The Need for a Deeper Theology of Synodality

COMMENTARY: Without explicit clarification, the synthesis document of the recent Synod on Synodality seems to teeter on a Protestant understanding of ministry, where all ministry flows from baptism, and a correspondingly Protestant ecclesiology, which is essentially baptismal and only secondarily Eucharistic, if at all.

Pope Francis holds his rosary during the Mass for the conclusion of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops Oct. 29, 2023.
Pope Francis holds his rosary during the Mass for the conclusion of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops Oct. 29, 2023. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA / EWTN)

On Oct. 28, the feast of the apostles Simon and Jude, the first session of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops released its synthesis (summary) report, “A Synodal Church in Mission.” 

The document clearly states that it is “not a final document, but an instrument at the service of ongoing discernment.” It is intended to “orient reflection” regarding points on which “it is necessary to continue deepening our understanding pastorally, theologically, and canonically.” The invitation to theological deepening is especially prominent. Here, I hope to take up that invitation. 

I will focus on a claim made about synodality and the synodal path itself, namely that it “constitutes a true act of further reception” of Vatican II, “implementing what the Council taught about the Church as Mystery and People of God, called to holiness.” The reference here is to Chapters 1 (“The Mystery of the Church”), 2 (“The People of God”) and 5 (“The Universal Call to Holiness”) of Lumen Gentium (LG). Synodality itself is described as “a mode of being Church that integrates communion, mission and participation.” 

In other words, “synodality” is an ecclesiology, at least implicitly, a particular theology of the Church, which claims to be a development of Lumen Gentium.  

What are its basic features? “Baptism,” above all, “is at the root of the principle of synodality.” Synodality claims to develop a primary feature of Lumen Gentium’s ecclesiology, namely, its recovery of the idea that all of the baptized, by virtue of their baptism, are called to contribute to the mission of the Church. It “values the contribution all the baptized make, according to their respective vocations.” 

Further, “An invaluable fruit of this [synodal] process is the heightened awareness of our identity as the faithful People of God, and each is called to differentiated co-responsibility for the common mission of evangelization.” 

Synodality values the title “People of God” for the Church, correctly associating this title with the idea that baptism calls all to contribute to the mission of the Church. 

I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the title “People of God” is featured prominently throughout the document, while the Church as “Mystery,” initially mentioned above, is rarely, if ever, mentioned again — though it is an equally prominent feature of Lumen Gentium. Here is where I may be able to offer a suggestion for theological deepening.

The Church is “mystery” because it is born primarily of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The sign of this is the blood and water, symbolizing Eucharist and baptism, the two main sacraments of the Church, that flowed from the side of the crucified Jesus (see Lumen Gentium, 3). The Church is therefore a mystery of Christ’s sacrificial love. 

Since the Eucharist makes present that sacrificial love, the Eucharist “makes the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1396). The mystery of the Church is therefore a mystery derived from Christ’s priesthood. 

His priesthood is mediated to the Church in two ways. One of the most outstanding contributions of LG was to recover one of these two ways, the biblical idea of the priesthood of the baptized, which configures us to the priesthood of Christ and enables us to make spiritual sacrifices that build up the one body, for example, in evangelization and in prophetic witness — and ultimately in our participation in the Eucharist. The reason baptism confers the dignity and mission it does is because it confers a share in Christ’s priesthood on all the baptized. 

This is one of the two mediations of Christ’s priesthood.

The second mediation of Christ’s priesthood is another, different sharing in the one priesthood of Christ. This is holy orders, and the difference between the priesthood of the baptized and the ordained priesthood is not simply a matter of degree. That’s important because if the difference between these two priesthoods were only a matter of degree, then the ordained priesthood would just have “more” of the baptismal priesthood, and that would mean that the ordained were super-Christians, the super-baptized. The ordained would have a Christian dignity above the baptized.

Rather, the two priesthoods differ not in degree, but “in kind” (see LG, 10). Holy orders confers the ability to act “in the person of Christ the Head,” and thus to celebrate the Eucharist, making Christ present to his body as head, configuring the Church to his sacrifice and enabling the priesthood of the baptized to fulfill their sacrificial role in offering the Eucharist. The two priesthoods are mutually ordered towards each other in the being and mission of the Church. 

And so, if an invaluable fruit of the synodal process is, as quoted earlier from the synodal document, “the heightened awareness of our identity as the faithful People of God” who are “called to differentiated co-responsibility,” then the language of “co-responsibility” for the mission of the Church is therefore incomplete if it does not refer to the way in which these two priesthoods are different and are ordered towards each other in the building up of the one body. 

The synodal document does talk about co-responsibility being exercised across a variety of “charisms, vocations and ministries,” but there is no explicit mention of holy orders as constitutive of one of these vocations and ministries and no mention at all of the baptismal priesthood. Holy orders itself is not even mentioned in the section on deacons and priests. 

This lack of precision and clarity gives the impression that the priesthood, here meaning the ordained priesthood, is purely functional and not constitutive (along with the priesthood of the baptized) of the mystery of the Church as born from Christ’s sacrifice. The impression given is that “priesthood” seems to demarcate only one among the many ministries, charisms and vocations that have their origin in the baptismal call to mission. It is distinguishable as a function and role but not essentially different in kind. 

Without explicit clarification, the document seems to teeter on a Protestant understanding of ministry, where all ministry flows from baptism, and a correspondingly Protestant ecclesiology that is essentially baptismal and only secondarily Eucharistic, if at all. 

But baptism is itself ordered towards the Eucharist (see Presbyterorum Ordinis, 5), which completes Christian initiation. It is therefore the Eucharist that ultimately “makes the Church” (Catechism, 1396), not baptism, because it is the sacrifice of Christ that makes the Church, and the Eucharist is the sacramental re-presentation of that sacrifice. 

The ordained priesthood, endowed by holy orders with the power to make present the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist, is therefore not just one ministry with baptism as its root among other such, but is itself constitutive of the Church (along with the priesthood of the baptized, though in its own way).  

This in turn means that an adequate theology of co-responsibility cannot be articulated as merely a function of baptism. To the extent that “synodality” is synonymous with “baptismal,” it will regard all the ministries of the Church as differing, perhaps, in degree but not differing essentially in kind. 

This will include the governance that Lumen Gentium (21) taught was intrinsic to the fullness of holy orders conferred on the bishop. It will seem that governance is just another baptismal charism, vocation or ministry. 

But then co-responsibility for the mission of the Church, coming exclusively from baptism, can begin to be identified with co-responsibility for governance. If co-responsibility and the various charisms and ministries that are to be co-responsible for mission flow from baptism, then there is need of a wholesale reform of Church “structures.” 

In fact, the document seems to call for such: “All the baptized are co-responsible for mission, each according to his or her vocation, competence and experience. Therefore, all contribute to imagining and discerning steps to reform Christian communities and the Church as a whole, [and] … this co-responsibility of all in mission must be the criterion underlying the structuring of Christian communities and the entire local church,” so that “each member is involved in processes and decision-making for the mission of the Church.”

Co-responsibility for mission here seems nearly indistinguishable from co-responsibility for governance, and “synodality” seems almost to mean “co-responsibility for governance.” The laity are truly co-responsible for the being and mission of the Church only to the extent that they are co-responsible for governance, at least in a reformed ecclesiology that flows from baptism. 

But unless baptismal synodality means the erasure of the intrinsic connection between holy orders and governance — and surely the synod does not intend to go that far! — this means that any leadership exercised co-responsibly by the laity will be exercised principally as part of a leadership ministry that is different in kind from their own, a clerical ministry, rather than one truly their own. 

The laity do not need a structure or pastoral plan to validate or mandate the leadership that comes with the exercise of the baptismal priesthood in evangelization. Baptism is itself the mandate. The “synodality” envisioned by this document, in erasing the very language of the baptismal “priesthood,” could seem to be just a renewed form of clericalism, where there is never any true leadership that pertains uniquely to the priesthood of the baptized, any true sphere for lay leadership in the Church. 

Balancing these worries, the document says that it is “necessary to clarify the relationship between synodality and communion and between synodality and collegiality” and, later, asks, as a question for further clarification, “how do we integrate the tasks of advising, discerning and deciding in the various participatory bodies?” It also calls for “dialogue” with Lumen Gentium on the topic of governance. 

My suggestion is that, if these questions are to be answered in a way that is a true development of Lumen Gentium, it will be necessary to bring back the language Lumen Gentium uses to talk about the Church as a mystery originating in Christ’s priesthood. This will require recovering the language of the two different — though mutually related —sacramental shares in that priesthood that together constitute the Church. 

But this should be easy, since Lumen Gentium is so saturated with this language that any true claim to develop it must preserve it if the claim is to be credible. 

John C. Cavadini is professor of theology and director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame