World SynodOn the way towards a synodal Church

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The Church of the 21st century, like the Church of all centuries, is faced with the task of proclaiming the Gospel in such a way that the people of this time can understand it, absorb it and realise, that it is meaningful for their own lives. It is obvious that this requires a Church in which Christians are also in good and fruitful dialogue with each other, listen to each other and jointly consider how this can be done. This is why Pope Francis has made the topic of synodality a central aspect of his pontificate, with an attentive eye on the present and the future. For throughout the centuries, the Church has come together in synods to deliberate and seek common paths. However, a synod that deals solely with the topic of synodality is a venture that is open to questions. The synod in October 2023 has already shown that topics that are on the minds of the participants cannot simply be kept outside. It is part of the nature of the synod to take up issues of concern. Nevertheless, it is important not to get lost in the multitude of individual topics, but to keep the major question of this synod in mind: How can the universal church implement synodality and thus walk together, meet her Lord and proclaim His Gospel?

Back in 2018, the International Theological Commission presented a document entitled "Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church", which sets out the theological foundations for this topic. If one reads the Synthesis Report of Synod 2023 and looks back from there to the paper of the Theological Commission, lines emerge that offer points of reference for further developments and for the deliberations of Synod 2024. In the following, I would therefore like to highlight some aspects that were significant in this perspective for the deliberations of the Synod last autumn and emphasise them as milestones for the further synodal path of the universal church, but also for the Synodal Path of the Church in Germany.


By its very nature, synodality is designed to enable the faithful to participate in deliberations, consultations and upcoming decisions. The document of the International Theological Commission explains this: "The practice of consulting the faithful is not new in the life of the Church. In the Medieval Church a principle of Roman law was used: Quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet (what affects everyone should be discussed and approved by all). (No. 65) The Synthesis Report of the Synod 2023 also makes reference to synodality and at the same time provides a more concrete explanation: “Its orientation is towards mission, and its practice involves gathering in assembly at each level of ecclesial life. It involves reciprocal listening, dialogue, community discernment, and creation of consensus as an expression that renders Christ present in the Holy Spirit, each taking decisions in accordance with their responsibilities.” (No. 1.h) As a kind of legacy from the age of absolutism and not least as a result of the First Vatican Council, the hierarchical basic order in the Catholic Church was increasingly linked to a decision-making model that emphasises the sole decision-making power at the top, i.e. the Pope in the universal church, the bishop in the diocese and finally the parish priest in the parish. However, this almost solitary decision-making situation does not correspond to church practice over the centuries. The Second Vatican Council emphasised the aspect of collegiality among the bishops as an indispensable complement. The document of the Theological Commission adds to this: “The notion of synodality implies collegiality and vice versa, inasmuch as they both, being different, support and authenticate each other.” (No. 66)

Through the concept of synodality, I would like to add, collegiality gains in ecclesial effectiveness and reality. Decisions in the Church should, to put it simply, emerge from joint consultation and be based on as broad a basis as possible. We are not talking here about a scheme of command and obedience or about "top-down", but about the people of God moving forward together and growing in common conviction. This is why synodal bodies should not work as merely theoretically relevant advisory bodies. In this sense, the Synthesis Report quite rightly asks: “How can we interweave the consultative and deliberative aspects of synodality? Given the variety of charismatic and ministerial gifts of the People of God, how do we integrate the tasks of advising, discerning, and deciding in the various participatory bodies?” (Nr. 18.g) In the discussions leading up to Synod 2023, one could sometimes get the impression that the distinction between "decision making" and "decision taking" would describe the relationship between synodality and hierarchy. However, the Theological Commission has already made it clear that there is an interconnection here: “In the synodal Church the whole community, in the free and rich diversity of its members, is called together to pray, listen, analyse, dialogue, discern and offer advice on taking pastoral decisions which correspond as closely as possible to God's will.” (No. 68) What the Church therefore needs is a search for suitable assembly formats and participation processes that enable as many people as possible to be seriously involved in deliberations and decisions. With the processes of the Synodal Path in Germany, but also with the consultations in the run-up to the past Roman Synods and with the more communicative style of the Synod 2023, the Church has made significant progress in this respect at various levels. At the same time, however, we also feel that we still have a lot to learn, test and practise here. It is also repeatedly emphasised that the Church is not on a path towards "parliamentarism" and "simple majority decisions".

In view of such statements, I ask myself why modern-style democracy, which, in addition to recognising human dignity and human rights, also includes the principles of the constitutional order, popular sovereignty, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the protection of minorities and the welfare state, should actually give rise to fears in the Church. Moreover, it is undisputed that there are already many structural elements in the Catholic Church that correspond to the procedures and structures that are in place in modern constitutional-democratic state structures. It was therefore a matter of course that at the end of the World Synod a detailed and formally correct vote was taken on the adoption of the Synthesis Report. I can therefore see no contradiction to church doctrine in introducing tried and tested procedures that serve the transparency of church leadership and the participation of the faithful. After all, this is not about rewriting the creed by a simple synodal majority decision, to put it bluntly. It is beyond question that the Church will have to develop her very own forms of participation that are appropriate to her mission under the aspect of synodality. But points of contact and parallels with democratic leadership structures should not be a negative criterion. The words of the Theological Commission apply here: “The practice of dialogue and the search for effective joint solutions by which we commit ourselves to peace and justice are an absolute priority in a situation where there is a structural crisis in the procedures of democratic participation and a loss of confidence in its principles and inspirational values, with the threat of authoritarian and technocratic aberrations.” (No. 119)

Diversity in unity

The fact that the unity of the Church does not mean undifferentiated uniformity cannot be described as a new realisation either. Since the biblical descriptions of the different characters in the circle of the apostles, it has been clear that being a Christian may take different forms. The indispensable inculturation of faith, the concretising connection of doctrine with the life and imagination of the faithful, inevitably leads to a diversity of forms of faith and pastoral practice. The synodal Synthesis Report therefore states: “We need to cultivate a greater sensitivity towards the riches of our diverse expressions of being Church. This requires a search for a dynamic balance between the dimension of the Church as a whole and its local rootedness, between respect for the bond of Church unity and the risk of homogenization that stifles variety.” (No. 5.g) For the participants, the synod was an impressive personal experience of diversity in the Church. Experiencing the togetherness and free exchange among Christians from all over the world is enormously enriching. But it is also clear on a theological level that the Church must bring unity and diversity, universality and concreteness into a relationship of mutual enrichment. So, the Theological Commission says: “The Church, insofar as she is Catholic, makes the universal local and the local universal. The particularity of the Church in one place is fulfilled at the heart of the universal Church and the universal Church is manifested and made real in the local Churches, and in their communion with each other and with the Church of Rome. Each individual Church that would voluntarily cut itself off from the universal Church would lose its relationship to God’s plan…. But, at the same time, a Church toto orbe diffusa would become an abstraction if she did not take body and life precisely through the individual Churches." (No. 59)

For a synodal relationship between the particular church and the universal church, it is necessary to allow the particular churches and particular church associations a scope of action that enables them to concretise the common teaching of the Church in such a way that it can also be accepted and filled with life in local circumstances. It is obvious that the bishops' conferences and local church organisations must be given more importance here. This can be read in the Synthesis Report: “Meanings and priorities vary among different contexts, and this requires identifying and fostering forms of decentralization.” (No. 5.g) The church conference CEAMA ("Conferencia Eclesial de la Amazonía") in South America is a good example of such an interim body. The Synodal Committee in Germany and the yet-to-be-developed church conference, which is being discussed under the name "Synodal Council", are moving in a very similar direction. The decisive factor here is to develop synodality in the life of the Church and to address pastoral problems and issues locally in a synodal manner so that the Gospel can take hold and unfold its power in the life of the Church and in the life of the people.

Tradition and dynamics

The text published by the Theological Commission speaks of “the guarantee and incarnation of the Church’s fidelity to her apostolic origins” and says: “It presents itself in a form that is substantially a single entity, but one which gradually unfolds - in the light of what Scripture indicates - in the living development of Tradition. This single entity thus has many forms according to different historical contexts and in dialogue with the variety of cultures and social situations.” (No. 24) With regard to synodality the Synthesis Report states: “Among the fears expressed is that the teaching of the Church will be changed, causing us to depart from the Apostolic faith of our forebears and, in so doing, will fail to respond to needs of those who hunger and thirst for God today. However, we are confident that synodality is an expression of the dynamic and living Tradition.” (No. 1.f) Tradition is never something static and it must be considered dynamically in order to remain alive and to critically question what corresponds to the authentic tradition of the Church. Synodality only makes sense if tradition is not thought of as a completely unchangeable and self-contained corpus. The possibility of change must be accessible to theological research and ecclesial discussion, as was recently said, for example, with regard to the question of the binding nature of Pope John Paul II's statements (Ordinatio sacerdotalis) on the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.

This dynamic understanding of tradition was a recurring theme in the discussions at Synod 2023. It is a challenging task to preserve tradition in a dynamic way. On the other hand, it is also the only promising way to pass on tradition. The original intention must be preserved in such a way that it can be accepted and appropriated by people who live in a completely different time and under completely different circumstances. Two aspects are important for this, which were also repeatedly brought up in the synod discussions: the hierarchy of truths and the interpretation of the signs of the times.

Truths of faith are of varying importance for the corpus fidei and for the life of the faithful. Discernment and prudence are therefore necessary. Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasised this, most recently during the Synod in his Apostolic Exhortation “C'est la Confiance – On confidence in the merciful love of God for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face” (15 October 2023, No. 48). The degree of commitment, the changeability and also the variance of elements of church doctrine differ considerably. It is also important not to stylise subordinate aspects as "identity markers" if they also cause great difficulties. The question of celibacy for priests is an example of this. In order to recognise which truths of faith are of particular importance and significance in a specific historical situation, it is essential to know this situation precisely and to interpret the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel. This is what the Second Vatican Council says: “To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other.” (GS 4) One of the perspectives for synodality is therefore to ask about the signs of the times in a synodal way. The Theological Commission sees theology in particular as having a responsibility in this regard: “In the Church’s synodal vocation, the charism of theology is called to offer a specific service: it involves listening to the Word of God, understanding faith in sapiential, scientific and prophetic ways, discerning the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel and being in dialogue with society and cultures.” (No. 75). An irrefutable sign of the times and therefore a special task for the Synod of the Church is the question of the changed view of the role of women and its consequences for the Church. Signs of the times bring with them a kairos.

Further aspects

The Synthesis Report of the Synod 2023 is the result of an in-depth process in which participation played a major role, and it is also the result of a lively exchange in which numerous Synod participants contributed their perspectives and concerns. For this reason, there are of course many concrete aspects in this document that reach beyond the text of the Theological Commission. As I am concerned here not least with the question of what seems particularly important for progress on the synodal paths, I would like to mention a few selected aspects that the synthesis takes up.

First and foremost, we need to look at the systemic and structural conditions in the Church that have facilitated and enabled sexual violence and its cover-up in the Church. “The long journey towards reconciliation and justice, including addressing the structural conditions that abetted such abuse, remains before us, and requires concrete gestures of penitence.” (No. 1.e) It was not a matter of course to include this reference in the discussions and in the concluding text to the fact that we are not just talking about the abuse committed by individuals, but that church structures must be examined to see whether they facilitate such actions. Without this self-critical view and the theological and practical consequences to be drawn from it, a synodal church cannot move forward.

Another aspect that should not be underestimated is the question of how women can be much more involved and actively participate in the Church. The very fact that for the first time women took part in this synod as synod members with voting rights changes realities. “It is urgent to ensure that women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry.” (No. 9.m) What this means for the future of the Church and where the dynamics and guidance of the Holy Spirit will lead her, no one can say at the moment. The only thing that is clear is that when it comes to these issues, the situation worldwide may not remain as it is at present.

Finally, there are also the questions of anthropology, which a synod on synodality cannot avoid. Anyone concerned with participation must also face the question of how people may be included who do not correspond to their categories in every respect, to put it in very general terms. In the Synthesis Report we find a remarkable expression that can actually open up a space for reflection and further development: “Sometimes the anthropological categories we have developed are not able to grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences and require greater precision and further study." (No. 15.g) The fact that man is God's rational creature is without doubt a central statement of Christian anthropology. However, this also includes a responsible, rational scientific understanding of the world and, not least, of oneself. Christian anthropology therefore has no choice but to engage with the results and findings of the sciences, also with regard to the image of humankind. The fact that the Synod sees this as a field of learning for the Church is an encouraging signal for her future.

There are a number of other questions and aspects that could be named here as starting points for the upcoming synodal developments. It already seems clear that for the synod in autumn 2024, it is important to further concretise the lived form of synodality for the Church at various levels. Participation, diversity in unity and a dynamic approach to tradition should be the guiding perspectives.

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