The principle of synodality is defined specifically as “the action of the Spirit in the communion of the Body of Christ and in the missionary journey of the People of God,” the document added.
The sensus fidei is another concept often invoked to advance a more collaborative approach to forming or articulating Church teaching. Like synodality, the sense of the faithful is prone to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian and the Vice President and Academic Dean Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., talked to CNA about those concepts.
Petri told CNA that, like synodality, the sensus fidei was an expression of proper communion among the members of the Church.
Some have suggested that the sensus fidei can be understood as empowering the faithful, either individually or as a body, to exercise a kind of authority separate from the hierarchy, or over the Church’s tradition. This kind of authority could, it has been argued, serve as a counterweight to the hierarchy.
Not so, said Petri.
“Some commenters seem to reduce the sensus fidei to the mere expression of any individual or group’s ‘personal experience.’ This is an impoverishment of what the sensus fidei actually is and runs the risk, in my view, of exalting human experience to be a font of revelation co-equal with scripture and tradition,” he said.
Order of authority
Murdoch also cautioned against interpretations which negate the importance of the Church’s order of authority.
The Church teaches that is divinely founded, and its essential structure – the faithful, led by the priests, governed by the bishops under the pope – is divinely ordered. Other structures, like parish councils, national bishops’ conferences, or the Synod of Bishops, are considered to be helpful, but are not considered to be a part of the Church’s divinely ordered hierarchical constitution.
While the synod was and is intended to foster communion among the bishops themselves, and with the pope, Murdoch told CNA that it was important to remember that it is a distinctly human – not divine – institution.
“Good ecclesiology preserves the distinctions in the hierarchy and in the Church as a body,” Murdoch said. “Ultimately, the bishops are under the authority of the pope and the Church is under the authority of God.”
“A wrong understanding of synodality flattens the divinely instituted hierarchical order into a majoritarian mass. The collective wisdom and perspective of the bishops, and of others in the Church, can certainly be an important tool, but it has definite limits,” she added.
No measure of synodal discussion, debate or voting can replace the true sources of authority in the Church. Those sources, Murdoch said, are divine revelation and the unbroken magisterium handed down by the Church together with, and guarded by, the authority of the pope.
When they depart from these, Murdoch said, synods can and have erred.
“There have been a number of ‘synodal’ attempts to replace or relativize these true sources of authority in the Church,” Murdoch told CNA.
“Perhaps the most egregious example of this was in the eighteenth century, when the synod of Pistoia gathered to reform the Tuscan church, without the authority of the pope. While the attendees saw themselves as reformers, they ended up proposing a number of heretical Jansenist measures.”
The Pistoian synod was, Murdoch explained, a clear historical warning about what can happen when bishops wrongly apply the concept of synodality and overstep their true authority.
“A wrong approach to synodality, one which gives it too much authority, can be devastating to the body of the Church. The experience of the Eastern Catholic Churches, where synodality is a much more formalized part of the ecclesiological structure, has its own particular history and value,” Murdoch said.
“At the same time, the universal Church needs to consider carefully the lessons of the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Churches, both of which are grave cautionary tales about where a wrong application of the concept can lead.”
Petri agreed, telling CNA that those expecting the advancement of a more parliamentarian approach to teaching and authority were misunderstanding the Church’s nature.
“While such a view of divine revelation may be compatible with certain forms of Protestantism, it is not compatible with Catholic doctrine.”
Petri also noted that the pope has warned against conflating intellectually or socially fashionable ideas with authentic developments in the Church.
“In Episcopalis communio, Pope Francis cautioned that the sensus fidei should not be confused with the changing currents of public opinion,” Petri said.
“An authentic expression is one that is in continuity with magisterial teaching, comes from a life formed by the Word of God in the heart of the Church, and which seeks not only one’s own salvation but the salvation of others for the edification of the Church and the advancement of the Kingdom of God.”