So-Called “Synodality” and the Myth of “Hyper Papalism.”

September 13, 2021
Communio Theology
“’Structure,’ which because of its impersonality seems immune to scandal, can become the prime seat of infection.”
Hans Urs von Balthasar, (“The Anti-Roman Attitude,” Communio, Winter, 1981, p. 315)

Like all modern universities, the one I once worked for (DeSales) had a large number of various committees that on paper were involved in the governance of the place.  All faculty were expected to participate in one or more of these committees and you were either appointed to one by the Provost or you were elected through faculty vote.  The thickly layered levels of bureaucracy that such committees created was indeed impressive and gave off an air of true collaborative governance. And one could say that these committees, and their various ad hoc subcommittees, were a kind of “synodal way” that promoted a truly participatory grassroots structure that could act as a hedge against an overzealous and ambitious administration.  However, the reality was that the vast majority of faculty hated the damn committees as inventions of Satan. Personally, I would have rather gouged out my eyes with knitting needles than sit on a committee and if, due to my absence at the first meeting, I had the misfortune of being appointed chair of the committee in absentia, then my only retaliation was to do the job poorly and with open disdain, postponing meeting after meeting until the whole affair fell into desuetude.  Oh… I had tenure, just like bishops do in their own way, and so I did as I pleased, just as the bishops do.  I never got decent pay raises anyway since theologians are treated by Catholic universities as mere icons for a catholicity they only promote at fundraisers, and so I cared not one wit to show them any reciprocal loyalty.  Which is why I finally just refused to be on any committees at all for my last five years there, which prompted the Provost to confront me and remind me that sitting on committees was a contractual requirement, whereupon I pleaded with her to fire me.  Sadly, she did not.  

In reality, the committees did very little and were mostly window dressing intended to give off the illusion of “synodal” participation all the while the Provost just ran things as she wished, manipulating the committees in various ways in order to get her intended results.  She was a reviled figure on campus (what Provost isn’t? Do they have souls?) since she was a WASP cross between Hyacinth Bucket and Dr. Evil. But she almost always ended up getting her way on things since she was a master of procedural legerdemain and could bend any rule in the ever-plastic “faculty handbook” to her nefarious ends. Therefore, she remains to this day in my mind the thickest symbol imaginable of faux democratic proceduralism and its immense capacity for creating opacity, deception, and a sulfurous, autocratic formalism.

Obviously, since I am not a fascist or a believer in an absolute monarchy, I happily embrace the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and support in a general way the value of truly democratic structures of governance that are rooted in a moral and spiritual order.  I am a personalist, a localist, and a Dorothy Day style anarchist with regard to the hegemonic power of the modern Leviathan of the national security “surveillance State.”  But these are ideals that can only be realized in a cultural order that hasn’t been deformed by lies, greed, power, atheism, and the purely stipulative and groundless “morality” of those who seek control through manipulation of public opinion.  And in an era such as ours where “democracy” is now just a fetishized totem for an amoral, technocratic, praxis of “liberation” from all tradition, there is a need, now more than ever, for the Church to stand firm against such idols, against the return of the strong gods, and to give a positive eschatological witness to a form of “democracy” rooted in the communion of saints, both living and dead.  

It is the democracy that only holiness can generate, which is, at the end of the day, the only possible democracy. And, as Lumen Gentium points out, holiness is the task of all Christians and is nothing more than the putting on of the charity of God’s trinitarian love.  As such, holiness is a species of transparency in a theological register. Our task is to become transparent vessels of Christ’s paschal sacrifice, to be, as Balthasar states, like the broken eucharistic bread that is to be “distributed” for the life of the world.  It is a life lived as cruciform kenosis, united to Christ’s self-oblation on the cross, wherein alone is God’s “time” to be found.  This is the secret of the saints who understand that history is not a succession of random events in need of “control” by managerial class elites, but is the very intersection of divine and human freedom in dramatic interplay.  As David L. Schindler puts it:

“Curious men attend closely to the passing of events all about them.  But such men merely drift along on these currents of past and future, remaining on their surfaces. It is the saint who truly penetrates the events of history. And the sense of the saint’s doing so is paradoxical: by apprehending time’s intersection with the timeless.  That is, only through awareness of the eternal dimension in time does the moment of time become truly attended. And how is this awareness achieved?  Only by ‘a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.”  (Heart of the World, Center of the Church, p. 228.)

The Church must be, as Agamben notes, the place where such messianic, eschatological time takes precedence.  It is to be the place where time and eternity intersect in the illuminating fires of divine charity, truly lived.  And no amount of procedural tinkering with “structures” will fix anything if this “time” is absent from the Church.  Therefore, the Church of “synodality” and of “committees” will be a Church of worldly idolatry unless it is first a Church of saints, a Church of mystics, a Church of those who pray.  It will be a Church run by a Provost and not a Pope, and every bit as mendaciously manipulative. It will be a Church of managerial class control only now putatively decentered from Rome and located in a thousand points of opacity.  And it will thereby be the exact opposite of the true democracy that only sanctity can effect.  It will be the opposite of the communion of saints and will instead devolve into the communion of the clandestine.  It will not foster transparency. Indeed, it will be designed to be even less transparent than the current governing structure of the Church.  It will be a Church of the Department of Motor Vehicles whose Byzantine, bureaucratic structures can only be navigated through several layers of phone “menus” followed by being put on hold until the line goes dead.

On paper “synodality” looks like a grand idea.  But just ask any traditional German Catholic how democratically “included” they feel in their Church right now.  The German synodal way is a rigged enterprise with the bishops stacking the deck with progressive, secularized Catholics in order to manipulate the process into concluding exactly what the bishops want them to conclude.  Thus are traditional German Catholics disenfranchised and alienated from the fake democratic processes that have been set in place in order to destroy the true democracy of sanctity.  This is similar to Pope Francis rigging the synod on the family by stuffing the committees with unbelieving eurocrats and by deliberately excluding all theologians from the Pontifical JP II Institute on the family in Rome.  It all had the illusion of participatory democracy but was in fact an exercise in deep manipulation.  It was all a charade.  All of it.  If these are examples of what the Vatican means by “synodality” then I happily return my bus ticket and will instead thumb a ride to the next Star Trek convention where at the very least I will get a purer and less mendacious form of progressive, technocratic, kitsch.  

I am not opposed to true synodality.  But if it is merely a structural answer to what is at root a deep spiritual malaise in modernity, then it will be nothing more than a manufactured artifact of that same modernity and just as toxic.  It will deflect our attention away from repentance and conversion and will in no way foster transparency.  If the Pope must hold another synod of bishops I have a suggestion: how about a synod on the sinfulness of lies and deceptions.  A synod that truly plumbs the depths of what transparency means in a Christological context. A synod that issues anathemas against child rape and those in the clerical ranks who enabled it.  A synod that orders a change in canon law such that it is now forbidden for a bishop to order fresh cut flowers for his residence every day or to charter private plane flights for a lucrative speaking gig at a venue only one hour away by car.  A synod that says Grindr is the antichrist. And instead of holding the synod in Rome, how about holding it in the poorest Catholic diocese in the world, with a closing ceremony where the bishops burn their fancy cassocks, give away their pectoral crosses to the poor, and put on sackcloth and ashes.  

But this will not happen of course.  Instead we will get a synod of anodyne bromides about “procedure” and “subsidiarity” and “lay inclusion” and “local autonomy.”  And they won’t mean a word of it.  How could they when the words themselves are empty shibboleths? And even if they do establish a more “synodal” Church structure, absent true conversion nothing will change.  Does anyone seriously think that if only the Americans had been allowed to choose and appoint their own bishops that a McCarrick or a Bransfield would never have happened??  The mere presence of synodal structures is no guarantee of greater inclusion, democracy, or transparency.  A Church that no longer lives eschatologically is a Church that is incapable of the democracy of sanctity and thus all synodal ways will be the hiding place of a different breed of scoundrels.  Rome won’t be calling the shots. Cupich will.  And Dolan. And Tobin.  And prelates like the prissy and deeply dishonest Donald Wuerl will continue to proliferate.  And they will proliferate worse than ever since your friends in the local episcopacy know where all the hidden safe houses are. In 1982 my seminary roommate was a man whose bishop was McCarrick.  And what he told me was that it was an open secret that McCarrick preyed upon seminarians.  Therefore, it is simply impossible to believe that his brother bishops did not know this as well.  If only we had had a more synodal Church back then!  Clearly none of that would have happened.

In an age dominated by a stifling spirit of bureaucratic technocracy and elitist, managerial control, the prospect of a Church governed by the faceless, clerical Apparatchiks that populate the nooks, crannies, and dark alleyways of episcopal conferences fills me with fear.  Almost certainly such structures will simply parrot the modus operandi of the secular corporate world. It will be a world of lawyers, financial experts, and various subcommittees devoted to maintaining the status quo of bourgeois Catholicism, complete with “polls” and “studies” that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and ending with the production of slick videos with an eye toward marketing strategy.  And if you think that this is an exaggeration, I would humbly submit that you have not been paying attention.

In an age where a degraded sense of “democracy” has now become an idol and whose proponents seek to destroy all traditioning hierarchies, the papacy has always stood out as an irritating provocation.  And that, in my view, is a good thing.  But now the Church herself seeks to remove that last provocation, that last link to a “vertical” Church rooted in an eschatological regime of supernatural grace.  And it seeks to replace it with the humdrum horizontalism that is the deep malaise of our time.  “Ecce sacerdos magnus!” will be replaced with “I now call this meeting to order. Please take a seat.”

And all of this talk of the need for a more “synodal” Church is being generated within the narrative power of a grand myth.  And that is the myth of hyper papalism that is supposedly, according to this narrative, rampant in the contemporary Catholic Church. However, I will argue the opposite since I see more evidence in the modern Church for a total disregard of papal teaching than I do for any hyper devotion to it.  To be sure, modern forms of mass media have created the spectacle of “celebrity popes” with their globetrotting “revivals” attracting millions of participants.  But is this really such a bad thing? In an era where celebrity is worshiped, perhaps it is a good thing that one million young adults flock to a Mass by Pope John Paul rather than to a Marilyn Manson concert.  Perhaps it is a good thing if the news media focus on Benedict or Francis rather than Pierre Trudeau.  Perhaps it is a good thing when the public icon of Catholicism is a man with the infectious, saintly charisma of John Paul, rather than the glad-handing pomposity of so many other “leading” prelates.  Show me another religion with the gripping drama of that white smoke coming out of the Sistine chapel, followed by the never-gets-old moment of “Habemus Papam!”  Furthermore, the fact of the matter is that the Cardinals over the past century have gifted us with some brilliant and saintly popes and there is a tendency to idolize them too much I don’t really care.  Truly, I don’t care. As a young seminarian I was existentially gripped and deeply inspired by the power of John Paul’s witness, and as a professor of theology I witnessed hundreds and hundreds of young Catholics who were deeply influenced by his theology of the body as they sought to negotiate the horrors of our pornified culture.  How stupid would I have been if I had told them all: “Enough of this papalotry! Now run off all of you and read some Hans Kung!”  Nor has all this public adulation for the various popes diminished respect owed to other areas of Church life.  It isn’t a zero sum game and the popularity of the Pope actually increased lay devotion to the local churches. Nobody sat around saying “I follow John Paul but to heck with supporting my parish.”  I know of not one Catholic who replaced the statue of Jesus on a shelf in their living room with a glow in the dark, bobblehead Pope.  

And yet, despite all of this focus on the papacy over the last century or so, the fact remains that there is a distinction to be made between a public respect and reverence for the Pope, and actually following his teachings.  Forget the polls and statistics and focus instead on the testimony of anyone who has been involved in either pastoral ministry or academic theology.  They will tell you that there is a deep disconnect between the filial affection showed to the Pope and actually following the Church’s teachings, especially in matters of human sexuality.  There is also the demonstrable fact that the Catholic theological academy was then, as it remains now, thoroughly in the grip of the progressive wing of the Church.  I remember well when Ex Corde Ecclesiae came out and all of the various Catholic theological societies condemned it and vowed to ignore it.  And most bishops as well greeted the document with a giant yawn and just granted the “mandatum” carte blanche to every theologian in his diocese.  The anti-Roman tenor of these societies was no more apparent than when Rome would issue one of its rare censures to a theologian and the various theological groups immediately rushed forward to grant prestigious awards to the “courageous” theologian who dared to challenge the Vatican. And now Pope Francis too is experiencing the limits of papal authority in the real world as numerous bishops have thumbed their noses at the disciplinary prescriptions of Traditionis Custodes.  And do we even need to bring up the wholesale rejection of Humanae Vitae and how the response to it virtually destroyed the last decade of Paul’s papacy?

Hyper papalism? If it exists at all it exists as a mere emotional enthusiasm for a respected religious persona, but it most certainly does not exist in the form of an exaggerated deference to Roman teaching.  There are indeed some ecclesiastical functions that Rome currently controls, such as episcopal appointments and liturgical translations, that perhaps could be done on a local level instead.  But I doubt such structural changes really matter.  If here in the United States the revised English translation of the Novus Ordo, instigated and controlled by Rome, had instead been done by the local prelate in charge of such things, Bishop Trautman, we would have gotten a much, much worse translation than the one Rome gave us, despite its flaws.  And I have had too many experiences with American bishops who are, quite simply, mediocre dullards, to place any hope in such purely structural changes.  It is Rome that has held the Catholic Church together through the tumult of the past centuries.  It has frequently made horrible decisions and it has flubbed many projects.  But in the end it was the See of Peter that held the Church together against the powerful centrifugal forces that were threatening to rip it apart.  Forces that did rip Anglicanism and many mainline Protestant churches apart.  Furthermore, it is precisely the transnational fulcrum of the papacy that aided local bishops in their resistance to political forces that threatened to swallow-up the Church and turn it into an adjunct of localized, courtly power.  

And as for the Orthodox I can only say that they do have a form of synodal governance and it works for them to a degree.  But let us not wax overly poetic about them either.  I say a big “no thanks” to any model of ecclesial governance that eventuates in the kind of ethnocentric balkanization that has plagued Orthodoxy for centuries.  Furthermore, lacking the Roman center has merely led them down the path of choosing different masters in the various caeseropapist arrangements of the national churches.  This fact has only exacerbated the ethnic and nationalistic rivalries between the various Orthodox communions.  For example, in 2016 the Orthodox attempted to hold a “grand and great” Council of the Orthodox Church which did finally meet on the island of Crete. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church, owing largely to disputes over the Ukraine, chose not to attend or to participate in the Council on any level.  Which is unfortunate since the Russian Orthodox Church is roughly one third of the total population of Orthodoxy.  It would be the equivalent of the entire Western hemisphere of Catholics choosing to boycott the Second Vatican Council. Therefore, if that is a model for “synodalism” I once again gladly return the bus ticket.

There are also those who say that the problem with a papacy that has plenary powers over doctrine and discipline is that what Rome gives under one Pope it can easily take away with another Pope.  We saw that with the recent ill-advised motu proprio.  But this is a red herring since the same thing could be said about synodal forms of governance.  What one synod gives, another later synod can take away.  But wait, they will say, it will be harder to do since it isn’t just one person deciding but rather a group.  However, in many ways group decisions are more opaque and multifocal, giving to the governing members of the group a certain bureaucratic anonymity and the ability to wrap themselves with the mantle of “policies” and “procedures” that have been “democratically enacted.” I am not buying it. And for those who think episcopal conferences will make better decisions than the Pope and that they will have only the best interests of the local faithful at heart I just have one thing to say: the USCCB.  

What I am trying to say in all of this is that the recent push for a more “synodal” Catholic Church strikes me as an ideologically driven movement rather than as a genuine response to an exaggerated hypertrophy of the papacy that I do not think actually exists.  The mere fact that there are elements of papal governance that could stand with some reform does not vitiate the fact that true papal authority in the modern world is thin indeed.  As Pope Benedict noted in an interview while still Pontiff, his real authority as Pope extended no further than the door to his papal apartment.  Therefore,  I view the recent incoherent gibberish issuing from Rome about synodality as an effort to reduce that authority even further and to turn the Catholic Church into a Rorschach inkblot test where the various episcopal conferences will be free to read into Catholicism whatever the prevailing zeitgeist says.  The Germans have actually done us a favor by exposing the charade for what it is: an incoherent mess with no real concern for truth so long as the desired goal of a Catholicism conformed to modernity is achieved.  In that regard, I consider the recent moves for a more synodal Church not so much as an attempt at decentralizing Roman authority, which does have its merits, but rather as an attempt at attenuating it even further to the point of virtual extinction.  The goal, it seems to me, is a Rome that is little more than Canterbury – – a toothless symbol of unity that has no real power to hold the centrifugal forces at bay.  The goal, in other words, is not a Church that looks more like the East but a Church that is more Protestant.  

I could be wrong in all of this of course and I truly hope that I am.  But I don’t think I am wrong. My thirty some years in the Catholic academy convinces me that “synodality” is merely code for doing an end run around Roman authority in order to implement an altogether different vision of the historic Catholic faith. The Rhine does indeed flow into the Tiber.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

Related Posts

Subscribe to the Blog

Thank you! Your submission has been received!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form