“The Church is not a democracy,” hierarchical leaders have long reminded us, but this discouraging refrain has intensified on the eve of the two-year synodal process soon getting underway. The most influential protagonist of any synodal gathering is of course the Holy Spirit, but the most visible is the people—the true “central character” of both this synodal process and the pontificate of Francis. How the people are organized, consulted, and listened to (or allowed to organize themselves) will reveal the ecclesial and institutional understanding of the Church’s members; even if synodality isn’t truly democratic, it has a lot more in common with democracy than with monarchical clericalism.
In the Preparatory Document for the Synodal Process (PD), published by the Bishops’ Synod in Rome on September 7, the term “people” is used twenty-nine times. In the sixty-page long Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality published the same day, the term “people” is used over a hundred times, and half that in the locution “people of God.” The Vademecum presents an understanding of people in the synodal process marked by intentional inclusivity: “Whatever the local circumstances, the Diocesan Contact Person(s) are encouraged to focus on maximum inclusion and participation, reaching out to involve the greatest number of people possible, and especially those on the periphery who are often excluded and forgotten.” This extends even beyond baptized Catholics: “While all the baptized are specifically called to take part in the Synodal Process, no one—no matter their religious affiliation—should be excluded from sharing their perspective and experiences, insofar as they want to help the Church on her synodal journey of seeking what is good and true. This is especially true of those who are most vulnerable or marginalized.” Nevertheless, the participation of the people, baptized or not, takes place within an institutional and liturgical setting. The PD, quoting the 2018 document on synodality of the International Theological Commission, makes that clear: “This is an ecclesial process that can only take place at the heart of a hierarchically structured community.”
So in the context of synodality, we’re basically back to where we started when it comes to the meaning of “people.” The documents of the Bishops’ Synod don’t offer an actual definition. They refer only to Francis’s Evangelii gaudium, which connects the role of the people to their infallibility “in credendo,” and to the constitution of Vatican II, Lumen gentium, where the concept of the Church as “people of God” (chapter two) follows the opening (chapter one) on the Church as a sacrament of salvation. Lumen gentium does not understand “people” in an ethnic, social, or political sense, or as an undifferentiated mass. In Lumen gentium, the Latin for people is “populus,” which is more inclusive than “natio” or “gens” and the Greek “demos” (ethnic). The Greek of the New Testament adopts the distinction between “laos” (people of God), “ethne” (the non-Jews, the nations, the Gentiles), “phylē” (people as a national unity of common descent), and “glossa” (people as a linguistic unity).