Today, the dragon seems to want to show itself. Indeed, significant passages from the Curia reform project were published on May 23 by L’Homme nouveau which announced the possible promulgation date as being next June 23.
At first glance, it is easy to notice the elements recently raised by Cardinal Müller—the lack of elementary distinctions, arbitrary transformations, inversion of ends, primacy of action over faith, theological ignorance of the editors, reinforcement of decentralization and the reduction of centralism, synodality. There would be (will be) much to say, but it is this last point that will be the object of this installment.
What does the expression “synodal Church” mean as it is used in the prologue to the future Constitution on the Roman Curia? It will take some words of explanation to understand it better.
The Second Vatican Council produced a “new ecclesiology.” But this novelty had been anticipated by some modern theologians: they proposed a model intended to supplant the previous one, and the evolution that followed. The dissenting sources are thus anterior to the Council.
Before the Second Vatican Council
Classic ecclesiology is rooted particularly in the controversy with the reformers because their heresy ruined the idea of the Church. St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) distinguished himself particularly in this fight, and it is to him that we need to bring back this concept that the Church appropriates for the ages. In opposition to the invisible Church of the just (Luther) or the predestined (Calvin), he explained the dimension of the Church as a visible society, constituted by the three bonds of the faith, the sacraments, and submission to the pope. He added an interior dimension, by considering the soul of the Church to which those who are in a state of grace belong, as opposed to the body which only signifies the visible, exterior aspect.
During the First Vatican Council (1870), the Schema on the Church was not able to be adopted (the Council being interrupted by war). There the Church is described as the Mystical Body of Christ, as a true society, perfect, spiritual, supernatural, and visible society. The doctrine of the Mystical Body, eminently traditional, would appear to be particularly valuable in describing the mystery of the Church.
The period that followed saw a development of the doctrine of the Mystical Body, from Leo XIII in the encyclical Satis Cognitum (On the Unity of the Church) (1896), through the encyclical Mystici Corporis by Pius XII (1943), which sought to magnify the “exceptional grandeur of this doctrine” and the necessity to go into it further.
At the same time, the progressives considered the Church-as-society and the Church-as-the-Body-of-Christ as corresponding to the needs of a bygone era—the “people” had become too passive while the action of the Church rested on the clergy. It was from this perspective that the expression “People of God” appeared, which in a few decades became one of the most significant ideas for describing and defining the Church. However, Pius XII’s encyclical, Mystici Corporis, was completely silent on this notion...A thorough search would also show what all this concept owes to its era (revolution, democracy, Marxism).
Other avenues are explored as well: the extension of the concept of sacrament to express the relation between the visible and the invisible in the Church. The concept of communion also offers a perspective reconciling the interiority and externality of the Church, which opens up some possibilities for the basis of ecumenical dialogue.
The notion of “communion” is traditional, but its appearance in the forefront originates from interest in Max Scheler’s theory (1874-1928) that distinguishes community (or communion) and society. This distinction is also deeply marked by an ecumenical concern. Two books were especially prepared immediately before the Council on this subject: The Church is a Communion by Fr. Hamer (1962), and especially, Mission and unity: the requirements of communion by Fr. Le Guillou (1960). If the first is a strict exploration of the theme, the second is a broad ecumenical appeal.
During the Second Vatican Council
The Council Fathers threw the majority of the schemas prepared meticulously and in considerable detail by the Curia on the scrap heap. The notion of the Body of Christ was not eliminated from the Council, but the notion of the People of God went on to become the keystone of a newly constructed ecclesiology—it came up 33 times in the dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium (LG) and can be found in 11 of the 16 documents promulgated by Vatican II. The innovators could sum up the gains found there thusly: continuity with the people of Israel, adaptation of the modern concept of an “adult” people, superseding of the distinction between the clergy and the laity, the development of the priesthood of the faithful, enhancing the value of the laity, ecumenism.
An author explains, “the introduction to the idea of the People of God at the center of the updated ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council is, in a way, a revolutionary deed” (Jan Grootaers, “People of God" in Catholicisme, t. XI, col. 119, Letouzey et Ané, Paris, 1988). Another remarked that “the idea of the People of God initiated numerous changes in the rules of the Council, in the composition of the commissions, and in the liturgy of the conciliar congress. It also slowly changed the theological thinking of the bishops [present at the Council]” (P. Fransen, “The Church as the People of God” in La nouvelle image de l’Eglise (the New Image of the Church), Mame, Paris, 1967, p.117).
In comparison, the idea of communion is noticeably less present and only appears in Lumen gentium, in Unitatis redintegratio (the decree on ecumenism), and in Gaudium et Spes. Nevertheless, it allowed for the creation of a new, non-traditional expression: hierarchy of communion, which appears in LG no.21 affirming the sacramentality of the episcopate and in no.22 on collegiality. This is certainly not a coincidence. But the fight put up by Coetus internationalis Patrum—a group of minority Fathers formed around Bishop de Proenca Sigaud, Archbishop Lefebvre, and Bishop de Castro Mayer fought the novelties vigorously during the Council—and Paul VI’s decision to give an official interpretation of the text prevented the immediate exploitation of the novelty.
After the Council
The idea of the People of God thus seems to be the keystone of the new ecclesiology, but the development was laborious: the conciliar doctrine appeared to be mitigated, mixed. This is why the theologians turned rather towards the idea of communion and it is in this sense that they progressively guided the research. Especially as the concept of the People of God, as Cardinal Danneels complained, “is defined in an ideological way” (Introductory Report on the Second Extraordinary Synod for the 20th anniversary of the Council, 1985, Catholic Documentation 1909, January 5, 1986, p.33) and the ecclesiological doctrine “is often interpreted in a unilateral way.” The Synod of 1985 marked a turning point: it affirmed that “the ecclesiology of communion is the central and fundamental concept in the Council documents” (Final Report, II, C,1). The Synod started to explain in what consisted this communion.
The ecclesiological reinterpretation of the 1985 Synod made an impact on the observers, and it became possible to speak about a “new post-conciliar period.” In this way the International Theological Commission, whose head at that time was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, had produced a long document on ecclesiology, published on the eve of this Synod, with the evident aim of “preventing excesses.” Even though the notions of the People of God and of the Church as Sacrament are very greatly developed, communion does not appear to be so. Which is strange. Nevertheless, it is the concept of communion that supplants everything else from that point forward and serves as a reference for modern ecclesiology, with the notion of sacrament. Reinterpreted by modern thought, communion takes on a disturbing dimension.
Fr. de La Soujeole made this observation: “We can recall that the ecclesiology of communion, as it stands today, assumes an old and solid tradition. But it carries with it a new requirement, of the moral order, the tradition of which has not been realized—the demands of freedom as self-determination—and this should lead to hitherto unsuspected consequences in ecclesial life. The emphasis today is placed on synodality at all levels of the life of the Church, a request that expresses the necessary participation of all members in the life of the whole body, cannot be interpreted as one of the fruits of the return to an ecclesiology that is more traditional and closer to the beginnings of Christianity; it is a novelty of the contemporary era which makes it necessary to rethink ecclesial life in depth and which will give it a hitherto largely unknown face. By this aspect, Vatican II is not a point of arrival but a point of departure, and it seems clear to us that consideration of this subject is just starting” (Benoît-Dominique de La Soujeole, The Sacrament of Communion, Friborg University Editions, Switzerland, Cerf, Paris, 1998, 303).
It seems that the future Constitution wants to rule in favor of this author, as it echoes his words. It insists on this synodality at all levels: the particular Churches, provinces and ecclesiastical regions, the universal Church. The pope then details the “communion organisms” that allow each level to realize the Synodal Church, especially the Episcopal Conferences and the Synod of Bishops. This multiplication of authorities generates a profusion of consultations, exchanges, reports, meetings, in short, all that an institution of this type can produce. The goal is to reach a civil and ecclesial consensus, a master word in contemporary life, even if it comes to be differentiated.
It also leads to a culture of voting that borders on worship. Certainly, we have always voted in the Church: to elect the pope, at general or private councils, and to elect superiors in religious orders and institutes. But it was very limited. To some extent, voting has become some sort of instrument of communion, because one votes in all these assemblies, these councils, and these synods. Whether it is advisory or deliberative, the vote is integral to the synodal morals, of which it is an obligatory passage. Even if we continue to hold our own, slowly but surely, communion will lead us to a profound democratization of ecclesial institutions.
Fr. de la Soujeole again described these things very well: “If we want to do justice to the social aspect of ecclesial communion, we cannot refuse to consider the current demand for democracy in the life of the Church. It would be an insufficient motive to argue that the Church is not a society like the others. Certainly, it will first be necessary to study this democratic demand in detail to remove a lot of the presuppositions and appearances...This being said, the integrity of the social sign can only be fully assured if the historical factor is well integrated and thus assumes developments verified as positive. Among these, the well-understood democratic ideal can help to better understand—and thereby to better live—the requirements of theological communion in terms of participation, responsibility, and dialogue” (Ibid., p.325).
The future Constitution on the Curia defines synodality by its etymology: moving forward together. It expresses collegiality in act, in its concrete manifestation of the life of the Church. The synodal expression would like to see the truth about the entire People of God emerge, the subject of the sensus fidei, melting into one communion secreted by the whole Church. In this way there is a sort of reciprocal immanence that is reproduced at every level of the ecclesial structure.
Certainly, the union of the faithful to Christ and with each other is mysterious, but the path taken by synodality makes it more and more resemble a democratic hypostasis. Especially as this communion must embrace even the domain of the city as expressed in the description of the future Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. It is the error of secondary Christianity, which judges religion in terms of its secondary and subordinate effects in relation to civilization, by giving these effects priority and superiority over its effects in the other world, which is its own.
Finally, to show the place of authority, the Constitution, taking an image used by Pope Francis, describes it as a reverse pyramid. From which we can conclude that the Synodal Church is a Church that walks on its head...