WASHINGTON, D.C. – With the Jan. 11 release of the official English translation of the Final Document of the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment, the topic of “synodality” is once again being discussed.

The document has an entire section on synodality, saying the Holy Spirit is calling the Church “to practice synodality as a way of being and acting, promoting the participation of all the baptized and of people of good will, each according to his age, state of life and vocation.”

Despite this emphasis, there is a lot of debate about what “synodality” means for the Church in the West. In the Eastern Churches, the synod is an important law-making body, but in the Synod of Bishops is a purely advisory body for the universal Church, under the direction of the pope.

“Synodality is a word with many nuances, expressing important ideas about the Church,” said Msgr. Paul McPartlan, the Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at The Catholic University of America.

McPartlan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster and served for two terms on the International Theological Commission (2004-2009, 2009-2014), and has been a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church since 2005.

He told Crux that in the history of the Church, both papal primacy and synodality have been needed.

“One of the achievements of recent Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is the recognition that synodality needs primacy in order to function, and that primacy likewise needs synodality at all levels of the Church’s life, local, regional, and universal,” McPartlan said.

Below is the full interview with McPartlan with Jonathan Lewis.

Lewis: What is synodality?

McPartlan: Synodality is a word with many nuances, expressing important ideas about the Church. The word may not be so familiar to us as Catholics, but the ideas are, or should be, following Vatican II. Most broadly, synodality refers to the corporate life of communion that unites all the members of the body of Christ, each of whom has gifts and a role to play in the life and mission of the Church. More specifically, it refers to the Church’s corporate decision-making, especially by bishops in councils or synods, which is where the word comes from.

Intriguingly also, “synod” literally means “journeying together,” which reminds us of Vatican II’s teaching on the Church as the pilgrim people of God. So we might say that synodality expresses the fact that the Church is a pilgrim people, journeying together and regularly taking counsel together on the way, led by the pope and the bishops.

What role do lay people have in this synodal process?

Lay people are an integral part of the synodal process, because they are not just passive recipients of the ministrations of the clergy, they are the holy people of God, anointed by the Holy Spirit, as the New Testament teaches (e.g.1 Jn 2:20, 27). Based on that teaching, Vatican II spoke of the “sensus fidei”, the instinct that the faithful have for the truth of the Gospel (see Lumen Gentium 12). That doesn’t alter the fact that the pope and the bishops are the Church’s proper teachers. However, it does mean that the laity rightly have a role to play in the discernment and reception of the truth of the Gospel. That’s what John Henry Newman meant when he spoke of consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine. Pope Francis wants the whole synodal process to start at the local level with consultation between bishops and their people, so that the bishops can bring the thoughts, concerns, and insights of their people with them when they come to the formal Synod assembly, which is properly a gathering of the pope and the bishops.

Some have raised concern that synodality turns the Church into a democracy.

The Church is not a democracy. The Church is the people of God led by the Spirit of God, and synodality recognizes that all of its members, both clergy and lay, have a Spirit-given role to play in its life. This is very different from a democratic process of voting and taking the majority vote. This is a thoroughly spiritual process in which the Church tries to listen to the voice of the living God, and to hear “what the spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 2:29). To think that that is the job purely of the clergy and that the laity have no part to play is clericalism. Synodality is the antidote to clericalism.

When does synodality begin in the life of the Church?

It’s been present right from the beginning, with the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. It seems that there has always been an instinct within the people of God that when there are serious challenges we come together to deliberate and decide what to do. Most particularly, the leaders of the Church come together. As Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). There’s an instinct to come together that’s essential to Christianity. That’s why Pope Francis speaks of “the Church’s ancient and very rich synodal tradition.” The history of the early Church is indeed full of local councils of bishops. St. Cyprian was involved in such councils in North Africa in times of persecution. The great councils, known as the ecumenical councils, began in the 4th century when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. Councils then began to take a more elaborate shape. The Catholic Church counts twenty one ecumenical councils up to Vatican II.

Your colleague at The Catholic University of America, C.C. Pecknold, wrote an article in First Things titled “Synodality Upended” in which he says: “It is important to understand that ‘synodality’ applies models of governance derived from Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology to the Latin Church, whose fundamental governing structure is Petrine rather than Synodal.” What is the relationship between the Petrine governing office and synodality?

Great care is needed in speaking of these matters. Those twenty-one ecumenical councils recognized by the Catholic Church show that synodality is intrinsic to Catholic ecclesiology. Moreover, the papacy is essential to that synodality. Although all of the ecumenical councils of the first millennium were actually called by the emperor and not attended by the pope, the involvement of the pope, often by means of legates, was always necessary, and all of the ecumenical councils of the second millennium have actually been called by the pope.

Since the tragic split between Christian West and East, often dated to 1054, primacy has had great prominence among Catholics in the West, as has synodality among Orthodox in the East, but the very history of the Church shows that the two rightly go together. One of the achievements of recent Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is the recognition that synodality needs primacy in order to function, and that primacy likewise needs synodality at all levels of the Church’s life, local, regional, and universal.

Already in the New Testament, St. Peter was the head of the twelve Apostles, but he was also one of the twelve himself. He was never the sole governing figure in the Church. With that model, Vatican II taught that the pope is both a member of the college of bishops (as bishop of Rome) and its head. In union with him and never apart from him, the college has supreme and full authority over the Church (LG 22). In 1965, at the end of the council, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that collegiality gives us the proper context in which to understand the Petrine ministry in the Church, and also that in order to understand collegiality we have to place it in the wider context of the communion of the Church as a whole.

What did St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict think about synodality? Is Pope Francis in continuity with his predecessors or inventing something new?

Pope St. Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops at the end of the Second Vatican Council as a new organ of synodality in the Catholic Church, continuing, in a certain way, the synodal interaction that the pope and the bishops of the world had enjoyed at the council. The Synod has convened regularly since 1967, and it flourished under Pope St. John Paul II who held both ordinary and extraordinary assemblies of the Synod as well as multiple regional or continental assemblies. Pope Benedict continued in exactly the same direction, and Pope Francis has further energized the Synod by wanting to make sure that it is embedded in the people of God as a whole, drawing fully on the insights, wisdom, and holiness of the people of God, as I mentioned earlier, because then synodality is stronger.

More technically, we should note that Vatican II was a deliberative assembly which voted and made decisions. The Synod of Bishops was set up simply as a consultative body to help the Pope in the exercise of his Petrine ministry, so it was not really a means of exercising collegiality in the full sense of Vatican II’s teaching. Pope John Paul said in 1983: “Perhaps the collegial pastoral responsibility can be expressed in the Synod even more fully.” That is certainly a goal of Pope Francis.

Some Catholics are concerned that synodality is a sneaky way to allow doctrinal differences in the Church by prioritizing local Church decisions through a decentralized enforcement of doctrine. Might it lead to a lack of clarity?

To suggest that synodality is a sneaky way to allow certain things is to start with a hermeneutic of suspicion, which is surely the wrong attitude. We are talking about trying to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church. That’s the proper framework.

We must also remember that there is an important principle of subsidiarity in the Church. There are certain matters in which the Church must be absolutely united, for example in the fundamental tenets of our faith. That doesn’t mean to say that everything is uniform and identical throughout the Church. Vatican II spoke of the “catholicity” of the Church being shown in the sharing of gifts that happens between different parts of the Church, different regions and local churches (LG 13). It also said that the Church can be thought of, in a sense, as a body of (local) churches. The council indeed renewed the New Testament perception that local Christian communities are local churches (LG 26), each of which has its own characteristics, its own gifts, and its own insights, which it shares with others in a great tapestry of faith. The Church is not a uniform community all marching in lockstep.

The unity of the Church is a unity in a rich diversity. There is unity in the essentials of our faith, our life, and our hope, and there is a great and welcome richness in the living of that faith among different peoples, different cultures, and in different parts of the world.

Why do you think Pope Francis is emphasizing synodality so much? What is his goal?

I think that Pope Francis has a profound sense that the Church is led by the Holy Spirit and that we must therefore listen to the voice of the Spirit. He’s influenced by his Jesuit tradition which emphasizes the importance of always striving to discern the voice and the call of God. In its constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, which is perhaps the central document of Vatican II, the council began by describing the fundamental attitude of the Church: “hearing the word of God with reverence.” That is the fundamental posture of the Church. The document later says that God “uninterruptedly converses with the spouse of his beloved Son” (DV 8), and of course the all-important question that then arises is: are we listening? That is a deeply existential question. If the Church is not listening to the voice of the living God, it has ceased to be the Church. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus promised at the Last Supper that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into the fullness of truth (Jn 16:13). Once again, the immediate question is: are we open to that leading? Do we want to be led? Are we listening to the Spirit here and now? Do we really believe that God is speaking today to the Church to guide it in its life and mission, and if so are we listening for the voice of the living God? Synodality as a method and a process is a structured way for the Church to listen to the voice of the living God.

Jonathan Lewis is Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns at the Archdiocese of Washington. He served as an auditor at the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on Young People.