A Synodal Long Game? Changing Structure to Change Doctrine

NEWS ANALYSIS: Some Synod on Synodality Participants Seem Intent on Radically Altering the Way the Church Teaches

Roundtable discussions underway at the Synod on Synodality Oct. 26 at Paul VI Hall at the Vatican.
Roundtable discussions underway at the Synod on Synodality Oct. 26 at Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (photo: Divisione Produzione Fotografica / Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY— Will the Synod on Synodality result in changes to established Church teaching? 

The question has dogged the global consultative process, which is wrapping up the first of two Vatican assemblies this weekend. Despite organizers’ underscoring that doctrinal change is not the aim of the synod, members of the media have pushed a narrative that the Synod on Synodality could in fact lead to big changes in Church teaching. And reports from inside Paul VI Hall confirm that some members have indeed called for changes to established doctrine on matters like same-sex sexual relations and male-only holy orders

But some participants may be using the synodal process to try to change something arguably even more fundamental: the way the Church determines its doctrine altogether.Grounded in a contested understanding of the Second Vatican Council, this approach arguably diminishes the teaching authority of bishops by making institutionalized consultation a primary and necessary criterion for decision-making — including decisions on Catholic doctrine.

Changing Church structures, a topic of discussion at the Synod on Synodality, is considered a vital step for securing this objective. It’s an approach that has been identified by some of its proponents as a possible blueprint for attempting to change established teaching — including doctrine related to ordination and human sexuality. And within the synod assembly this October, some Synod on Synodality participants, including key theological advisers, have been advocating for it.

This development places significant scrutiny on any forthcoming mention by the Synod of Synodality of new structures in connection with determining doctrine — some of which are mentioned in a draft of the assembly’s final text, according to a report. For instance, the draft states that the sensus fidei, or the supernatural sense of faith possessed by all believers, is enhanced by “synodal processes,” which also “allow for verifying the existence of that consensus of the faithful (consens fidelium), which is a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the Apostolic faith.” The connection between consultation via “synodal processes” and determining the authenticity of “a particular doctrine or practice” is part and parcel of the vision proponents of this contested ecclesiology have sought to achieve for decades — and may be a step closer to if these kinds of structural changes come out of the synod.   

‘Laying a Firm Foundation’

A possible illustration of what these kinds of structural changes could portend came in the synod’s second week, when Redemptorist Father Vimal Tirimanna, a theological expert at the Synod on Synodality and key adviser during the preceding stages of the multiyear synodal process, spoke at a press briefing on Oct. 16.

Father Tirimanna made clear that the Synod on Synodality’s aim wasn’t to address issues like “whether women can be ordained, whether LGBTQ [sic] should be accepted, or whether gay marriage can be blessed” in a head-on fashion. Instead, the moral theologian said that the first step to addressing these issues is to “lay a firm foundation that includes everybody’s interests.”

“I can assure you, once the firm foundation of the synodal life is laid — I repeat — once the firm foundation of the synodal way of life is laid, those things can be built up on that,” said the Sri Lankan priest, adding that synodality represented a continuation of Vatican II’s ecclesiology, or theology of the Church, after 50 years of apparent inaction.

“So, first, we lay the foundation, the foundation of the synodal culture, a listening culture, a culture that includes — [and] automatically, these issues are bound to come, sooner if not later,” said Father Tirimanna, who made no mention of what role the Church’s authoritative teaching on these subjects would play in discerning whether a proposed doctrinal change was consistent with the Catholic faith.

Theologians familiar with different interpretations of Vatican II’s ecclesiology say Father Tirimanna’s comments are consistent with a broader approach aimed at changing the way authoritative teaching is determined in the Church through an emphasis on more consultative structures and processes.

The prolific Mundelein Seminary theologian Matthew Levering explained the mindset behind this agenda. “What it amounts to is: First, establish truly inclusive structures. Then, having finally for the first time in Church history established a foundation that fits with Jesus’ open table and love for the excluded, proceed to reconsider everything or almost everything.”

Christopher Ruddy, a theologian at The Catholic University of America with expertise in Vatican II, said that Father Tirimanna’s proposal seemed to be an “ecclesiological patina,” using a focus on Church processes and structures as cover for reexamining doctrinal issues of faith and morals.

Listening in decision-making is important, Ruddy said, but what ultimately matters is whether the Church’s doctrines are true — grounded in Scripture, Tradition and what has already been authoritatively taught by the Church’s magisterium, the pope and the bishops teaching in union with him.

“The Church has a normative tradition and normative teaching,” Ruddy said. “That fact is a point of departure, and ecclesiological discussions can’t override that or do an end-around on it.”

But Ruddy’s concern is that circumventing established teaching is exactly what the vision espoused by Father Tirimanna seems aimed at, for instance, by claiming that a synodal culture in which “everybody’s interests” are represented is a necessary foundation for doctrinal decision-making.

“He’s sort of like, ‘Let’s not get bogged down in the hot-button issues. Let’s get this synodal thing going,’” said Ruddy. “And then he’s basically saying, ‘The rest will take care of itself.’ And I think that’s more than very problematic. I think that would be beyond problematic.”

Comparatively, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.” Non-bishops aren’t left out of the equation: All the faithful contribute to the Church’s growth in understanding, for instance, through theological study and lived experience. And all believers have a “supernatural sense of faith” that is, the sensus fidei, ensuring that “the whole body of the faithful … cannot err in matters of belief” when all members “manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals,” that is, an expression of the sensus fidelium.

However, nowhere in the Catechism, nor the teaching of Vatican II upon which it is based, is consultation with the laity described as a requirement for a bishop to authentically exercise his teaching authority, which he possesses by virtue of his sacramental ordination as a successor of the apostles.

‘Inverting the Pyramid’

According to Levering, the emphasis on formalized consultation in doctrinal decision-making may be making a splash at the synod, but it was all proposed in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II.

“There’s nothing new,” he said.

The Dutch theologian Dominican Father Edward Schillebeeckx was an especially prominent proponent, and this understanding of the Church has been promoted in subsequent decades in the theological journal he co-founded, Concilium. 

What does appear to be new, however, is that this ecclesiological vision seems to be enjoying a prominence in Vatican-led initiatives like the Synod on Synodality, after being effectively marginalized as an inadequate interpretation of the Council during the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

In fact, one of the most significant contemporary advocates of this approach was given a prominent speaking role at the synod, addressing the entire assembly on Oct. 23 as they began their work on approving a final summary document.

Father Ormond Rush, a theologian at the Australian Catholic University and an adviser throughout the synodal process, spoke about the need to be open to a “dynamic” understanding of tradition that is “open to a future yet to be revealed.” 

The priest also underscored Vatican II’s teaching that the Church’s doctrine is developed through “the work of theologians; the lived experience of the faithful; and the oversight of the magisterium.”

“Sounds like a synodal church, doesn’t it?” Father Rush quipped to the synod assembly.

It’s also a significant emphasis in Father Rush’s influential 2017 article, “Inverting the Pyramid: The Sensus Fidelium in a Synodal Church,” although arguably not with the same understanding of the relationship between the magisterium, on the one hand, and theological study and the believers’ experience on the other.

Father Rush’s work is based on a concept from Pope Francis’s 2015 address on the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops that underscores the need for the Church hierarchy to be ministers of service to the faithful. Using this motif of inversion, Father Rush’s proposal is something of a 21st-century updating of concilium ecclesiology, arguing that Vatican II’s view of Church reform is most fully expressed in the implementation of synodality.

In particular, Father Rush argues for reconsidering the nature of the bishops’ teaching authority, while ensuring that “the People of God’s intuition in the contexts of today regarding faith and morals” become “a primary consideration in the process of the hierarchy’s teaching.” 

Discerning the Sensus Fidelium

While not denying the bishop’s task of doctrinal oversight, the “inverting the pyramid” approach arguably transforms its meaning.

 In this approach, bishops would see their teaching authority and oversight of doctrinal development primarily as an act of facilitation, drawing what the Holy Spirit is saying through the body of believers. 

“In other words, the Church needs to be synodal so that it can listen to God communicating at this time in history, in Christ through the Spirit,” Father Rush wrote. “The Spirit is the conduit; and the Spirit’s instrument of communication is the sensus fidei in each believer, and in the Church as a whole.”

Father Rush acknowledges the difficulty of discerning the sensus fidelium and therefore highlights the work of theologians, but also the importance of “effective institutional structures for listening to and determining the sensus fidelium.” The theologian writes that these structures should prioritize “the genuine participation of the peripheries in the governing and teaching of the whole Church.”

 On this account, the bishops’ oversight of doctrine is not simply at the service of the whole Church, but is in some sense inadequately exercised apart from formalized consultation. 

Father Rush hasn’t publicly applied his vision of synodal ecclesiology to particular issues, such as human sexuality and ordination — but others have. In fact, “inverting the pyramid” has become something of a blueprint for those seeking to change Church teaching and practice on issues like sexuality and ordination.

For instance, Father Rush is heavily cited in Emory University theologian Ish Ruiz’s 2023 article on how a more synodal ecclesiology could lead the Church to take “LGBTQ+ inclusive” positions, including approving “gender-affirming care” and adoptions by same-sex couples. Ruiz also suggests that a synodal ecclesiology also necessarily raises the question of whether such dynamics can “result in a change or reversal of Catholic doctrine on homosexuality and gender.”

The Canadian theologian Catherine Clifford, who is participating in the synod as a voting member, has also drawn heavily from Father Rush in her recent discussions of synodal ecclesiology

Like Ruiz, she has previously cited making Church structures more participatory as a necessary step before Catholic doctrine and practice, including those related to questions about the priesthood and human sexuality, can change.

“Any of these questions — expanding roles for women, ordaining married men — for these things to change, the style of the Church’s governance has to change,” Clifford said in 2013, on the eve of Pope Francis’ election.

Putting Structures in Place

Now more than 10 years later, the style of the Church’s governance was under discussion at the Synod on Synodality’s first Vatican assembly. 

On Oct. 18, Father Dario Vitali, the synod’s “coordinator of expert theologians,” offered a theological reflection as the assembly began its work addressing the question of what processes, structures and institutions are needed for a synodal Church.

The Italian priest, who teaches ecclesiology at the Gregorian University in Rome, said that the synod’s work on this topic would finally allow for the “renewal” of ecclesial structures consistent with a “progressive reception of the ecclesiological framework designed by Vatican Council II.”

The criteria for this reform, Father Vitali said, included theologically “rethink[ing] the Church in a synodal key, so that the entire Church and everything in the Church — life, processes, institutions — is rethought in terms of synodality.” But Father Vitali also emphasized that reform must be institutional, to “guarantee the Church the ‘space’ to practice synodality,” which Father Vitali suggested could include making a universal synodal body of bishops and non-bishops a permanent feature of ecclesial life.

Ruddy critiqued Father Vitali’s speech for, on the one hand, using language that suggests that prior to the recent focus on synodality, the Church has been “dormant for decades, centuries, maybe even millennia.”

“That kind of language can be irresponsible and sort of make it sound like we’re at Year Zero right now, and we’re finally getting this thing going,” he said. Ruddy added that this kind of “hubristic” language also dismisses the important and various ways Vatican II’s ecclesiology has already been received in the Church over the last 58 years, implying that the teachings of the Council were “basically under a deep freeze or in a holding pattern” during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Ruddy also expressed concern that expanding the footprint of permanent synodal bodies in the life of the Church could “basically turn the Church into a parliament” — the exact thing that Pope Francis has said he doesn’t want from the synodal process. 

Not only are such consultative bodies open to forms of “advocacy and agitation,” Ruddy said, but they also tend to give disproportionate representation to “Church professionals” with advanced degrees and organizational relationships.

That seems to be the case with the German Synodal Way, the non-canonical initiative of German bishops and laity to change Church teaching and a practice that Pope Francis has criticized as “elitist.” The Vatican also rejected the Germans’ proposal for a permanent “synodal council,” which would have allowed the laity to override decisions made by the episcopacy.

But the lack of the concreteness of proposals for new Church structures discussed at the synod concerns Ruddy. He also notes that while listening and consultation are important, an overemphasis on them in other Christian communities has effectively led to the democratization of doctrinal decision-making, leading to changes in teaching related to homosexuality, for instance. He suggests that established Church teaching that some dissent from, such as Paul VI’s prohibition of contraceptive sex in Humanae Vitae, could easily be targeted if consultation is given a preeminence in doctrinal decision-making. 

“My great concern is that people are using ecclesiological stuff to do end runs around doctrine, around faith and morals,” said Ruddy, “and that in some ways we’re just going to keep consulting and walking together until we get the results we want.”

A Bishop, Not a Pollster

Msgr. Michael Heintz agreed. The professor of historical and systematic theology at Mount St. Mary’s University noted that an emphasis on consultation can give the impression that a bishop needs to “get what he decides approved by some kind of opinion poll or public consensus,” while Vatican II’s teaching is clear that the episcopacy has the charism to authentically teach the faith of the apostles.

The theologian added that being attentive to the sensus fidelium involves authentic communion and communication between a bishop and his local Church, rooted in the Eucharist, and is not reducible to “polling people on a certain doctrine and if the doctrine seems passé we move on.”

“Reading the signs of the times does not mean being married to the zeitgeist,” Msgr. Heintz told the Register.

The theologian added that a significant reservation about an overemphasis on consultative structures in determining doctrine is that it can easily turn into introducing “structures from social and political life” into the Body of Christ — and that the experience of other Christian ecclesial communities that have adopted democratic approaches to determining doctrine should caution the Catholic Church against pursuing anything similar.

“Where has this gotten them? Has that been an entrée to a robust, rich living out of the Gospel, drawing all kinds of people to Christ?” Instead, Msgr. Heintz points out that these churches have experienced dwindling numbers of adherents — and worries that a similar result faces the Catholic Church if it goes down the same path.