Synodality and the end of ultramontanism

We have said throughout the Synod process that, regardless of the outcome of the communion-for-the-divorced-and-remarried issue, the Holy Father has already achieved an enormous victory. For the past year, everyone has acted as though the Synod has a say in the matter. That is, if the Synod votes one way or the other, that vote will be dispositive somehow. Of course, that is not the case, juridically speaking. But the response to the Synod has not been to point out that its deliberations and final products are, frankly, just a lot of paper. It has been to treat the Synod like A Big Deal.

This is, apparently, exactly what the Holy Father wanted. At a ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the Synod, he said,

From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome I intended to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council. For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to keep alive the image of the Ecumenical Council and to reflect the conciliar spirit and method. The same Pontiff desired that the synodal organism “over time would be greatly improved.” Twenty years later, St. John Paul II would echo those sentiments when he stated that “perhaps this tool can be further improved. Perhaps the collegial pastoral responsibility can find even find a fuller expression in the Synod.” Finally, in 2006, Benedict XVI approved some changes to the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, especially in light of the provisions of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, promulgated in meantime.

We must continue on this path. The world in which we live and that we are called to love and serve even with its contradictions, demands from the Church the Church the strengthening of synergies in all areas of her mission. And it is precisely on this way of synodality where we find the pathway that God expects from the Church of the third millennium.

In a certain sense, what the Lord asks of us is already contained in the word “synod.”  Walking together – Laity, Pastors, the Bishop of Rome – is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice. After reiterating that People of God is comprised of all the baptized who are called to “be a spiritual edifice and a holy priesthood,” the Second Vatican Council proclaims that “the whole body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief and manifests this reality in the supernatural sense of faith of the whole people, when ‘from the bishops to the last of the lay faithful’ show thier total agreement in matters of faith and morals.”

(Translation courtesy of Il Sismografo, which reproduces a working translation by Fr. Tom Rosica.) Of course, anyone who read Evangelii gaudium, no. 32, knew that Francis has a vision of a less centralized Church, in which the regional episcopal conferences have far more doctrinal and juridical authority than they currently do. We have said, elsewhere, that the dream appears to be treating the episcopal conferences like regional parliaments, with the Synod up on top of them, like a sort of federal parliament.

The benefits to this scheme are obvious. On one hand, the authority of some of the Roman dicasteries, most notably the stick-in-the-mud Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and maybe the Secretariat of State, would be unquestionably diminished by such an arrangement. Any administrative or doctrinal authority devolved out the conferences necessarily comes at their expense. On the other hand, minority positions would be unquestionably strengthened. When you’re pitching to the pope in a spirit of parrhesia, you can advocate for, well, different ideas without worrying about the doctrinal watchdogs coming after you. Don’t believe us? Just point your browser toward any other Catholic blog and scroll through the archives for October 2014 and October 2015.

It seems to us, however, that this proposal ultimately is looking toward a post-ultramontane world. We have our doubts whether the Holy Father will reign long enough to implement the scheme he outlines, given his other priorities. Even important projects with a lot of support take time: Francis has yet to rewrite Pastor Bonus, for example, notwithstanding the fact that Curial reform was a big issue at the Conclave at elected him. So, as we say, we are far from sure that we will see Francis fully implement the ideas he articulated today. Nevertheless, Francis’s pontificate seems to be one long demonstration against the idea that the pope is the focal point of the entire Catholic world. There are particular churches, he reminds us. There are regional (and national) groups of churches. Perhaps these particular churches, these episcopal conferences, should get some authority.

And, to some extent, we are not sure we disagree with the Holy Father. Maybe it is time to look past the ultramontanism prevalent today. Of course, the ultramontanism prevalent today was not what was intended when Pius IX solemnly defined the dogma of papal infallibility. We are not sure, furthermore, that the papal cult of personality was a direct effect of Pastor aeternus. Elliot Milco has pointed out that Pastor aeternus is awfully narrowly tailored in its operative terms. And Father John Hunwicke has noted that it was really Pius XII who started the globetrotting and introduced some of the more sentimental customs associated with the pope. But it is beyond dispute that the combination of the limited dogma of papal infallibility and the papal cult of personality is absolute dynamite. It leads directly and inevitably to the attitude that the pope’s every statement is a perfect, infallible expression of doctrine. This is not so good.

However, we are far from sure that the way to combat this spiritually unhealthy attitude is to start spinning off essentially Roman functions to the regional episcopal councils. That seems like a multiplication of the problem, rather than a reduction. It is unlikely that the newly juridically empowered episcopal conferences will engage in tentative, faintly self-deprecating expressions of their authority. No, it seems like quite the opposite will happen: they will insist on their authority. So, we’ll get, instead a distorted sense of the pope’s power, a distorted sense of the power of a plethora of episcopal conferences. Out of the frying pan, eh?

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