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The Church is not a Democracy

The Daily Knight

By Cardinal Gerhard Müller for First Things.

he Synod of Bishops is currently congregating in Rome for a four-week meeting of the Synod on Synodality. A second session will follow in October 2024. The theme of “synodality” is a notion abstracted from the Greek word for a gathering or assembly. Thus the deliberations of Synod-2023 are not about the content of the faith, but about the structures of church life—and the ecclesial attitude or mindset behind those structures.

Many observers think that Pope Francis wants to correct what might be called the hierarchical, or “primacy” element, of church leadership by appealing to the synodal element of leadership allegedly preserved in the East. Since Vatican I, so-called “Rome-critical” theologians have described the Church's emphasis on primacy as excessive. It would be good, here, to be guided by Pope Francis’s predecessor Leo the Great. His pontificate shows that, theologically and pastorally, the principles of primacy and synodality do not oppose each other, but rather mutually condition and support each other.

Leo often gathered the bishops and the Roman presbyters for joint consultations. Calling such a synod was not for the purpose of distilling a majority opinion or establishing a party line. In Leo’s time, a synod served to orient all to the normative apostolic tradition, with the bishops exercising their co-responsibility to ensure that the Church abides in the truth of Christ.

As is well known, theoretical reflection on the principles of being, knowing, and acting is considerably more difficult than talking about concrete things. Thus there is a danger that an assembly of almost 400 people of different origins, education, and competence, engaged in unstructured back-and-forth discussion, will produce only vague and blurred results. Faith can easily be instrumentalized for political agendas, or blurred into a universal religion of the brotherhood of man that ignores the God revealed in Jesus Christ. In the place of Christ, technocrats can present themselves as saviors of humanity. If the Synod is to keep the Catholic faith as its guide, it must not become a meeting for post-Christian ideologues and their anti-Catholic agenda.

Any attempt to transform the Church founded by God into a worldly NGO will be thwarted by millions of Catholics. They will resist to the death the transformation of the house of God into a market of the spirit of the age, for the whole of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in “matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium). We face a globalist program of a world without God, in which a power elite proclaims itself the creator of a new world and ruler of the disenfranchised masses. That program and power elite cannot be countered by a “Church without Christ,” one that abandons the Word of God in Scripture and Tradition as the guiding principle of Christian action, thought, and prayer (Dei Verbum).

The Church proclaims Christ as “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). And in the same Christ, the Church understands herself as the sacrament of the salvation of the world. To be ministers of the Word, ministers of the divine Logos who in Jesus Christ took on our mortal flesh: This is the calling of bishops in apostolic succession. They must keep this calling in mind, both at World Youth Days and at synods of bishops.

In contrast to previous synods, the Synod on Synodality will not address the specific content of the faith. Rather, the theme concerns the formal principle underlying the theory and practice of synods, which is to say the responsibility of the whole episcopate for the doctrine and order of the universal Church. Building on the ecclesial tradition of councils and synods, Vatican II underlines the importance of discharging this responsibility in a conciliar way:

From the very first centuries of the Church bishops, as rulers of individual churches, were deeply moved by the communion of fraternal charity and zeal for the universal mission entrusted to the Apostles. And so they pooled their abilities and their wills for the common good and for the welfare of the individual churches. Thus came into being synods, provincial councils and plenary councils in which bishops established for various churches the way to be followed in teaching the truths of faith and ordering ecclesiastical discipline.
This sacred ecumenical synod earnestly desires that the venerable institution of synods and councils flourish with fresh vigor. In such a way faith will be deepened and discipline preserved more fittingly and efficaciously in the various churches, as the needs of the times require (Christus Dominus 36).

The term “synod” (and its Latin equivalent, “council”) became an ecclesiastical term when bishops gathered in Antioch in 268 to condemn Paul of Samosata as a heretic. In order to counter the false teacher Arius, the first Ecumenical Council (or synod) of Nicaea formulated the dogmatic statement that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, of the same essence with him in the Most Holy Trinity before his incarnation, and is the one and true God with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This was the first of the twenty-one great councils of the Catholic Ch