The worldwide synod – a new council?

While in Germany the „Synodal Way“ dominated the news within the Church for a long time, it has been somewhat forgotten that Pope Francis called for a worldwide „Synodal Path“ in 2021. What was initially interpreted from a German perspective as a bit of a „diversionary maneuver“ with which the Pope wanted to slow down the hastily advancing German Catholics and bring them back into the universal church community is now slowly unfolding a greater effectiveness than critics had feared. The working paper that has now been published after the end of the first synodal phase addresses with astonishing openness and clarity the points at which the worldwide fellowship of the Catholic Church would like further development of teaching, structure and spirituality. This also includes the positions expressed in the German „Synodal Way“ regarding the distribution of power, sexual morality, participation of women in the church and the priestly way of life. The paper, which contains the results of all bishops‘ conferences worldwide, now shows a national panorama and gives impetus to a worldwide reform program.

Did the Pope in a way add a “III. Vatican Council” convened? There are many indications. A council is the highest advisory authority of the universal church. It can act as a „legislative“ assembly, e.g. in the Council of Trent, in the First and Second Vatican Councils and further develop and adapt the teaching of the Church. The synod of bishops, which meets at regular intervals on certain topics, initiated by Vatican II, has so far been more of a deliberative body. Bishops delegated from the local bishops‘ conferences discussed with one another on the basis of a previously prepared „report“, the so-called „instrumentum laboris“ (working instrument). After the deliberations, the Synod of Bishops drew up a final document that was handed over to the Pope. As a rule, he replied with a „post-synodal letter“ and thus laid down the future line in dealing with certain subject areas. The „post-synodal letter“ has about the same magisterial binding force as an „encyclical“, i.e. it ranks below a synod resolution or an „ex cathedra“ decision in terms of binding force. So far, binding decisions regarding the doctrine of faith, morals, but also the structural constitution of the church must be made by a council resolution or a comparable decision of the pope as the last instance.

Pope Francis‘ path is different. He obliges (incidentally since the beginning of his pontificate) the universal Church to take a different decision-making path. This is rather unusual for European theologians and bishops. The basic approach comes from American liberation theology. This is where the principle of “see-judge-act” first developed in youth work. In order to find an ecclesiastical answer to an urgent question, it is necessary to talk to those involved, not to approach the problem theoretically, i.e. from theological considerations, but to form a judgment in dialogue, in practice. This judgment arises in a reflection on the concrete situation, in which the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church are then used as a means of distinguishing. After the distinction has been made, i.e. a spiritual judgment, instructions for action follow. The whole process repeats itself over and over again. After all, every instruction has an impact on practice, i.e. the concrete actions of the church and thus on the church members. This new, or also „reformed“ practice must then in turn be reconsidered, leading to new maxims for action, etc. The church continues to develop organically, without things being constantly codified „once and for all“ by „highly official“ decisions or legal texts . In fact, up to now, Francis has not made any legally binding decisions. In Francis‘ Argentine tradition, this Latin American basic principle was expanded once again. It gets a „cultural“ touch. The actions and thoughts of Christians grow on their cultural background. The diversity of cultures is important. The universal Church can benefit from this diversity, the Argentine theologians are convinced, by progressing from the idea of „uniformity“ to a certain „plurality“ of church life. Decisions should not be dominated by a specific tradition of thought (classic Western-European). According to the method of “see-judge-act”, all the voices of the world church should be included in the worldwide discussion and thus in a worldwide “distinction”, and not just the bishops and theologians, but also those of the “simple believers”.

Pope Francis makes this very clear in his 2018 Constitution on the Synod of Bishops. Synodality, i.e. the principle of extensive consultation, evaluation, judgement, differentiation and action, is of the utmost importance to him. For this he is willing to take back his own person as the “ultimate decision maker”. He writes in a very basic passage of the document (No.5f.):

It is certainly true what the Second Vatican Council teaches: “The bishops, who teach in communion with the Roman bishop, are to be venerated by all as witnesses of divine and catholic truth. The faithful, however, must come to terms with a dictum of their bishop in matters of faith and morals, spoken in the name of Christ, and adhere to him with religiously founded obedience. But it is also true that „the life of the Church and life in the Church is, for every bishop, the prerequisite for the exercise of his magisterium“. Thus the bishop is both teacher and learner. He is a teacher when, with the special help of the Holy Spirit, he proclaims the word of truth to believers in the name of Christ, the Head and Shepherd. But he is also a learner when, knowing that the Spirit is a gift to every baptized person, he listens to the voice of Christ speaking through all the people of God, making them infallible „in credendo“. In fact, “the body of believers who have been anointed by the Holy One (cf. 1 Jn 2:20 and 27) cannot err in the faith. And this particular quality of hers she manifests through the supernatural sense of faith of the whole people when she expresses her general agreement in matters of faith and morals „from the bishops to the last lay faithful“. For this reason the bishop should “walk before the people and show the way; walk among them to strengthen them in unity; walk behind him, both so that no one is left behind, but above all to follow the instinct that the people of God have to find new ways. A bishop, living among his faithful, has open ears to hear „what the Spirit says to the churches“ (Rev 2:7) and the „voice of the sheep“, also through those diocesan institutions that have the task to advise the bishop, promoting a loyal and constructive dialogue”. The Synod of Bishops must also become more and more a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God: “We ask the Holy Spirit for the Synod Fathers, above all, the gift of listening: listening to God, so that with Him we may hear the cry of the people; of listening to the people, so that we may discern there the will to which God is calling us.

In this interpretation, the bishops are above all advocates and promulgators of the lived and living faith of the Christians in the respective part of the world. While the Council as an institution has so far been more of a place for theologians and has dealt with universal church questions on the basis of theoretical answers and concepts (which of course also emerged from social movements), the Pope sees the „Synod“ as more dialogical, more plural and „closer to the grassroots“. institution to be almost equal in importance. In 2018, in No. 8 of the aforementioned Constitution, he expressly said that the Synod of Bishops was “in a way a reflection of the ecumenical Council”.

In his homily at the beginning of the synodal process, Francis tells the bishops present:

We, too, who are beginning this synodal journey, are called to become experts in the art of encounter. It is not about organizing events or theoretical reflections on the problems, but above all about taking the time to encounter the Lord and to encourage encounters among us. A time to make room for prayer, for worship — that prayer we so neglect: worship, make room for worship — and for what the Spirit of the Church wants to say; to turn to the face and word of the other, to meet face to face, to be touched by the questions of the sisters and brothers, to help one another so that the diversity of charisms, vocations and ministries enriches us. As we know, every encounter requires openness, courage and the willingness to be challenged by the face and story of the other. While we sometimes prefer to take refuge in formal relationships or wear masks of convention – the clerical spirit is courtly: these are monsieur l’abbé rather than paternal priestly figures – the encounter transforms us and often shows us new paths that we would not have thought possible.

The synodal process consists of reflecting on the lived faith of Christians and its practice in prayer and against the background of Scripture and tradition, and opening it up to new decisions.

In this respect one can speak of a “council under a different name” in the current “synod”. The problem to be solved is that of liability. At some point, the deliberations must be translated into resolutions and these into applicable doctrine and applicable law. So far, Pope Francis has shied away from this last step. He believes in an organically changing Church that changes over time. In 2024, after previous continental meetings, the bishops will meet in Rome for the synod to discuss the interim report that has now been submitted. Perhaps one will then also speak of a „(quasi-)council“.

For citations and bibliographical references, please refer to the German version of the text






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