You are currently viewing Synodality, bureaucratic malaise, and the problem of power

Synodality, bureaucratic malaise, and the problem of power

St. Peter’s Basilica, Città del Vaticano, Vatican City (Image: Sean Ang |

In my previous essay I criticized the new emphasis on synodality as an essentially modern enterprise of bureaucratic legerdemain. I noted that while I support the concept of a more synodal Church, I am suspicious of the current process. I quoted Louis Bouyer concerning the often distorting influences of an excessive fixation on Church structures. Therefore, in this installment I want to further elaborate on Bouyer’s analysis since I think he identifies the nub of the problem.

As Louis Bouyer makes clear in The Church of God, Church hierarchs, in an evolution of many centuries, have made Church authority an end in itself, concerned more with the internal consistency of the magisterium, rather than with a deep pastoral concern for the life of the Church that the truth of the Gospel is meant to engender. Thus does Bouyer identify a “distortion of pastoral authority” in the Church as one of the chief concerns of Vatican II and that distortion has led to what Bouyer calls “an ecclesiology of power” rather than one of service.

And it is precisely this ecclesiology of power that has led to most of the seemingly intractable problems that afflict the Church today. In particular, Bouyer identifies the primary problem with this ecclesiology as one of disconnection from Christ’s holiness as the animating reality that breathes fire into the Church’s equations. He then identifies three ways in which the Church is a medium of Christ’s Revelation. And all three ways are relationally grounded in the others and suffer serious distortions when they become disconnected.

The first way is in the sacraments which are the direct presence of Christ in his Church and vouchsafe the ongoing presence of Christ’s holiness, which can never be effaced or made null by the Church’s sins. There will always be a holy remnant, therefore, of those in the Church who avail themselves of this holiness and attempt to live it most seriously, even if that remnant is, like Elijah, a solitary lay person or a single bishop.

The second way is the pastoral ministry of the Church, which includes her preaching, her pastoral accompaniment of her members who are all on the journey from sin into the charity of divine life, and the teaching magisterium with its guarantee of indefectibility as a ministry of service to the truth. And this entire pastoral ministry must be grounded in, and motivated by, the life of Divine charity if it is to be true to the Christological holiness of the sacraments which it seeks to inculcate in her members. Therefore, the fact that Christ chooses as his ministers men who are also sinners means that this ministry to the truth in charity can be rendered opaque, and the image of Christ can be submerged in an avalanche of cascading sins—the net effect of which is to disconnect the truth from charity.

And when this happens the sacraments too, and most especially the Eucharistic liturgy, can become a form of ritualism. Bouyer puts it thus: “… celebration of the mysteries would become a ritualism, divorced from both subjective faith and the collective life and its organization willed by Christ, and would nourish nothing more than a mystique of evasion” (emphasis added).

The third way that the Church makes Christ present now is in the lived life of Divine charity in all of her members. Here the subjective holiness of the believer is in play precisely as a movement of the Spirit, vivifying the whole and putting flesh on the bones of the Church’s doctrinal preaching and teaching. This is the lifeblood of the entire Church, her very reason for existing in the first place. And when this life of charity wanes and then grows cold the entire lava flow of the Spirit’s love hardens and fractures as it encounters the icy waters of recalcitrant indifference. When this ossification happens, the various ways that Christ is present in the Church disassociate themselves from one another, and the hierarchical ministry of the Church hardens into a self-justifying end in itself, ruling more and more from a position of weakness that has no other recourse than the various methods of coercion. And its teachings, as Bouyer notes, became a form of dead intellectualism devoid of an explicit and constitutive orientation to the life of charity.

The fateful and most decisive step in this direction happened, according to Bouyer, when the Church rightly fought for its independence from an Empire now become “Christian” and which sought to control the Church for its own Imperial purposes. Eventually, in this struggle for independence the Church moves from a rightful claim to its own autonomy from civil power into a mimicry of the methods of State power. And that creates a competitive situation among players besotted with the same animating spirit of the libido dominandi. In the end, the Church buys an illusory independence from the State— illusory because the Church has now succumbed to the worldly world and has thereby been conquered by it. The Church thus loses its character as a ministry of service and adopts instead, as Bouyer puts it, an ecclesiology of power.

And it is exactly the pastoral disaster of this ecclesiology of power that Bouyer claims was one of the chief targets of the Vatican II reforms. Unfortunately, it was this very ecclesiology of power that continued on after the Council and that scuttled the reform process, as the Council sought to change the Church without really changing the Church. It said some really profound things and uttered some fine-sounding words about collegiality and shared authority and the universal call to holiness, but in the end the conciliar project failed. Why? Because the Council itself failed to identify and, therefore, failed to confront directly, the false ideology of power that was the source of the malaise in the Church. Bouyer puts it as follows:

But during the course of this council, and even more in what followed, it became apparent to what extent misunderstanding of the real sense of Christian authority was inviscerated in the consciousness of its possessors. Even though the doctrinal texts had formally acknowledged that conflict between primacy and collegiality can arise only in an ecclesiology of power, not in one of service, the episcopate again, in tending to its regeneration, too often thought of itself in terms of ecclesiological power.

These are troubling words, but they come from a man of the Council itself, a man who, like me, supports the broad conciliar project and what it hoped to achieve. And contrary to what so many of the Council’s critics allege to be its chief flaws—liturgical reform, religious liberty, an exaggerated ecumenism , and the like—in reality, as Bouyer correctly notes, the flaw of the Council was its failure to address the many ways in which a false notion of “authority as power” had deformed the Church in profound ways.

And it is that flaw which short-circuited the Council’s broader aims since all that really happened after the Council was the simple transference of this false sense of power from the Church’s center into all of her peripheries. This is why I remain skeptical of the current chatter about synodality. Because, if history is to be our guide, in a Church that suffers from a disconnection between office and holiness, a diffusion of authority from the center usually means some form of Gallicanism will rise up again, wherein ecclesial power, now made multi-focal, will remain what it has been for centuries: a competitive grasping after “control”.

Nor are such views confined to Bouyer. Henri de Lubac, writing in the aftermath of the Council, in The Church: Paradox and Mystery, supported the renewal of the theology of collegiality but offered the following caveat:

… Perhaps even more of a risk exists that the collegiality doctrine will conform itself in theory and practice to thoroughly human models. Its force may be whittled away while it searches for means of organizing itself, forgetting (a) that the true, divinely granted collegiality is marked by concern for the universal Church and (b) that its most common action consists, not in the exercise of jurisdiction at all, but in the active and habitual interest of each bishop in the faith, life, and discipline of the Church … and in the bishop’s realization of his personal responsibility for all of this.

Similarly, Hans Urs von Balthasar once made the point that one of the problems with granting more power to episcopal conferences is that there arises a diminishment of the unique importance and singular authority of individual bishops in their dioceses (Communio, Fall 2005, 591). And one of the dangers of a more synodal Church, if the focus is on “who is in control here?” (i.e. power) is that individual bishops can be browbeaten into submission, which Balthasar describes as a “terror,” and which therefore obscures the unique duty of each bishop to teach, govern, and sanctify.

Indeed, in an ironic way, the elevation of the power of episcopal conferences can actually increase the bureaucratic malaise of the Church as it mimics the corporate culture of modernity, leading to structures of authority that are less personal, less spiritual, and more oriented toward the layered anonymity of the bureaucracy and its nested hierarchies of unaccountable functionaries. As Balthasar puts it, “It seems to me that precisely in the post-conciliar time the apparatus of the Church has become so inflated that it is in danger of bursting. … What is inflated must collapse … for the simple and purely spiritual freedom of office to be made clear again” (585).

Therefore, as the Church launches into a discussion of synodality, I hope that the central thematization of its efforts will focus on one simple question: “How does the Church become more synodal without becoming more bureaucratic?” In other words, how does the Church move away from the hyper centralization of a single bureaucracy —Rome—without creating hundreds of new ones, and all of them as unaccountable as the first?

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.