The upcoming synod on synodality is getting attention from the Nervous Right in some places. Prep document here. My cursory glance saw nothing to indicate a doctrinal earthquake was planned for Rome in 2023. Just the coffee-n-donut post-liturgy gossip mill, I guess.
Synods of the Catholic Church have been a regular occurrence since Vatican II. In the category of “Ordinary,” the upcoming synod is the sixteenth. Here’s the whole listing:
In 1967, the topic was Preserving and Strengthening the Catholic Faith. No particular document followed on its heels, but the synod bishops did authorize an International Theological Commission and directed that the 1917 Code of Canon Law be revised. That project was finally accomplished in 1983. That’s a lot of writing.
Four years later, the discussion centered on The Ministerial Priesthood and Justice in the World. Justice in the World was the follow-up document, of which I’ve heard little to nothing.
Starting in 1974, the pope always assembled ordinary synod input into an apostolic exhortation. For the hierarchically minded, these documents rank third behind constitutions and encyclical letters. They confine themselves to the topic of the meeting, but as we’ve seen recently they can be flashpoints for worry and protest among Catholics who disagree.
There no question in my mind the most important of post-conciliar synodal topics is “Evangelization in the Modern World,” and one of the most important documents ever written outside of a Church council was its fruit, Evangelii nuntiandi.
Catechesis in Our Time began as the last synod with Pope Paul VI and his second successor penned the 1979 summary Catechesi Tradendae. Catechesis in many regions has been a particular strength of the post-Vatican II era. Our problem has been less content and more the lack of a supporting culture, especially in “older” Christian nations. A great message is not the problem; the method of delivery and the people’s receptivity may be.
“The Christian Family” was a topic dear to Pope John Paul II and he followed the 1980 synod with Familiaris consortio. Important content, to be sure. But again, a struggle in reception, even among Catholics who admired the pope of the time as a leadership figure.
In 1983, the bishops discussed “Penance and Reconciliation in the Mission of the Church.” These times were notable for some restrictions on one of the sacramental forms of the Rite of Penance. See Reconciliatio et paenitentia for details, and an insightful look at sin in the modern world and what the Church has to offer to its own and to the wider world. Even Christians resist the insistence on their faults at times. Reading this document closely, one can’t help but reflect on the failures of the hierarchy, individually and as a system within the Church. Reading it in light of sex, financial, and cover-up scandals suggests an easy route from the bishops of the early eighties when perhaps lay people might have written an alternative document to follow up, “Physicians, heal yourselves.”
From here, a series of synods, the seventh through number ten looked at different categories of believers. The year, topic, and Pope John Paul II documents are, in order:
- 1987, The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World, Christifideles laici.
- 1990, The Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day, Pastores dabo vobis.
- 1994, The Consecrated Life and its Role in the Church and in the World, Vita consecrata.
- 2001, The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World, Pastores gregis.
The new papacy of Benedict XVI could be said to focus on the two major elements of liturgy with the vector of the Church’s mission:
- 2005, The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church, Sacramentum caritatis.
- 2008, The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Verbum Domini.
Pope Francis inherited the writing duties after 2012’s 13th synod, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith–another “mission” topic. He penned Evangelii gaudium, its summary and follow-up.
In 2015, the topic was The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World. Amoris laetitia followed up the following Spring.
By the way, the so-called “special” synod on the Amazon region was the eleventh in a series which has focused on the Church particular regions in the world. These were annual affairs in the mid- to late-90s under Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict oversaw 2009 (Africa, the second time) and the Middle East in 2010. The gathering that produced Querida Amazonia was the first in nine years.
This brings us to the effort which will span from next month to Fall 2023, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.” Where that will lead, who knows?