The Local Church

“The great challenge still facing the post-conciliar Church is in becoming a worldwide Church. For that to happen, argues Karl Rahner, cultural differences must become configuring factors of the local churches’ Catholicity,” writes theologian Rafael Luciani.

Pope Francis explains that “a synodal Church is a Church that listens.” The implications of such an act of listening go beyond a personal conversion because the listening shapes the relations among ecclesial subjects and reconfigures the Church organisation and structures. The act of listening to the people and their cultures enables a process of reconfiguration of the theological-cultural model of the ecclesial organisation.

Francis explains that the people of God must be listened to, in their particular place and time, in order to know “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 2:7); by listening to the people, each Church can find ways of proceeding that respond to the particular locality where ecclesial life and mission evolves. This is what the Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region claimed when it said that “[the Church] reconfigures her own identity through listening and dialoguing with the people, realities and stories of a [socio-cultural] territory” (Querida Amazonia 66).


As Vatican II insisted, listening should lead to discerning “in what way the customs, meaning of life and social order can be reconciled with the customs manifested by divine revelation” (Ad Gentes 22). Therefore, the Church listens not simply to acquire more information, but to discern her mission and reach “a deeper accommodation in the whole sphere of Christian life” (Ad Gentes 22).

Adopting this ecclesiological perspective, the International Theological Commission states that “the first level on which synodality is exercised is the Local Church,” precisely because “the historical, linguistic, and cultural links that mould interpersonal communication in the local Church and describe its particular features facilitate the adoption of a synodal style”.


Consequently, a synodal way of proceeding implies that all local churches are called to develop “their own discipline, their own liturgical usage, and their own theological and spiritual heritage” (LG 23). It is, therefore, important to understand that synodality is the most appropriate way for the genesis of the processes of identity and theological-cultural reconfiguration of the Church under the model of the Church as Church of Churches presided over by the Bishop of the Church of Rome and in communion with all of them, thus fulfilling the Catholicity of local churches.

Inspired in this ecclesiology, the Church has been summoned to a new Synod whose motto is For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission. This new synodal path, lasting two years (from 2021 to 2023), will engage the entire Church in the task of discerning a new ecclesial model for the third millennium.

Deepening the aggiornamento process initiated by Vatican II, the Synod wants to respond to the epochal ecclesial changes we are now experiencing. This may be the most important ecclesiological event in the current phase of reception of the Second Vatican Council.

It will involve approximately 114 Episcopal Conferences of the Latin Rite, the Council of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs, six patriarchal Synods of the Eastern Churches, four major Archiepiscopal Synods, and five International Episcopal Councils.

Deepening the ecclesiology of the people of God in the light of a model of Church of Churches, this new phase is recovering the Council’s ecclesiology of the local churches and making it the normative starting point for a synodal Church. Through synodality, Francis is seeking to complete the unfinished reception of the Council regarding the priority of the local churches.

The eclipse of the ecclesiology of local churches

After Paul VI, there was a progressive deflation of the value of local cultures as normative for reinterpreting tradition, doing theology, and transmitting faith. In defining the local Church, the formal element became weightier than the real one, so that a theological-cultural homogenization of ecclesial forms took place throughout the world.

The local reality no longer played a key role in configuring the actual concrete forms of specific ecclesial entities. Primacy was conceded instead to the formal elements, that is, to the individual bishops, who were considered “the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches”, and to the celebration of the Eucharist as “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (LG 11).

From the 80s, centralism started to prevail in ecclesial governance and doctrinal development. This ecclesiological orientation was promoted through new documents of the magisterium, such as the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus and the motu proprio Apostolos Suos, among others.

Pastor Bonus granted greater power to papal primacy and relativised the authority of the Episcopal Conferences. Meanwhile, the Curia began to produce its own theology. Apostolos Suos limited the teaching function of the bishops to following the universal Magisterium as officially interpreted by the Holy See (AS 21).

To these documents we can add the Instruction of Diocesan Synods, De Synodis Dioecesanis Agendis, which dealt a severe blow to the ecclesiology of local churches by prohibiting diocesan synods from pronouncing on any subject “that does not agree with the Church’s perpetual doctrine or the papal magisterium” (IDS, IV, no. 4).

The Extraordinary Synod The Extraordinary Synod of 1985— the Twentieth Anniversary of the Conclusion of the Second Vatican Council – represented an inflection point that discounted the ecclesiology of the people of God and assumed the model of hierarchical communion as central to the interpretation and implementation of the conciliar event.

Avery Dulles wrote that “the question before the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 was not – as some commentators imagined – whether to affirm or reject Vatican II, but rather how to interpret it”; its intention was that, “guided by a hermeneutics of unity, the ecclesiology of the future may be able to correct some of the imbalances of the past two decades”. Dulles also pointed out the correlation that existed between this ecclesiological shift and the views of the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger.

In the following years, consequently, a redefinition of identities and a reconfiguration of relationships among all ecclesial subjects in the Church were implemented through a series of synods that considered the laity (1987), priests (1990), religious life (1994), and bishops (2001). The fruits of the synods were gathered in the post-synodal exhortations Christifideles Laici (1988), Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), Vita Consecrata (1996), and Pastores Gregis (2003).

The way the faithful relate to one another in the Church was reconfigured to conform to the model of the Church as hierarchical communion. According to the resulting notion of co-responsibility, priests, laypeople, and religious interacted with the episcopate only in terms of auxiliary, vertical relations.

The notion of co-responsibility was no longer understood as an essential and reciprocal relationship that completes ecclesial identities in their interactions, as Cardinal Suenens had sustained in his interpretation of the Council.

Theology, itself, became less autonomous and was subordinated to the magisterium, while formation in the faith was focused on the Catechism. Consequently, the teaching and the transmission of the faith was subjected to a process of homogenization.

The 1992 document Communionis Notio distanced itself even further from the spirit and the letter of the Council by declaring that the universal Church is an ontological, pre-existing reality, thus universalising the identity of ecclesial life, and reinforcing institutional homogenisation according to the Roman theological-cultural pattern.

Walter Kasper confronted this position of Joseph Ratzinger by warning that it negated the ecclesiology of communion among local churches, reinforced the centralism of the Roman Curia, and eroded the value of the episcopal conferences as intermediate instances.

While Ratzinger’s aim may have been to safeguard the communio ecclesiae, he ended up favoring the communio hierarchica and relativising the sense of communio ecclesiarum, with all the newness that this concept brought to the ecclesiology of the Vatican as compared to that of Vatican I.

To resolve this argument, authors like Salvador Pié-Ninot use the term Catholicity to refer to “the whole or the entire rather than to the totality”, with latter term describing what is universal. As Rahner says, “The local Church makes the entire Church tangible”.

The Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod for the Amazon explained the matter clearly: “To be Church is to be the people of God, incarnated in the peoples of the earth and their cultures. The universality or Catholicity of the Church is therefore enriched by the beauty of these multifaceted manifestations of the particular Churches and their cultures” (IL 12), all of which make up the communio ecclesiarum. Consequently, “the concept of the particular Church would adapt better to the diverse regional realisations of the Church that express its cultural pluralism”.

Recovering the “Catholicity” of local churches

Synodality deepens and expands the Second Vatican Council’s ecclesiology of the local Church and its relations with the Catholicity of the whole Church. An example of this is how the Synod on Synodality has been conceived: it is not to be understood as merely an isolated event but has become a two-year process that begins with a diocesan phase exercising the first level of synodality, that of the local churches.

As Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, has stated, “Considering that the local churches, in which and from which the one and only Catholic Church exists, contribute effectively to the good of the entire mystical body, which is also the body of the churches (cf. Lumen Gentium 23), the fullness of the synodal process can truly exist only if the local churches are involved in that process.

For a genuine participation of the local churches in this process, there must also be the involvement of other ecclesial bodies, such as the Synods of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Councils and Assemblies of the Churches sui iuris, and the Episcopal Conferences with their own national, regional, and continental entities”.

This is a clear reception of Lumen Gentium, which recognises that “in and from [the local] Churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church” and that “this variety of local Churches with one common aspiration is splendid evidence of the Catholicity of the undivided Church” (LG 23).

Catholicity, therefore, refers to the fullness that characterises the local churches and to the communion that exists among them in virtue of their relation to the Church of Rome and its bishop, the Pope. This is how subsistit in, the famous phrase in Lumen Gentium 8, is to be understood: the Church of Christ – not the Universal Church – subsists in the Roman Catholic Church.

Gérard Philips, the principal redactor of Lumen Gentium, recognised the centrality of this ecclesiology, according to which the local Church, while not the whole Church, is a complete Church, and he knew the many repercussions it would have on theological and ecclesial issues.

Legrand also recognised “what is new about Vatican II: in addition to affirming that the Catholicity of the entire Church is nourished by the richness of the different local Churches, Vatican II affirms the catholicity of the diocesan Church itself”.


The great challenge still facing the post-conciliar Church is in becoming a worldwide Church. For that to happen, argues Rahner, cultural differences must become configuring factors of the local churches’ Catholicity.

For this reason, the universal Church exists only in concrete communities that are incarnated in and through their own socio-cultural forms. In the ecclesial model of the New Testament, Brighenti explains that: The Churches being born do not exist as “Churches of”, that is, as specific instances of a universal Church that supposedly precedes them.

Rather they are “Churches in” the same unique Church, which is whole (entire) in each local Church. The local Church is configured not as a branch or a copy of a supposed mother Church, but as a different Church, universal in its particularities, with its own culturally unique features.

Jerusalem, Corinth, Antioch, and Macedonia were all born as local Catholic Churches in different socio-cultural places that gave them a special identity and physiognomy. In other words, the local Church becomes real in the cultural forms in which it exists. Or as Paul VI said, “A Church spread throughout the world would become an abstraction if it did not take on body and life precisely through the individual churches” (EN 62) with all their theological, liturgical, spiritual, pastoral, and canonical particularities (LG 23, UR 4, AG 19).

The call to recover the centrality of the ecclesiology of local churches is perhaps one of the most important contributions of the current phase in the reception of the Council. It is shaping the way in which the institution of the Synod of Bishops is under[1]stood and functions as a “dynamic point of convergence” of all local churches.

But most importantly, it is providing a new hermeneutical framework for understanding the ecclesiological shift that synodality represents today. It opens a path toward a “more complete definition of the Church” that integrates and interconnects Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes, conceiving ecclesiology as a “permanent process of ecclesiogenesis”.

Ecclesiology as ecclesiogenesis

To implement the first level of the exercise of synodality, we must move beyond fragmentary interpretations of Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes. If we are to follow a synodal way of proceeding, then ecclesiology must always be ecclesiogenesis.

This involves recovering “the perception of Vatican II according to which ‘the sociocultural particularity of a region’ (AG 22) is part of a local Church’s theological definition” and thus configures the local Church’s identity and form in accord with its place and time. This is what we have called a Church of Churches.

The third chapter of Ad Gentes provides a more appropriate hermeneutical framework for ecclesial reconfiguration because it relates the birth of particular churches to their socio-cultural areas; in this way, it helps them to develop ecclesial traditions that are not only their own but also contribute to strengthening communion with other churches (AG 22).

It is in those churches and in their communion that the Catholicity of the entire Church is realised. For this reason, the Ad Gentes decree is probably the one that best shows how the universality of the mission demands that believers take human cultures into account and so establish particular churches. Since the Church is Catholic, it must become particular in the cultures it encounters… to the point that the local churches will be truly Catholic only at the end of a process of inculturation.


The ecclesiology of local churches, therefore, presupposes an inculturation that is in tune with Ad Gentes, which focuses on the evangelical witness (AG 24) found in communities gathered around the Word (no. 15) and engaged in dialogue with the local reality (nos. 6, 11). From such communities must emerge new expressions of ministry that respond to each theological-cultural reality (nos. 15, 19).

Ad Gentes is very clear on this last point, advising that “It is not enough that the Christian people be present and be organised in a given nation, nor is it enough to carry out an apostolate by way of example….In order to plant the Church and to make the Christian community grow, various ministries are needed, which are raised up by divine calling from the midst of the faithful congregation, and are to be carefully fostered and tended to by all”. (no. 15)

By interpreting LG and AG in a manner that is more comprehensive and process oriented, we can now identify more clearly the incredible newness of the shift brought about by the ecclesiology of Vatican II: it recognised contextual reality as normative for reconfiguring the Church’s identity and theological- cultural self-understanding, as well as for guiding its mission in the world.

Gaudium et Spes clarifies the implications of this shift when it states that the Church “has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of different peoples and has tried to clarify it with their wisdom too” (GS 44).


Thus, the “cultures or lifestyles” of the peoples are inseparable from their ecclesial forms and their Christian way of life. In other words, the Council recognised that, since culture refers to the “various styles of common life” (no. 53), the Church must “adapt the revealed word” to the many diverse ways of life of the peoples. Such adaptation is necessary because “revelation is completely historical and therefore subject to constant reinterpretation, according to the situation of those to whom it is transmitted”.

In this synodal way, the Church “constantly reshapes her identity through listening and through dialogue with the people, the realities, and the history of the lands in which she finds herself” (QA 66), discerning “how their customs, their views on life, and their social order can be reconciled with the manner of living taught by divine revelation” (no. 22).

Such a process leads to “a more profound adaptation in the whole area of Christian life” (no. 22), which means that “in each major socio-cultural area, such theological speculation should be encouraged, in the light of the universal Church’s tradition, as may submit to a new scrutiny the words and deeds which God has revealed, and which have been set down in Sacred Scripture and explained by the Fathers and by the magisterium” (no. 22).

This is the core of what is called the principle of pastorality, which requires the Church to perform an act of reinterpretation of Christianity for each culture in the light of the Word and tradition, and to engage in a process of theological-cultural reconfiguration of its own forms and institutions (QA 68).

The interpretation of doctrine (traditum) has always been linked to the mode of its reception (receptio) according to the logic “quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur” (see Summa Theologiae I, q.75, a.5).

Thus, ecclesiality is born of ecclesiogenesis. Lived context The lived context of the community is thematised and structured at this first level of synodality. “By this manner of acting…Christian life will be accommodated to the genius and the dispositions of each culture, so that particular traditions, together with the peculiar patrimony of each family of nations, illuminated by the light of the Gospel, can be taken up into Catholic unity” (AG 22).

This was the approach that, from the third century, inspired diocesan and provincial synods that dealt with issues of discipline, liturgy, and doctrine. The Gregorian Reforms and the Council of Trent produced a shift toward theological-cultural homogenisation and centralisation of the institutional Church, with the consequent loss of the synodal praxis and consciousness of the diocesan churches.

Ecclesial practice

Pope Francis, in line with the Second Vatican Council, is now urging us to recover the path of synodality as an essential constituent dimension of the Church of the third millennium. We should especially consider the ecclesial practice of the first millennium, when “local Churches are communitarian subjects that make the one people of God real in a novel way in different cultural contexts, and they share their gifts in a reciprocal exchange in order to promote ‘bonds of close communion’”.

In short, to recover the exercise of synodality at this level is to affirm that “the variety of local Churches – with their own ecclesiastical disciplines, liturgical rites, theological heritage, spiritual gifts, and canonical norms ‘is splendid evidence of the Catholicity of the undivided Church’”.

A synodal ecclesiology acknowledges that Catholicity is realised in the model of a Church of Churches because “the synodal dimension of the Church implies communion in the living faith of the various local Churches with each other and with the Church of Rome”.

Rafael Luciani is a professor at the Andrés Bello Catholic University of Caracas and extraordinary professor at the Ecclesiastical Faculty of Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

This chapter is from Synodality – A New Way of Proceeding in the Church by Rafael Luciani and published by Paulist Press. Republished here with kind permission. 

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