Yahoo! News ran an interesting analysis of the US response to the synod on synodality on Tuesday. Every noun and adjective in that sentence other than “Tuesday” might typically raise eyebrows, but the article, by senior editor Peter Weber, did provide a useful overview of the wide range of opinions on the synod by Catholics across the ideological spectrum. One of the most intriguing parts cited an essay that Cardinal Robert McElroy wrote for America back in May. Writes McElroy:
A synodal church is a discerning church, not a parliamentary one. It must empower the voices of all, but its search for God’s will cannot be reduced to building majorities or forming coalitions. It is essential to recognize that synodality is more concerned with nurturing a culture within the life of the church rather than specific policy outcomes.
This is the sixth of seven “marks of a synodal church” that McElroy provided in his article, but it was likely highlighted because his emphasis on process and nurturing rather than outcomes is difficult to understand for most Americans and thus for most of the outlet’s readership. (On this point Weber quotes Thomas Reese writing for the Religion News Service.) Indeed, much of the current level of discussion about the synod is itself only relevant to what’s happening if we assume that this is a smokescreen for a process that is result-oriented. This seems to be what most of the synod’s most strident critics are afraid of: the pope has some sort of cultural and doctrinal sea change already in mind and is constructing the “synodality” concept as a way to preemptively justify it theologically.
But let’s take McElroy at his word that that isn’t what the synod is about. Let’s take his word that it really is about a process and a culture, not policy outcomes. How is that process going? How is that culture taking shape?
I would say that this is a process that, as Cardinal McElroy probably knows very well himself, is already underway. Previous synods, even a few of the ones under Pope Francis, have been attempts to shape Church policy or teaching in a specific area in accordance with the current Pope’s wishes; this one has no defined end goal or even subject matter at all. Beyond the synod itself, however, the culture that it’s supposed to create in the Church is one that many, maybe most, Catholics already live and breathe. The old Jewish saying—“two Jews, three opinions”—is not quite true of Catholics yet (if it ever will be!), but Catholic intellectual life is undeniably more hospitable for controversialists and satirists and less hospitable for yes-men and advocates of complacent piety than it was a century or even a decade ago. The listening session that I went to in the Diocese of Albany involved an astounding amount of cross-chatter and people rolling their eyes and going “oh, come ON” at other participants’ ideas. To at least some extent this is reflected in parish life today as well; if a priest or deacon gives a politically or socially controversial or topical homily, at least some congregants are liable to dislike it and say so. (This is probably more the case in some parishes than others; obviously there are still plenty of parish priests out there who are authoritarian and/or too charismatic for their own good.) Two Jews, three opinions; two Catholics, three axes to grind. Is the Church a “listening Church”? It’s at the very least a “hearing Church”; it’s impossible to completely tune out this kind of godly din!
I would even go further with this: the constant traditionalist brickbats and over-the-top criticism of the pope are themselves a clear sign of a “listening Church,” as much as both we here at Where Peter Is and the traditionalists themselves might hate to think so. The bellicose attitude and hermeneutic of suspicion with which Pope Francis’s fashionable despisers approach everything the man says and does are attitudes that all sorts of people have held towards his predecessors for centuries. See Sinéad O’Connor ripping up a portrait of John Paul II on live TV in 1992 as a protest against clerical sex abuse—or, much further back, Dante putting the still-alive Clement V in hell for simony in Canto XIX of the Inferno. However, these sorts of attacks were never actually perceived (except, sometimes, well after the fact) as the good-faith acts of faithful Catholics. Sinéad O’Connor is Muslim now, and Dante died in exile. Catholics loudly insisting on their fidelity to the Church’s tradition and magisterium, yet constantly attacking the incumbent Pope, would have seemed bizarre as recently as a decade ago.
Yet they do it now, and Pope Francis lets them do it; “dictator pope” accusations aside, he’s been very slow to discipline lay theologians and apologists who oppose him and even bishops who publicly undermine his ministry. I don’t actually intend this as a backhanded observation; I think it’s good that the right flank of the Church is participating in this process, even though I wish they would be more honest with themselves about it. For example, Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider have both expressed worry that constant synods unduly weaken the “vertical” authority of the Pope they hate. I hope they reconsider this view, or—failint that—get more consistent about it and stop being the parrhesia they don’t want to see in the world.
If we’re to understand the synod on synodality as more of an introduction of a new process than an attempt to arrive at results, and if we’re to understand that process as a way of being in the Church rather than a series of bureaucratic procedures, then it becomes possible to say, to be blunt, mission accomplished. This might not be the wisest or most prudent framing, but at this point I think it’s safe to say it is an accurate one. Nobody in the Catholic Church thinks it’s possible to go back to the days of the Pope knowing best, one’s own bishop and pastor knowing second- and third-best, and everyone else either falling in line or grousing privately.
Nobody, especially not Burke and Schneider, wants to go back to those days, either. Even Catholics who would go right back to the “papolatry” to which they once adhered (and of which they currently accuse WPI) should the next conclave elect a traditionalist pope would, presumably, reserve the right to reverse course again if his successor were more in the Bergoglian mold. Joe and Jane Catholic speaking their minds on everything under the sun and the institutional Church having to accept their right to do so is a way of doing things that has been with us for years, decades in some places. “Synodality” is just putting a name on this; the four-year process is just providing a channel down which that water and light, now named, might flow.
Image: One of the official synod graphics from the author’s Diocese of Albany.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.