A Comment on Synodality, East and West

There has been a lot of clamor (panic?) over Pope Francis’s alleged plan (or at least desire) to see the emergence of a “synodal church” where decisionmaking, including judgements concerning doctrine, devolve to the local or regional level. Edward Pentin, over at the National Catholic Register, offers a brief analysis of the Pope’s recent speech discussing this new structure, along with a working translation of the speech. Although Francis-speak, with its rambling references and clumsy formulations, is notoriously difficult to interpret, it does seem as if the Holy Father wants to inaugurate a radical change in ecclesiastical governance that could have far-reaching consequences for the Church. As Rorate Caeli notes, Francis already signaled this desire back in 2013 with his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a ponderous document with debatable doctrinal heft. Indeed, the signal was strong enough that I felt compelled to pen a few critical words about the synodal model as it plays out among the Eastern Orthodox for Crisis. My position on the matter has, admittedly, softened over the past year (see, for example, here and here), though not to the point where I believe that Roman Catholicism (as opposed to the Eastern Catholic churches) is in any way, shape, or form prepared for a revolutionary upheaval which will likely affect all aspects of her life.

Lest Catholics fall into the trap of romanticizing synodality in the Christian East, it is necessary to highlight that local Orthodox synods do not change doctrine. When the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia convenes, it is typically to discuss financial, pastoral, and other practical matters impacting its people and parishes, not to draw up statements which flatly contradict the sensus fidei. (And by “pastoral” I mean discussions pertaining to how to better serve the needs of, say, new Russian immigrants to the West, not loosen strictures on sexual behavior.) On a grander scale, some Orthodox gatherings, such as the interrupted 1917-1918 All-Russian Church Council, do discuss more far-reaching matters of church life and practice, such as liturgy and the election of bishops, but not with an eye to reframing doctrine. For a local Orthodox church to do so independent of the other Patriarchates and autocephalous (self-governing) churches would result in almost immediate ecclesiastical isolation, if not a breach in communion.

This does not appear to be what Francis is contemplating. Rather, in using language that seems more appropriate for a school board meeting rather than the Church, the Pope appears to desire a “listening church” which, democratically, meets the needs of the faithful who, mystically, “discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.” Setting aside for the time being that this phrase could be easily construed in a heretical manner, what follows when one local church (say Germany) adopts disciplines and doctrinal formulations that are directly at odds with those held by more orthodox local churches, such as Africa? How can the particular church of Germany remain in full communion with the particular church of Africa if the two no longer share a common faith with respect to the sacraments, family, and traditional sexual morality? Is there anything the Pope could do to keep these two bodies together or would that undercut the “devolutionary” model Francis is after?

While there is room to discuss some degree of decentralization in the Roman Church, the time to do so is hardly ripe. Any thought that creating a “synodal church” in Western Christendom will somehow appease the Orthodox is probably ill-placed, especially if the outcome is doctrinal chaos accompanied by imprudent disciplinary relaxations. The Orthodox experience with synodality is far from perfect, particularly as it concerns the real doctrinal issues the East (arguably) needs to work out, but it manages to function for the simple fact that Orthodox hierarchs are, generally speaking, more faithful to their mandate as shepherds of Christ’s flock than their estranged Catholic clerical brethren. The Orthodox, whether Catholics wish to admit it or not, have not by-and-large abandoned the Apostolic Faith in favor of making peace with the Zeitgeist. (The Orthodox have their own, somewhat unique, set of sins.) Can Catholics say the same about their bishops today? And if not, what possible virtue is there in providing them with more opportunities to set the wolves loose on the people of God?



  1. Anthony
    October 19, 2015

    At this point if the RCC decentralized it will most likely look more like the Anglican Communion than the Orthodox Church. Just like in Anglicanism, I would imagine the Western European Bishops will endorse more heteropraxy, while the African Bishops will stand firm in the faith. It would be a disaster.

  2. Benedict Andersen
    October 19, 2015

    “If an Orthodox Christian, then, loves his Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, I believe that he will not wish for a diminished papacy” — Fr Patrick Henry Reardon


  3. Luke
    October 19, 2015

    FrancisSpeak(TM) is so loaded with Anglican buzzwords that it has caused this convert to relapse in to ecclesial PTSD. It has also caused me to question if I was in error in choosing Catholicism over Orthodoxy in 2004. At that time I wanted to be Orthodox but the apologetics for the papacy and the consistent moral teaching (at least on paper) regarding divorce and contraception as well as the personal witness of JPII sent me in to the Tiber.

    The fact that so many involved with this debacle of a synod are lumping the divorced and remarried with homosexual activity proves that communion for the divorced and remarried is really a front to introduce all sorts of other doctrinal novelty. Obviously the one does not follow the other. The Orthodox allow for ecclesiastical divorce and yet I don’t see any Orthodox hierarchs wanting to affirm the positive aspects of homosexual relationships.

    Or maybe I should just start going to the local Evangelical church? They take the Bible seriously and exhibit more genuine holiness than the Catholics (including myself) and Orthodox I know. Plus they do a better job of passing on faith to their children.

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      October 19, 2015

      I am in no position to dispense spiritual advice to any soul, but I am not inclined to hit the panic button just yet. As I wrote the other week, there is no greener pasture this side of the eschaton. There are many problems in Orthodoxy which fly under the radar in the West. Heck, there are many problems in Orthodoxy that fly under the radar back in the “old countries,” too. Whether all of that is enough for someone to choose Catholicism over Orthodoxy is another matter. In the end, most of make a bet and just go from there.

      There was a time, not too long ago, where I would run through the usual litany of reasons to go Rome rather than C’ople. That time is, thankfully, at an end. I am no evangelist, and quite honestly, I am too skeptical of the papal maximalism which runs rampant in the Church today to try and tell anyone with a serious face that we “need the pope.” What need are faithful bishops, and we need the pope to be one of them. That doesn’t appear to be the case right now.

      Of course, growing up Greek Catholic made me allergic to ultramonantism. Even though I tried to hold my nose for a bit starting back in 2011 when Good Pope Benedict XVI still sat on the throne, no serious study of the Catholic Church over the past 50 years ought to make one romantic for papal centralization. On the other hand, that is how the governance structure of the Roman Church developed over the course of centuries; dismantling it now would be a disaster.

      1. Luke
        October 19, 2015

        That is a paradox that I still can’t wrap my head around: the Orthodox with a decentralized authority have no power to implement a Novus Ordo for example yet they have not turned in to Anglicanism East without a Pope. However, could you imagine the Catholic Church in the U.S without the intervention of JPII or BXVI?

        1. Stephen
          October 19, 2015

          Time was, you could see the Catholic Church in the US operating without such intervention, as it was organized along the old lines of metropolitan sees having subordinate suffragan sees, with the Archdiocese of Baltimore accorded a certain patriarchal type status in America. Granted, a Cardinal Gibbons could hold inordinate sway; but then, that is the prerogative of a the ordinary of primatial see, and has a certain organic element in church construction, sort of like the cherry on top. Further, you had the ordinaries of large sees more or less keep each other in check if one was going to far away from the rest.

          All this got thrown out with the bathwater in the 1960’s-70’s, and what you got in its place was a progressive’s dream of national committees, groups, and general craptrap of all this lousy and noxious from that generation – and even less input from local clergy and lay about who their ordinaries would be, as everything is now centralized in Rome. Good riddance when they of that noxious generation and all their influence die off!

        2. jacopo
          October 20, 2015

          Paradox, indeed. In this era, a synodal system could possibly lead to schism, provided a weak pope is in Rome. If a particular synod went wobbly on communing the divorced-remarried, for instance, conservative synods could break communion with those bishops if the pope did not intervene. How (o)rthodox synods would relate to such a pope I cannot foresee. On second thought, perhaps to save face a Catholic latitudinarianism would set in where all bishops would be in nominal communion with Rome regardless of doctrinal innovations. Is this the unfortunate fruit of the trajectory of centralization culminating in Vatican I? The Catholic Church, due to dogmatized centralization, is less able to go to ground, as it were, in response to disasters, especially in the case of a bad pope or, as happens, a series of bad popes. Its temporal unifying principle is it’s ultimate weakness.

          What creeps me out is witnessing in real time the intentional effort to change the content of the faith while leaving the externals in place. I can understand doctrinal drift over centuries, but this all seems like typical entryist behavior to stealthily redefine words to realize their satanic agenda. In this case, calling substantive rules that go all the way back to the apostolic era “praxis” rather than dogmatic fences surrounding a holy mystery attested to by St. Paul for the protection of those who would commune in a sub-optimal spiritual state.

  4. Dale
    October 19, 2015

    I think that Anthony is correct on this one. If Rome becomes more synodal, it will be in the direction of Anglcanism and not Orthodoxy. At the present time Rome has effectively destroyed her own heritage and tradition, the only thing holding it together at all, and not necessary good either, is her papolatry. The Tradition is gone, destroyed, hence any nutter theological idea, so long as it has majority support is possible. There are not guideposts any longer.

  5. Luke
    October 20, 2015
    1. jacopo
      October 20, 2015

      Indeed. I came here to see if you or one of your commenters were responding to that post. I like those inside baseball, church matters posts by Dreher because they tend to keep the insufferably incurious secular progressives from popping up in the comments section.

      PS. Dreher is a schismatic hipster and professional Catholic-basher, who worships at a twee church of his own creation subject to Vladimir Putin. While I have forgiven him for his leaving the Church, which I took very personally, it still gets my dander up when he writes about the Church in any fashion. In charity, I will interpret this latest outrage as Dreher feeling the pull of Mother Church in some way since he can’t stop writing about us. I continue to hope that he gets over his irrational hangups about the “abuse” scandal and returns to a small “o” orthodox, Novus Ordo parish in which to worship, like my little parish, whose plaster statues and Infants of Prague are just as traditional and incarnational as two-dimensional icons of legendary or schismatic EOs painted by people who never experienced the Renaissance. I love my parish – six candles on the altar, the new NO translation strictly adhered to, communion on the tongue and by one species, pastor in lace cotta, and even incense on occasion; very reverential, very traditional liturgies.

      1. Stephen
        October 20, 2015

        What would cause you to take “very personally” the comments of a stranger who hosts a blog? And wherefore the onus to be in a position to forgive?

    2. Gabriel Sanchez
      October 20, 2015

      He is? And he didn’t even link my post? I am hurt.

  6. […] the combox to yesterday’s post, “A Comment on Synodality, East and West,” a reader by the name of Luke wrote the […]

  7. […] with his desire to create a “synodal church” with devolved doctrinal authority (see more here), confirms this. What will he do in the interim, though? People are expecting a post-synodal […]

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