On May 21, the Bishops’ Synod published a note announcing the steps leading up to the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod in Rome in October 2023 on the theme “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.” It’s a daring project, consisting of synods in every diocese in every country from October 2021 to April 2022, as well as meetings at the continental level from September 2022 to April 2023, before the culminating meeting in a little more than two years from now. In the United States, every bishop must appoint a diocesan contact person or a team for synodal consultation before this October; every diocese will then send its comments to the USCCB, which will prepare a report with the help of a contact person for the synodal process at the national level. In this way, Pope Francis is supporting the calls for synodality in the United States—though in truth there haven’t been that many—like the one from San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy two years ago.
Models of synodality may differ, and it is not yet clear just what concept of the “people of God” applies here. But what these models have in common is the aim of truly listening to all to ensure the participation of all in the synodal process. This necessarily means a rebalancing of power in the Church—not only between the clergy and the laity or between men and women, but also (for example) between the power of money and the contributions of the voiceless. Therefore, even though the bishops are in charge, the synodal process requires a mobilization of the entire Church. Religious orders, lay movements, Catholic colleges and universities, associations of theologians—all have the opportunity to play an important role during the next two years. If everything is left to the vertical institution of the Church, this two-year “synodal process” will simply perpetuate an ecclesiastical order that works only for an increasingly small number of people—that is, for clerics and the clericalized laity.
Nor is it clear how the U.S. bishops or the U.S. Church in general will receive the request coming from Rome. Since November 2020, conversations among American bishops have been dominated by the efforts of part of the episcopate to draft a document about denying Communion to Catholic politicians who support pro-choice legislation (President Biden in particular). From the looks of the agenda for this week’s USCCB meeting, it doesn’t appear that the bishops will be talking about the synodal process they’d need to get started on in just a few weeks. That’s not a good sign, since this is a chance the U.S. Catholic Church can’t afford to miss.
For one thing, the U.S. Church now provides a clear example of the dangerous link between mediatization and sectarian politicization of Catholicism. The capital of digital and social media culture is in the United States, and it’s the global center of disintermediation—the detaching of individuals and communities from intermediaries and institutions of representation—not only in politics and economics but also in religion. Institutions help shape the life of the Church. While Catholicism has now become associated only with the negative aspects of institutions, Church life cannot be completely free of them. What the prophets of the post-institutional don’t realize is that detachment from institutions creates a religious problem, since it contradicts what the Incarnation means for our ecclesial dynamics: verbum caro factum est, “the Word became flesh.” Disintermediation undermines the importance of personal relationships in terms of care, mercy, and compassion. It attacks the very idea of tradition as it detaches us from the need for personal, real encounters that help make sense of tradition as something experienced in a community of real people—including and especially those who do not look or think like us.