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The Synodal Path to a German National Church (7): Francis’s Letter

The Synodal Path to a German National Church (7): Francis’s Letter

After the Council

The notion of the People of God seemed to be the keystone of the new ecclesiology, but its development was laborious. The conciliar doctrine is mixed, and some, like Cardinal Godfried Danneels, primate of Belgium, regretted that the concept of the People of God is “ideologically defined.[1]” Theologians then turned to the notion of communion. It was the turning point of the 1985 Synod that affirmed that “the ecclesiology of communion is the central and fundamental concept in the documents of the Council.” The Synod convened for the twenty year anniversary of the closing of Vatican II undertook to explain in what this communion consisted.

The ecclesiological reinterpretation of the 1985 Synod opened a “new post-conciliar period.” Indeed, on the eve of this important meeting, the International Theological Commission (ITC) had produced a long document on ecclesiology in order to regain control of the most extreme interpretations. While the notions of the People of God and Church-as-sacrament have been very widely developed, that does not appear to be the case with communion. However, it was redefined.

Fr. Benoît-Dominique de La Soujeole explained it: “The ecclesiology of communion, as it stands today, assumes an old and solid tradition. But it carries with it a new requirement, in the moral order, the tradition of which has not been realized—the demands of freedom as self-determination—and this should carry previously unsuspected consequences in ecclesial life. The emphasis placed today 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. This 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 was not a point of arrival but a point of departure, and it seems clear to us that the reflection on this subject is only in its infancy.” Thirty years later, reflection has matured.

Synodality According to Francis

In a text presenting the pope’s thoughts, the CTI wrote in 2018: “the emergence of a new climate in ecumenical relations with the other churches and ecclesial communities, and a more careful discernment of the requests advanced by the modern conscience in terms of the participation of all citizens in the management of public affairs, pushes for a new and deeper experience and presentation of the mystery of the Church in its intrinsic synodal dimension.”

Francis insists on synodality at all levels, which he reduces to three: particular churches; the provinces and ecclesiastical regions; the universal Church. The pope explains in detail the “communion organizations” which allow each level to realize the “synodal” Church: these played a large part of in the recent creations such as the Pastoral Councils, Episcopal Conferences or the Synods of Bishops. This multiplication leads to a profusion of consultations, exchanges, reports, sessions. The goal is to arrive at a consensus, brought back unduly to the sensus Ecclesiae.

This dynamic also leads to a voting culture. Admittedly, determination by vote has always existed in the Church, whether it is to elect the pope, to make a decision at general or private councils, or to choose superiors in religious orders and institutes. But it was limited. Voting today has become the instrument of communion. Whether it is advisory or deliberative, the vote is essential to the synodal customs, of which it is an obligatory part. Even if we deny it, communion slowly but surely leads to a profound democratization of ecclesial institutions.

Fr. de la Soujeole rightly said in 1998: “If we want to give rights to the social nature of ecclesial communion, we cannot refuse to consider the current demands for democracy in the life of the Church…Among the evolutions verified as positive, the well-understood democratic ideal can help to better understand—and thereby better live—the requirements of theological communion in terms of participation, responsibility, and dialogue.”

The Synodal Path

The Pope defines synodality by his etymology: walking together—he speaks of a Pilgrim Church. He also uses the expression “synodal path,” which explains the choice of this term by Cardinal Marx and DBK to conduct their business. In good theology, it should be said that unity among Catholics is by faith and charity in the grace of Christ. The divine truth is transmitted by the hierarchy who receives the powers of Christ to spread it throughout the body of the Church.

The synodal expression, for its part, would like to see the truth of the whole People of God, the subject of the sensus fidei, suddenly appear and manifest itself as a communion secreted by the whole Church. The Pope recalls, moreover, that he is not above the Church, but in the Church. Admittedly, the union of the faithful with Christ and with each other is mysterious, but the path taken by synodality makes it more and more resemble a hypostatized democracy, in other words, a false identification of the principles of modern democracy with the Church.

In Francis’s Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany there is a double message. The first is explicit. It concerns Germany’s own difficulties and the temptation to think that problems can be solved by a change or improvement of the organization. This would be the illusion of the “technology paradigm,” denounced in the encyclical Laudato si’. The answer is synodality, which the Pope links to the sensus Ecclesiae and to evangelization.

The second message is implicit. The “synodal path” is a way to become: “What this means concretely and how it will develop is surely still under study.” It is a discreet way to support the German Bishops’ Conference. Indeed, the pope cannot ignore the content of the ZdK’s declarations, and the stated goal of holding a synod with a majority of laypeople to make decisions that are “binding.”

This kind of synod is ignored by the current canon law. Of course, such experiments have already been tried in Holland and, to a lesser extent, in Würzburg. But Rome seemed to have succeeded in curbing these experiences. The ITC in 2017, and Francis himself in 2018, had brought back the institutional frameworks of the synod, but these frameworks are outdated here. In his letter of June 29, 2019, Francis does not say a word and encourages the Germans in citing Fr. Congar, the source of “secular theology,” condemned, however, by Pius XII: “The present questions, as well as the answers that we ask, require, to achieve a healthy aggiornamento, ‘a long fermentation in the life and the collaboration of an entire people for years.[2]’”


There is clearly complicity between the Pope and Cardinal Marx, who happens to be one of his principal advisers, a member of C6, the group of cardinals in charge of the reform of the curia. Far from worrying about the storm that threatens beyond the Alps, Francis encourages the wind of reforms, while being careful to point out some of the dangers. The synodal path is a real opportunity to realize, in a real life experience, the great principle of synodality.

In one of his speeches, Pope Francis used the image of an inverted pyramid to explain the place of authority in the Church. From which it must be concluded that the Synodal Church is a Church that has been turned on its head

[1] Introductory report of the second extraordinary synod for the 20th anniversary of the Council, 1.

[2] Yves Congar, Véritable et fausse réforme dans l’Eglise (True and False Reform in the Church), p. 259.

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