"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, May 27, 2021

An Omnium Gatherum of Articles and Books on Synods and Synodality

Disarmingly published last week as a mere "note," this text from Rome portends major shifts in the ecclesiology of the Latin Church and by extension the entire Catholic communion. 

It does not arise out of nowhere and nothing, however. In his 2015 address, the bishop of Rome laid out a vision of synodality for the Latin Church that is striking and surprising.....only to those who haven't been paying attention. For those who have attended not only to Francis but also to (admittedly slow-moving) trajectories in Catholic ecclesiology for a half-century now, this vision is not really a surprise. Perhaps the only surprise is that it is this pope, rather than his immediate predecessor who wrote so much about ecclesial reforms, who is enacting a vision of synodality now.

I have been writing about synods, synodal structures, and "synodality" for well over a decade now in the Church of the West as of the East. My first contribution was in my first book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

In the book and elsewhere I have tried to stress, especially to Catholics worried about the dangers of synodality, that there is no one model all must follow. If we look to the East, we find a diversity of structures arranged according to need, context, and history. Moreover, it is very important to note that a properly functioning synodal structure can only come about where both synod and primate are functioning together. (The great Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas is crystal clear on this point.) A strong primate (whether diocesan bishop, patriarch, pope, or catholicos) is needed for synods at every level. 

In other words, a synod does not exist at the expense of a primate, but only in concert with him, each acting as a check on the other. In this light, there is no reason to believe that a more robust synodality in the West would in itself weaken either the papacy or more generally the Catholic Church. Her problems are already significant and longstanding, and they have come not in the presence of robust synodality but in its absence; they have come in a time of papal centralization and maximalization.

That book has been followed up by more articles than I can count for on the topic of synods published in such places the Catholic Herald in London; Our Sunday Visitor, based here in Indiana; Catholic World Report on many occasions, most notably here; for The Catholic Thingand for other periodicals as well. 

My most recent contribution, published in the Herald this week, is here. I told the Herald's splendid editor Christopher Altieri I had an indecent amount of fun writing that piece. Is it satirical? Is it serious? Is it both? I cannot decide; perhaps you won't be able to either. In any event, what I was trying to suggest was that if we are to have synods, then let us have them to an ultramontane degree: let us go beyond the mountains north of Rome to find healthy models of synods where they still exist--in places like Armenia, for example. 

My unrequited love affair with the Armenian Apostolic Church continued in my 2019 book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. There I went into even greater detail about local synods--at the parish, diocesan, and regional levels. If Catholics are to have synods, they must not be the chaotic talking shops in Rome since 1965 misleadingly called "synods." They must be organs of governance, with real powers, at every level of the Church. 

Others have begun to cite my work, most notably the cardinal-archbishop of Newark, in a piece just published here in Commonweal. In addition, Fr Bob Wild of Madonna House (whom I have known for some time and count a friend) has recently discussed some of my work on synodality here.

I mention all this not to brag or to feel smugly satisfied that at long last Very Important People are starting to discover my great work. (Truth be told, I have an absolute horror of the idea of being anything close to "famous" or a "celebrity" or even moderately well-known. I am a middle-ranking scribe whose "schizoid" tendencies--so well captured by Nancy McWilliams' invaluable essay--thrive best in one of the obscurer provinces of the American imperium. Leave me alone in my classroom and consulting room with students and patients respectively, and I might be useful.) Instead, I mention all this only as a service to those who still feel wildly unsure about what synods and synodality are and do. I have tried to allay those anxieties by showing the concrete tasks that real synods, proper synods, properly do. 

Will we get such synods? It is up to us to work for them and not be fobbed off with pseudo-synods. 

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