In his address of last Saturday, 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 was on local Catholic radio this morning talking about the nature, structure, and history of synods in the Church of the West as of the East, and noting (as I have done on here recently, and will do so again in the coming days in my regular column for Catholic World Report) that those who want more details of the extensive history of synodality in the Latin Church through the first and much of the second millennium can find it in my 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. A strong primate (whether diocesan bishop, patriarch, pope, or catholicos) is needed for synods at every level. 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.
To hear some Catholics describe it, you would think "synodality" is a synonym for "oligarchy" or, worse, little more than mob rule. To hear other, only slightly less deranged Catholics describe it, "synodality" is a synonym for that fatuous old bogeyman, "conciliarism," a word nobody should again be permitted to utter until and unless they have, at a minimum, read Francis Oakley's explosive book The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870. (I give you some of the unnerving details in my review here.)
The plain fact of the matter is that, for all the bluster about how much of a "revolutionary" this pope is, in his discussions of synodality, at least, he is deeply traditional. In looking to recover synodality he is looking to tradition for inspiration, following, I would suggest, Congar's "grande loi d'un réformisme catholique" which consists of "commencer par un retour aux principes du catholicisme. Il faudra d'abord interroger la tradition, se replonger en elle."
Again, for those paying attention (Congar's French original came out in 1950), this is not a surprise.