The Synod of Bishops is currently congregating in Rome for a four-week meeting of the Synod on Synodality. A second session will follow in October 2024. The theme of “synodality” is a notion abstracted from the Greek word for a gathering or assembly. Thus the deliberations of Synod-2023 are not about the content of the faith, but about the structures of church life—and the ecclesial attitude or mindset behind those structures.
Many observers think that Pope Francis wants to correct what might be called the hierarchical, or “primacy” element, of church leadership by appealing to the synodal element of leadership allegedly preserved in the East. Since Vatican I, so-called “Rome-critical” theologians have described the Church's emphasis on primacy as excessive. It would be good, here, to be guided by Pope Francis’s predecessor Leo the Great. His pontificate shows that, theologically and pastorally, the principles of primacy and synodality do not oppose each other, but rather mutually condition and support each other.
Leo often gathered the bishops and the Roman presbyters for joint consultations. Calling such a synod was not for the purpose of distilling a majority opinion or establishing a party line. In Leo’s time, a synod served to orient all to the normative apostolic tradition, with the bishops exercising their co-responsibility to ensure that the Church abides in the truth of Christ.
As is well known, theoretical reflection on the principles of being, knowing, and acting is considerably more difficult than talking about concrete things. Thus there is a danger that an assembly of almost 400 people of different origins, education, and competence, engaged in unstructured back-and-forth discussion, will produce only vague and blurred results. Faith can easily be instrumentalized for political agendas, or blurred into a universal religion of the brotherhood of man that ignores the God revealed in Jesus Christ. In the place of Christ, technocrats can present themselves as saviors of humanity. If the Synod is to keep the Catholic faith as its guide, it must not become a meeting for post-Christian ideologues and their anti-Catholic agenda.
Any attempt to transform the Church founded by God into a worldly NGO will be thwarted by millions of Catholics. They will resist to the death the transformation of the house of God into a market of the spirit of the age, for the whole of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in “matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium). We face a globalist program of a world without God, in which a power elite proclaims itself the creator of a new world and ruler of the disenfranchised masses. That program and power elite cannot be countered by a “Church without Christ,” one that abandons the Word of God in Scripture and Tradition as the guiding principle of Christian action, thought, and prayer (Dei Verbum).
The Church proclaims Christ as “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). And in the same Christ, the Church understands herself as the sacrament of the salvation of the world. To be ministers of the Word, ministers of the divine Logos who in Jesus Christ took on our mortal flesh: This is the calling of bishops in apostolic succession. They must keep this calling in mind, both at World Youth Days and at synods of bishops.
In contrast to previous synods, the Synod on Synodality will not address the specific content of the faith. Rather, the theme concerns the formal principle underlying the theory and practice of synods, which is to say the responsibility of the whole episcopate for the doctrine and order of the universal Church. Building on the ecclesial tradition of councils and synods, Vatican II underlines the importance of discharging this responsibility in a conciliar way:
From the very first centuries of the Church bishops, as rulers of individual churches, were deeply moved by the communion of fraternal charity and zeal for the universal mission entrusted to the Apostles. And so they pooled their abilities and their wills for the common good and for the welfare of the individual churches. Thus came into being synods, provincial councils and plenary councils in which bishops established for various churches the way to be followed in teaching the truths of faith and ordering ecclesiastical discipline.
This sacred ecumenical synod earnestly desires that the venerable institution of synods and councils flourish with fresh vigor. In such a way faith will be deepened and discipline preserved more fittingly and efficaciously in the various churches, as the needs of the times require (Christus Dominus 36).
The term “synod” (and its Latin equivalent, “council”) became an ecclesiastical term when bishops gathered in Antioch in 268 to condemn Paul of Samosata as a heretic. In order to counter the false teacher Arius, the first Ecumenical Council (or synod) of Nicaea formulated the dogmatic statement that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, of the same essence with him in the Most Holy Trinity before his incarnation, and is the one and true God with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This was the first of the twenty-one great councils of the Catholic Church that are recognized as ecumenical. There have also been many other councils and synods, some of which have universal ecclesiastical significance through papal recognition, while some have been declared heretical and invalid.
In 1965, at the suggestion of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI institutionalized a new type of synod, the “Synod of Bishops.” It was intended to make the collegiality of the bishops more visible. The pope is the perennial principle and foundation of the unity of the Church. But the Church is not centralized in him, as if he were the supreme leader of a totalitarian party. The local churches, in doctrine and liturgy, life and constitution, make the whole Church of Christ present locally. Papal centralism and episcopal particularism are equally contrary to the truth of the one Church of God, which is found in the communion of the many episcopally-led local churches that recognize in the Bishop of Rome the everlasting principle and foundation of the visible unity of the Church.
Therefore, a constant exchange among the bishops and with the Roman pontiff is of the utmost importance for the Church's witness to the salvation of God in Christ for the whole world and every individual. In this ongoing exchange, the Synod of Bishops is a consultative assembly. It does not have competence in matters of doctrine and Church constitution, which are reserved for the plenary assembly of an ecumenical council or a particular synod whose decisions are recognized by the pope as a valid expression of the truth of Revelation.
Although the pope has now given “voting rights” to some lay people at the Synod on Synodality, neither they nor the bishops are able to “vote” on the faith. In a state committed solely to the temporal common good of all its citizens and governed by a democratic constitution, the people are rightly called the sovereign. In the Church, which is endowed by God for the eternal salvation of mankind, God himself is the sovereign. Formulated theologically: The incarnate Son of God, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the flock of God, is the all-supporting head of the whole Church. He guides and governs through the shepherds and teachers authorized by himself. This is not done, as in politics, by men exercising power over men, but by preaching the Word and providing the sacraments that Christ entrusted to his apostles and their successors to administer (2 Cor. 5:18–20). In the Church, therefore, the bishops and priests are not the representatives of the people they govern; they are representatives of God. They serve the people of God as shepherds and teachers in the authority of Christ, the only Savior of all mankind and High Priest of the New and Eternal Covenant.
Thirty years after the martyrdom of the apostle princes Peter and Paul in Rome, the Roman Church wrote to the Corinthians, who had deposed some of their priests:
These things therefore being manifest to us, and since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things, being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him. Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen. (First Letter of Clement 40:1–5).
The fact that the Church is not and cannot become a democracy is not the result of a persistent autocratic mentality. It is due to the fact that the Church is not a state or a man-made entity at all. The essence of the Church cannot be grasped by the sociological categories of natural reason, but only in the light of the faith that the Holy Spirit works in us. The Church as a community of faith, hope, and love owes its existence to the saving will of God, who calls people and makes them his people, in the midst of which he himself dwells (Col. 2:9). God’s sovereignty rests in his omnipotence and love, which he offers without having to fear his creatures as competitors (unlike in the pagan myth of Prometheus). And as creatures we do not have to insist on absolute autonomy or emancipate ourselves from our Creator in order to fight for our freedom. For the fullness of his love is the source of our being. That love makes us free for devotion, the goal of which is unity with God in love.
A Synod of Bishops should deliberate on how to meet the challenges of faith in today's world so that Christ is brought to the attention of today's people as the light of their lives. By contrast, some activists, especially those embarked on the German “synodal way,” consider the upcoming Synod on Synodality as a kind of congress of the faithful that is authorized to give the Church of God a new constitution and new doctrines agreeable to the spirit of the age. Rest assured that even if a majority of the delegates were to “decide” on the “blessing” (blasphemous and contrary to Scripture itself) of homosexual couples, or the ordination of women as deacons or priests, even the authority of the pope would not be sufficient to introduce or condone such heretical teachings, or any other teachings that contradict the Word of God in Sacred Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the dogma of the Church. Christ commissioned Peter to strengthen his brethren in their faith in him, the Son of God, not to introduce doctrines and practices contrary to revelation. To teach contrary to the apostolic faith would automatically deprive the pope of his office. We must all pray and work courageously to spare the Church such an ordeal.
God does not need us to give his Word an update or the Church an upgrade. Instead of listening to “human precepts and doctrines” (Col. 2:22), we are to adhere to “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3). Let us forsake the vain project of using our limited human logic to “reform” God's word in accord with alleged paradigm shifts. We are the ones who need to reform and conform to God.
Certainly, the eternal and definitive Word of God has taken on an increasingly precise linguistic form in the doctrines of the Church, often for the purpose of clarifying the truth of revelation against heretics and schismatics. However, this process of definition is not the same as adding to the Word of God. Revelation in all its fullness was handed over to the apostles, to whose teaching the Church faithfully adheres until the return of her Lord and head.
The Synod on Synodality will be a blessing for the Church if and only if all of its participants, from the pope to the bishops to the priests, religious, and laity, allow themselves to be enlightened by Jesus Christ, “the Light of nations . . . a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church” (Lumen Gentium).
The participants must guard against using “synodality” like a magic word, as if it could conjure new realities. Synodality must not be interpreted ideologically. The governance of the Church cannot be reduced to the terms of power politics. The proper topics of discussion are the methods and structures for better communication and coordination of the laity, religious, and clergy, based on an understanding of the Church as a sacramentally constituted communion.
It is my prayer that the Synod on Synodality will be guided by the authentic faith formulated by the Fathers of Vatican II:
And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ. For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teachers. Thus in their diversity all bear witness to the wonderful unity in the Body of Christ. This very diversity of graces, ministries and works gathers the children of God into one, because “all these things are the work of one and the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:11) (Lumen Gentium 32).
Gerhard Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
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