Cardinal Baldisseri Praises Synodality But Concept is Causing Concern

Secretary general of the Synod of Bishops praises two new books for deepening the concept, but critics fear synodality will lead to a ‘protestantization’ of the Church.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general, Synod of Bishops.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general, Synod of Bishops. (photo: Edward Pentin/

Synodality — a word that has come to mean decentralizing and democratizing the Church and the Magisterium away from the papacy and the Vatican to local churches — has been lauded by the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops in a Dec. 13 talk at the launch of two books on the subject. 

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri praised the books, written by theologian Father Michele Giulio Masciarelli of the archdiocese of Chieti-Vasto, saying the author “deepens” the concept of ecclesial synodality, “welding it” with another ecclesiological category “very dear to Pope Francis: that of the People of God.”

The cardinal's discourse was also published in the Dec. 14 edition of L'Osservatore Romano.

He said that “thanks to Pope Francis,” synodality is “gaining increasing importance in the Church's life,” summing up the “current path of Church reform and her institutions.”

The Italian cardinal, who administered the highly controversial 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, noted that the Pope’s “important speech” of Oct. 17, 2015, at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, “is the starting point” of Father Masciarelli reflections.

“On that occasion,” he said, the Holy Father “outlined a program of renewal to be conducted in all levels of the Church.” The Pope, he added, “thinks, in a sense, of a ‘widespread’ synodality, able to permeate every area of ​​the Church's mission, in the knowledge that synodality is a constitutive dimension of the Church itself.”

The cardinal said Father Masciarelli “explains well that synodality is not identified purely and simply with episcopal collegiality, although these two concepts are closely linked. Synodality, in fact, speaks of ecclesial subjectivity of the whole people of God, ontologically founded on the sacraments of Christian initiation.”

The head of the Synod of Bishops added that as the shepherds are “members of this people, it is clear that we can and must also talk, for example, of a priestly synodality and an episcopal synodality,” according to the “rich conciliar teaching on the college of the apostles and their successors.”

Focusing on Father Masciarelli’s “theology of synodality”, Cardinal Baldisseri said the author shows well that synodality “is not a ‘lofty’ idea which affects only the Pope and bishops, but is a guiding concept suitable even for the ecclesial ‘base’, and thus for the parishes, in which our people routinely live their Christian faith and their ecclesial belonging.”

Continuing with the emphasis on the People of God, he added: “We must admit that our parish communities are not yet fully liberated from a clericalist vision inherited from the past: pastors and lay people are often accustomed to an individualistic exercise of pastoral care, unable to take advantage of the centrality of all the baptized, each of whom is given by the Holy Spirit gifts and charisms for the common good.” (Pope Francis also criticized clericalism in his morning homily Dec. 13, saying it alienates members of the Church by refusing to be close to them, and reinforces the belief that priests are above the laity).

Cardinal Baldisseri went on to stress that “it is in this sense” there is a need to “focus on the participating organizations that arose with the Second Vatican Council and to which the Holy Father has repeatedly drawn attention,” beginning with “the pastoral council, diocesan and parish, in which men and women, representing all community members, assist pastors in pastoral planning.”

The cardinal noted that Father Masciarelli, whose archbishop, Bruno Forte, was also a controversial figure in the last synod, said the priest’s books represent a “significant contribution to the deepening of the theological and pastoral theme of synodality” and he hoped that both of his publications “are known and used by pastors and the faithful to promote that ‘urgent ecclesial renewal’ of which Pope Francis speaks in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (nos. 27-33).”

Although the Pope and his allies are plowing on with synodality (the subject was central to discussions at this week’s C9 Council of Cardinals meeting), some are concerned that it is essentially “protestantizing” the Church, turning it into a quasi democratic republic rather than a papal monarchy that safeguards and defends Church doctrine.

One Church observer, an expert in ecclesiology, called Cardinal Baldisseri’s words “110% Protestantism”, and believes synodality as it is currently being discussed has Trotzkyist connotations ("permanent synodality" being synonymous with "permanent revolution").

The current emphasis on synodality partly derives from the aspirations of the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini who hoped for "a sort of permanent council of regents for the Church, beside the Pope." He was one of the first to propose the model of a "synodal" Church in which the Pope no longer governs as an absolute monarch.

Also worth noting is that along with discussing synodality, the Council of Cardinals also spoke this week about reforming the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation represents unity of the faith but, according to some Church observers, decentralization along the lines of the proposed synodality would probably render it powerless, or perhaps even obsolete. 

Father Masciarelli’s books are entitled “Un popolo sinodale. Camminare insieme” (A Synodal People – Walking Together) and “Parrocchia sinodale. Casa del popolo di Dio” (Synodal Parish – House of the People of God).