ROME – Looking ahead to a looming Synod of Bishops on the concept of “synodality,” a lay Venezuelan theologian says the time has come for bishops to grasp one key point: Lay people aren’t just called to implement decisions in the Church made by others, but to make those decisions themselves.

Layman Rafael Luciani, who divides his year between Venezuela and Boston, where he works at Boston College, is one of three Latin American theologians who were chosen as consultants for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the matter of Synodality, to which he hopes to contribute “from a non-clerical vision.”

“If there is no co-governance, there is no understanding of the Church that involves all the baptized,” Luciani told Crux. “Co-governance does not mean that one person makes the final decision and brings it to the table, where others have to understand why I made a decision. It means that a discernment has to be done together, and decisions have to be made together, not explained from the top down.”

Crux spoke with Luciani about the Synod of Bishops, Church reform and the role of the laity on July 16. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

You’re one of three Latin American theologians who will be advisers of the upcoming Synod of Bishops in Rome in 2022, after a new consultation process that’s already started. What does it mean to you?

I’ve been working on the reform of the Church for years, and I see this as an opportunity. The Church that has to be synodal, participative, with the all the people included instead of having little bubbles.

As a lay person, for me it is an opportunity to contribute from a non-clerical vision and from a vision of communities that see the Church and the experience of Christianity in a different way than, say, a bishop.

What do you mean by reforming the Church?

A fundamental element for me is the structures, which have to do with who participates, who makes the decisions and how decisions are made, and, if a decision once made is evaluated, with subsequent accountability. In my experience, in Latin America, this process is very rare. For me, reforming the Church means to make instances that already exist mandatory, such as the diocesan ministry council, across the board.

The bishops have an economic council because it is mandated by the Code of Canon Law, but a diocesan ministry council, which is where laity, religious and priests can be together making a discernment of that diocese, most bishops haven’t installed it. I believe there are structures that have to be taken advantage of in a synodal way, and, on the other hand, to create new synodal structures.

For me, a new synodal structure has to have co-governance. If there is no co-governance, there is no understanding of the Church that involves all the baptized. And co-governance does not mean that one person makes the final decision and brings it to the table where others have to understand why I made a decision. It means that a discernment has to be done together, and decisions have to be made together, not explained from the top down.

A basic question: What does “synodality” mean?

For me, it is a way of understanding relationships in the Church, communication dynamics, and participation in structures at all levels. The difficult thing is that it assumes that if structures are reconfigured, it’s necessary to change seminaries and parishes and models of church governance and functioning.

Synodality is complex and comprehensive; it is not enough to modify a structure, or to put a lay person in a position where there was no lay person before. For me, it is a reconfiguration of the whole Church in its relationships, in its work dynamics, in its structures of participation, and that is why there is resistance. St. Paul VI said it very well in the second session of the Vatican Council II, when he asked participants to look for the most complete definition of Church. Paul VI asked for this, and it’s now becoming an emerging reality under Francis.

That is to say that St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were not synodal?

No, because their pontificates did not assume the ecclesiology of the people of God as the central criterion of the Council. And the U-turn that occurred in 1985 with the extraordinary synod saying that the ecclesiology of hierarchical communion was the fundamental one and that that of the people of God was a model but not the model, changed the hermeneutics of what it means to be Church.

What does it mean to say that the Church has to ‘assume the role of the laity’?

I read a lot that the laity are involved in catechesis or in an economic council, because they have a knowledge that the priest or bishop don’t, but they’re simply executing things. Yet there is no awareness of the laity that goes beyond the ecclesial movements. As a layperson, if I do not belong to an ecclesial movement, where do I turn to in the Church? And if I am not in an ecclesial movement and I go to the parish, but I am not a catechist, where do I go? How do we understand that the laity must participate in all the structures of the Church, not only those of a pastoral or social nature?

Today the laity executes things, but does not participate in the process of taking decisions.

Today, there are synodal paths or processes in several local churches – Germany, Australia, Latin America, Italy. Some see all this as a threat, a looming schism. How can these expectations and fears be managed?

For me, synodality is the culture of consensus that we do not know in the Church today, because we have lost the practice of consensus that we had in the first millennium. The model of the first millennium for me is St. Cyprian, who said that there were two keys to a synodal church: take the advice of the presbyterate and then build consensus with the people. In other words, even if you have the counsel of the priests, if you don’t reach a consensus with the rest of the people of God, you don’t make a decision. That is the culture that we need today in the Church, so I think it is enriching that each local Church has its own process. Because it responds to its theological, pastoral, social, economic and political development.

Not all local churches are the same. In the German case, they are responding to a context with a very advanced theology of ministries. In Latin America, on the other hand, we have a theology without ministries, and this is a pending debt, but with a growing awareness of synodality.

These processes must happen at the local level because there are different problems between one Church and the other at the social, political and theological spheres. Forming consensus means that when a decision was made at the local Church level through synodal processes, that local Church must continue in communion with the other churches and that’s where the opportunity of a universal synod comes in.

And this can be very positive in order to achieve a universal consensus. It does not mean that Rome imposes one line, but that in Rome a consensus is reached with the participation of the local Churches.

There are local Churches which, as a result of population, history and economics, are more powerful than others. Is there not a risk that this “consensus” becomes imposition by the strongest?

The synodal Church is one in which each local Church can develop its own rites and theology, its own way of being Church. Today we do not have this, so when a local Church comes and makes a different proposal, what we see is that this Church wants to impose something on others, when in reality, this local Church is doing what others should also do. It should be normal for a local Church to decide something different.

The consensus is to make sure that this decision does not imply a rupture with the Church of Rome. To be in communion with Rome does not imply being ecclesially and culturally homogeneous, but how we maintain in the minimum – the doctrine, the deposit of faith – that communion that we all profess.

It is not the forms that guarantee communion since they respond to each local Church, for instance, when it comes to ministries.

For example?

There are local churches where today there are practically no priests. In those churches, if the only solution I come up with is bringing missionaries from other places, I’m keeping a pre-conciliar scheme. When the Vatican Council II established the possibility of creating new ministries, it implies looking for alternatives. For example, in the 70’s in Germany and Austria, pastoral agents were created: they are lay people and today they lead parishes. In Latin America we have the reality of a lack of priests, but we don’t take a step to address this.

In the Synod for the Amazon, many bishops voted in favor of requesting a viri probati [married men of proven virtue ordained into the priesthood] for their own diocese. Yet, why did none of them request one thus far?

The fact that the local Church has authority is something new for the bishops, and it’s what Francis seeks for when he speaks of decentralization, where the local Church has doctrinal authority and authority for the creation of ministries, always within the framework of the communion of the Church.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma