What’s in Play at the Synod on Synodality?

COMMENTARY: Paraphrasing Pope Benedict, there are two synods — that of the media and the actual synod itself.

How should the laity approach the synod?
How should the laity approach the synod? (photo: Unsplash)

As the Vatican prepared to welcome participants of the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge that the gathering he initiated to bring the Church together into fruitful dialogue has amplified intense divisions in the body of Christ. 

This month he repeatedly has called for a “synodal atmosphere” imbued with a “spirit of prayer” rather than “political chatter” full of “ideologies” that divide the faithful. The synod, he has said, is “an exchange between brothers and sisters,” and “the protagonist of the synod is the Holy Spirit.”

To heed the Holy Father’s warning not to view the synod like a television talk show but rather as a spiritual event, it’s helpful to put it into proper historical and ecclesiastical context. It’s also helpful to examine our own conscience and increase our prayerfulness so our hearts and minds remain open to the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives. 

Synods in the Catholic Church were most recently configured during the Second Vatican Council by Pope St. Paul VI. The contemporary synod was envisioned as a means of bringing bishops together from all over the world so that they could act as a consultative body to the pope on timely issues. As a consultative body, not a council, with no power over the pope or over Church teaching, a synod can only advise, and the pope is free to do with the advice as he sees fit. 

Perhaps because the synod includes votes, some mistakenly think that it is a deliberative body, meeting to make decisions in representation of a whole and thus participants should be lobbied one way or another. However, as a consultative body, the synod votes are symbolic at best, marking opinions of the individual members present.

The initial phase of this synod, which took place at the local and national levels over the last two years, identified many of the hot-button issues facing the Church from questions over more inclusivity for Catholics who identify as LGBTQ or divorced-and-remarried Catholics, to the reopening of debates on women deacons and married priests, to how to better evangelize young people, increase vocations, and heal the wounds of sexual abuse within the Church. These topics and many more are delineated in the form of worksheets with discussion questions in the instrumentum laboris (working document) published by the Vatican to guide the synod’s deliberations. Judging by the commentary coming from different parts of the Church, it is clear that there are agendas in play; if not by the synod participants themselves, then certainly from outsiders hoping to influence the discussion and outcome.

Looking at the 2019 Synod on the Amazon, it’s also clear that a lot of the polarizing conversations did not take place inside the synod hall. At the time, the dominating issue was the ordination of married men who were known to be dedicated to their local church communities (viri probati). 

In the end, the synod participants did not approve a recommendation for married priests and the teaching remained the same. But anyone who was following Catholic media will recall the tumult that was almost worthy of comparison to a rumble during one of the ecumenical councils in the first few hundred years of the Church. 

Paraphrasing Pope Benedict on Vatican II, there are two synods: that of the media and the actual synod itself. 

While not whitewashing the seriousness of the concerns raised by many, we need to step back and understand what the synod is and the impact that it can have. 

A potentially damaging impact comes from the rehashing of settled Church teaching such as women’s ordination. Clearly, there’s a lot of confusion already existing for such settled teaching to be challenged so frequently, and it’s important to listen to those who disagree; but, historically, the synod’s purpose is to clarify Church teaching — not to challenge it. 

Practically speaking, synod participants are typically only able to give brief (three-minute to five-minute) interventions (talks), and there’s little time for authentic dialogue and debate. As a consultative body, the participants come to a consensus on priorities to recommend for the pope. From this synod, we might see participants who are advocating a change in Church teaching recommend that the Church study a particular issue more deeply. We might also see the synod assembly make suggestions on how to improve the communication of our teachings.

Pope Francis has directed that this synod include 70 non-bishop voting members. In the past, there have been a few non-bishop auditors, mostly priests. Now, priests, deacons, non-ordained religious (both women and men), and laywomen and men will comprise the 70. As voting members, they carry equal weight with the vote of the bishops, which may broaden the scope of suggestions made to the Holy Father at the conclusion of the assembly; but, in the end, the votes of a synod don’t bear weight in Church governance. 

Undoubtedly, there are serious threats to the promotion and understanding of Catholic teaching within the global Church today. Pope Francis has highlighted the danger of the German synodal process, which includes suggested changes in the Church’s teachings on reserving priestly ordination to men (which I addressed here), offering a blessing for same-sex unions, and other controversial issues. Yet, strangely, many of these issues have made their way into the working document for the Synod on Synodality.

Nevertheless, a quick look at Church history reveals that not only have there been periods of greater confusion and dissension than now, but that Our Lord always maintains his promise (Matthew 28:20): “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” 

Times of terrible conflict have given us great saints and greater clarity regarding Church teaching. And regardless of whatever confusion may be happening in Rome or elsewhere, we all still have the means of our sanctification at hand as we each live our daily lives. 

A very few of us will be directly involved with the synod in Rome. The rest of us will be working out our salvation in the day-to-day blessings and crosses of ordinary life. Some will undoubtedly be suffering tremendously. 

No matter what happens at the Vatican’s synod or much closer to our own homes, we are all called to be great saints and have the means to do so. 

While it’s easy to understand why some Catholics are concerned about the upcoming synod, we might best keep a peaceful countenance and prepare to conform our own heart and mind to Christ in this moment through a particular examination of conscience: Am I building up the body of Christ or am I tearing it down? A lack of peace (which is not the same as conviction or righteousness) might be a sign that what we are doing is tearing down the body of Christ and we need to change. 

Every Mass includes the words of Our Lord, “My peace I give to you.” Assuming we ever accepted the gift of that peace in the first place, like Peter walking on the waves, we tend to give up that same peace all too quickly. 

Heroes and saints, especially the quiet ones whom most of us will never know, always impress me by their peace. 

They hold it together while the world around them falls apart. 

For some of us, this might mean that we back away from media coverage of the synod. For some, it might mean an increase in prayer.

In the midst of a recent outrage in Catholic social-media land, a priest messaged me that he got off those platforms and went to see if he could spot a hummingbird. 

Honestly, that’s probably a better use of time for most of us than feeding whatever outrage the latest Church news robs us of: the peace of Christ.