The “Synod on Synodality” began in Rome last week, and it is hard to know where to start a conversation here. As a lifelong Catholic, a blogger, and at heart a teacher, my stomach has churned more than a few times since Pope Francis announced this synod in October 2021. I was an eleven-year-old mouthy Catholic school kid when Pope John XXIII summoned Vatican II in 1959. There were three years of preparation prior to the Council’s opening in 1962, while the world’s bishops studied endless documents and contractors installed coffee bars and, fittingly, more men’s rooms. America Magazine had the wit to write during that Council: “But the speakers were facing empty seats because the excited prelates had gone down to the coffee bars under the church, one called Bar Abbas and the other Bar Jonah. (At a later session, when a few religious women came as official observers, a third was added called “Bar Nun.”)”
During Vatican II most bishops complained, not about the coffee, but the status of their identities as successors of the Apostles vis-à-vis the pope. During the second millennium of the Church’s history, the global decision-making power of the Church was greatly accrued by the pope, with the bishops devolving to regional managers for the home office, so to speak. At Vatican II the bishops argued for better definition of their own powers and responsibilities as successors of the Apostles, all of whom had been consecrated by Jesus in the great commissioning to bring the Gospel to all the nations.
After Pope John XXIII’s death in 1963, Pope Paul VI agreed it was fitting for representative bishops from around the world to meet with the pope periodically to discuss and advise on a predetermined subject involving the mission and ministry of the Church. He called these meetings “synods of bishops,” where each national conference would send a delegate bishop for several weeks of togetherness in Rome. These synods were not democratic; the Vatican selected the topics and managed the published summaries that went out to the world. Nor were they Ecumenical Councils, in that only a small portion of the world’s bishops were in attendance, and as a rule the synod representatives did not introduce topics, nor did they vote on anything. The news service Zenit compiled a list of all the bishops’ synods between 1968 and 2001, about a dozen were conducted to that point; as of this writing there have been eighteen. The last bishops’ synod before this year’s was the 2018 meeting on young people, a summary of which is here. When I read this, I had two reactions:  God, country, and apple pie, and  no one beyond the city limits of Rome even knew this document exists. There is no structure in the Church today for “grassroots” issues to arise, and the 17% of Catholics who attend Sunday Mass generally get their church news from the parish bulletin, which never wins Pulitzer Prizes for critical investigation and analysis.
I wish that the meeting process now in progress had been called something besides a synod. In the first instance, Catholics today have no idea of what the word “synod” means. Second, the Church has a long history of using the word “synod” in multiple ways. America Magazine describes the dilemma: “Simply put, a synod is a meeting or assembly of church leaders. The idea of a synod has New Testament roots in Acts 15. In several Protestant denominations, synods exist on various levels—local, regional, and national; in some cases, like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, it describes the entire church.” Bottom line: a synod is a meeting, though the very basic Greek root of the word is “walking together.”
From Catholic history, the word synod has been used in the Church from ancient times to describe regional meetings of bishops, abbots, and other religious leaders, for the purpose of addressing local pastoral and administrative problems. They did not declare doctrine, unlike the Ecumenical Council Vatican I [1869-1870] which voted to affirm the infallibility of the pope in matters of faith and morals. [There were two dissenting votes, one from the Bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas.] But several regional synods of bishops have left their mark on the Church to this day.
One of the most famous is the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D. in which English and Irish bishops, summoned by the king of England, established the formula for the annual dating of Easter in Western Christendom—the formula we use today. The decision of Whitby gradually became the practice of the entire western Church. But consider, too, the synods held by the bishops of the United States in the 1800’s, which appear in the history books as “plenary councils.”
The website CatholicHistory.net cites the regional power of U.S. plenary councils on the matter of Catholic education: “…the nation’s bishops enacted a strongly worded proclamation during the course of their deliberations at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884): “All Catholic parents are bound to send their children to the parochial schools … unless it be lawful to send them to other schools on account of a sufficient cause, approved by the Bishop, and with opportune cautions and remedies.” The Council called for the erection of a school in every parish and urged that resistant pastors be made to comply or removed. Henceforth, the dioceses of the United States were committed irrevocably to the creation and perpetuation of a system of parochial schools.” How many of us owe our Catholic educations to the foresight of the U.S. bishops in 1884? [This decree was quietly defanged by the U.S. bishops in its 1972 teaching, “To Teach as Jesus Did.” Too many resistant pastors, as I recall.]
Given the discussions about bishops in Vatican II, a permanent body called a national conference of bishops was formally established for all countries and codified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB] meets twice yearly under the title of spring and fall meetings and does not release information from its private meetings; it cannot be considered a “representative body” and in 2023 we have a peculiar and troubling situation where many bishops in the USCCB are lukewarm at best toward Pope Francis personally and a number have been outspoken in their criticisms of the pope’s pastoral style. Recall the pope’s airplane press conference comments some years ago regarding homosexuals: “Who am I to judge?”
Pope Francis, who has witnessed the deep and often counterproductive divisions on matters of morality, from divorced persons receiving communion to the United States’ role in global warming, decided to conduct a different kind of bishops’ synod, an inclusive event where all Catholics would take an ownership in the health and unity of the Body of Christ. There is something utopian about the idea, and it is open to misunderstanding, such as the idea that members of the Church will vote on issues of doctrine and morality up or down. My big concern [well, one of them] is that religious education, preaching, and Catholic journalism have declined so severely that many of our church folks have been deprived the formation necessary to consult competently.
It is hard to say how many dioceses in the United States participated in the first phase of the Synod on Synodality [2001-2003], the “listening phase” of parish meetings, organizational submissions, and individual correspondence to the Vatican office on the Synod. I was pleasantly surprised by the candor and honesty of the USCCB’s “National Synthesis” of the hearing sessions, which is worth reading as it highlights the significant concern of American Catholics. About 770,000 of the country’s 62 million Catholics are estimated to have participated in sharing sessions, according to the report. What the report does not contain is the hard reality that many dioceses and pastors chose to ignore the process entirely, as happened in my own parish. Not a word from my parish pulpit.
The second phase of this Synod is now well underway. What I have posted above is a “pre-history” and an introduction, with the encouragement that you connect with a current news journal to stay on top of the happenings of the universal church. I will post on the synod from time to time, but I strongly recommend that you connect with Crux’s free weekly podcast of “Last Week in the Church,” a summary of news by journalist John Allen, a wry, witty, and immensely connected reporter in Rome. [I have Allen on my Apple phone podcast app.] I would add America Magazine’s digital news site, the London Tablet, and Our Sunday Visitor digital news site. I have put together this list as a sampler of responsible and long-standing news and analysis services to provide fair and balanced reporting, even of issues of some heat in the Church. I think this is the spirit of the Synod of Synodality.
The Synod Page