CV NEWS FEED // As the preparations for the October meeting of the Synod on Synodality begin, many are confused as to what a synod is.
What is a synod? And how is it different from a Church council like Vatican II? Why are people so concerned about this synod?
Synod and council are technically synonymous words. But as events in the Church, they are far from the same. The difference lies in the authority behind each.
Etymologically, the word council comes from the Latin concilium, meaning “to call together.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines a council as: “An assembly of ecclesiastics (with or without laymen) convened for the regulation of doctrine or discipline in the church, or, in earlier times, of settling points in dispute between the ecclesiastical and civil powers.”
The word synod comes from the Greek σύνοδος, with the prefix “together” and the suffix “travel,” or “way.” Thus the technical etymology of the word synod is something like “to travel together.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines a synod as: “An assembly of the clergy of a particular church, nation, province, or diocese (sometimes with representatives of the laity) duly convened for discussing and deciding ecclesiastical affairs. In early use frequently applied to general councils.”
Again, the difference between the two assemblies is one of authority. According to Catholic Answers, an ecclesiastical council must be
(a) a legally convened meeting of
(b) members of the hierarchy, for
(c) the purpose of carrying out their judicial and doctrinal functions,
(d) by means of deliberation in common,
(e) resulting in regulations and decrees invested with the authority of the whole assembly.
“In a council’s decisions we see the highest expression of authority of which its members are capable within the sphere of their jurisdiction, with the added strength and weight resulting from the combined action of the whole body,” Catholic Answers explains. The authority of the bishops and representatives in a council comes from the pope and ultimately from God, while the authority of the members of a synod comes from the electors, the people who choose them to join the synod in discussion.
The authority of an ecumenical council is, therefore, much higher than that of a synod. While an ecumenical council can have infallible authority, a synod cannot.
There have, therefore, been a limited number of ecumenical councils, only 21 in the entire history of the Church.
These councils have been critical for the definition of dogmas such as the Divinity of Christ, Mary’s title as the Mother of God, and the condemnation of heresies.
Vatican II held this same authority, though it dealt with pastoral matters rather than dogmatic ones.
The Synod on Synodality
Pope Francis began the current synod in 2021 and it will end in 2024. Its focus is the communion, participation, and mission of the Church.
“This process was conceived as an exercise in mutual listening,” Francis wrote:
I want to emphasize this. It is an exercise of mutual listening, conducted at all levels of the Church and involving the entire People of God. The Cardinal Vicar, the auxiliary bishops, priests, religious and laity have to listen to one another, and then to everyone else. Listening, speaking and listening. It is not about garnering opinions, not a survey, but a matter of listening to the Holy Spirit.
There are several phases to the synod, the Diocesan, the Episcopal, the Universal, and the Continental, during which information is gathered about the universal Church, and synthesized to be better comprehended.
While in Vatican II documents were produced to better understand the truths of Catholicism, such as the universal call to holiness, the synod seeks “not to produce documents, but to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.”
Most of the ecumenical councils have been focused on dogma and doctrine. This synod is the opposite of that, rather trying to focus on reading the heartbeat of the Catholic people which make up the body of Christ.
What is the Concern?
There has been widespread unrest about the upcoming synod meeting in October due to its controversial participants.
While names such as Bishop Robert Barron, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan, and Monsignor Daniel Flores have inspired hope in the hearts of Catholic Americans, other invitees are widely seen as worrisome.
Cardinal Blase Cupich, Cardinal Robert McElroy, and “LGBTQ” activist Fr. James Martin will be in attendance, all at the personal invitation of the pope. Critics say these men have acted against the better interests of the American Church through their encouragement of political and cultural causes that contradict Catholic teaching.
Many faithful Catholics in the United States already feel that the loud minority has the main say in their day-to-day lives. The fear is that this harmful minority will prove the loudest in the upcoming synod.
Yet, it seems that, whatever one’s opinion of these men may be, it is in the spirit of the synod that they be present: “The Synod is for everyone, and it is meant to include everyone,” Francis wrote:
Unless we include the “problem people” of society, those left out, we will never be able to deal with our own problems. This is important: that we let our own problems come out in the dialogue, without trying to hide them or justify them. Do not be afraid!
Some Catholic commentators have pointed out that it is difficult to see what the purpose of the synod was from the start. The adaptations made by Vatican II were sufficient for the participation of the laity in the Church, critics argue, and any more would undermine the important authority of the Church’s hierarchy.
Others feel that a traditionalist-leaning clericalism remains a problem in the Church.
That very difference seems to prove the point of the Holy Father, that the Catholic Church remains divided. However, the way to unity that he points out, which is central to the synod, is the Holy Spirit.
“I want to say again that the Synod is not a parliament or an opinion poll; the Synod is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit is not present, there will be no Synod,” he argued.
The invocation of the “spirit of Vatican II” often led to abuses in the Church. Ahead of the synod’s conclusion, some Catholics fear that the “spirit of the synod” is already doing the same.