Sense and Synodability: A guest blog post from Fr. John Nepil of Denver

November 16, 2023
We need a renewed Marian sensibility

I am working on a new original blog post of the old fashioned kind that once was the stock in trade of this blog. It should be out in a week and deals with the reality of a lowered morale in the Church among both priests and laity these days. I have gotten loads of emails asking me to write on this and so I am.

In the interim I am posting below a guest blog post from my friend Father John Nepil of the Archdiocese of Denver. Fr. Nepil is the Vice Rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver and the author of the book "A Bride Adorned: Mary-Church Perichoresis in Modern Catholic Theology". Sounds intimidating but it is a great book. I discuss the book with Fr. Nepil which can be found on my podcast on this blog. Fr. Nepil also is involved with the very popular podcast, "Catholic Stuff You Should Know". He writes today on the topic of the recent Synod. Many thanks to Fr. Nepil for taking the time to do this.

Sense and Synodability

Fr. John Nepil

“It is not what we think or feel that makes us who we are. It is what we do. Or fail to do...” -Jane Austen

If the synod has shown one thing, it is that synodality is emerging as a new ecclesiology. Far more than an instrument of dialogue or an organ for listening, synods express in themselves a comprehensive and totalizing vision for the Church’s self-interpretation in the modern world. Contrast that with the very basic, even functional, definition from Canon Law: A group of bishops from different regions of the world, who coming together at fixed times, meet “to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith” (Canon §342). But the old tool is being repurposed, grounded in a dogmatic absolute: The Church is synodaland synodality, the latest mark of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council was principally ecclesiological. Its fundamental question was not the reform of the liturgy, nor a declaration on religious freedom; it was, as John XXIII said at its outset, “to reconstruct the bridges connecting the Church to the modern world.” As John Paul II would later explain, the Council centered upon one fundamental question to be answered“Church, what do you say of yourself?” This question, drawn from John 1:22, was about the Church giving an answer of self-expression to the modern world. And its response was not doctrinal modernization, but biblical meditation on the mystery of the Incarnate Word. For what she had to say she said in the beginning of her keystone document“to bring the light of Christ to all men” (Lumen Gentium, n. 1).

The primary task of the pontificate of John Paul II was the authentic implementation of the Council. With his aide-de-camp Joseph Ratzinger, he articulated communio as the Council’s interpretative key. As the Synodal Fathers of 1985 attested, “the ecclesiology of communion is the central and fundamental idea of the documents of the Council.” Just as Ressourcement caused great consternation to Scholasticism prior to the Council, so too has Communio theology become the bane of post-conciliar liberalizing progressivism. But the trajectory was set and the path made: The Church is, in the words of John Paul, “a mystery of Trinitarian communion in missionary tension” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 23). In the mind of the last two pontiffs and the work of decades of conciliar implementation, communio is the synthesis for drawing together the essential elements of the Council’s ecclesiology. That was, at least, until the rise of synodal ecclesiology, a seismic shift happening in our very moment. Its project appears to be nothing short of supplanting communion ecclesiology, and in doing so, eclipsing the legacy of two prior pontiffs.

What then is synodal ecclesiology? Drawing from Jane Austen, we find it to be sense and synodability.

First, synodal ecclesiology operates on the assumption that the sensus fidei is itself magisterial. As the Catechism clearly attests, “The whole body of the faithful. . . cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals” (n. 92). Never before has the sensus fidei been tasked with doctrinal reformulation, certainly not in matters that are held binding. No matter how much listening and discerning we do, it cannot be employed in a quasi-magisterial manner. As John Henry Newman beautifully  wrote, the Church consults the sensus fidei like one “consults a watch or a sun-dial about the time of day” (Newman, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, n. 1). If one were to use the sensus to change the timeor worse, re-define the nature of time itselfthen it has indeed become something it is not. Or from a different perspective, we could interpret “sense” along the lines of Luigi Giussani, who sees in the religious sense something structural to a person’s interiorization of the faith. On a corporate, indeed mystical level, the sensus is “instructive”any attempt to make it “constructive” reveals a deeper ideological intent.

Second, synodal ecclesiology appears preoccupied with making everything (and everyone) “synodable.” What is at work is an all-embracing, ecclesiological projectthe “synodalization” of the Church. Like the notion of sensus fidei, we have a real Catholic concept, misappropriated. The Church is syn-odos (together on the way), due to her historical, pilgrim-like nature. Lumen Gentium presented this in a chapter on the Populi Dei as well as one on eschatology. But this seems to have no bearing on the “synodables.” And to construct an ecclesiology without historical roots and eschatological telos is to moor the barque of Peter at the dock of modernity’s zeitgeist.

What is needed is a more thoughtful, Christocentric language found in Communio theologians like Ratzinger and von Balthasar. They spoke of something similar to synodable“existential pliability.” But the difference? Mary, the heart of the Church. For there are few lacunae more blatant than the absence of Mary in the masculine madness of our synodal age. There is only one who is truly listening, pondering and discerning, because she is grounded in the communio of the Father and the Son.

We have a Catholic sense. Now it’s time for a little more Marian sensibility.

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