The Synod, the People and the Sensus Fidelium
Pope Francis, whilst Jesuit Provincial in Argentina, “grasped that the people are a repository of faith”. - Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer
Only about three months remain before the Synod on the Family (the Ordinary Synod of Bishops) gets underway in Rome. The Catholic media has been full of news of varying quality, gossip and much speculation. One very useful and reliable piece of news was reported last week by Robert Mickens, Rome correspondent for the Global Pulse and NCR. Mickens has confirmed that there has been a change in Synod procedures. The former practice of endless speeches and carefully regulated debate has been discontinued. Image: All Connected, wordpress.com
Pope Francis has clearly broken ranks with his predecessors with these modifications. He is altering the dynamics by setting up a new model whereby the participants will enjoy more open and frequent face to face conversation and group sessions. The Pope is also gambling his own much vaunted transparency and credibility in the way he presides over this new format. He has mandated an open ended process which will inevitably influence and shape the final statement of Conclusions. In order for this document to be convincing it will need to reflect accurately what the Synod actually discussed and how it arrived at its positions. Its credibility depends on this.
A common concern of Lay people world-wide is that their bishops are not listening to them closely enough. Rather, many believe that the finely tuned clerical mind either blocks or filters their views and opinions. The remaining rapidly aging people who faithfully continue to claim ownership of the Church are fast running out of patience with the hierarchy. Not surprisingly, some are describing this papacy as the last opportunity for the People of God to recover and embrace again the vision, renewal and reforms promised and guaranteed by Vatican II.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, a very conservative columnist for the UK Catholic Herald, has written recently of the need for a synodal process which listens carefully and without discrimination to the voices of all Catholics: “... If we believe in listening to the people of God, then you must be aware of selectivity. We have to listen to all of them, not just the ones we think will give us the answers we want.” (Alexander Lucie-Smith, “Synods are no longer just for a privileged few,” The Catholic Herald, June 29, 2015 on-published in ucanews.com, July 4, 2015. It is linked here)
In the late70’s and 80’s, the future Pope became fascinated with the way the term ‘the people’ (el pueblo) was bandied about by Latin American politicians, revolutionaries and theologians to prop up their various manifestos. In his search for his own enlightenment Bergoglio went to Denziger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum (Compendium of Creeds). There he discovered what early Christian writers and councils said about ‘the People.’ In those creedal statements he rediscovered the meaning of the Sensus Fidei Fidelium (the Faithful’s sense of the meaning of their Faith). (Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer. Francis and the making of a radical Pope, London, Allen & Unwin, 2014, 111)
What he found back then strongly supports the case for a dramatic increase now in the number of Laity attending and actively participating in Synods beyond the mere tokenism which prevails. Perhaps though, Francis has gone as far as he can with structural reform of Synods at least for the moment. Maybe, if he ever calls another Synod, he will have righted a wrong situation.
As part of his plan to de-ideologize his fellow Argentinian Jesuits Fr Bergoglio insisted that they identify with the real people as they were and not just with some social or theological construct. He taught his confreres what he had discovered himself about ‘the people.’ Bergoglio had learned the wisdom and power of what the people themselves were really thinking not what ‘experts’ were double guessing on the how or why ‘the people’ thought the way they did. He also learned an enduring lesson about the faith of ‘the people’ and the integrity of the faith of the entire Church:
“.....(from his study of early Church traditions whilst Jesuit provincial in Argentina) Bergoglio had been struck by an early church formula of church faith: that the faithful people are infallible in crediendo, in its believing.” .... he “had grasped that the people are a repository of faith. As Bergoglio later wrote, ‘When you want to know what the Church teaches, you go to the Magisterium .... but when you want to know how the Church teaches, you go to the faithful people.’ “ (Ivereigh, The Great Reformer, 111)
120 years earlier, John Henry Newman was thinking similar thoughts as he completed On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. Newman wrote that, during the Arian crisis, “the body of bishops failed in their confession of faith” and he went on to point out “the voice of tradition may in certain cases express itself, not by Councils, nor Fathers, nor Bishops but ‘the communis fidelium sensus’ “ – both the hierarch and the Laity are common guardians of the Tradition. (John Quinn, “Cardinal Newman on Consulting the Faithful” in The Vineyard, Fall, 2010 (Linked here).
For the voice of the Faithful to be heard attentively and effectively, the way in which consultation takes place needs to be pondered afresh. The whole Church needs, among many other things, to think of itself as a living assembly of listeners. This meeting place must normally be at a round table and certainly not in an audience hall or a piazza.
Catholics for Renewal continues to work in close collaboration with other groups in order to encourage our bishops to join the conversation around the common table. Without the constraints and limiting factors of Canonical Synods, perhaps less formal listening assemblies will help to dispel any lingering anxieties, fears and residual mistrust there may be.