The first assembly of the Synod on Synodality in October left us with some important certainties as well as a few uncertainties. One of the certainties is that synodality is not an experiment (even if the form of the recent assembly is somewhat experimental). Indeed, synodality is a long-forgotten way for the Church to gather, listen, and make decisions in the service of the Gospel. It is a moment of ressourcement in the tradition of the Church—a reconnection with an important and very real part of its past.
Another certainty is that this assembly differed fundamentally from the twenty-nine that the Bishops’ Synod have celebrated since 1967, after the creation of the new institution by Paul VI during the last session of Vatican II in September 1965. Not just because it’s part of the long “synodal process” begun in 2021 and set to conclude with the second assembly in October 2024; it’s different as well because of the position the Synod occupies among the turning points in Catholic history in the last two centuries.
In the nineteenth century, Vatican I (1869–1870) pushed back against liberal modernity and declared papal primacy and infallibility. In the twentieth century, Vatican II (1962–1965) balanced the “new” papacy with episcopal collegiality, and did so in plainly parliamentary fashion: with debates (theological disputationes both in aula and in the commissions) leading to majorities and minorities and eventually converging on a quasi-unanimity in the votes on the final documents. The current synod is not like Vatican I or Vatican II; for one thing, it doesn’t have the same authority. But it’s the closest thing to those councils, and it is expressive of the global dimension of the Church with all its diversity and contrasts—the real challenge of the twenty-first century. Though bishops and superiors of religious orders were represented, so were other members of the Church; thus, global Catholicism supplemented the papal primacy of the nineteenth century and episcopal collegiality of the twentieth with ecclesial synodality. Instead of using the method of disputatio, it adopted “spiritual conversation” as a way to grasp the consensus fidelium. But whoever makes the decision on some of the issues at hand—the Synod or the pope—there will never be a 100 percent consensus. There will be a majority and a minority, as when Vatican II decided to reject anti-Semitism and to restore the permanent diaconate.
This Synod doesn’t just differ institutionally. It’s also expressive of a concept of synodality that differs from earlier phases (especially in the post-1985 communio ecclesiology), when synodality was seen as a dimension of the life of local churches and the relations among them. Whatever happens to the name of what was created in 1965 as the “Synod of Bishops,” this is no longer the Synod of bishops but rather a Synod with bishops, where bishops (especially the bishop of Rome) have a particular role. It’s no longer exactly the same entity created by Paul VI, unless Francis or his successor has a change of heart and we go back to a strictly episcopal body.
It’s also the Synod of a Church that recognizes that it is more divided than it was at Vatican II. As German-French Jesuit theologian Christoph Theobald (one of the theological experts in the assembly) wrote recently in his book—the title of which suggests that this Synod is a like a council that cannot say its name—synodality is the recognition that pacification is the condition sine qua non for the Church today. Pacification requires the Church to recognize the pain suffered by its marginalized members—hence, a structure geared towards a listening, and not a debating, mode. It is only in the sense of “pacification” that the assembly can be seen as a response to the abuse crisis; there was no institutional or doctrinal revolution. And yet, the agenda is remarkably close to (and updated from) what Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, scripture scholar and archbishop of Milan (1980–2002), articulated in his October 1999 speech at the Synod for Europe: “May the festive return of the disciples of Emmaus to Jerusalem to meet the apostles become a stimulus to repeat every now and then, over the course of the new century, an experience of universal confrontation between the Bishops that aims to untie some of those disciplinary and doctrinal knots that reappear periodically as hotspots of the European and not only European Churches.” (The leaders of the synod back then did not appreciate Martini’s suggestion of discussing “disciplinary and doctrinal knots” like the role of women and the teaching on sexuality.)
The assembly was also different for its structure: more than an assembly producing documents, it was prepared for and lived as a retreat, opened magisterially by the six reflections of Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, who together with Mother Maria Grazia Angelini is “spiritual adviser of the Synod.” The addition of non-episcopal and non-clerical members of the Church made for a gathering more complex than the binary “clergy or non-clergy” or “male or female.” Among both male clerical and non-male, non-clerical members of the Synod there are members of ecclesiastical-bureaucratic institutions, of pastoral work, of ecclesial and social movements, of the People of God, and theologians.
So much for the certainties. We need to find some clarity between now and October 2024. The final synthesis report of this assembly should not be read in a fundamentalist, chapter-and-verse way. That’s because the dynamics of the relationship between the Synod and Pope Francis (and his new prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Fernandez) are more important to understanding what may happen with the Church on, for example, the role of women and on LGBT Catholics. The pre-Synod responses to the dubia and Francis's audience during the Synod with Sister Jeannine Gramick may be more indicative of the October 28 synthesis document. At the same time, both during the Synod and immediately upon the conclusion of the assembly, the pope repeated once again the theory of the “Marian-Petrine principle” concerning the role of women in the Church
The role of theology in the synodal process going forward will be important. In the history of councils and synods, theologians usually did not have the right to vote, but they had a voice, including at Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. The theologians present at the Synod as “experts and facilitators” were women and men widely respected for just how much they know about synodality. But except for the short list of theological reflections published, it’s not clear how much of a voice they had. I heard from a number of them about the marginal role of theology in the process, before, during, and after the Synod. Some who were there released a statement about their concerns, though in diplomatic language, following the assembly. “To tell the truth, it must also be noted that the level of theological reflection and the depth of analysis of the concrete situations of some interventions were not very brilliant,” wrote Italian ecclesiologist Fr. Severino Dianich. “In particular, I was struck by the difficulty of many in looking in the face, and drawing the consequences, of the phenomenon of abandonment of the faith in Europe and North America by large numbers of baptized people.” Fr. Piero Coda, the secretary general of the International Theological Commission and president of the Sophia University Institute (of the Focolare movement), wrote that it is necessary to “review, also taking this into account, the configuration and practice of the ‘conversation in the Spirit’ method so that it provides for an appropriate and incisive conjugation between the spiritual-existential dimension and the intellectual-practical dimension, in conformity with the intelligence vocation of the faith, which is proper to theology.” The problem for theology is how to anchor synodality in the theological and canonical tradition. Here, it is at a disadvantage to other sources and languages, functioning as something of a junior partner to sociology, spirituality, and the pastoral, and to organization theory and leadership studies.
Another uncertainty concerns the institutional model of the Synod and its effect on other collegial and synodal institutions (national bishops’ conferences, plenary councils), and on its relationship with the Curia. The role of the Curia is not as central to Francis’s synods as it was during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but this could change if the new Synod does not find institutional stability. More fundamental is whether synodality is a way to change the systems of Church government at all levels (universal, local, and intermediate), or instead a way for the Church to become more pastoral. Since 2015, we’ve seen Francis’s theology of synodality evolve towards a more pastoral and spiritual and less institutional concept.
The good news is that we are still a Vatican II Church: thanks to Francis, efforts by some to shape the Church in an anti-conciliar or non-conciliar way have failed. The bad news is that, on many issues, we are still where we were sixty years ago at Vatican II. Much is riding on how conversations of the first assembly will continue between now and October 2024, both among the members of the Synod and in the Church as a whole. Though the Synod on Synodality is not a council like Vatican II, there are some similarities. After the end of the first session of Vatican II, in the inter-session during 1963, there was a “second preparation” of the council’s draft documents. The “Synthesis Report” of this synod’s first assembly is like a second “Instrumentum Laboris,” a new preparation of the Synod. But it will need more theological input, and this must start now. The Synod will need to connect more with the members of the Church who were not physically present and who didn’t have media contacts in Rome to tell them what was going on. The media blackout policy imposed by Francis prevented Catholics from understanding the proceedings and why they mattered. The conversation must move beyond the walls of the Synod hall, and not be left to those members who have a significant media presence or large social-media following.
Almost all churches seem to be experiencing a crisis of governance, with declared or de facto schisms in the Orthodox churches and the churches of the Protestant Reformation, and even in ecumenical organizations. Russian Orthodox theologian and polymath Pavel Florensky, in his book The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, opposed the “ecclesiastical-juridical” model of Catholicism (in which the hierarchical character plays this defining role) to Protestantism’s “ecclesiastical-scientific” model (in which a confessional formula constitutes the decisive criterion) and the Orthodox sense of the Church (where the experience of being Church precedes its definition). His friend and colleague Sergej Bulgakov, in the essay “Orthodoxy: Essay on the Doctrine of the Church,” described Catholicism as “ecclesial positivism,” setting it against Orthodoxy’s conciliarity-collegiality, which affirms the precedence and preexistence of the community and of religious experience in relation to the institutional dimension. In our post-institutional culture, Catholicism is now trying to find its own synodality—learning from other models but also trying to differentiate from them.
The Synod is important for reasons far beyond our intra-Catholic rifts. Global disruptions and instability from the Americas to Asia, with wars in Ukraine and Israel, reflect tensions not only between different religions, but also polarization within individual religious traditions. Think of this “synodal pacification” as essential for the service of the Church to the Gospel and the one human family. As Pope Francis said in the conclusion of his foundational 2015 speech on synodality: “A synodal Church is like a standard lifted up among the nations,” an expression of “the dream that a rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of the function of authority as service will also be able to help civil society to be built up in justice and fraternity.”