The history of synodality: It’s older than you think.

By John W. O’Malley, 22 February 2022
An icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. Image: Wikimedia Commons


For all its prominence in church jargon these days, the term synodality does not have a long history; it is a neologism coined only about 20 years ago. No wonder, then, that Catholics are puzzled by it and by Pope Francis’ call for a more synodal church. Yet it is an urgent issue, vital for the well-being of the church today.

We must begin, therefore, by asking the basic question: What is a synod? Until the creation of the Synod of Bishops, the answer to the question was simple: A synod was a council; the words were synonyms, and the former was the Greek-derived word for the Latin-derived one. In the Western church, the two words were used interchangeably. The Council of Trent, for instance, referred to itself as “this holy synod,” and the official editions of the proceedings of Vatican II (some 53 volumes) are entitled the “synodal proceedings of the ecumenical council Vatican II” (acta synodalia).

But what is a council? The word is familiar; what it entails is not. If we survey the history of the 21 councils that Catholics consider ecumenical (church-wide) and the hundreds upon hundreds of local councils, the answer that emerges is clear: A council is a meeting, principally of bishops, gathered in Christ’s name to make decisions binding on the church.

Every word in that definition is important, beginning with “meeting.” A council is a gathering in which business is to be accomplished. It is not a debating society nor even a gathering to celebrate the glories of the church. A council takes action.

In the past, participants in synods have been restricted to small numbers, no matter how varied the participants’ state in life. Today, Pope Francis wants all members of the church to express their faith and their hopes and desires for the church. The preparatory documents for the churchwide synod provide for the inclusion of non-Catholics and non-Christians. There has never been an exercise of collegiality with such an unqualifiedly inclusive invitation.

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John W. O’Malley, S.J., is University Professor emeritus in the theology department at Georgetown University.

With thanks to America Magazine and John W. O’Malley, where this article originally appeared.


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