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?