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Does synodality dilute the apostolic tradition?


In a recent article published posthumously in The Spectator on 11 January, Cardinal George Pell directed strong criticisms both at Pope Francis personally and at the upcoming Synod on Synodality. Surprising as this may be in view of the Cardinal’s long-standing fealty to the papal office, this should not distract us from a consideration of the other, perhaps less sensational, concerns which he expressed in the article.

One of his principal concerns appears to be his belief that synodality will further dilute what he calls 'the apostolic tradition'. The apostolic tradition is the Catholic doctrine that, just as Pope Francis is the successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome, so the local bishop, each in his own diocese, is the successor of the other apostles. In this role he has both teaching authority in his own diocese and overarching governance and pastoral status and responsibilities within it.

The apostolic tradition and the authority that it confers has been undergoing dilution especially since the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The personal travails of Pope Pius IX, his temporary exile, the loss of the papal states and the strong ultramontanist sentiments emerging in Europe at the time focussed Catholic identity on the person of the Pope. As American Jesuit historian, John O’Malley, characterised this focus, the Church became 'papalised'. This culminated in the First Vatican Council in 1870-71, where not only the Pope’s personal infallibility was declared but he was also invested with direct universal jurisdiction, the ability in principle to regulate and monitor not only the operations and beliefs of his own diocese in Rome but also those of every other diocese globally. As the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, observed in 1872, this in effect made local bishops mere branch managers in their own dioceses. Although this was vehemently denied by the German hierarchy in 1875, the dilution of episcopal teaching and governance authority was, nonetheless, an inevitable consequence of the centralisation and papalisation of the Church’s identity. 

The Second Vatican Council attempted to remedy this imbalance between papal and episcopal authority by discovering the doctrine of episcopal collegiality, that is, the authority of the bishops, when gathered together with the Pope, to define doctrine and regulate Church structures.  Paradoxically, however, this doctrinal development tended to weaken rather than strengthen the personal authority of each bishop in his own diocese.  It was as if acting together – as in the joint decrees of national bishops’ conferences or Roman synods – was more important than what each bishop decreed in his own diocese.

Nor did the model of the Church which Vatican II embraced enhance episcopal authority. Instead of the traditional pyramidal, hierarchical model, with bishops at the top, clergy and religious next, and laity at the bottom, the Council proposed as the primary model of the Church an undifferentiated pilgrim people journeying together without distinction towards the kingdom of God.  The waters of Baptism, not orders or vows, was the ticket to participate in this pilgrimage. The hierarchical model was later recalled in the Council’s documentation, but it was relegated to a secondary place. 

Synodality would appear to be, then, a direct descendant of this primary pilgrim people Vatican II model. But where does this leave episcopal authority and governance?  Pope Benedict XVI insisted time and again that collegiality and synods and national bishops’ conferences have no official status in Church doctrine;  they were in effect mere ad hoc concessions to the democratic spirit of the age. But I suspect Cardinal Pell was more alert than his master and patron to the implications of synodality and the diluting effects it might have on episcopal authority.


'How representative of how synodality will operate is the current German process?  Some argue that it is an extreme version and so radical in its egalitarianism as to provoke schism.'


Take, for instance, the German 'Synodal Way'.  In direct response to the bishops’ incompetent handling of clerical child sexual abuse in Germany as elsewhere, the Synodal Way was instituted. It is a 230 joint Commission of bishops, other clergy and religious, and laity. There are 62 bishops, about 50 other clergy and religious, and lay members constitute the other half of the Commission. There are equal voting rights for bishops, clergy religious and laity as they address the four main agenda items: the power and separation of powers in the Church; relationships and sexuality; priestly ministry and priestly celibacy; women in ministries and offices in the Church.

How binding the decisions of the Commission would be on individual bishops in their own dioceses continues to be a moot point. Obviously, if the decisions were binding, the bishop’s authority would be significantly diluted – as Cardinal Pell anticipated in his article. At the November ad limina meeting of the German bishops with the Vatican Curia, three senior curial Cardinals, Parolin, Ladaria and Ouellet, expressed strong reservations about aspects of the Synodal Way and even called for a moratorium on its deliberations. And, more recently, consequent on some of the Commission’s recommendations on sexuality, five of the German bishops appealed to the Vatican that they should not be bound by the Commission’s decisions, an appeal which the Vatican endorsed on 23 January.

Thus episcopal authority and independence were protected, but at what cost?  If episcopal policies and decisions are exempt from synodal monitoring and scrutiny, will there be further blunders as in the clerical sexual abuse cover-ups?  This is certainly not without precedent. As John Henry Newman recalled in his 1859 'Essay on Consulting the Faithful in matters of Doctrine', in the Third and Fourth Centuries, in the matter as central to Christian belief as the divinity of Christ, it was the bishops who were heterodox and the laity who were orthodox in responding to Arianism. And if the bishops are free to dissent from the decisions of the Synodal Way, does not this immediately render obsolete the original purpose of instituting the joint commission – addressing hard cases with joint decision-making by clergy and laity? 

It is notable that only five of Germany’s 62 bishops were involved in the appeal to the Vatican, but they were senior churchmen heading some of the country’s larger dioceses, and perhaps, it has been suggested, they were a delegation on behalf of all the bishops rather than discontented and threatened outliers of the synodal process.

How representative of how synodality will operate is the current German process?  Some argue that it is an extreme version and so radical in its egalitarianism as to provoke schism. Bishop George Batzing, who heads the Synodal Way, has strongly denied any such intention. Nor in any way, he says, does the current German process intend to anticipate or influence the global synod in October 2023 and 2024. But the tensions that are now emerging from within the Synodal Way itself and in its relations with the Vatican Curia indicate that Cardinal Pell’s concerns are not idle. How to resolve the claims of episcopal authority with those of genuine synodality is going to be a most interesting and challenging theological and spiritual exercise. Strap yourself in for the ride!




Bill Uren, SJ, AO, is a Scholar-in-residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne. A former Provincial Superior of the Australian and New Zealand Jesuits, he has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics in universities in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth and has served on the Australian Health Ethics Committee and many clinical and human research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research centres.

Main image: Last supper, St. Nicholas church Brussels. 

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Synod, Synodality, Cardinal Pell, Pope Francis, Apolstolic Tradition, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

I see few other than highly qualified theologians 'strapping themselves in for the ride', Bill.
Such damage has been done to the brand "synodality" by confused and conflicting understandings of its meaning and seriously divided opinions, even within the hierarchy, about what the Catholic Church can and cannot do in the name of its Founder, the apostles and their successors that the proposal would already appear to be headed for the 'out' tray labelled: 'Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time' - at least among the ordinary faithful.

John RD | 16 February 2023  

Hello Bill:

I cannot work out whether you are concerned that the Synod on Synodality is going to destroy Apostolic Succession, or that it will not. Either way it does not matter. The de-Christianizing of affluent Western Societies of the last fifty years is now two generations deep. Just as a representative example: over the last decade catholic weddings and baptisms in the Netherlands have dropped by 70% and 80% respectively. Over the next five years 60% of churches in Amsterdam well close. Dutch Catholics make up about 20% of the populations but only about 3% are mass attending, which is much the same in Australia. These are Church figures, not mine.

Nevertheless, I am proud of having joined, back in the day, other young people in the Big Exodus. History has vindicated us!

As for the Synod, both Cardinal Hollerick and Cardinal Grech – handed picked by Francis – have said it is a conference about having more conferences: all just talk. The Amazon Synod came to nothing, the Australian Synod (if that’s what it was) likewise, and as for the Italian, it appears my compatriots are too busy with their own lives.

There IS a great change happening to Western spirituality but where it will end we do not know. Whether Jesus and St Paul will be part of it is also unknown. But, I doubt they would care: neither planned to start a new religion anyhow.

Back in the 50’s and 60’s catholic brainwashing school, men of the Apostolic Succession forever sermonized on the Book of Exodus – that grand narrative of spiritual transformation. Did the really understand it?

Fosco | 16 February 2023  

Bill's survey of Synodality in play forecasts a wild ride – but with one group applying a heavy Pellham bit while another group spurs for speedy outcomes the ride may be wild but short-lived. For at present, we have plenty of activists, of the liberal and conservative kinds, whose special subject is speaking of their concerns in a way that deprecates their opponents view. What we are missing are articulate and erudite scholars who can shed light on the bona fides of synodality and the complexities which surround slogans like adhering to the apostolic tradition.

In this, Francis often is playing a lone hand. He has not had the benefit of an Augustine Bea whose biblical acumen helped Pius XII dismantle seventy years of steadfast rejection of modern biblical scholarship and provide an authority to go forward – as evidenced in Divino Afflante Spiritu. Similarly, Paul VI benefited from the patience, integrity and mastery of his subject that John Courtney Murray provided during the year long reflection which produced the Declaration on Religious Freedom.

Part of the solution lies in what Andrew Kania, an Australian Ukrainian Catholic writer, once coined as being a church learning to breathe with both lungs – a breathing which respects and reflects on the heritage of the Catholic Church that proceeded the East West split, and those elements which have been preserved with greater clarity by the Eastern Churches: elements of synodality and the role and function of national episcopate assemblies being two pertinent to the present. Elements which are formally recognised in the Codes of Canons of the Eastern Churches, promulgated by John Paul II. Elements which could and eventually will instruct the Latin Rite's incipient steps towards synodality.

Bill Burke | 16 February 2023  

I wonder what Bill Morris thinks about the notion that he had teaching authority in his own diocese and overarching governance and pastoral status and responsibilities within it. And will Pope Francis give Bill Morris the Red Hat that's going begging. It's not as if there's no precedent for such a move. Pope Leo XIII made John Henry Newman a Cardinal. He wasn't Bishop. The Pope then was making a point as Francis would be now if he were to do so.

Paul Smith | 17 February 2023  

The unbroken succession proposal is hard to swallow for non-Catholics, and probably hard to substantiate in the history of the pre-Constantine community. "That they all should be one" is more important that the one-upmanship that we hold to.
The same goes for synodality, an organization needs strong leadership, and Francis has demonstrated this in practice. The fruit of Pell's authority has been division, we don't need the Bishops to hold onto authority as much as we need to assert the principle that God loves everyone equally

Nev Hunt | 18 February 2023  

Don't only worry about synodality diluting apostolic tradition.
It has been widely reported that Pope Francis told seminarians from Barcelona, Spain, that they should give absolution to the unrepentant: "if we see that there is no intention to repent, we must forgive all" and that priests who withhold absolution to the unrepentant are "delinquent."
Such a declaration is totally contrary to the Church's apostolic tradition. No doubt Francis was wanting to be merciful, but absolving unrepentant child-molesters and rapists turns Confession into an incoherent charade, and seemingly is a violation of the priest's duty to guide his sheep.
And while "it was the bishops who were heterodox and the laity who were orthodox in responding to Arianism", the moral collapse of Western society won't guarantee that today. For example, the transgender war on cultural norms is about denying biological facts and quotidian reality. Absurd theories that deny scientific facts are promoted by mainstream media, entertainment, medical establishment, corporate management, schools, universities and government.
The rot is no longer confined to politics and big business. The rot, which the poet Robert Frost called "the slow smokeless burning of decay", has installed itself inside most of the Western World's most cherished institutions.

Ross Howard | 20 February 2023  
Show Responses

Ross Howard's comment (20/2) raises for me a question of mixed messages coming from Pope Francis.
On the one hand, there is a Francis who makes loosely theological comments - usually, but not exclusively in press interviews - of the sort the media relish and disseminate (the 'pastoral' Francis, if you will), and, on the other hand, the dogmatic Francis who speaks emphatically in accord with his papal predecessors and the Church's teachings on issues such as the nature and purpose of marriage and the inviolable dignity of human life.
This discrepancy suggests to me the need for stronger connection - indeed, integration - between the pastoral and teaching dimensions in Catholic life. Confusion is not allayed nor clarity advanced by downplaying the role of the intellect in relation to matters of faith, as though praxis of itself were self-explanatory and self-justifying; nor by accepting that appeals to vague, emotive abstractions (e, g., "love", Beatles-style) suffice for informing conscience, especially when aided by discouragement of respectful debate on matters vitally affecting the meaning and living out of Christ's Gospel, personally and as a community of faith.

John RD | 22 February 2023  

John – you may find Francis' pedagogical technique frustrating and you may wish for a stronger connection between the Church's pastoral and teaching dimensions, but there are twenty centuries of tradition which suggests you will have to embrace the tension that often inhabits the space between the two. No less an authority than Jesus would have it so – as revealed in his willingness to allow a pastoral situation to reinterpret the application of a moral law in particular circumstances: Cf Mark 2:27. A tradition which would continue to refine its understandings that it would allow St Alphonsus Ligouri, the patron saint of moral theologians, to suggest an erroneous conscience could not only be free of moral culpability but have the possibility of being considered 'meritorious.' in its application.

Bill Burke | 23 February 2023  

Thanks, Bill. However, I'd have thought my wish and that of many other Catholics today for a stronger integration of the Church's pastoral and teaching dimensions were neither irrelevant nor unreasonable in times when only an ostrich posture would fail to see the confusion and division engendered by diametrical opposition between these two vital components of the Church's tradition to the unity of the faithful willed by Christ.

John RD | 24 February 2023  

Bill Burke, the ruling against work on the sabbath overridden by Jesus in the instance you refer to was not "a moral law" as such but rather a Mosaic prescription related to but not inherent in the third Sinai commandment (Exodus 20:8).
As "lord of the Sabbath" (Mk 2:28) in a way that its Judaic interpreters and legislators are not, Jesus is recalling for his critics - in this case the Pharisees - the true purpose, meaning, and authorship of the third commandment and testifying to its original authorship: not in men but in God.
The "pastoral situation" does not "reinterpret the application of moral law": it is Jesus and those in the Apostolic Tradition on whom he has bestowed the authority to teach in his name who do so.

John RD | 25 February 2023  

Francesco was always on your side, John. The Reformers who believe otherwise should do a bit more research on the man.

Fosco | 24 February 2023  

As always, Bill, a terrific conversation starter, given the classic stance you took some years ago in crossing swords in televised debate with Pell, while consistently refusing to engage in the personal animosity that now casts its unbudging and unfortunate stain over the reputation of a man who took his grievances to his deathbed.

The question of episcopal authority is indeed a salient one as bishops struggle to make meaning of various synodal decisions as these must apply within their individual diocesan jurisdictions.

My own Catholic sentiments lie in those better expressed by the likes of Paul Smith and Nev Hunt. Bill Morris, in whose diocese I lived and worked for twenty years, always consulted the laity widely at every juncture, which is the probable cause of his undoing, simply because in the absence of removing him, Benedict would have found it impossible to 'remove' the bulk of Bill's laity, still smarting over the sacking of their bishop and recalcitrantly supportive of him!

Nev, accordingly, states it as Bill frequently verbalised, viz. that the Gospels promote, even ahead of the virtue of justice that Catholics are so desirably shrill in promoting, that love must always exert priority when redressing injustice.

Michael Furtado | 21 February 2023