‘Synod’, ‘synod’ and ‘synodality’: why we should be wary of poorly defined words – Catholic Herald

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Ask anyone involved, either deeply or remotely, partaking or observing, what is meant by synodality and you are likely to get a range of answers, mostly vague and generic, often of all things bright and beautiful. 

‘Synod’, ‘synod’ and ‘synodality’: why we should be wary of poorly defined words – Catholic Herald

What do we mean by “synodal” or “synodality”? This is an important question as the Church moves towards the conclusion of the Synod on Synodality. Strictly speaking, synodal simply means being of a synod – taking the approach similar to a synod. Synodality, something similar.  

Ask anyone involved, either deeply or remotely, partaking or observing, what is meant by synodality and you are likely to get a range of answers, mostly vague and generic, often of all things bright and beautiful.  

Considering the centrality of the words to this monumental effort that is being put into dialogue across the world, at every level, in every parish and diocese, you would expect a clear and consistent understanding of what is being discussed. The objective aim of the synod on synodality is “Towards a Synodal Church”. The words have become ubiquitous without anything near a common understanding of what they mean or possibly more importantly what they are supposed to mean.  

In his 2017 book, Let Us Dream, Pope Francis outlines his understanding of what it all means – coming from the Greek word syn-odus, meaning walking together, “not so much to forge agreement as to recognize, honor and reconcile differences on a higher plane”. Pope Francis anticipates that “the synod experience allows us to walk together not just in spite of our differences, but seeking truth and taking on the richness of the polar tensions at stake”. 

It seems to be simply about dialogue, something akin to the Socratic method or possibly even the Hegelian dialectic.  

However, importantly, Pope Francis explains, “it is important not to confuse Catholic doctrine and tradition with the Church’s norms and practices. What is under discussion are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. The Synod is concerned mainly with how teaching can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our time”.  

This sounds reasonable until Pope Francis cites one example from the Synod on the Family where “there was no need to change the Church’s law [on the receiving of Communion by divorced and remarried], only how it was applied”. For many, the Synod did not resolve the issue, merely led to even more confusion.  

It is important to be wary of poorly defined words, which may contribute to greater confusion and division once they need to be applied to concrete circumstances.  

It feels like we have been here before. It is mere coincidence that synodality is an anagram of “synod laity”, but the approach is reminiscent of what Stephen Bullivant in Mass Exodus describes as the vague understanding of the Spirit of Vatican II: “reform, relevance, experimentation, collaboration, youthfulness, intentionality, openness, humour, protest and the vernacular” along with the focus on “the People of God”, which led to much confusion and division, heavy-handed upheaval and ultimately failure to become “pastorally efficacious” as Mass attendance and Catholic identity has fallen away.  

Yet, despite its lack of precise definition, “synodality” is the catch-all phrase: the Continental Stage of the Synod talks of the weeds of synodality, the synodal journey, a missionary synodal Church, synodal life and Liturgy, a synodal style of celebrating. The results of the International Survey of Catholic Women talks of “forming ourselves in synodality”. In every country, they are still working out the meaning of synodality – which asks the question, how can the Church proceed when it hasn’t decided what it is talking about?  

One member of the Irish Synod imagines a “synodal parish” where everyone feels welcome, people are affirmed in their giftedness, the liturgy will be accessible, simple and prayerful and laypeople will be given charge of the parish. There will also be acceptance of divorced, remarried and LGBTIQ+ people. Expectation is high, but details are generic.  

Many conversations seem to be jumping the gun to form conclusions on hot-topic issues which are, based on Pope Francis’s interpretation of doctrine and tradition, not up for discussion. Outcomes of the various national Synodal processes clearly demonstrate a lack of shared understanding with the Pope on what the process means. As with Vatican II, the expectation is change and reform of key doctrinal issues, modernisation of Church teaching, and democratisation of Church decision-making. 

In his 2008 book, Church, Ecumenism and Politics, Pope Benedict XVI agrees with Pope Francis on the scope – and limits – of Synods (big S), synods (small s) and synodality: 

“According to the Council, there are only two ways in which the college [of bishops] can act with juridical power, that is, as a body vested with authority over the whole Church: the ecumenical council and a practical corporate action of all the bishops throughout the world … the college cannot delegate its powers [to a Synod]”.  However, [S]ynods are “to help build up the Church as an organism that grows in living cells and is alive and is one”, “to increase faith, hope and charity”, and “to inform, to correct and to promote”.  

The danger at present for the Synodal Pathway is that it is creating expectations of change and reform that are not possible under the Apostolicity of the Church while the real function and responsibilities of the synodal approach are being neglected. The sense is one much more of rights than responsibilities, taking rather than giving, and again, a Church that adapts to the world rather than seeking to convince the world.

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