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Ambiguity and Clarity in the Age of Synodality
Carl E. Olson
What is synodality? Can you provide a somewhat concise, fairly precise definition off the top of your head?
If not, don’t feel bad. After all, the implicit idea behind a “synod on synodality” is to learn what synodality is, how it works, why it is important, and so forth. Some might say that is paradoxical; others would say it is problematic. At the very least, definitions are still a bit difficult to come by, although this particular synodal process has been at it since 2021.
Take, for example, the recently released North American Final Document for the Continental Stage of the 2021–2024 Synod. This 39-page document, state Bishops Daniel E. Flores (USCCB) and Raymond Poisson (CCCB), marks “an important moment for the Church in the United States and Canada, strengthening our response to the request of the Holy Father Pope Francis to embrace synodality as the way forward for the Church in the modern world. This document is, among other things, a testament to the work of the Spirit within the communion of the baptized…”
Surely such a momentous document will offer clear insight in synodality. The two bishops, in their introduction, admit they hoped for “a more robust participation” and state, “Synodality is an ongoing effort, and we must learn how better to encourage participation in the future.” Then, in the main text, we learn that “Synodality is not always easy to comprehend”; the word “messiness” is used. A sentence further in, a participant is quoted: “People don’t know what the Synod on Synodality is for” (#11).
But, a few pages later, we read, “There was a consensus that more formation in synodality is needed” (#31) and, “Synodality is a great source of hope for renewing and strengthening communion” (#32). A delegate insists: “We believe that the concept of synodality is a concept that must continue, that must become a way of life” (#32). The positive affirmations continue apace: “For the Church in North America, synodality is inseparable from becoming a Church sent forth on mission” (#35).
“This is a great process for us all to participate in,” the bishops say, and “there is still a need for the wider Church to understand what synodality is all about. … Synodality is the way forward, but it is not an easy way” (#43). And, further: “Synodality is an adventure and we aren’t very familiar with it” (#48). Many similar quotes could be given for the phrase “synodal process,” which appears 27 times, with the term “process” (a favorite term of synodal organizers, promoters, experts) used another 16 times.
The meaning of “synodality” is important for many reasons, not least that we’ve been living in a “synodal Church” since sometime in October 2015. That was when Pope Francis stated:
A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing”. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).
In so stating, he referenced back to his November 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, on the proclamation of the Gospel:
Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock. We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. (#171)
It’s notable that the 2013 document, although lengthy, refers to “synodality” just one time, in the context of Catholics possibly learning about the term and process from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters (#246). But, within a couple of years, the terms “synodality” and “synodal church” were everywhere.
I want to focus here on just one aspect of all things synodal: the act of “listening.” The words “listen” and “listening” appear nearly 70 times in the North American Final Document (they appear over 50 times in the Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) of the 2023 Synod on Synodality). That’s a lot of listening? Who is listening? To whom? For what end?
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There are delegates, and they are part of “listening sessions” comprised of “listening circles”; one delegate asks, “How do we go about becoming a people that have a disposition of listening, of being synodal, of putting listening first?” (#22). A section titled “Listening” refers to “the desire to be a more inclusive and welcoming Church” but “while maintaining and being true to Church teaching” (#29). The need to be inclusive is noted again; it is important that “people have a chance to speak but also to be heard and validated, recognized” (#30). The common refrain is about “listening to each other”; in fact, few of the references to listening focus on listening to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, or even to the Church’s teachings.
Perhaps the most overtly Christo-centric statement is in the context of accompaniment: “This whole process of synodality must all be centered around Jesus Christ. It is Christ we are trying to live out in all our listening, accompanying, worship, participation” (#34). Also heartening was this, from the bishops: “If we are going to be people of dialogue, we have to first have a dialogue with God; synodality needs to be based on a dialogue with Scripture and the Lord” (#48).
And yet, overall, this most recent document and (even more so) the Working Document for the Continental Stage are shot through, or even thoroughly weighed down, with a sociological approach that is concerning and problematic. The latter document, published in October 2022, has been met with strong criticism from experts in the field of sociology. For example, noted researcher Mark Regnerus, who is professor of sociology at University of Texas in Austin, has lambasted the methodology used in creating the document in question, saying it “reads like a wish list of frustrated reformists who have shifted the preferential option away from the poor and toward ‘the young’ and the culturally alienated.”
Ironically, one of the most insightful critiques of the ongoing synodal process was written months prior to either of the two afore-mentioned documents being published. In an essay titled “Synodality, Sociologism, and the Judgment of History,”Michael Hanby, an Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy of Science at the John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America, offers a sustained critique with special reference to how the Second Vatican Council is being interpreted by avid synodal promoters, notably prolific author and progressive gadfly Massimo Faggioli, who is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. I quote a passage at length here, as Hanby masterfully brings together several key, interwoven threads and places them in necessary context:
There is certainly nothing objectionable about the pope seeking consultation from the bishops or with the Church drawing on the experience of the lay faithful and the wisdom acquired from “the unique character of their vocation … to seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God.” It is also true, at least in the United States, that there is a desperate need to revitalize the moribund life of the parish, reduced in many instances to little more than a sacrament dispensary. The elevation of synodality to a “constitutive” element of the Church, however, seems to suggest something more—precisely what is not exactly clear—and this has been seized upon by Faggioli and other progressive champions of synodality. As they have done since the election of Pope Francis, Faggioli and his collaborators interpret responses to this initiative not along the axis of true and false but of friend and foe, portraying those who question or hesitate as opponents of Pope Francis and his attempt to “implement” Vatican II, conceived principally as a matter of politics and Church governance. The implication that the council has not been implemented already suggests that they see in synodality an opportunity to right a wrong, to realize the long-delayed implementation of what they regard as the true ecclesiology of the council. Whether this is in fact true is fundamentally a theological and indeed doctrinal question, not merely a historical one. We have seen, however, that ecclesiology is never just ecclesiology. It carries an entire cosmology and theology—or a theology—in tow. Sociologism is functionally atheistic not because its adherents are impious or unbelieving but because God’s being and the meaning of our creaturehood inform neither its basic conception of the world nor its fundamental mode and pattern of thinking. Its immanentism is no less extrinsicist than traditionalism with its grace/nature dualism. Its functionalist mode of reasoning effectively negates any sense of a transcendent order of being, nature, or truth, leaving only social functions and various historical, social, psychological, or economic conditions—in other words, relations of power. (pp 705–706)
This point about power is a vital one. Drawing on the thought of noted Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce (1910–1989), Hanby notes that “Del Noce has understood the sense in which progressive Catholicism is essentially political in character. It is not simply that it favors the politics of the left over the right, though this is obviously true, but that its defining thought forms operate as if power relations were the fundamental reality, indeed the only reality. The crises of truth and authority follow automatically from this assumption” (p 702).
Put simply, but accurately, such progressives view much of Church doctrine as a type of historically-conditioned policy that can be reworked or even outrightly changed by those in power. And an invaluable lever of power is sociology, as well as “science”—or, better, scientism.
Thus, a few months ago, a leading Cardinal said, when asked about the Church’s teaching that “homosexuality is a sin”:
I believe that this is false. But I also believe that here we are thinking further about the teaching. So, as the Pope has said in the past, this can lead to a change in teaching. So I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, SJ, of Luxembourg, in the same interview, also stated that “we cannot give the answers of the past to the questions of tomorrow.” His appeals to sociology and history, over against divine revelation and the deposit of faith, are overt and unqualified.
Then, in a more recent interview, Cardinal Hollerich said that Pope John II’s 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which firmly stated that women cannot be ordained priests, was “surely is a true teaching for its time, and we cannot just push it aside. But I think that there might be some space to expand the teaching — to see which of the arguments of Pope John Paul II could be developed. But for the moment, if Pope Francis tells me it is not an option, it is not an option.”The only possible explanation for this is the same one that progressives have relied on for decades: that popes can, in fact, change Church teaching without regard to the deposit of faith, that doctrine is historically conditioned and so is always malleable, and that a vague appeal to “the development of doctrine” should assuage any and all concerns of the faithful. Cardinal Hollerich also reiterated his conviction that Church teaching about homosexuality is outdated.
This point about homosexuality is notable, not only because it is constantly brought up in various ways by Cardinals Hollerich, McElroy, Cupich, Marx, and Bishop Bätzing, and others, but because the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its sexual teachings on chastity, sexuality, fidelity, and marriage (see #2331–2400), connects its clear teachings about homosexual act to divine revelation: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’” (#2357, emphasis added).
I’ve remarked further here, but simply note that the Catechism, in directly pointing to Scripture and Tradition, is emphasizing the dogmatic nature of the Church’s teaching about homosexuality. It is rooted in what the Church teaches about anthropology, marriage, and sexuality. Thus, Cardinal Hollerich (among others) is openly dismissing and despising the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church by Jesus Christ (see CCC #84).
But no bishop, including the pope, is over the deposit of faith, precisely because no bishop gives divine revelation to the Church. Rather, as Dei Verbum states, the “one sacred deposit of the word of God” has been “committed to the Church,” so that “[h]olding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort” (#10).
Further, the teaching office of the Church “is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (#10).
In other words, Cardinal Hollerich is not only not doing his job, he is actively undermining Church authority—ironically (or, cynically), the very authority he relies upon for his position, prestige, and power. And, of course, he is both the General Relator of the current Synod as well as one of the newest members of Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinals.
This raises many questions, including: If key bishops and cardinals are not interested in defending the deposit of faith and upholding divine revelation, why should ordinary, lay Catholics? In a homily given at the opening of the Year of Faith in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI quoted these words from Pope John XXIII, uttered at the inauguration of the Second Vatican Council:
What above all concerns the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be safeguarded and taught more effectively […] Therefore, the principal purpose of this Council is not the discussion of this or that doctrinal theme… a Council is not required for that… [but] this certain and immutable doctrine, which is to be faithfully respected, needs to be explored and presented in a way which responds to the needs of our time.”
Pope Benedict observed that during the time of the Council, “there was an emotional tension as we faced the common task of making the truth and beauty of the faith shine out in our time, without sacrificing it to the demands of the present or leaving it tied to the past.” He reiterated his belief that the Church needed to attend to what the conciliar documents actually state, for “the true legacy of Vatican II is to be found in them.” The Church, he later noted,
continuously endeavours to deepen the deposit of faith entrusted to her by Christ. The Council Fathers wished to present the faith in a meaningful way; and if they opened themselves trustingly to dialogue with the modern world it is because they were certain of their faith, of the solid rock on which they stood. In the years following, however, many embraced uncritically the dominant mentality, placing in doubt the very foundations of the deposit of faith, which they sadly no longer felt able to accept as truths.
What, then, to make of synodality? It is evident that Cardinal Hollerich and others want synodality to be a means of turning the deposit of faith into a running tab at the Pub of Progressive Pet Causes. What we need now is clarity and firmness on the part of those who believe in proclaiming and protecting that divine revelation, by which we encounter and hear the authentic Word of God and enter into communion with the Triune God. As Hanby ruefully, but rightly, remarks:
Whatever synodality turns out to mean, the fact that it lends itself to sociologism, which can only distort the essential nature of the Church and darken the eclipse of God, compels us to examine this idea more closely in light of the internal schism of modern Catholicism.
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent and Prepare the Way of the Lord—are published by Catholic Truth Society. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.
In a January 21, 2023 Catholic World Report editorial about the Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) of the 2023 Synod on Synodality, I noted: “But in a document of some 15,000 words that is about the Church, churchiness, the laity, evangelization, and living as a Catholic, it’s striking that the terms ‘process’ (44) and ‘dialogue’ (31) appear quite a few more times than does ‘worship”’ (0), ‘praise’ (0), and ‘thanksgiving’ (0).”
Pope Francis, “Address of His Holiness Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops,” October 17, 2015, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Dr. Nicholas J. Healy, Jr., in a recent, detailed essay titled “The Sacramental Nature of Authority and the Limits of Synodality,” provides a helpful history of the concept of “synodality” (1965-2021), before looking at four questions about the concept of synodality and what a “synodal ecclesiology” looks like.
Michael Hanby, “Synodality, Sociologism, and the Judgment of History,” Communio: International Catholic Review 48, no. 4 (Winter 2021): 686–726.
“Key Synod cardinal: Catholic teaching on homosexuality is ‘false’,” February 3, 2022, Catholic World News.
Hannah Brockhaus, “Cardinal Hollerich: There’s ‘space to expand’ Church teaching on all-male priesthood,” March 28, 2023, Catholic World Report.
Cf. Carl E. Olson, “Cardinal Hollerich’s less than ‘Honest to God’ moment,” March 30, 2023, Catholic World Report.
Pope Benedict XVI, “Homily of His Holiness at Holy Mass for the Opening of the Year of Faith,” October 11, 2012, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
“Synodality, Sociologism, and the Judgment of History,” pp 703–704.