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Hot-button topics may get public attention at the Vatican synod, but a more fundamental issue for the Catholic Church is at the heart of debate

Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality is attempting to move the church toward a more dialogue-based model of authority, a scholar of Catholicism explains.

Delegates attend the opening of the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Oct. 4, 2023, at the Vatican. Vatican Media via Vatican Pool/Getty Images

High-ranking Catholics from across the globe have converged on the Vatican, where a landmark initiative is underway that will shape the future of the Catholic Church.

Cardinals, bishops, priests and lay Catholics, both men and women, are meeting Oct. 4-29, 2023, as part of the Synod on Synodality: an effort Pope Francis launched in 2021 to generate dialogue among Catholics.

More than two weeks into the synod’s first global assembly, participants are largely keeping quiet. Opening the synod, Francis called for a “fasting of the public word,” encouraging delegates to focus inward and treat discussions as private.

The goal of the three-year synod process is to consult with everyday Catholics worldwide about their concerns and experiences, guiding leaders’ decision-making as the church enters its third millennium amid new challenges.

Controversial issues such as women’s roles in ministry and LGBTQ+ people’s place in the church dominate synod-related headlines, and are presumably being discussed. Often overlooked, however, is an even more fundamental issue: what power and authority should look like in the church.

Far-reaching process

The synod began with listening sessions at parishes, Catholic universities and other Catholic settings across the globe. All dioceses – the geographic regions into which the Catholic Church divides its ministry – were urged to hold such sessions.

In theory, these discussions offered an opportunity for all Catholics to have their voices heard at the highest levels of the church. Key themes were passed up to local bishops, then synthesized into documents that informed consultations by a national-level assembly, and, in turn, the global assembly.

In some places, however, local leaders have not promoted the synod or have explicitly criticized it.

Clericalism vs. dialogue

Several topics on the table have garnered public attention, such as some Catholics’ hopes to allow married priests or women deacons. Arguably the most important issue, however, is authority.

Synod delegates at the Vatican leave the first meeting of the General Assembly on Oct. 5, 2023.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Conservative factions yearn for “clear teaching” on doctrine and strong centralized authority – even as, ironically, they resist the authority of the current pope, whom they criticize as an undisciplined leader or as too liberal.

Progressive factions, on the other hand, often seem to yearn for more democratic decision-making, akin to the independent authority local congregations have in some Protestant denominations.

In fact, as a scholar of the public role of the Catholic Church, I suspect both groups are likely to be disappointed.

The church strongly supports democracy in the secular world. Internally, however, Catholicism preserves a deep tradition of governance rooted in apostolic succession: the teaching that bishops’ authority descends directly from the Apostles of Jesus Christ. In other words, the legitimacy of their leadership stems from this lineage, rather than a democratic process.

The synod process aims to move toward a more dialogue-based model for how the authority of priests and bishops should work, within this apostolic understanding of Catholic authority.

Francis v. ‘clericalism’

Catholics and many non-Catholics tend to understand the church as a kind of vertically integrated corporation, where unquestioned authority flows from the top.

Waves of clergy sex abuse scandals, in particular, have discredited this model in many people’s eyes, and Francis appears to be moving Catholicism away from this style of leadership. He has repeatedly criticized “clericalism”: the tendency to center the faith on priests and obedience to their authority.

“To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism,“ he wrote in a 2018 letter addressed to “the people of God.” Five years later, in a note to priests in Rome, he described clericalism as “a sickness” that leads to authority “without humility but with detached and haughty attitudes.”

Instead, Francis is advancing a model in which bishops exercise their authority through continuous dialogue with the faithful, the Catholic intellectual tradition and the wider world. This model views the church as constantly evolving, even as it forever affirms core truths.

Sociologists call these types of models “participative hierarchy.” One aspect of this more responsive and dynamic model of authority has been prominently on display during the general assembly: Nuns and laypeople, both men and women, are full participants, with voice and vote in all matters coming before the synod.

Delegates attend the synod’s first meeting, which includes religious sisters, on Oct. 5, 2023.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

While this sounds moderate, it challenges the core understanding of authority among clericalist Catholics, who argue that such reforms would go against tradition. However, Catholicism has used both models of authority in different periods.

Politics and the pope

The controversy surrounding the synod also reflects a simple fact: The Catholic Church in the U.S. is as polarized as secular American society.

A decade ago, at the very start of Francis’ papacy, he was seen as a moderate conservative. But he quickly signaled openness to the modern world, in part by criticizing two qualities as anathema to Catholic teachings. First, clericalism, with its tendency to treat clergy as elite or above accountability. Second, a backward-looking nostalgia for some earlier time when a perfect Catholicism supposedly existed – a stance that Francis sees as undercutting Catholicism here and now.

As of 2021, about 4 in 5 U.S. Catholics had a positive opinion of Francis. Among clergy and Catholic leaders, however, he has some vocal detractors.

While Francis has embraced constructive debate, he has pointedly removed from authority some clergy, including Americans, whom he sees as actively undermining his direction for the church. More recently, he accused U.S. conservatives of “backwardness” and of replacing spirituality with ideology.

For now, the synod moves forward despite the divides. There will be another synod assembly in Rome in October 2024, after which final recommendations will be made and the pope will decide what to put into action.

Beyond whatever particular changes this synod assembly may or may not recommend, its deeper impact will lie in how Francis’ vision of Catholic authority fares. In the long term, I would argue, this is where the Catholic future will be most shaped. The world’s 1.4 billion Catholics will be watching.

Richard Wood serves (pro bono) on the national governing Board of Faith in Action, a non-profit network that engages in training leaders in non-partisan faith-based community organizing. He consults for The Fetzer Institute, a non-profit foundation that provides grants to advance spiritually-informed work. Neither organization is positioned to benefit directly from this article, but work on distantly related terrain.



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