Imagine if the pope extended an invitation to all the Catholics of the world and invited them to share their thoughts about the Church. Let’s imagine they were given a forum to speak about what they saw as the Church’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as where they think the Church fails and succeeds. Imagine if they were asked about their relationship with God, as well as their thoughts on doctrine, catechesis, and Catholic education. Suppose they were asked about their experiences of the sacraments and the liturgy, and their experiences of community in the Church.
With over a billion Catholics all over the world, that means millions of participants, even if only a small percentage accepted the invitation. Surely the responses to such an invitation would offer a wide variety of opinions and comments on all sorts of concerns. Some respondents might offer interesting and creative ideas, others might do nothing but complain. Some might vent anger at the Church. Others might realize within a few minutes that they’d rather be anywhere else. Some might speak about times when the Church hurt or neglected or dismissed them. Some might be filled with joy about newfound or rediscovered faith. Some might see the Church as too progressive, others too conservative. Finally—and this goes without saying—it is inevitable that if everyone is given a chance to be heard, many of them will appeal for changes to Church teachings.
Well, the invitation was sent and millions of Catholics have participated in the “Synod on Synodality,” officially known as “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.” This global process began in October 2021 and will continue through October 2024, if not beyond.
Many high-profile papal critics have made up their minds on how they intend to portray it. They will mock everything about it they can possibly mock. They will also advance the narrative that this global Synod is designed to undermine Catholic faith and doctrine. For example, an interview in April 2022, the world’s most famous auxiliary bishop—Athanasius Schneider of Astana in Kazakhstan—offered a distorted caricature of the purpose and process of the listening sessions, saying, “To establish as a principle of synodality such things as discussing, chatting, and conducting opinions polls is alien to the Church and definitely resembles the methods of heterodox groups.” He went on to implicate the Holy Father, saying, “The method of synodality proposed by Pope Francis that includes debating with people of other faith traditions, people of no religion, and even with people characterized as ‘etc.’, will ultimately obfuscate the Faith.”
Schneider apparently does not see a connection between the current global Synod and Catholic tradition, imagining it as some kind of social affair for casual heretics. It is evident that he does not accept the history and theological background of synodality provided in Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church (SL), the 2018 document of the Catholic Theological Commission outlining the historical and traditional foundations of synodality and explaining how synodality is (and has always been) “an essential dimension of the Church” (SL 1), even if not fully realized or expressed.
In fact, the commission asserts that synodality is essential to the Church’s constitution and “the guarantee and incarnation of the Church’s fidelity to her apostolic origins and her Catholic calling. It presents itself in a form that is substantially a single entity, but one which gradually unfolds – in the light of what Scripture indicates – in the living development of Tradition” (SL 24). Synodality is a term that means living out our call as the People of God. Through baptism, we share in the same dignity and mission. A greater emphasis on synodality means expressing more fully what we, the People of God, have received through this Sacrament: “the equal dignity of the baptized; the universal call to holiness; the participation of all the faithful in the priestly, prophetic and royal office of Jesus Christ; the richness of hierarchical and charismatic gifts; the life and mission of each local Church” (SL 46).
Ultimately, the “Synod on Synodality” is an initiative of the Church to bring together the baptized so that we may begin the process of learning to express our baptismal mission in a concrete way. This is one reason why the participation of all the faithful (or at least a large number of the faithful from all over the world) was sought. And because we discussed our opinions and experiences, insights, disappointments, hopes, and fears, we provided our fellow Catholics—including priests, bishops, and the pope—with a much more accurate sense of the issues and questions that weigh on the faithful today.
The leaders of the Church are currently digesting and processing the responses of Catholics from all around the world right now. In fact, we just entered into a new phase of this global synodal process. Last week, the Church released “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” the working document for the next stage of the Synod on Synodality, which represents a herculean effort by a small group of Catholics from around the world to draft a synthesis of the wide variety of responses received.
Upon its release—as if on cue—many of the usual suspects rattled off the same talking points they’ve been rattling off about every synod since 2014, such as Fr. Gerald Murray, who said the document “unapologetically calls into question various Catholic doctrines under the guise of listening to the Holy Spirit who, remarkably, is somehow speaking through the complaints and criticisms of those who reject what the Church teaches and has always taught.” Fr. Murray doesn’t seem to realize that the purpose of a synthesis document—which has no magisterial weight—is to capture the various thoughts, ideas, and issues raised at during the listening sessions and meetings, not to pick and choose the ones that Fr. Murray (or even the Magisterium) find acceptable.
Because there are still two years remaining in the process, I would like to share some advice with my fellow Catholics. As someone who has followed this papacy closely since the very first moment, I can say with a high degree of confidence that these all-out attacks on the pope and his initiatives will not stop at any point in this process (barring a miraculous mass conversion of the naysayers, perhaps). So be prepared to hear this narrative in the lead-up to the assemblies in Rome in October 2023 and 2024. Be prepared to hear it even more loudly during each of the October meetings. Be prepared to hear it in the aftermath of the meetings. Be prepared to hear that any official teaching documents that the pope promulgates following the meetings is the most confusing, heretical, disturbing document that has ever come from the Vatican, ever. Imagine the media on the left and right to declare the whole thing to have been a monstrous failure. Don’t let this discourage you, and don’t fall into their traps.
The alarmist approach of Fr. Murray and others, including EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, is not the only strategy being employed by people who are trying to undermine the synod, however. A second approach used by the synod’s critics is to ridicule the term “synodality” and feign bewilderment while claiming that no one knows what it means.
In a recent post for Sacred Heart University’s “Go, Rebuild My House” blog, veteran journalist David Gibson noted that since the synod is not only underway, but has expanded, some of its critics have shifted “to a tactic of turning the very term ‘synodality’ into something sinister.” Gibson explains that this is “a clever and common, if insidious, move: No one knows what synodality really is, they claim, and that ‘confusion’ actually proves that synodality is a cover for some Bolshevik-style takeover of the church.”
One can find countless examples of exasperation over this allegedly confounding term, often enclosed in scare quotes. One writer in Crisis Magazine claimed that “Pope Francis admits he cannot define the meaning of his invented word ‘synodality.’” Christopher Altieri of Catholic World Report asserted “‘synodality’ means whatever Pope Francis wants it to mean.” The Catholic Thing’s Robert Royal claimed in October that this confusion rises to the highest levels of the Church, writing, “Even many of the Cardinals assembled from every continent in consistory a month ago at the Vatican were still asking what ‘synodality’ means.”
Inaccurate and oversimplified definitions abound, such as the suggestion that synodality is making the Church democratic, of “decentralizing” it, or of handing authority over definitive doctrines over to bishops’ conferences. This demonstrates just how skewed our understanding of the Church has become. Our conditioning is so strong that we can only see the Church in terms of a top-down structure. We think of it as primarily a law-making and event-planning entity, albeit one that can theoretically change the way it makes laws and plans events.
This is what a renewed emphasis on synodality is trying to change. By baptism we are all united to the heart of the Church, broken and sinful as we are. We need a pope as the visible source of unity and preserve our fidelity to Christ’s teachings. We need our bishops to teach the apostolic faith. We need our priests and deacons to preach the Gospel to us and bring us the sacraments. But in a synodal paradigm, they are with the rest of us, among the People of God. Synodality is the restoration of our sense of belonging to a people, in which all have equal dignity and each has an apostolic mission.
I can imagine this sounds threatening to some. But perhaps we can reflect on these words: “The Lord pours out His Spirit in all places and at all times on the People of God, to allow them to share His life, feeding them with the Eucharist and guiding them in synodal communion” (SL 48). As God’s people, we are always being called to greater communion and to work to make the Church more synodal. It is clear that the Church, through Pope Francis, is calling us to be a synodal Church. We must always remember that it is God himself who is guiding all of his people in all places—even the most cynical—to synodal communion. He can soften even the hardest of hearts. May his will be done.
Image: The Jordan River at the site of the baptism of Jesus Christ in Israel. By shimon. Adobe Stock.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.