A name for a big issue

Since September 2021 I have been listening to a series of faithful who responded to the questionnaire of the Synod on Synodality.

I hear a clear tenor resonating from all aspects of the project: the Church is experiencing a controversial battle between two “camps” or “paradigms”.

Already the names of these camps are a problem. Most often they are labelled “traditional-conservative” and “liberal-progressive”. I was obviously born in the “liberal-progressive” camp. But confusingly I feel very traditional and conservative about many topics, and I do not perceive faith as something “liberal” (meaning an individual choice).

I personally became aware of this battle about 20 years ago when I moved from Belgium to Estonia. Since then I have written some fervent blog entries against “the other camp”. There were times when I wrote “If this is the Christian faith, then I am not a Christian!” [2] But many of these blog entries caused harm to others and increased my suffering. I did not find any satisfying solution.

The first step in every dialogue is to clearly define what we are talking about. We cannot fix a problem by refusing that it exists.

I believe that we do have a problem. A fundamental one. There are two “types” of Christians, who do have very opposing understandings of the Gospel, leading to fundamentally opposing views about how the Church should “live and operate”. And these views do exclude each other, there is no way to embrace both. Jesus refers to such situations when he says “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13), or “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12,49)

That’s why I was fascinated when discovering the word “synodal”, a neologism that seems to be the right name for the problem. It is interesting to note that the word “synodal” has no antonym. Synodality reminds me the slogan Unity in Diversity, a prominent principle of the Baháʼí Faith, which also has become the Motto of the European Union. Synodality also reminds me the code of conduct and the Conflict of interest policies of the Wikimedia Foundation, or the Ubuntu philosophy (“A collection of values and practices that people of Africa or of African origin view as making people authentic human beings”).

The Synod on Synodality gave me hope that we can change this battle into a dialogue. It is going to make a few things clear. [1] We are about to have a shift in paradigm.

My general impression is that quite some convinced Christians feel reluctant or even offended by the vision of the Synodal Church, which is propagated by Pope Francis and which shines through in the questionnaire of the Synod. Their reactions reveal a series of fears. The message “The church is synodal!” is for them like that call “Liberté!” in the short film FreedomWithin.

It’s good to have a name for an important topic. But what does “synodality” mean in practice? The big task of the Synod on Synodality is to write clear answers to this question. The Church is about to make a big choice. In the following sections I try to contribute my two cents by formulating my personal answer, knowing that it is incomplete and naive, and maybe even fundamentally wrong.