The long-awaited (and long-feared) “Synod on Synodality” begins today, and perhaps it’s best to ask a basic question, one that is both obvious and yet obscure:
What exactly is “synodality?”
If Church leaders think it important to spend so much time and (our) money addressing synodality, wouldn’t they also want Catholics to be clear about what they are talking about? Yet in all my discussions with fellow Catholics, both online and in real life, I’ve found that almost no one can give a straightforward definition of synodality.
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To be fair, the official Vatican website on the synod does give a definition. It states,
Synodality denotes the particular style that qualifies the life and mission of the Church, expressing her nature as the People of God journeying together and gathering in assembly, summoned by the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel. Synodality ought to be expressed in the Church’s ordinary way of living and working.
Synodality, in this perspective, is much more than the celebration of ecclesial meetings and Bishops’ assemblies, or a matter of simple internal administration within the Church; it is the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the Church, the People of God, which reveals and gives substance to her being as communion when all her members journey together, gather in assembly and take an active part in her evangelizing mission.
My apologies: I realize that including this meandering definition has caused about half of my readers to fall into a stupor, their eyes having glazed over about two sentences in. The definition is pure “Vaticanese”—a cross between a bureaucratic government manual and a loopy New Age handbook. It’s a lot of words that, taken together, mean…nothing.
This is on purpose, however, for by meaning nothing it can be made to mean anything. “Synodality” thus becomes a cover for implementing fundamental changes to Catholicism. Using terms like “journey together” and “gather in assembly” put a happy face on the radical deconstruction of the Catholic Faith. Read: “We can hold hands on the way to hell!”
It’s important that we are straightforward about the threat of synodality, which hides in ambiguities while aiming to reconstruct the Church. This confusion surrounding synodality is addressed in one of the most recent dubia submitted to the pope and made public this week by five Cardinals, including Cardinals Zen, Burke, and Sarah. They ask Pope Francis:
You have insisted that there is a synodal dimension to the Church, in that all, including the lay faithful, are called to participate and make their voices heard. Our difficulty, however, is another: today the future Synod on “synodality” is being presented as if, in communion with the Pope, it represents the Supreme Authority of the Church. However, the Synod of Bishops is a consultative body of the Pope; it does not represent the College of Bishops and cannot settle the issues dealt with in it nor issue decrees on them, unless, in certain cases, the Roman Pontiff, whose duty it is to ratify the decisions of the Synod, has expressly granted it deliberative power (cf. can. 343 C.I.C.). This is a decisive point inasmuch as not involving the College of Bishops in matters such as those that the next Synod intends to raise, which touch on the very constitution of the Church, would go precisely against the root of that synodality, which it claims to want to promote. Let us therefore rephrase our dubium: will the Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome, and which includes only a chosen representation of pastors and faithful, exercise, in the doctrinal or pastoral matters on which it will be called to express itself, the Supreme Authority of the Church, which belongs exclusively to the Roman Pontiff and, una cum capite suo, to the College of Bishops (cf. can. 336 C.I.C.)?
Essentially, these faithful Cardinals are asking, “Is the Synod now the highest authority in the Church, able to change Church doctrine?” We know (and these Cardinals know) that the only Catholic answer to this question is “no.” Yet by asking this question they raise the heart of matter: is synodality a “particular style” or is it a new religion altogether? I would argue the latter.
To understand this, we need to properly define synodality—not what the Vatican says it is, but what it actually is in practice. A proper definition will help us to push through the intentionally-created fog to see the reality. Before I give a true definition, I’d like to say what synodality is not.
Synodality is not the synods of the early Church. Those synods were gatherings of bishops, usually of a limited geographic region, to address disputes and issues that had arisen within the local churches. They were not an effort to redefine or change any Church teaching, but to clarify and apply the teachings that had been handed on, or to impose disciplines.
Sometimes these synods addressed major issues and thus included the whole Church, making them “ecumenical” (not as in the ecumenical movement today, but as “universal,” the meaning of the term). These synods, or councils, were official organs of the Church’s magisterium and thus could solemnly define Church teaching. Every bishop was invited, and no priest or lay person was given a vote in these councils.
Today’s synodality is also not the synods of the Eastern churches, which follow the same pattern as the early Church. Greek Catholic bishop Manuel Nin has explained one cannot reasonably compare the Synod on Synodality to Eastern synods. He warns that the Synod on Synodality is more a form of “Christian parliamentarianism” that becomes “a form of democracy in which everyone decides everything by majority rules.” Such a methodology is foreign to Catholicism, East or West.
So, what is synodality?
Synodality is the effort to transform Catholicism into a new religion in which truth and error, vice and virtue are treated as things that can be voted on by its members.
The concept of synodality is attractive in today’s world because it caters to modern presuppositions in favor of democracy and non-judgementalism. However, these ideas have no place in the Catholic Church, which is a hierarchical organization that holds to a strict moral code given to her by Christ Himself. Synodality is the effort to transform Catholicism into a new religion in which truth and error, vice and virtue are treated as things that can be voted on by its members.Tweet This
Synodality, then, is not just foreign to Catholicism; it is antithetical to Catholicism. It is arising as a new religion attempting to wrest control of the Catholic Church, to replace Catholicism. We see the essential differences between synodality and Catholicism in practice every day:
Synodality says we must dialogue with error.
Catholicism says the Church will lead us out of error into the truth.
Synodality says the way of perfection is just an unattainable ideal.
Catholicism says that Christ has the power to make us perfect.
Synodality says I will accompany you while you wallow in your sin.
Catholicisim says Christ will lift you out of your sins and make you clean.
Synodality says the man who leaves his wife and kids to marry another woman should be respected and accompanied.
Catholicism says he must repent or face the fires of hell.
Synodality says a homosexual union can be blessed.
Catholicisim says there can be no compromise or endorsement of sin.
Synodality says we must evolve and change our doctrines with the times.
Catholicism says we must hold fast to the traditions handed on to us.
Synodality says God wills a plurality of religions.
Catholicism says there is only one true Church and it is the Catholic Church, outside of which no one can be saved.
Catholics today must resist this new religion of synodality. Bishop Athanasius Schneider, in his prayer for the Synod, says that synodality is “imposing a counterfeit church” over the “authentic Catholic Church.” As Catholics, we are bound to remain in that authentic Catholic Church and fight against any effort to replace Catholicism with synodality.
In one sense, the fact that this Synod includes pre-selected members of not only the episcopate but also the clergy and the laity makes things clearer for Catholics. We know now that it has no real authority. It can declare no new doctrines or impose any binding teachings upon Catholics. It is best described as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” As Catholics then, we can ignore any directives coming out of it.
Such words are strong. They’d likely be labeled as reactionary or “schismatic” by the promoters of synodality. But they are necessary. After all, what religion did Our Lord Jesus Christ establish: Catholicism or Synodality? As Catholics, we are called to be faithful to Jesus Christ and the religion he gave us.
[This article was adapted from a talk given at the Catholic Identity Conference on September 30, 2023]