Synodality and papal primacy

Questions regarding the Catholic Church today and the next pope.

May 01, 2021

By Massimo Faggioli
“There’s a short path that is long,  and a long path that is short.”  In the third seasons of the  Netflix series Shtisel, an eminent ultraOrthodox rabbi who heads a yeshiva in  Jerusalem offers that bit of sage advice to  a star student who is dealing with a lifeand-death decision.  Short paths tend to become shortcuts  leading nowhere, while wisdom suggests  taking time to make a decision. 

“A long path that is short” is indeed a  good way to explain the virtue of synodality, the biggest wager Pope Francis has  made for the Catholic Church today. 

Five and half years after he delivered  what can be called his magna carta on  synodality to the 2015 assembly of the  Synod of Bishops, the Pope’s persistent  push in favour of a synodal Church is having effects. 

In different areas of the Catholic world,  there are ecclesial events of a synodal nature unfolding or being prepared.

A synodal movement requires time and  presence
There is Australia’s historic Plenary Council, which will hold its first meeting in  October. And there is the “synodal path”  already underway in Germany. 

Preparations are currently being made  for a national synod in Ireland and, after much insistence from the Pope, the  Church in Italy is finally beginning plans  for its own synod. 

The editors of the Jesuit-run magazine  America have just argued for a plenary  council for the Catholic Church in the  United States. 

At the supra-national level, the Latin  American bishops have launched their  own ecclesial assembly, the first-ever “Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the  Caribbean.” 

This synodal movement is unfolding  at a time of great uncertainty due to the  coronavirus pandemic. Synodality, which  means the people of the Church “walking  together”, requires gathering together in  assemblies. 

Some of these assemblies (e.g. in Germany and Australia) have been delayed or  postponed, and the same is likely to happen again in other places. 

And it’s possible the next ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops — which  is scheduled for October 2022 and based  on the theme — For a synodal Church:  communion, participation, and mission —  could also be delayed. 

It is not certain that participants from  poor countries, where the pace of vaccinations is much slower, will be able to gather  locally for the preparation phase or that  their representatives will be able to travel  to Rome. 

The theological and institutional dimensions of synodality
Pandemic aside, postponing the assembly on synodality could be a good thing. 

It would mean more time for preparation. 

So far, most of the discussion surrounding synodality has focused on its pastoral  aspects.

But a two-article dossier published by  theologians Serena Noceti, Rafael Luciani  and Hervé Legrand in the latest issue of  the Italian magazine Il Regno points out  that there are theological and institutional  dimensions to synodality that need attention. 

One particular aspect that will have to  be addressed is the role of papal primacy  in synodality – both at the universal level  and the national/local level. 

This is a key issue that will have important practical consequences. 

In one of his first and most important  speeches on the model of episcopal leadership, in September 2013, Francis talked  about the bishop in these terms: 

A pastoral presence means walking  with the People of God, walking in front  of them, showing them the way, showing  them the path; walking in their midst, to  strengthen them in unity; walking behind  them, to make sure no one gets left behind  but especially, never to lose the scent of  the People of God in order to find new  roads. 

What is the role of the episcopal leadership in the synodal path together with the  People of God? Walking in front of them,  walking in their midst or walking behind  them?

Discernment, not a vote in parliament
From what we have seen from the  Synod of Bishops assembly for the  Amazon region (October 2019) and its  aftermath (the apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia of February 2020), Francis  seems to understand his role as the referee  of the presence or absence of genuine discernment in a synodal event.

This is how he phrased it in a note published in September 2020 by the editor of  La Civiltà Cattolica, Antonio Spadaro,  SJ: 

“There was a discussion [at the 2019  Synod] ... a rich discussion ... a wellfounded discussion, but no discernment,  which is something other than arriving  at a good and justified consensus or relative majorities […] We must understand  that the Synod is more than a parliament;  and in this specific case, the Synod could  not escape this dynamic. On this issue the  [2019] Synod was a rich, productive and  even necessary parliament; but no more  than that. For me this was decisive in the  final discernment, when I thought about  how to write the exhortation” [Querida  Amazonia].

This way of assessing synodality is  more typical of the superior of a religious  community which has undertaken a process of discernment than that of a bishop. 

But the Catholic Church is not the Society of Jesus. Discernment works, if at  all, in very rarified spiritual groups. Most  bishops have no background or training  in it.  

The same can be said for the People of  God who are supposed to be involved in  synodality. 

It’s especially since the late 1990s, also  thanks to John Paul II’s encyclical Ut  Unum Sint (1995), that we have started  talking about a new role for the papacy in  the ecumenical ecclesiology articulated at  the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

A changed paradigm for papal  primacy 
In a long article published in 2000 in the  journal Cristianesimo nella Storia, Peter  Hünermann, emeritus professor of theology at the University of Tübingen, formulated the concept of the papacy as a  “notarius publicus”.

The primacy’s constitutive role, in this  sense, would be the task of facilitating and  maintaining the unity of Catholic faith  and Church communion. 

Hünermann’s essay was a commentary  on John Paul II’s motu proprio Ad tuendam fidem (1998). The German theologian offered a historical perspective on the  development of papal primacy, trying to  understand the deep changes in the function of primacy for the Church in modernity.  

He noted that the Vatican I paradigm of  papal primacy — as one of jurisdiction, in  stark legal terms — had been overcome,  not just by the ecumenical outlook of Catholicism, but also by the self-understanding of the papacy as "communicative action". 

Especially after Vatican II, papal primacy is not really (or no longer) about  defining the faith. Rather, it is about witnessing and confirming the faith of the  people, voiced in the consensus of their  representatives and in light of Scripture  and Tradition. 

Hünermann wrote the article well before the papacy embraced synodality, but  it is still relevant for the current debate. 

Of course, the approaches to the issue  of the role of primacy depend on the kind  of synodality we have in mind. 

Renewal or change? 
Is synodality a way to renew the pastoral  style of the Church in the existing institutional and theological system? 

Or is it a moment for addressing issues,  such as the role of women in the Church  and ministry, and opening the Church to  the possibility of institutional and theological developments? 

This is an essential question that will  have to be clarified at some point, sooner  rather than later. 

Primacy has emerged in recent years as  an ecumenical issue, especially when one  looks at the role it plays in the intra-Orthodox rifts between Constantinople and  Moscow. Recall the tensions on display in  January 2019 when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew conceded autocephaly  to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

The spectre of a universal, pope-like  role for the Patriarch of Constantinople  haunts some Eastern Orthodox Churches, but the complicated nature of papal  primacy should not be too quickly overlooked by Catholics. 

It now tends to be dismissed as irrelevant because of the friendly, genteel style  of Pope Francis. 

But if synodality is to be a key aspect of  being Church in the future of Catholicism,  this means that we need to keep in mind  that at some point, in the next few years,  there will be another pope. 

And he could have a way and style of  interpreting synodality that is very different from that of the current Bishop of  Rome. –– LCI

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