Brave new Church: can Catholicism be decentralised?

by Fr Mark Drew, 1 Nov 2018

The youth synod’s final report resoundingly endorses ‘synodality’. This could be a positive step – once bishops have worked out what it means.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has often expressed the desire for a more “synodal” style of Church life, and commentators on Catholic affairs now increasingly speak of “synodality”. What do they mean?

It is often suggested that “synodality” refers to the Church’s experience of journeying together. The verb syn-odeuō does indeed mean to “journey together”. But the noun synodos, in both classical and Christian Greek, denotes an assembly convened to make a decision. It is the purpose of the “coming together”, and not the journeying process itself, which is the key to its meaning.

In the West, the word has usually been translated as “council” when referring to the Ecumenical Councils, where the bishops of the world gather to define doctrine and discipline for the whole Church. Historically, the word “synod” has referred to gatherings more local in scope and attendance. In practice “synodality” or “conciliarity” mean the same thing: that the Church, by its nature, exists and takes decisions by coming together to seek the will of God to decide on the questions of the day.

After Vatican II, Pope Paul VI created a worldwide Synod of Bishops to meet regularly in Rome and advise him on various subjects. These synods, unlike Ecumenical Councils, were to be merely consultative, proposing only conclusions which the pope would take into account when formulating a response, usually in the form of a “post-synodal exhortation”.

This was the type of assembly which took place in Rome this October. Its theme was the Church and youth. Only weeks before it began, however, Pope Francis issued an apostolic constitution – effectively a change to Church law – called Episcopalis Communio. It stipulated that “If expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the final document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor to Peter.”

What has changed? The document produced by the synod is no longer merely a consultative document. From now on, the Pope can make the synod’s conclusions authoritative in themselves, without the need for a subsequent exhortation, simply by adding his approbation.

What difference will this make? The answer will depend on how it plays out in practice. At the family synods of 2014-15, which were dominated by the controversial question of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be admitted to Communion, the final synod report appeared ambiguous, and there was a tense wait for the Pope to resolve the uncertainty in his exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Whether he did so is still being hotly debated, but imagine how much fiercer the clash at the family synod would have been if there had been a chance that its final report might be the last word.

The theme of youth and the Church may have seemed relatively anodyne in comparison, but last month’s synod nevertheless generated controversy. In the final week, the synod’s organisers unveiled a draft report that devoted considerable space to the concept of synodality. Some bishops expressed disquiet that the text gave prominence to this theme, although it was barely mentioned during the proceedings. They considered it not merely irrelevant to the topic of youth, but also an attempt at manipulation.

Yet Catholics should not be worried that attempts to introduce more conciliar processes into Church life are a danger to its divinely instituted constitution. Holding synods at a regional level to decide on localised issues is a time-honoured tradition. During the later Middle Ages, the papacy clashed with the Conciliarist movement, which attempted to make the popes subordinate to Councils. This led to the Councils’ authority being tightly circumscribed.

After the Reformation, there was a perceived need for centralisation around the authority of Rome. In 1870, the First Vatican Council marked the apogee of this tendency by defining papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction.

But this centralism, at least in the form it took between 1870 and the 1960s, was not in itself an immutable part of the Church’s self-understanding. At Vatican II, there was a consensus that the supreme authority of the popes to teach and govern needed to be balanced by a restored sense of the shared authority of the whole episcopate under his guidance. Vatican II used the term “collegiality” to express this consensus. Now the talk is more of “synodality”. Is there a difference?

Some think the change of terminology indicates a desire to expand the frontiers of co-responsibility beyond the hierarchy to include the laity. Again, this in itself should not worry anyone. Lay consultors played an important part in recent synods, and there is nothing contrary to Catholic tradition in this. Non-ordained theologians and experts have advised popes and councils for centuries.

But caution is certainly needed. The divine guarantee that the Church will not fall away from the Faith is made through Peter and his fellow Apostles. Only the College of Bishops acting in union with the Pope as its head has the divine mandate to teach authoritatively. But they exercise that in communion with the whole body of the Church.

Pope Francis stresses that bishops must listen before they decide, but also that he intends to exercise his own responsibility of overseeing the process of decision-making and teaching. Indeed, he has in some ways asserted these prerogatives in a surprisingly direct and forthright manner. So Catholics should not think that the development of a sense of “synodality” necessarily threatens the fundamental authority of the papacy.

The shift in Rome will have consequences for ecumenism. The Orthodox will welcome increased synodality, a concept which is central to their own ecclesiology. But their present troubles show that some final and stable decision-making authority is necessary to preserve visible unity.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, meanwhile, reportedly spoke at the synod about how excessive decentralisation had undermined the Anglican Communion.

Orthodox organisational disunity is mitigated by a strong consciousness that Orthodox believers are united by professing a common faith. I worry that the differences emerging within the Catholic Church, where sometimes even the most fundamental articles of faith seems to be contested or at best ignored, mean that it will be difficult for a balanced synodality to emerge.

A more “synodal” Church, where unity in faith is expressed in different but harmonious ways suited for each place and time, is surely to be desired. Such a development must be gradual, evolutionary and organic. It should present the testimony of a united faith to an increasingly fragmented world. It must not lead to a chaotic fluidity in faith and practice, or be imposed on the Church by a group pursuing an agenda.

“Synodality” requires a synod of its own, preceded by an extended period of reflection and prayer. It cannot be engineered by slipping it into a document ostensibly concerning another matter entirely. Synods are a means rather than an end in themselves. The destination is all important, far more than the journey itself. If the Church endlessly debates structures and procedures it risks falling into the self-referentiality which Pope Francis has rightly decried.

Our best guide is not the voice of majorities but the wisdom of the saints. The Church discerns the path it must take not through argument but by the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit’s voice which we must, above all, listen to, and discerning it takes time, patience and openness of heart.


Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique. He is the parish priest of Hedon and Withernsea in Middlesbrough diocese.

This article first appeared in the November 2 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here: