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Discussions of synodality are about the future—about charting a path forward for Catholicism, from the individual Catholic to the parish community to the universal Church. But these discussions inevitably appeal to the past: to the testimony of Scripture, the practice of the early Church, medieval triumphs and tragedies, and, most of all, to Vatican II and its contested reception. When the conversation turns to history, however, it is rarely acknowledged that the Catholic Church’s own tradition of synodal governance endured into the early modern era and functioned as a powerful counter-narrative to the centralized ultramontane model we live with today. Indeed, the evolution of the papacy into its modern form—as an infallible teacher of doctrine with direct jurisdictional authority over every other bishop and the entire Church—owes at least as much to internal Catholic ecclesiastical battles at the dawn of modernity as it does to stimuli outside the Church, such as secularization and the growth of nation states.
The First Vatican Council in 1870 punctuated the ascendancy of this new view of the papacy. The dramatic ecclesiastical victory of Pius IX, a pope who did not balk at equating himself with the Church and even with Tradition itself, also marked the shipwreck of the once-mighty conciliarist tradition. That shipwreck was near-total, but the wreckage of conciliarist thought survived on firmly orthodox shores. Among this wreckage were concepts that Catholics never totally lost sight of and, throughout the twentieth century, brought back to the fore: episcopal collegiality, the baptismal priesthood of the laity, the sensus fidelium, and ecclesial reception. This is why Yves Congar rightly called Vatican I’s defeated conciliarist minority “the vanguard of Vatican II.”
Rather than handling our own past with honesty, our institutional memory as Catholics is too often re-tooled to fit ideological goals. Gleeful progressives can be as guilty of this as the most defensive and narrow traditionalists. We cannot learn from our past failures—or even our successes—unless we look at the Church’s history with both parrhesia and humility. For the Church, as for any family, facing the past honestly often involves dredging up memories that were suppressed.
Our discussions of synodality suffer from historical amnesia. One important reason Pope Francis’s desire to relaunch synodality for the contemporary Church has taken herculean efforts—and been met with such dogged and at times vicious resistance—is that some of this pope’s predecessors were so effective in suppressing and defanging it. Of course, amnesia is not the only problem that Catholic discourse on synodality suffers from; it is also afflicted by polarization and triumphalism. Recovering suppressed memories about our own conciliarist past will not instantly solve these other problems. Still, we should face the future equipped with an honest account of how we got where we are.
American Catholics seem particularly prone to sarcasm and bewilderment when discussing Pope Francis’s call for synodality. Some express (or feign?) total confusion, claiming they don’t even know what the term “synodality” means. From the pages of First Things to numerous YouTube channels to EWTN to the peculiar derangements of Catholic Twitter, hands are thrown up in frustration at the Synod on Synodality. Some of these skeptics see this month’s synod as too self-referential, and gloomily forecast that its outcome will either emerge stillborn or lead to further divisions. Less measured critics see the Synod on Synodality as the culmination of a deliberate and heretical program of subversion. An extreme but by no means insignificant group of critics think that either the pope himself is a heretic or is at least willfully blind to the widespread advance of heresy.
My own outlook about the synod is one of optimism and hope. I think Pope Francis’s emphasis on synodality is a positive development, an attempt to recover an ancient ecclesiology with deep biblical and patristic roots. Nevertheless, I believe that the confusion, if not the vitriol, one finds in many pews and rectories of the American Church is understandable and should be taken seriously.
What explains it? For one thing, a rather wooden “hermeneutic of continuity” became predominant in catechesis, apologetics, and large segments of ecclesial life in our national church. This was especially the case in the twilight years of John Paul II and throughout the pontificate of Benedict XVI, even though the latter made it clear that the reforms of Vatican II were in continuity and discontinuity with past teaching and practice, albeit “on different levels.” Our seminaries emphasize a philosophical grounding for the Catholic faith but too often neglect Church history, glossing over its complexity and messiness. In U.S. ecclesial circles, Church history is frequently reduced to apologetics, or presented as a series of hagiographic tableaux and “anti-Catholic myths” to be debunked.