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Last Monday, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered for the 2018 General Assembly, the Holy See informed Cardinal Daniel DiNardo that the bishops could not proceed with their original plans. They had hoped to pass a tougher Code of Conduct for bishops and new procedures for involving the lay faithful in episcopal accountability. Instead, DiNardo had to announce to his brothers that the Holy See had essentially suspended their collegial agenda. The very “synodality” that has been a hallmark of this pontificate had been upended sub Petro. Why?

In 1965, Pope Paul VI instituted a consultative Synod of Bishops tasked with advising the Supreme Pontiff, and since that time the neologism “synodality” has referred to a vision of the Church in perpetual council (synod is the Greek word for council, and so synodality is an Eastern kind of conciliarism).

In his 2015 Address on the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis stated his desire for “a synodal Church” that listens to pastors gathered together in a conciliar process that “culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome.” Francis emphasized that every local synodal process was a privileged expression of the “hierarchical communion” of all Christians united in Christ’s Body the Church, with and under Peter (cum et sub Petro).

Under the banner of “synodality,” Francis has emphasized the accompanying aspect (cum Petro), stressing “a healthy decentralization” in matters of collegial pastoral responsibility. Much of the Amoris Laetitia debate focused on how different bishops’ conferences might implement the teaching differently according to local pastoral needs. Maltese and German bishops interpreted Amoris Laetitia liberally, while many American bishops emphasized how it was in harmony with previous teaching. “Synodality” in this debate meant decentralizing pastoral responses dealing with questions of power and discipline at the local level, each equally in communion with Peter (diversity in unity).

For a pontificate stressing synodality to a degree that has caused Ross Douthat to regularly worry about the “Anglicanizing” of the Catholic Church—a loose confederation of national churches with uncertain instruments of unity—the Holy See's Monday intervention sounded like a hard reversal of the synodal message Rome has consistently sent. 

Yet there was one bishop who was not shocked. Cardinal Cupich seemed well informed of the eleventh-hour suspension. Even as DiNardo was still expressing shock, humiliation, and disbelief, Cupich read from the floor a prepared statement in support of the Holy See’s decision to delay voting until universal norms could be discussed in a February summit in Rome. The contrast was stark, and to some it looked like a coordinated plan to humiliate Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Gomez, who were leading the charge for a bold response to the crisis. 

Lay Catholics were equally shocked and angry. Douthat himself immediately tweeted that “it’s synodality when the Germans want something, Gallicanism when the Americans want something.” Even liberal commentators were taken aback. John Gehring noted that the Holy See may think in centuries but it should also think in news cycles, complaining that this sends exactly “the wrong message” to abuse survivors in America who urgently await the synodal response of their pastors. 

The bishops failed even to pass a modest measure asking the Vatican for greater transparency about its investigation into McCarrick. This measure was struck down out of fear that it was “too confrontational” toward the Holy Father. Such are the ambiguities and anxieties that go with the pursuit of synodality. 

The General Assembly ended on Wednesday not with a bang but a whimper of commitment to “act in the strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment.” In the meantime, the majority of the Catholic faithful are genuinely and rightly indignant about how sexual sin is being handled in the priesthood and episcopate. 

So why did the Holy See cancel the vote? From the floor of the General Assembly, Cupich questioned whether consensual sex involving clerics should be subject to the same kind of investigative review as non-consensual sex. That question made some wonder if Cupich was signaling an unspoken desire to go soft on disciplining consensual homosexual activity among clerics. Could the vote have been cancelled to prevent the bishops from going “too far” in their response to the crisis? Or did the Holy See cancel the vote not so much because they feared American bishops would take unambiguous disciplinary action in cases involving consensual sex acts between homosexual clerics, but because they feared an old Americanist problem of “lay trusteeism,” which would challenge the “hierarchical communion” central to Catholic ecclesiology?

Both explanations could be true, but even if they were, they wouldn’t fully explain the synodal whiplash. The tensions between the Holy See and American bishops highlight a deeper problem, which makes this particular drama both baffling and inevitable. A certain capriciousness stems from an ambiguity built into the very concept of synodality itself, a concept originally borrowed from the Orthodox churches.

Governance within Orthodoxy is built not around the papacy but around “sister churches” gathering together for collaborative, deliberative self-governance in synodal assembly. It is important to understand that “synodality” applies models of governance derived from Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology to the Latin Church, whose fundamental governing structure is Petrine rather than Synodal. As Lumen Gentium 22 clearly states, “the body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.” So what do you get when you haphazardly tack on Eastern synodality to Western papal primacy? You don’t always get the Vatican II collegiality you want. Instead, you might just get the appearance of caprice and conflict in governance currently rocking the East. Synods have been a mixed bag for over fifty years, but the attempt to elevate “synodality” brings with it all the tensions and divisions that we see unfolding within Orthodoxy. It might be that the problem is “synodality for me but not for thee.” But it also might just be that synodality doesn’t govern the Church well. 

 C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.

Photo by Yorkshiremany via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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