synods addresses challenges facing civil societies, too. This may be the subject of a later article.

In the Western Catholic world synods came out of the Second Vatican Council. In contrast to previous Councils Vatican II focused less on Church teaching than on pastoral renewal, freeing and energising Catholics to live out the gospel in their world. It paid particular attention to the relationship of bishops to the Pope, seeing them as a college with the Bishop of Rome as its head. Together they were responsible for the teaching and living of faith in the Church. The council also emphasised the active responsibility of lay Catholics who were equal members of the Church with priests and bishops though with different responsibilities.

Paul VI introduced the synod to express the unity between pope and bishops. The bishops who gathered with him would offer support, advice and symbolise their unity and share in international responsibility for the Church. Under his successors John Paul II and Benedict XVI who were much preoccupied with unity of faith in the face of dissent, the Pope and his administration tightly controlled the agenda, process and the outcomes of the synod. While calling for a vibrant church the two popes emphasised the distinctive dignity and descending teaching authority of pope, bishops and priests.

Upon his election Pope Francis has set out to encourage freedom and initiative among Catholics. In his own conduct he paid less attention to issues of authority and doctrine than to outreach to people at the margins of the church and beyond it. His gift for such symbolic actions as mixing freely with people, holding off the cuff press conferences, and visiting prisons and refugee camps, were as important as his words. He has made synods a crowning symbol of his vision. He has encouraged participants to speak their mind, to differ on issues, to consult their people, and to see themselves as shaping the understanding of faith. They model the proper shape of relationships within the church as a whole, which Pope Francis has described as synodality.

Synodality is above all an attitude of mind and heart that encapsulates Catholic tradition. At its heart is the conviction that the spirit is given to each member of the Church, so that each has the gift and responsibility to contribute to the lived understanding of faith and to share the gospel. The bishops with the Pope have a distinctive responsibility for teaching. But because lay people move at the edges of faith where the Gospel is shared, their insights are central in commending Christian faith. The centre of the Church is relocated at its periphery. 

This view of relationships in the Church is based in faith, and underlies the understanding of synodality as reciprocal process conversation in which the chief task of bishops, including the Pope, and of people is to listen for the promptings of the holy spirit. In their conversation all are variously teachers and learners.


'Because all conversations will be partial and will reflect the prejudices as well as the mature reflection of participants, Pope Francis places great weight on discernment.'


The conversational process is also one of conversion in which the participants move from a partial and often partisan vision of the gospel and what it entails for the Church to a deeper, fuller and more radical view. People who might come as spear bearers for particular proposals come to recognise the value in other points of view. This conversion requires inner freedom.

Because all conversations will be partial and will reflect the prejudices as well as the mature reflection of participants, Pope Francis places great weight on discernment. He sees this as the central contribution of bishops and pope. They are to listen carefully to the conversations of people and bishops respectively and to weigh their proposals for the spirit in which they are made and for their fit with the gospel. This judgment is not made simply by weighing arguments but by spiritual criteria. Pope Francis, for example, has said that he did not followed up some decisions that won majority support at recent synods because he thought the conversation polarised or not sufficiently mature.

Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality has come under threat from two opposing directions. One insists on clear lines of separation with respect to dignity and authority between pope and bishops, bishops and priests, and priests and laity. It also insists on lines of separation between church and world, and between Catholic teaching and personal experience. It consequently sees conversation about faith as top down and segmented, not as a continuous flow. Pope Francis has criticised this vision of the church as clericalism. It makes for a self-preoccupied Church and prevents the flow between shared reflection, consultation and discernment that give energy to the spreading of the gospel.

The Pope’s understanding of synodality is also threatened by an approach that applauds him for freeing conversation and opening it to more participants, but judges the process by criteria drawn from contemporary democratic parliamentary processes. In governance of the church the participants should represent constituencies, press the positions they have taken in caucus, and take votes in which majority decisions would be binding. In Pope Francis’ understanding of synodality this view would fail to recognise the canopy of guidance by the spirit in which tradition and discernment have a central part.

Pope Francis would also argue that each of these rival approaches to governance have their counterparts in the contemporary world and each has manifestly run into dead ends that synodality might break through. The force of this reply, however, might hang on the energies that the synod, together with such similar enterprises as the Australian Plenary Council, release. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Bishops, cardinals and patriarchs attend the Opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, synod, synodality, clericalism, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

The first thing that Pope Francis needs to do is to get rid of the trapping of power and difference by removing the mitres and robes and have bishops and cardinals look like human people rather than overstuffed dolls !
DAVID FIELD | 03 June 2021

As Fr Andrew recognises, "tradition and discernment" play vital roles in synods. Twice recently, Pope Francis has had cause to reject several Amazonian an Germanic ecclesial demands for reform. The Australian Bishops Conference's three priorities - Formation, Becoming More Missionary, and Collegiality - all accord with Pope Francis's reiteration of his predecessors call for tradition and discernment, and the "new evangelisation" launched in Paul VI's "Evangelii Nuntiandi", as well as calls for the same in Australia's Plenary Council deliberations.
John RD | 04 June 2021

I was sitting in the autumn sun recently, warmed and marvelling at the wonders of creation and of how powerless we human's were to replicate them. For a moment I thought I was listening to "the promptings of the Holy Spirit". The beauty and melody was, however, coming from a butcher bird. Perhaps some creatures other than the seriously flawed human being might be of value to the synod. While the butcher bird praises God the Creator in all he/she says, the majority of human beings including 80% of professed Catholics, unlike the butcher bird, have given up the beauty of the songs of praise and subservience to their Creator and replaced them with clamorous talk festivals.
john frawley | 04 June 2021

Fr Andrew you say this: "Upon his election Pope Francis has set out to encourage freedom and initiative among Catholics. " How so? "In his own conduct he paid less attention to issues of authority and doctrine than to outreach to people at the margins of the church and beyond it." What by throwing a wreath into the sea when the refugees drowned off the Italian Coast? "His gift for such symbolic actions as mixing freely with people, holding off the cuff press conferences, and visiting prisons and refugee camps, were as important as his words." He has never visited Australia, nor a prison here, and doesn't show the slightest interest in this land down under. Again, like his predecessor, he cares far more about the reputation of the church than he does about the rotten apple clergy in our midst exposed by the RC. At the Grotto of Lourdes when Papa Francesco invited the homeless for meal he never even turned up but delegated the task to Betullo. And of course Rome has become a haven for displaced pedophile and homosexual clergy. I agree with David that the trappings of office represent status, power and authority - all the things that are the hallmarks of rampant clericalism. Just imagine how the church would have a true epiphany if they gave women equal rights which is their due. Long overdue!
Francis Armstrong | 04 June 2021

A brilliant explanation from Andrew. Synods have been part of our language forever. But synodality is a new, dynamic term descibing the process of discerning what is best in given situations. Our Catholic tradition is essentialist - weighted towards the unchanging classic. That's why Aristotle and Plato are sainted. But it has taken an old Bergoglio to draw us back to seeing that Christianity is nothing if not dynamic and evolutionary. This article has made that much clearer for me.
Eric Hodgens | 04 June 2021

The Church cannot be a democracy directed simply by popular opinion, not that even democratic leadership should be so simplistic. The Church must discern God's will and its leaders must include and listen to the people of God in that discernment. Francis understands the concept of leadership in his support for synodality. Regrettably, bishops of the Church have been formed to see themselves as autocrats and few have broken from this unaccountable approach which is clearly contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Autocratic bishops are understandably opposed to the thinking of Pope Francis - they prefer to be unaccountable.
Peter Johnstone | 04 June 2021

I love the way Francis looks beyond the usual official church bodies for people to share ideas about how to promote and live the message of Jesus. However, with the current process of the Plenary Council in Australia lasting quite a while, and with many people either not involved at all or only participating in a minimal way, I wonder how energised people will feel to embark on yet another round of consultations and discernment? Preparing for the synod will need to be carefully thought through I would think.
Beth Gibson | 04 June 2021

In addressing the issue of Church governance, the proposed model articulated in the "Fundamental Text" of the Synodaler Weg of the German Bishops Conference still in progress is radically secular. It is urged that the understanding and practice of a personal calling to discipleship and its expression in the spiritual fatherhood of priesthood and episcopacy be replaced by a liberal democratic model based on majority decision and the rule of law. Under this regimen the Church's modus operandi, and indeed her very modus vivendi, would not only be accountable to democratic process: in principle and effectively, her teachings and practices would be dictated by them. "Gender justice" will be determinative of Church leadership - not, it should be noted, a tested calling from God based on scriptural precedent in both the Old and New Testaments and manifest in the Apostolic tradition of the Church. In short, the governance ideology of the Synodaler Weg's "Fundamental Text" is a formula for a deadening bureaucratisation and radical secularisation of the People of God, who would be bereft of spiritual authority and identity derived from authentic faith response to God's self-revelation in Christ.
John RD | 05 June 2021

Peter Johnstone. 'The Church [ie ,the people of God] must discern God's will [how?] and its leaders must [by what authority] include and listen to the people of God in that discernment. I recall that the people of God, chosen by Christ himself, screamed out 'Crucify him ! Crucify him! and took in a convicted felon in his place despite the supreme judge washing his hands of a contrived trial. It would be interesting to hear your detailed explanation of your claim that with few exceptions the hierarchy of the Catholic Church acts contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Which teachings specifically do you refer to? But even more intriguing, what is it that convinces you and your fellow protesters that the Holy Spirit is speaking to you lot and ignoring his own ordained priesthood. Crucifixion didn't give the people what they wanted and Christ came back bigger better and brighter. Hopefully, the synod and the highly touted Plenary Council will have the same effect for Christ and his Church without bending to self interested protest..
john frawley | 05 June 2021

The writert has correctly stated: 'Synodality is above all an attitude of mind and heart that encapsulates Catholic tradition. At its heart is the conviction that the spirit is given to each member of the Church, so that each has the gift and responsibility to contribute to the lived understanding of faith and to share the gospel.' (My italics). This reiterates article 37 of Vatican II’s document Lumen Gentium in 1964: ‘[The Laity] are by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. …[L]et this be done through the organs [synods, plenary councils etc.) erected by the Church for this purpose. …Let the spiritual shepherds recognize and promote the dignity as well as the responsibility of the laity in the Church. Let them willingly employ their prudent advice. Let them confidently assign duties to them in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action. Further, let them encourage lay people so that they may undertake tasks on their own initiative. Attentively in Christ, let them consider with fatherly love the projects, suggestions and desires proposed by the laity. However, let the shepherds respectfully acknowledge that just freedom which belongs to everyone in this earthly city. A great many wonderful things are to be hoped for from this familiar dialogue between the laity and their spiritual leaders: in the laity a strengthened sense of personal responsibility; a renewed enthusiasm; a more ready application of their talents to the projects of their spiritual leaders. The latter, on the other hand, aided by the experience of the laity, can more clearly and more incisively come to decisions regarding both spiritual and temporal matters. In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, may more effectively fulfill is mission for the life of the world.'
Thomas Amory | 05 June 2021

Eric Hodgens, in pronouncing the "Catholic tradition" "essentialist", and lacking in development ignores the the Catholic faith's historical engagement with every major philosophy and ideology for two millennia. Nothing static about that enterprise. Moreover, the human intellect of its nature is oriented to understanding what is true, and of apprehending things as they are; for instance, the "essence" of a human being as distinct from a motor vehicle or a rabbit. The process of defining essences is, in fact, quite dynamic - especially when it comes to discerning the essential characteristics of schools of thought, or ideologies that influence praxis. So what should the Church 'saint', Eric: Marxist materialism, and the postmodernist relativism of Horkheimer, Adorno, Foucault, Derrida . . . ?
John RD | 06 June 2021

Thomas Amory: "Attentively in Christ, let them consider with fatherly love the projects, suggestions and desires of the laity." (L.G., 37).The Council's "them" here refers to "the spiritual shepherds" of the Church's hierarchy - pope, bishops and priests. The Amazonian and Germanic synods display an attitude of dismissal for what they regard as outdated paternalism and hierarchical governance, demanding instead a radically feminist rejection of any expression of fatherhood and assuming, based on clerical abuse, that priests are incapable of celibacy. Nor, can misandry be ruled out from this outlook that presents itself under the demand for 'equality'. I should think that together with paedophiles the last candidates to be considered for the Catholic priesthood and its responsibilities are those who conceive it as an entitlement, and its realisation to be the prize of a power contest between males, females and any other constructed gender. This would be the height of clericalism. In saying this, I am not rejecting the roles of "synods" and "plenary councils" as such; however, I am registering scepticism as to their necessary consistency with what Vatican II envisages as their role in the life, tradition and unity of the Church in the light of the Amazonian and Germanic experience of them.
John RD | 06 June 2021

If the recent synod session held in my diocese is anything to go by, I don't hold much hope for "freedom and initiative". Attendance was by invitation only. The 56 page document issued just prior to the day grouped those attending as Those having a voice and a vote Those having a voice but no vote Those having no voice and no vote In order to have both voice and vote one had to sign a 'profession of faith and an oath of fidelity'. Though sufficient time has elapsed, the only report of proceedings I can find is both sketchy and abstract. It seems that the Chancery is intent on keeping laity at arms length and not properly informed.
John Casey | 08 June 2021

Thomas Amory is both right and judicious in reminding us that Andy's words on synodality emerge from much earlier on than Bergoglio's and stem from 'Lumen Gentium'. If Tom had been less availing and more 'critical' he'd have suggested that the Australian Bishops - so far as we can see - have their own carefully controlled synod and send its results to the Vatican as a means of showing how the universal synod should NOT be managed. That, at least, would, at the time of this discussion, reflect a wry hope, at least for the longer term, on the part of those reformist Australian Catholics who, so far, have been palpably side-lined from participation. That the hopes of such reformers lie in the hands of the very few, like John Warhurst, who happens to be a Diocesan nominee, also highlights the value of the German Bishops' advice that democracy, for all its flaws, provides a superior vehicle for debate and discussion than dictatorship. After all, who should know better about such things than post-War Germans Catholics, whose bishops were manifestly silent during the War and whose Nuncio, Cardinal Pacelli, decided to act 'diplomatically' to protect the interests of the Vatican?
Michael Furtado | 09 June 2021

PS. If John RD knew anything about the Frankfurt School he would save himself a great many blushes in his condemnation of Horkheimer, Adorno, Foucault, Derrida and Habermas, all of whom employ a praxis process in regard to their theoretical work that offers the impetus for engagement by Christians in the Modern World. John's repetitive and tiresome references to both the German and Amazonian Synods as well as to the above political philosophers demonstrates a closure of mind that astounds in the contemporary global intellectual context, in which leading Catholics, both lay and religious, employ various applications of their knowledge of the Frankfurt School that is to a high degree the gift of the Catholic Church in a variety of fields, such as education, development and social inclusion, to name but a few. John's persistent and unscrupulous wedging of Catholics - between Bishops and laity, priests and people, women and men - far from constituting a defense of the magisterium - reflects an anti-intellectualism on an equivalent scale to the publications of writers considered to be second-rate in their scope and method of addressing the existential crises facing humanity. That John should think he defends the Church is a parody.
Michael Furtado | 09 June 2021

John Casey, invitation only to the PC (based on status and allegiance to the Chancery) "a voice and no vote" is typical of the Bishops who only want sheep in their pews. Most recommendations made by the Royal Commission have been blatantly ignored by the Australian hierarchy. Especially the one that says the Bishops should be elected by the laity. I mean who the hell do the RC think they are? making sensible suggestions like that? Despite Pope Francis lamenting erosion to the rights prescripted in the UDOHR at its 70 year anniversary in 2018, he has done little to advance equality of women in the Catholic church. Other than pay lip service by forming a committee. In fact he has done more to advance the LGBTQ cause than women's rights. Getting back to David Field's comment, one cannot help but think the only useful addition to the pointy hats and robes would be hoods with eye holes so that the resemblance to the KKK would be complete. And just imagine the likely fate of some black African woman who might have the temerity to suggest she could do a better job as "Papa" than Francesco to this benighted organization.
Francis Armstrong | 09 June 2021

Not all German bishops were "manifestly silent" in the face of Nazism, Michael Furtado: the Bishop of Munster, Clement von Galen, was publicly denouncing that perverse ideology and its practices as early as 1934, and continued his attacks on the Nazis' abominable policies and regime throughout the war. His episcopal confrere in Cologne, Josef Frings, in 1943 and 1944, condemned from the pulpit Nazi persecution of the Jews as "an injustice that cries to the heavens." Further, from his direct assistance to saving Jews -acknowledged by the Jewish community in Rome after the war - I'd say your description of Cardinal Pacelli's motives as protecting "the interests of the Vatican" also merits revision.
John RD | 09 June 2021

Despite decades of dramatically declining Church membership, declining priestly vocations and a dark period of sexual abuse, reformists have ‘been sidelined from participation’. Catholics, like the GOP and Democrats in the US, or Republicans and Monarchists in Australia, hold irreconcilable narratives about future directions. Genuine Catholic interaction and dialogue have receded. Forum discussions in ‘The National Catholic Reporter’ and more recently in ‘Pearls and Irritations’ fall in the too-hard box. The traditional Catholic Church, grounded in patriarchal male privilege, hierarchy, doctrine, Canon Law, clericalism and institutionalism, has lost its nexus with the inner life of the gospel, focused on Christ in every person but there are many vibrant parish communities. As a teacher in Catholic High Schools, I found it a great sadness to see young people, along with their parents, walk sadly out the Church door. Your comments about reform groups, Michael, and indeed John Warhurst, support Andrew Hamilton’s view about the process of how“participants move from a partial and often partisan vision of the gospel and what it entails for the Church to a deeper, fuller and more radical view.” Reformist groups in Australia present a rich vision for the future Church that deserves significant support.
Peter Donnan | 09 June 2021

Michael Furtado: ‘After all, who should know better about such things than post-War German Catholics, whose bishops were manifestly silent during the War….’ It doesn’t require a doctorate in the philosophy of language to be aware that while their bishops were silent during the War, the post-War German Catholics were intra-war German Catholics, like their intra-war bishops, Space-Time being like a train you can’t get off. If they were silent too, then one would think it precious of them to be too hard on their bishops. This intriguing hypothesis that the reckless embrace of institutional suicide is the highest value an institution can adopt can be put to practice right now by the Catholic bishops of the People’s Republic over, say, Xinjiang. Or perhaps it’s for Christians outside the purview of extinction to speak for Christians who cannot speak? And Space-Time being like a train you can’t get off, the reason why some Christians can speak out while others can’t is because God has kindly sheltered them in carriages under the civilian control of something you’ve disparaged elsewhere called the Western Canon.
roy chen yee | 09 June 2021

Michael Furtado: Christians in their Gospel-inspired and tradition-informed practice have no need of the "praxis" indoctrination of Horkeimer, Adorno and others of the Frankfurt School who reject time-tested epistemology that places truth and its attainability where it belongs - centrally - in the universal human quest for knowledge, understanding and meaning: even as far in scope and depth as affirming the existence of God. The Frankfurt School and its disciples encourage subjective constructions of reality sundered from objective foundations; their intent is linguistic disruption of authoritative discourse and society's mainstay institutions, especially those of religion and family - traditionally, Marxist prime targets. A method and style not at all unlike that employed often by yourself in Eureka Street ripostes. And, oh, why bother with an "anti-intellectualism" of such little consequence as deemed by you and your claimed "Catholic leaders"? Could it be that increasing criticism of English and Humanities courses in schools and universities by students, parents, teachers and academics for the neo-Marxist and postmodernist bias in curriculum is making the tenured Gramscian apparatchiks of the '60s and '70s a tad nervous? I'd hope so - devoutly!
John RD | 10 June 2021

The public record will show that Galen's stand, while exceptional for the German episcopate, was tame by today's universal standards of justice and morality: it cannot in fact be said that his opposition to the Nazi persecution of the Jews was unequivocal, nor even the invasion of Poland. Galen also opposed the Catholic Zenterpartei, triggering the collapse of Weimar. Indeed, history records that he was more of a nationalist defender of the rights and privileges of the German Church than of the objective and universal rights of all people that Pius XII later - by which I mean AFTER the war - came to lend his support to when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights became the central plank of the United Nations Charter. Granted that the UN was a post-war creation, this contretemps between Roy and me goes to illustrate just how far the Catholic Church and its magisterium has slowly but progressively altered over the years since the somewhat restricted, narrow, introspective and self-referential view it had of morality and its dominion at the time. Only an apologist like Roy would care these days to defend the official behavioural record of the Church during World War II.
Michael Furtado | 12 June 2021

" . . . today's universal standards of justice and morality", MF? Just where do these originate, and might they be found? The UN today enjoys nowhere near its early respect and credibility for the protection of human rights and dignity. This isn't a facetious question: I've stated often enough my source for recognising the universal standards you identify - the magisterium of the Catholic Church, human failings notwithstanding - hardly a merely theoretical or narrow source, I believe; nor one necessarily synonymous with unspecified "Catholic leaders".
John RD | 13 June 2021

Michael Furtado: ‘unequivocal….official behavioural record of the Church during World War II.’ The Vatican was neutral during the War. Unless you think that the highest aim of an institution is to render itself extinct, a belief which even atheists, as believers in Evolution and its twin principles of self-preservation and propagation, would regard as absurd, the declaration of neutrality was an act both prudential and moral. The maintenance of the legal appearances of neutrality is an activity within the domain of prudence, subject to armchair second-guessing seventy-six years after real decisions had had to be made. One could ‘unequivocally’ call it a blessing that unlike the Orthodox and Coptic churches which are under the temporal rule of authoritarian regimes, and Protestant denominations which are in the nature of civilian clubs and associations, the Vatican, as befits a vicariate of Christ, is an independent state, and a further blessing that it is located within the democratic sturdiness of Western Europe and not somewhere in the Middle East under risk of predation by predatory Islamists. But, nothing is perfect and existing in the democratic sturdiness of Italy means being surrounded by the ‘progressivism’ of the lurid and the louche.
roy chen yee | 13 June 2021


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