We are now in the second full week of the Synod on Synodality. If you are like me, perhaps you have felt a strong inclination to follow the activities of the Synod closely. In fact, at one point last week I was in Eucharistic adoration and thought, “I should read about exactly what is said and done each day at the Synod, that way I can speak to it in a thorough manner.” But, almost immediately after having that thought, a second one entered my mind: “What would the point of that be?”
It’s a question that I cannot provide a convincing answer to. On the one hand, a synod of bishops has no doctrinal or disciplinary authority; they exist merely to advise the pope. Hence, nothing that is said or done during a synod deserves a lay Catholic’s attention any more than a random, advisory phone call between the pope and an individual bishop deserves our attention. Such an advisory conversation may involve numerous very interesting ideas, but that does not mean we owe it our attention.
On the other hand, at the conclusion of a synod the pope typically issues a “Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation,” as Francis, Benedict XVI, and Pope St. John Paul II have done on numerous occasions (e.g., Amoris Laetitia, Verbum Domini, Familiaris Consortio, etc.). These magisterial documents do deserve our attention since they are official writings of the pope addressed to the whole Church. Yet, even these don’t deserve everyone’s attention to the same degree; all Catholics should familiarize themselves enough with the document to know if the pope has made any new and significant doctrinal or disciplinary statements.
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As a professional theologian, I have the additional duty of needing to analyze the meaning and weight of such statements and to address any errant interpretations or applications that they may generate. But that’s about it; the average lay Catholic is not obligated to know the wide-ranging prudential judgments and theological opinions that such documents tend to have, much less to necessarily agree with any or all of those judgments and opinions simply because they belong to the pope.
So, with the exception of the papal document that it will eventually generate, lay Catholics do not have a duty to pay any heed to a synod of bishops. And this would seem to be even more so the case with the Synod on Synodality. The reason for this is that it is not a synod of merely bishops but, rather, a synod of bishops and every other major group within the Church: religious, lay, young and old, male and female. Now, whether or not it is prudent for Pope Francis to consult such a mixed group is not my concern here; the point is that no lay Catholic has any duty to know what this very diverse group is advising the pope to do. So, with the exception of the papal document that it will eventually generate, lay Catholics do not have a duty to pay any heed to a synod of bishops.Tweet This
And, given that the advice offered to the pope during the next two years of synodal proceedings will likely contain at least some errors and ambiguities, I think most lay Catholics are probably better served by simply ignoring the Synod proceedings. Why waste your time filling and troubling your mind with the errant harping of the many woke members of the Synod?
Now, it is true that there will also likely be some positive contributions to the Synod deliberations and that lay Catholics who read about these contributions will be edified by them. But, certainly even then one would do better by reading Scripture, the fathers and doctors of the Church, or the writings of the saints—or simply setting aside time to pray. One could pray especially that the Risen Lord will pour the Holy Spirit out upon Pope Francis and the participants of the Synod so as to lead them to generate a worthy magisterial document in the end.
Now, at this point the objection may arise, “Yes, but because so many Catholics are following the Synod and being led into error by it, I have a duty to know and respond to those errors.” Yes, we do have a duty to correct error. But, if someone says, “The Synod said heresy X and therefore I believe X,” you can simply respond by pointing out that the Synod has no doctrinal or disciplinary authority, and therefore it cannot be used to justify one’s heretical views.
If someone says, “Sure, but I still agree with bishop X who said Z,” and if you know that Z is an errant idea, then simply direct your interlocutor to the authoritative source (Scripture, the Catechism, a papal document, an ecumenical council) that makes that clear. There is no need to cite anyone or anything from the Synod proceedings; doing so gives the impression that those proceedings have doctrinal or disciplinary weight, and they don’t.
As lay Catholics, we have a duty to know and adhere to the authoritative doctrinal and disciplinary statements of the pope. But, as has recently been argued, we do not need to foster an addiction to the papal drug—i.e., we do not need to habitually follow the daily movements and utterances of the pope and of the synods and curial officials who advise him. Undue attention to the Synod on Synodality would seem to be an example of just such a papal drug addiction.
Instead of constantly looking to Rome, lay Catholics should constantly look to Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We should not be perpetually anxious and troubled by what is going on in Rome. Instead, we should keep our focus fixed on the one thing that matters (Luke 10:41-42).
[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]