The “synodal process” as defined by Francis has become one of the markers of his pontificate. Until now, the concept of “reception” of the synod was not applied to synods, but mostly reserved for Vatican II and for the ecumenical councils—an ongoing process that is measured in decades and generations, not in months or years. But in fact it’s appropriate to talk about the “reception” of the synod recently concluded, which had something of a conciliar feel: free and honest debates, no scripted talking points, and no pre-cooked final report.
The Synod of Bishops as an institution is just fifty years old, and there is no track record of the reception of synods (the first one was celebrated in 1967), except maybe the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 on the reception of Vatican II. For all the other synods we can talk only of the reception of the apostolic exhortations that followed—documents that were not necessarily the fruit of synodal discussions, and certainly not the fruit of a two-year long synodal process like the one most recently concluded. The reception of synods before Francis was in the hands of an episcopate largely shaped—that is, appointed—by the pope who wrote the exhortation. The situation today is quite different.
The first difference concerning the reception of Francis’s synod is that the synodal process is identified with him and his role in the church of today. The reception thus risks being a subset of the reception (or non-reception) of Francis’s pontificate, whether in a particular local church or an entire nation—almost a referendum on the pope himself. The second difference is that reception of this synod requires synodality (which Francis described in his speech to the bishops on October 17, 2015). But in today’s Catholic church, there are very few occasions for Catholics of different “persuasions” and of different paths of life (we can call them vocations or ministries) to come together. Synodality is something we are testing at the top level, among bishops and Pope Francis, but certainly not within our local churches. It is not clear how Francis’s October 17 speech on synodality will become reality.
Moreover, the reception of Francis’s synodal process in the United States will take place in an environment in which bishops and theologians long ago stopped talking to each other, and where lay Catholics are more fragmented—the “big sort” of American Catholicism. This is having a significant impact on the ecclesiological and ecclesial balance of voices and forces in the church, and in the American church more than anywhere else, because of the parallels between the two-party political system and the theological fault lines evident among American Catholics. The comforting fact is that, globally, the American Catholic Church is an exceptional case.
The reception of councils and church teachings involves the laity and the sensus fidelium: without the laity there is no reception in the synodal Church. But it will be most interesting to see how the reception of this Synod and of Francis’s post-synodal exhortation and decisions will be the fruit of the work of the bishops. We know that the whole “job description” of the bishops has been reshaped in these last two years; rather than models of obedience to a pontiff focused on a precise, short list of hot-button issues, they now are expected to be more pastoral and “evangelical.” How the synod and Francis’s post-synodal document are received, and the reaction to his decisions on practical issues like communion for the divorced and remarried, will tell us many things about the state of the church.
The history of reception also includes eminent cases of non-reception. Consider Paul VI’s Humanae vitae, non-reception of which has been traced to the sensus fidelium or ascribed simply to insubordination on a papal teaching. The language we will use to describe the different positions vis-à-vis Francis’s decision may reveal much about the shifting positions in the church regarding the exercise of papal primacy.