The theological reflections and the appeals for the realisation of synodality that were expressed or presented after the Second Vatican Council, and especially by Pope Francis himself, have not yet led to a major breakthrough. From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has repeatedly referred to synodality, and his speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Synod of Bishops on October 17, 2015, was particularly striking.
The Pope emphasised at the outset that he had endeavored to value the Synod from the very beginning of his ministry as Bishop of Rome. He presents the thesis: “The path of synodality is the path that God expects of His Church in the third millennium.”
In this address, Pope Francis impressively explains from the New Testament how the people of God—according to the texts of the Second Vatican Council—are not simply to be understood as a passive “receiving” subject, but as an active, responsible subject of evangelisation.
It is an absurdity to distinguish rigidly between ecclesia docens and ecclesia discens, between a teaching and a learning Church. Therefore, the bishops are obliged to listen carefully to the people of God, just as the people of God are obliged to listen to the voice of the bishops. In doing so, the pope in no way diminishes the special task of the bishops to care for the unity and conspiratio of the many (Lumen Gentium 18).
Listening to God
In listening to one another, it is essentially a matter of “listening to God”: with God the outcry of the people is to be heard, the will to breathe, to which God calls us. This also applies to Peter as well as to the pope because the Synod must always act “with Peter and under Peter”—not as a limitation of freedom, but also as a guarantee of unity. From this, it follows that a synodal Church must be characterised by a dynamic of communion that should reflect all ecclesial decisions. This is transferred by the Pope to all levels of ecclesial life, and especially the bishops’ conferences.
Here a quiet urgent question arises: What is wrong with the Church, with the bishops, but also with canonists and theologians, if one sees that in the Episcopal Conference among practical theologians and canonists no fundamental approaches show up to put these challenges into practice? What are the reasons why there has been little change in the Church order until now?
This critical question in no way denies that there have been processes of consultation and discussion in many dioceses in recent years. For the most part, they have not been carried out in the form envisaged by canon law, because here there are very many provisions that are so restrictive that, in most cases, the holding of such diocesan synods has led to considerable frustration on the part of the participating laypeople, the synodal members.
If one asks about the reasons for the given precarious situation of the Church, one must first recall the nature of the Church. In his remarks on the nature of the Catholic Church, Walter Kasper says [The] Church is…the space of salvation given by God, and in this deeper theological sense really a “divine” institution. Its concrete realisation, however, happens in a historical way.
This is ultimately due to the fact that the acceptance of salvation is in its essence a free human act. The permanent essential structures of the church are thus always realised in contingent expressions of time and cultural history, which must not be absolutised. Hence, we have the unchangeable ius divinum only in changeable ius humanum.
In this respect, even a theological justification of law has anthropological presuppositions. Concretely formulated: As a divine institution, the church must at the same time be an institution of human and Christian freedom and, as such, have a model character.
If this description of the nature of the Church is adequate, what are the concrete reasons and obstacles that stand in the way of such a Church described?
Based on John XXIII’s remarks regarding the signs of the times and the invocation of this criterion, Pope Francis has deepened and operationalised the use of these signs of the times in his assessments of social situations and positions.
To assess this historical situation, the Pope does not call for more detailed sociological and related studies. This usually leads to a “diagnostic overhang that is not always accompanied by truly applicable proposals for solutions” (Evangelii Gaudium 50). Rather, he asks about current “trends” in the present situation that, if they do not find good solutions, trigger processes of dehumanisation that are very difficult to reverse.
In view of such signs and indications, in the situations themselves, “it is appropriate to clarify what can be a fruit of God’s kingdom and also what is detrimental to God’s plan” (EG 51).
If one follows these criteria, then the leading question is: What are the greatest abuses, the greatest scandals, that have most deeply injured the relationship of trust, the willingness of the people to believe, and the credibility of the faith community of the Church? The answer: the sexual abuse and the financial scandals of the Church.
The outrage against sexual abuse in the Church does not refer to the fact that such abuse actually exists. There are similar cases in numerous other social environments. The indignation is mainly directed at the fact that Church superiors, bishops, and religious superiors did not punish these abuses appropriately, but rather made them a taboo and often covered them up.
The victims were not acknowledged in an effort to keep the reputation of the Church and the clergy “spotless” and “holy.” That this was a widespread practice was shown by the major disclosure processes in Ireland, Australia, and now in Chile and Germany.
This is an outrageous, inhumane practice that grew out of the “habitual practice” of the leading clergy. This practice was made possible because there is no independent system of justice in the Church, no independent process of legislation and prosecution.
The bishop—like the religious superior—is the leader and thus he unites executive, judicative, and legislative power in his sphere of authority. The governor is his own judge and controller. This conception is reminiscent of the constitutional form of small absolutist principalities in the eighteenth century.
The Code of Canon Law protects this conception at the level of the whole Church through primacy. In the case of financial scandals, the people of God are outraged that the money donated by the faithful for the purposes of the gospel is illegitimately exploited for private enrichment or collected through a Church tax.
This is also about the lack of independent and therefore transparent control of the dioceses, of the money received, and the corresponding financing of the commitments made by the Church, such as the employment of pastoral personnel, the maintenance and management of public ecclesiastical works committed to the Church and to the public good.
The complexity of public budgets with debts, investments in the future, and liabilities is also reflected in the budgets of church institutions. To protect this highly complex financial situation from selfish arbitrariness and to make and maintain it serviceable for the common good, modern society is faced with the continuous task of perfecting its legislation as well as its administrative, control, and security measures.
What is the situation in the Church? The property law of the Church has been oriented—since about the sixth century— essentially to a multitude of legal entities, the dioceses, parishes, monasteries, foundations, benefices, and so on, that is, the ecclesiastical legal persons who have legally acquired the property. It is based on the strict earmarking of church property and thus establishes the Church’s independent right to property and its independent administration.
A holistic concept of governance is always assumed, which does not recognise any functional diversification. This aspect is not taken up in modern canon law.
What is very much absent from the forty-six canons of the 1983 Code of Canon Law—as in the much more comprehensive 1917 Code of Canon Law—is the responsibility of ecclesiastical authority to shape the public law framework that can ensure the earmarking of ecclesiastical goods and the earmarking of governance and administration according to the spirit of the gospel in modern times.
Synodality—the involvement of the people of God as an active subject in the fundamental decision-making processes of the Church—is a process of profound transformation in today’s Church and in today’s social situation.
Synodality offers the only way out of the series of scandals. If the ius divinum can occur only in the form of the ius humanum, and therefore the Church as a divine institution is at the same time an institution of human and Christian freedom, and as such should have a model character, then it is necessary to initiate a reform that concerns the ecclesiastical understanding of office and governance in forms of life and law that are apparently divinely sanctioned by ecclesiastical tradition.
Synodality requires independent, autonomous, and creative forms of legislation that are based on ecclesiastical and theological tradition. Only by bringing about such functional independence and autonomy in the Church is the Church, as a body founded by revelation, in a position, today, to be manageable, functional, credible, and trustworthy.
The scandals cited, and that continue, indicate this sufficiently. Synodality does not mean simply adopting political democracy and adapting to the spirit of the times. It is about the dignity of the people of God and the human form that allows the preservation of this dignity in modern society.
How can such a process be initiated? Steps must be taken at all levels: of the parishes and deaneries; of dioceses; of episcopal conferences; of united patriarchates; of continents; and finally, at the level of the whole Church.
It is true that the real introduction of synodal structures cannot simply be “from above” because the differences in the various nations, cultural areas, and continents must be considered. It is important, however, to set the general goals from the top, but then to start the real construction from the bottom.
Sufficient space will have to be given to the preparatory phase. Time is needed to prepare the people of God, to prepare the personnel. Parallel to this, the regulations in force must be handled in a “relaxed manner” in accordance with the new objectives.
The hub for the first phase, which refers to the dioceses and parishes or deaneries, is likely to be the level of the Conference of Bishops. Regarding specifically the level of the bishops’ conference, as such, it cannot carry out these decisions in realising synodality independently of competent laypersons and the consultation of various experts.
The aim is that this process should create the conditions for a national synodal constitution, which would establish the church order in the sphere of the Conference of Bishops and set the framework for an independent judiciary and executive.
The Statute of the Common Synod of Dioceses in the Federal Republic of Germany, confirmed by Rome for the implementation of the Würzburg Synod 1971–75, can be used here as a model. The statute provides for the right to vote on all decisions for all Synod members. The German bishops, as a college, have a right of veto.
For “reasons of the binding doctrine of faith and morals of the Church,” they could declare a decision of the Synod’s plenary assembly “impossible.” “A renewed referral of the question to the competent commission for the elaboration of a new one is thus not excluded.”
Because of the different numbers of Synod members to be elected from the different groups (priests, laity, religious men and women), and the different groups entitled to vote (dioceses: priests’ and diocesan councils; Central Committee of German Catholics: Catholic associations; religious: Association of Major Superiors), the structure of the Joint Synod resembled in a certain way the Anglican synod structure.
Only from such initial drafts and trials can the next steps be taken regarding the levels of the major cultural areas of the continents and the universal Church. One can clearly see, here, the challenges the Catholic Church is facing today.
This whole process, which is highly necessary, is likely to take a considerable amount of time. It is a task that requires all the powers and gifts of the Spirit.
This article originally appeared as the Foreword to “Synodality – A New Way of Proceeding In The Church” by Rafael Luciani.