ROME – One test of a given thinker or leader’s impact is the ability to shape language. Karl Marx, for instance, gave us “the bourgeoisie” as an all-encompassing bogeyman of modern capitalism; Ronald Reagan gave us the “evil empire” as a slogan of opposition to the Soviet state Marx’s thought helped to create.

By that standard, Pope Francis has had quite a run over the past seven years, tweaking and adding to Catholic vocabulary at several key points. Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in the pope’s ability to shift the debate over how authority is exercised in Catholicism from a contest over “collegiality,” the preferred term in the 50 years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), to one about “synodality,” which is his preferred argot.

The problem with “synodality” as a focus for discussion, however, is that it seems to mean widely differing things to different people.

At one end of the spectrum, critics denounce it as a kind of code for putting fixed points of doctrine and practice up for a vote, thus catering to the zeitgeist rather than the truth. At the other end, some enthusiasts appear to see it as a contest to see who can shout “amen” the loudest whenever the pope speaks.

Most normal folk, naturally, don’t recognize themselves in either of those extremes, and are often just a bit confused about what exactly Francis is talking about when he extols the virtues of synodality.

As it happens, we got some clarity on that recently, even if mostly in the form of a papal via negativa, meaning what synodality isn’t more than what it is. The contribution came during a three-hour meeting last month with bishops from religion 11 in the United States, which includes California, Hawaii and Utah.

I heard about it on Saturday in Anaheim, California, where I’m giving a couple of talks over the weekend at the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the largest yearly gathering of Catholics in North America. It came up during a conversation I recorded with Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron for his Word on Fire Institute, where I also serve as a fellow.

Barron was asked about the ad limina experience, which was his first, and he began by talking about how much it meant to him to say Mass on the first day of the trip below the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, where tradition holds the remains of St. Peter are located, and then to be ushered soon afterwards into a meeting with Pope Francis, Peter’s successor today.

Barron said Pope Francis gave the bishops from region XI slightly over three hours of face time in a room in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. While bishops from region XI who know Spanish spoke to the pope in his language, his replies were exclusively in Italian and delivered through an interpreter.

(Barron laughingly said that while the pope looked like he could go another three hours without breaking a sweat, the translator was wiped out by the end.)

Among the various points the bishops raised with the pope, according to Barron, was the question of how exactly he understands the meaning of “synodality.” The concern was inspired, he said, by his experience of trying to get a clear sense of it during a 2018 Synod of Bishops on Young People, plus watching contemporary developments in Germany and a “synodal process” there which critics worry will end up in a sort of doctrinal free-for-all.

As Barron tells the story, Francis pointedly told the US bishops that “synodality” does not mean a parliament or a democratic vote. The real protagonist in a Synod of Bishops, the pope said, isn’t any of the bishops or other participants taking part, but the Holy Spirit.

As Barron would later point out in a blog entry he penned on the visit, that’s fully in alignment with traditional Catholic understandings of power in the Church. In a secular democracy, power flows up, from the consent of the governed; in the Church, power instead flows down, from the sovereign will of God as discerned and mediated by teaching authorities. In other words, “synodality” isn’t about what bishops or other stakeholders want. It’s about the entire Church, beginning with the bishops, trying to figure out what it is God wants facing a particular set of challenges.

Those are things the pope has said before, of course, including in his remarks to basically every Synod of Bishops on his watch, but it’s still instructive that he repeated them with such emphasis.

Here’s how Barron summed it up:

“Whatever Pope Francis means by ‘synodality,’ he quite clearly doesn’t mean a process of democratization, or putting doctrine up for a vote,” Barron wrote. “He means, it seems to me, a structured conversation among all of the relevant ecclesial players—bishops, priests, and laity—for the sake of hearing the voice of the Spirit.”

Is that working?

The jury’s probably still out, though Barron did report one interesting indication: Under Francis, he said, gone are the days when an ad limina visit to a Vatican department would mean a cardinal walking into a room, lecturing (and sometimes scolding) bishops for 45 minutes in Italian, and then walking out. Heads of departments these days, he said, clearly have gotten the memo that they’re supposed to listen as well as talk.

On another note, it’s also interesting that Barron said he detected none of the antagonism towards the US or Americans that popular narratives about Francis sometimes suggest. Indeed, he said, the pope went out of his way to thank American bishops, saying he knew that they’ve been forced to carry much of the weight on the abuse scandals and wanting them to know he’s grateful.

None of that, of course, entirely settles the confusion over “synodality,” and none of it is likely to recalibrate the thinking of those who’ve already reached hard and fast opinions on Francis. Still, it’s a useful data point, suggesting that no matter what cookie-cutter framework to which one tries to assign this maverick pope, he remains continually elusive.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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