Synodality & the Spirit

by Michael Sean Winters

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Three recent talks, one by the Holy Father, and two by close collaborators of his, have focused on the issue of synodality. Coverage of the synod, included that offered here, tended to focus on the issues discussed in the recently concluded synod, but perhaps the larger story was the synod itself, and the kind of leadership a synodal approach requires.

In a speech at St. Georgen Jesuit College in Frankfurt, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Freising-Munich, spoke about the ways synodality alters decision-making. In part, as reported here at NCR by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, he said:

"Subsidiarity, personality and solidarity must be incorporated into the church and made to come alive so that it becomes clear that a church that doesn't want to gamble away its efficacy, is precisely not built like a pyramid," the cardinal said. "The universal church can only exist in cooperation with the local churches – sub Petro et cum Petro – as Pope Francis strongly worded it."

Those first three words pack the punch: subsidiarity, personality and solidarity, and it is the second that is often overlooked. Synodality is not merely a change in structures, going from a monarchic form of government to an aristocratic form, in the manner of 18th century British politics. There is still the need for obedience to be sure, the “cum” in sub Petro et cum Petro. But subsidiarity is about how different levels of decision-making help and respect one another, solidarity suggests sharing each other’s burdens, and the emphasis on personality may be the biggest change, and the most necessary, implying a shift away from abstract rules to pastoral realities. As Pope Francis has said, reality is more important than ideas. All three ideas demand more than obedience, they demand participation, and work: anyone who has tried to forge consensus at a local school board or at a town meeting knows it is hard work.

Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich spoke yesterday about the synod at an academic conference at DePaul University and the Catholic Theological Union. He said the Holy Father’s call for a more synodal approach should be seen as part of a transformation in our ecclesial life. The first transformation “comes in trusting that Christ is truly risen,” he said, not merely 2,000 years ago, but still today. The second transformation is “trusting with greater fervor that the risen Christ is active precisely in the ministry of the Church, in our ministry as bishops. It is about trusting in our ministry as the place where Christ is always doing something new and not being afraid when he calls us to that newness.” And thirdly, +Cupich said, the transformation the Holy Father is calling for is “in trusting more humbly that Christ the risen one is at work and revealing his presence in the lives of those we serve. As a result, it means trusting that the people we serve have something of great value to say to us about Christ’s will.”

Riffing on Pope Francis’ address during the synod, on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the synod of bishops by Pope Paul VI, +Cupich hit what I think is the key to grasping how synodality requires a different approach, not simply a changed organizational chart, saying:

Our responsibility to teach is tethered and co-equal to our responsibility to listen and learn, so that we can benefit from the wisdom of those we serve. To be clear this listening to each other is more than a matter of being attentive to the thoughts, convictions, and opinions of other people. Rather, we listen to each other to discern where God is leading the Church. Because of our faith that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church, in listening to each other, we are also listening to the Lord who works in them and through them. As a result, in addition to being an ecclesia docens (a teaching Church) and an ecclesia discens (a learning Church), as Pope Francis tells us, we are also an ecclesia discernens (a discerning Church).

The teaching and the learning combine to constitute what we know as discernment. If the Church only teaches, it becomes dead and barren. If it only learns, it becomes untethered from its roots. Both teaching and learning are not one-time events, but come together so that the Church discerns Her mission through the ages and in this age. The process is not, repeat not, Hegelian. This is not dialectical strictly speaking. It is “our faith that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church” that keeps this from becoming a kind of theological badminton game. The movement is not back and forth, but forward, and forward precisely as one who is rooted in the kerygma that Jesus is risen.

The other day, I wrote about the Holy Father’s breathtaking speech in Florence. There was one sentence that I did not focus on sufficiently. The pope said: “The fascination of Gnosticism lies in a faith that is closed in subjectivism.” At the synod, there was much talk about “objective moral norms” as the antidote to subjectivism and a kind of Gnosticism. But, here, if I read him correctly, the pope is turning that around and saying that there is an objective truth in people’s lives, and that it is the scholars of the law who have trapped themselves in a kind of Gnostic prison, in which they alone have the keys, they alone understand the use to which the keys can be put, and that the “objective moral norms” serve a distinctly subjective function of keeping them in charge. I call attention to the qualification in the middle of this paragraph: “if I read him correctly.” I do not want to get out in front of my skis and these issues quickly require a better theological mind than mine. But, I think more needs to be explored here, but that line, which escaped my first reading, and in light of the speeches by +Marx and +Cupich, may be very, very important for understanding what the pope is calling us to when he calls for a synodal Church.

Our Orthodox brothers and sisters, many of whom were profoundly pained to hear their approach to the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried described as “heretical” and “a betrayal of the Gospel,” have long experience of synodality as the method of Church governance. I do not believe it is a coincidence that they also have a much more lively and thick Pneumatology, a theology of the Spirit, than we do in the West. Synodality is not merely about managerial devolution of decision-making authority. It is about something deeper, it is about devolving decision-making authority to a Church that is more conscious of Her being led by the Spirit, attentive to the Spirit. This is not federalism in ecclesial garb.

Synodality requires a different intellectual and spiritual approach, a maturity of thought and spirituality to be sure, but also a profound humility. If pursued and embraced, synodality can help banish ambition and its cousin vanity from the ranks of the hierarchy. Reading these speeches, I was reminded of a passage in Burke’s Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, written in January 1791:

True humility, the basis of the Christian system, is the low, but deep and firm foundation of all real virtue. But this, as very painful in the practice, and little imposing in the appearance, they [the revolutionaries] have totally discarded. Their object is to merge all natural and all social sentiment in inordinate vanity. In a small degree, and conversant in little things, vanity is of little moment. When full grown, it is the worst of vices, and the occasional mimick of them all. It makes the whole man false. It leaves nothing sincere or trust-worthy about him. His best qualities are poisoned and perverted by it, and operate exactly as the worst.

Reading the lurid stories in various leaked documents about Vatican officialdom, it is not hard to see how Burke’s scorching indictment has a certain applicability to the Church Pope Francis is trying to reform. Reading the defensive criticisms of theological growth in many of the synodal interventions, it is not hard to see how Burke’s comment about vanity poisoning a person’s best qualities rings true. Burke, too, would applaud Pope Francis’ assertion that reality is more important than ideas. His most famous aphorism – “I feel an insuperable reluctance in giving my hand to destroy any established institution of government, upon a theory, however plausible it may be.” – has a similar ring to it, although it should be noted that this most famous remark was not uttered in a debate about the French Revolution, but in a debate on Fox’s East India Bill, in which Burke was deeply committed to destroying the established institution of government represented by the Warren Hastings, just as the pope is quite determined to reform a curia that could produce so much smallness and so much venality.

A friend says that this papacy is like waking up inside of a Morris West novel, and so it is. This issue of synodality, its broader implications for ecclesiology, this demands study and prayer. I hope our young, and our no-so young theologians will take on this work and help the rest of us get our heads around it. Again, this is about much more than structural reform. Reading the Holy Father’s remarks in Florence, and the two talks by +Marx and +Cupich, it is hard not to notice that the wind is blowing, and to nurture the hope that the wind is the breeze of the Holy Spirit rushing through the Church.




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