"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).

Friday, September 20, 2013

Synodality, Collegiality, and Orthodoxy

In the interview that has generated headlines around the world, Pope Francis said many noteworthy and important things, but for obvious reasons I fastened on to this particular passage:
We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope. Synodality should be lived at various levels. Maybe it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops, because it seems to me that the current method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality. The joint effort of reflection, looking at how the church was governed in the early centuries, before the breakup between East and West, will bear fruit in due time…. We must continue on this path.
Where have we heard much of this before? Oh, that's right, in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

Now, when I wrote that book I never for a moment thought that I was prescribing the answer to the problems of synodality, collegiality, and the papacy and thus to East-West unity. I have many failings, but that kind of scaldingly presumptuous approach to the nature and unity of the Church is not one of them. I've only ever seen what I wrote as a possible proposal, and certainly not a panacea. But I proposed what I did because an awful lot of other tremendously smart and "discerning" (to use a favored papal verb) people also said it--the leading lights of Orthodox and Catholic theology in the last half-century all agree with what I wrote, and what the pope has now said (echoing, of course, his two immediate predecessors, albeit more directly), viz., we require greater synodality in the Latin Church, and to learn what that means, the West must look to the East. In so doing, the Church can only be strengthened.

Such a proposal for greater synodality is welcome news indeed. But it will, predictably, give a case of the vapors to certain Catholics for whom a strongly centralized papacy is the only thing between us and the marauding barbarians at the gates--and the heretics inside many sanctuaries, chanceries, universities, etc. To those of this mindset, for whom the word "ultramontane" seems both outdated and anemic, even the barest hint of anything other than a Roman retrenchment will be greeted with alarm. For this crowd, the only thing necessary is a ringing denunciation--a syllabus of errors--at least once a month from the loggia in St. Peter's while we all kneel in the piazza; they yearn to see headlines like "Pope Sacks 500 Bishops, Tells Theologians to Shape Up or Face New Inquisition."

My response to these "arguments" is always the same: from the end of the nineteenth century onward, we have seen a steady centralization in the papacy and it doesn't work today. (For a history of this centralization, see such reputable historians as Owen Chadwick in his splendid A History of the Popes 1830-1914 as well as John Pollard's Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy: Financing the Vatican, 1850-1950 and Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, which notes that it was only with the 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law that a new canon was smuggled in, giving the pope exclusive right to appoint all the bishops of the world--a development so staggering that Duffy rightly and memorably calls it a "coup d'Église." One cannot thus argue with a straight face that a centralized papacy is "traditional" when it's only a century old; even more problematic are attempts to argue that such a model is theologically grounded, when plainly it is not. But what I find truly intolerable is the sheer fatuousness of this: in a time of great crisis for the Church, this strongly centralized papacy has not helped matters in most instances--and in fact has made the crisis worse in some cases. How, then, is more of the same supposed to arrest the crisis when it has failed to do so until now? This is like the doctor who, seeing that the penicillin he prescribed has not killed the bacteria after years of treatment, refuses to countenance another drug and instead simply applies more of the same failed pharmaceutical to the infection.

Now, to be clear, greater collegiality and synodality will not be a panacea. No system of governance is perfect, and each brings its own problems. But the idea that the current modus operandi for the papacy is the only theologically, historically justifiable model, and that we are not permitted to try something different, is simply not a serious proposition. Greater synodality will doubtless be messy, but why should that be thought a problem, still less an argument against proceeding? In addition to demonstrating to the Orthodox that the Catholic Church is serious about unity, greater synodality and collegiality has the very real potential--however counter-intuitive this may sound to some--not of weakening the Church but of strengthening her. For those Roman Catholics who fear that synodality=chaos=heresy, I always counsel, as the pope has done here, turning ad orientem: look at the Eastern Churches, including the Eastern Catholic Churches in your very midst: they are governed with a far higher (but not high enough!) degree of synodality and they have not fallen apart. Look, moreover, to the Eastern Orthodox Churches (with their various models, and varying degrees of centralization and synodality). They have plenty of problems, to be sure, but nobody--nobody-- thinks that turning the patriarch of Moscow, Constantinople, Antioch, Bucharest, Sofia, or Alexandria into a pope on the Roman model is the answer. 


  1. Dr. DeVille,

    Full disclosure: I've attended an FSSP parish exclusively for the past seven years.

    Before March 13th, While familiar with the historical periphery,I knew next to nothing about Orthodoxy. Since then, I've nearly eaten every book and web page I could put my hands on in an attempt to remedy that situation. I've done so primarily in an attempt to understand how collegiality could have guarded doctrine and liturgical integrity over the centuries in Orthodoxy, while if put into practice in the West, I'm sure would result in massive doctrinal heterodoxy amounting to apostasy and liturgical collapse.

    Most Catholic bishops are modernists. The Church they will collectively produce without a firm hand will be modernist. Until the current bunch is gone, there's no hope for the model you propose, healing though it might be for this great wound in the Body of Christ.

    Your thoughts?

  2. Perhaps you should mail him a copy of your book?

  3. Jon: After I posted it I had further thoughts not unlike what you raise. It seems clear to me that part of why synodality in the East has not led to rampant doctrinal chaos is the "sociological" situation of many of these churches--persecuted first by Islam and then by communism, or otherwise in isolated, culturally homogenous countries relatively untouched by the "acids of modernity."

  4. Dr. DeVille,

    Thanks. It's a tough one to crack!


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