Bishop McElroy and a US ‘Synodal Path’: What Would That Mean?

The San Diego bishop is calling for a sweeping adoption of ‘synodality’ in the American context, but analysts say the concept needs a clearer definition before it can be endorsed.

U.S. bishops meet in Baltimore earlier this month.
U.S. bishops meet in Baltimore earlier this month. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

WASHINGTON — Shortly after returning from the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region in late October, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego called for a sweeping adoption of “synodality” as a new model for a wounded Church in need of healing from the clergy abuse crisis.

The Church in the United States, he said Nov. 6 at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, should embrace a “synodal pathway … filled with deep and broad consultation, the willingness to accept arduous choices, the search for renewal and reform at every level, and unswerving faith in the constancy of God’s presence in the community.”

He pointed to the V Encuentro, a synod-like gathering that took place Sept. 20-23, 2018, in Grapevine, Texas. Attended by more than 3,000 Hispanic Catholics, including laity, priests, consecrated religious and bishops, V Encuentro, the bishop said, was grounded in “dialogue, reflection and action” at all levels of the Church, including “thousands of Hispanic young adults,” as an inspiring exercise in synodality.

But the Encuentro, he allowed, was just the starting point for a more ambitious participatory process that would tackle “questions of governance, inclusion, clericalism and lay ministries.”

Apparently timed to influence the U.S. bishops’ deliberations at their annual fall assembly this month in Baltimore, Bishop McElroy’s argument failed to get much traction, as conference members focused on more immediate priorities.

And though Pope Francis has made the promotion of synodality a key concern of his pontificate, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the U.S., urged the bishops at their annual meeting to be in close communion with the Pope by embracing his magisterium, there are signs that conference members are approaching the subject cautiously.

“I don’t think anybody has a clear idea [of what synodality means],” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia told the Register during the meeting, and he noted that the practice was more familiar to Eastern Churches.

Archbishop Chaput suggested, however, that synodality might be reduced to a simple matter of pastoral responsibility: “Bishops have a duty to consult the faithful and the religious and clergy on all the major issues of the Church. I firmly believe that,” said the archbishop, who has helped to launch numerous apostolates led by men and women.

That said, the archbishop drew a bright red line between a bishop engaging in respectful consultation with the local Church, and “saying everybody has an equal vote on these matters.”

 “[W]hen it comes to matters of faith and morals, the Lord has entrusted that responsibility to the bishops of the Church in union with the Holy Father,” he explained.

Archbishop Chaput’s careful response to calls for a new synodal path are all the more striking, given that he is the only North American prelate to be elected to the permanent council of the Synod of Bishops and has taken part in recent synods called by Pope Francis.


Papal Centerpiece

Francis has made “synodality” a centerpiece of his campaign to reform and decentralize the Church and give national bishops’ conferences and local dioceses a greater say in how the mission of evangelization and engagement with the culture should be carried out.

In an October 2015 address that marked the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, the Pope said the “journey of synodality is the journey that God wants from his Church in the third millennium.” A synodal Church, he said, is one that engages in “reciprocal listening,” in which each believer, no matter their station in the Church or the world, has “something to learn.”

The practice of holding synods dates back to the early Church, when ecclesial leaders came together to address matters of doctrine, discipline and pastoral concern with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

“The assembly of the apostles in Jerusalem, described in Acts 15, met to discuss whether Gentile converts to the Christian faith needed to observe the Jewish laws concerning circumcision, diet, among other issues,” Robert Fastiggi, professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told the Register.

Fastiggi described the Council of Jerusalem as “the prototype of subsequent Church councils or synods.” But the Synod of Bishops as it is constituted today was established in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, as a consultative body that could aid the work of the Roman pontiff.

Canon law defines a synod of bishops as a “group of bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman pontiff and the bishops” (342).

It also states that their participation does not challenge the authority of the pope. Rather, they “assist” him in the “defense and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline.”

Yet over the past half-century, a number of Church leaders have proposed a more expansive role for the Synod of Bishops.

The late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, an influential leader of the Church’s progressive wing in the period following the Second Vatican Council, held up the synod as  “a sort of permanent council of regents for the Church, beside the pope,” sharing in the responsibility of governance.


Recent Synods

Now, Pope Francis’ campaign for a synodal Church has revived discussions about the proper scope of the Synod of Bishops and archdiocesan synods, which bring priests, religious and laity together at the invitation of the local bishop.

The synods on youth, the family and the Amazon have stirred excitement among supporters of an expansion of synodality, about the advent of a more inclusive process of dialogue within the Church.

“[W]e’ve gone from talking about young people … to talking with them,” Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, told America magazine at the close of the synod on youth. “It’s become what Pope Francis means by synodality.”

But Cardinal Nichols was also reported to be among synod fathers at the 2018 youth synod who raised concerns about altering the governance structure of the Latin Rite Church. They pointed to the struggles of the Eastern Churches and of the Anglican Communion, both of which have splintered over doctrinal disputes.

Some delegates to the recent synods at the Vatican have also expressed fears that the synodal model could be used to undermine or fracture Church discipline, if controversial agendas are endorsed synodally and subsequently advanced further.

This concern was prominently on display throughout the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, where the introduction of the issue of allowing reception of Communion by divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics eventually resulted in the matter being controversially referenced in Pope Francis 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

This fall, such claims resurfaced, as the majority of the Pan-Amazon synod delegates signaled their support for married priests and women deacons as possible emergency measures to bolster the mission of the Church in the region.

And those who worried about the outcome of this gathering have been further alarmed by the German episcopacy’s own “binding” national synod, which is now poised to debate major changes to the Church’s hierarchical structure and Catholic doctrine — despite Vatican statements opposing this move.


Critical Views

In a First Things column published this month, George Weigel expressed his own frustration with the increasingly prominent but undefined synodal path and suggested it was being used to disguise a very real campaign to change the Church.

“Serious consultation and collaboration are essential to effective pastoral leadership, including the leadership of the Bishop of Rome,” said Weigel. “Propaganda about ‘synodality’ that functions as rhetorical cover for the imposition of the progressive Catholic agenda on the whole Church is … a masquerade, behind which is an agenda.” 

Villanova University theologian Massimo Faggioli has challenged that critique and argues that consultative bodies like a synod can help jump-start a more robust participation in the Church by laity and religious.

Other Church experts consulted by the Register generally offered a balanced assessment of this approach, while underscoring their own reservations.

“There are legitimate and good aspects of synodality,” said Fastiggi. “There are, however, dangers with some expressions of synodality, especially those … that seek to emphasize the rights of a particular region or Church to make decisions touching on doctrine and discipline that disrupt Catholic unity and communion.”


Bishop McElroy

During an interview with the Register at the Nov. 11-14 U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore, Bishop McElroy was asked to explain how his understanding of synodality differed from the German bishops’ path, and he struggled to clarify his ideas and offer concrete details.

“What I was proposing drew a lot from the Encuentro, which took place in the United States, and thus gives me hope we could do [a synod] here that would be more consonant with the American Church,” said the bishop, who was named a delegate for the Amazon synod by the Pope.

As before, Bishop McElroy applauded V Encuentro’s promotion of “open and honest discussion, praying and believing that God calls us all to conversion in listening.”

And when pressed to explain whether his proposed synodal path would provide a framework for debating priestly celibacy, ordained ministries for women and Church teachings on sexuality, he pointed to the Pan-Amazon synod and explained that its discussions did not begin with controversial topics. Rather, delegates addressed “the pastoral, the socioeconomic and the evangelical challenge … in that local Church.”

“Their question was: How do we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this place, at this time most effectively? That’s what I think the U.S. should start with,” he said.

Again, he was asked whether the consultative body he envisioned would take up more controversial matters, if they arose.

“They should be faced,” he said. “But the key starting point is about: What is the Gospel calling us to do differently and more effectively now?”


Encuentro Model

Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar of canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register that V Encuentro provided a valuable opportunity for dialogue and consultation among Church leaders and Latino Catholics in the Los Angeles Archdiocese and across nation. However, the process was not used to advance new models of Church governance.

The Encuentro’s approach, he said, is similar to archdiocesan synods, described in canon law as an “assembly of selected priests and other members of Christ's faithful of a particular Church which … assists the diocesan bishop.” who remains “the sole legislator in the diocesan synod” (Canons 460 and 466). 

Stepping back to reflect on the larger debate sparked by the adoption of the “synodal path” in Germany and Pope Francis’ initiation of the recent synods, and his overall promotion of synodality, Father Fox acknowledged that confusion over the precise meaning of this term made it tough for Catholics to understand what this path involved and where it might lead.

Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops “to respond to the need for everyone to be involved in the mission of the Church, and that is a good and holy thing,” he said. “But when they want to make a synod a kind of general assembly that brings everyone together to legislate, that is another question.”

He speculated that some proponents of synodality prefer a loose definition of its meaning so they can avoid drawing attention to their actual tactics and goals. For that reason alone, clarity is sorely needed.

“The Pope should give greater direction than he does” to the synodal path, Father Fox said, “so people don’t get the wrong idea” about what this process means.

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

Register staff writer Lauretta Brown contributed to this report.