The poisonous germ of Synodality

The text of the Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod on Synodality, which will begin on October 4, 2023 and will last a full two years, was released yesterday and presented at a press conference. It is the working document for the synods, after the exhaustion of the various preparatory phases that, in turn, had produced other documents. What can we understand about the air in the air by reading this working document? The summary impression one gets is that it is a "liquid" text, uncertain about principles, open to instrumentalization, liable to the most diverse outcomes. The indications for synods concern a series of attitudes to be taken and not truths to be followed, practices to be implemented and not convictions to be defended and proposed, relationships to be held and not truths to be appropriated.


As is well known, it is not at all clear what is meant by "synodality." Cardinal Burke recalled that it is known that the Church is "one, holy, catholic and apostolic," as it is recited in the Creed; however, it is not known what it means that it is synodal. The Church also has within itself a dimension of collegiality, but that is not why it is collegial, so it also has a dimension of synodality, but that is not why it is synodal. Theologically, the idea is uncertain and vague. Even theologically moderate authors, such as the editor of the latest issue of the journal of the Faculty of Theology of Holy Cross, Miguel de Salis, acknowledge that one is not today "fully equipped to formulate a coherent and complete vision of the subject."


The only thing that is proposed as certain today-even by the document we are discussing-is that synodality is a process, a journey. Establishing what else it is, beyond that, is left to the process itself, the process precisely of the synod on synodality. It will be established as we go along, since it is in progress, it is an itinerant idea, and therefore always processual and unfinished. Synodality is, in other words, a historical experience, continuous, inexhaustible and, we may also add to better indicate the philosophical origin of this vision, dialectical.


This is why the Instrumentum laboris explains the characteristics of the synodal Church through recourse to the experience made by those who were involved in the various preparatory phases, diocesan, national and continental [it was, in fact, an infinitesimal minority of the "people of God" and moreover composed of specially chosen ecclesial strata, but this is not the point of interest here, although it is not insignificant].

Experience is a process, and during these preparatory appointments, according to the drafters of our document, certain ideas about the characteristics of a synodal Church were gradually matured by all. Now, that of experience is the emptiest and vaguest philosophical and theological notion there is, and it is also very dangerous when one assigns to it a meaning of an event of the Spirit. The fact of encountering and participating in a process is loaded with a revelatory meaning of a divine communication. One is very struck by the many passages in the Instrumentum Laboris in which the "hearing" (experience, we may return to say) of the participants in the various stages of the preparatory process is abusively, or at least too hastily, called listening to the voice of the Spirit.


Since synodality is believed to be a process resulting from the active participation of the people of God and thus an active experience and praxis, the synod's working document characterizes the "synodal church" precisely through attitudes to be assumed, practices to be carried out. One of these is listening: the synodal Church is a Church of listening. Another is humility: the synodal Church is a Church that knows it has much to learn. A third is the attitude of encounter and dialogue with everyone (of course also in reference to the ecological emergency). Then comes the characteristic of a Church that is not afraid of the truth of which it is the bearer, but enhances it without forcing uniformity (a plural Church, one would think ... but how plural?). Then there could be no lack of a welcoming Church open to all. Finally, the most extravagant feature: a Church in touch with the healthy restlessness of incompleteness.


One will not struggle to see the absence of theological consistency in these expressions. This is why we can say that the instrumentum laboris is a "liquid" text that, as such, remains open to any conclusion, even the most revolutionary ones. A text in reference to which we can expect anything.

A case in point? No, because the heart of everything is the process, in which synodality consists. Liquidity favors process, the substitution of truth for relationship, the how becoming priority over the what and why. 

The Instrumentum is like a trailer for a movie whose plot no one knows and no one knows how it will end. The director wanted it that way so that he would have a chance to direct it during its course, when synodality will bring forth a new "ecclesial public opinion" holder of the new munus docendi.