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January 27, 2023

The stakes of the Synods

It was the year of synods. Of reuniting bishops in a common gathering; Catholics and Orthodox ones alike.

From the very beginning, the Synod was a Christian reality. Apostles reunited in Jerusalem in order to decide whether the new religious community can accept not only Jews, but pagans as well. Numerous synods followed, some of them local, some representative for the entire Christian world. The latter category was preserved by history as ecumenical synods.

If Orthodox believers only recognize the seven of them held before the schism with Catholics, that formally occurred in 1054, Catholics have counted some more synods that followed. The most recent of them is Vatican II, finished in 1965 and considered by them as the 21st.  Even if Orthodox clergy names them synods, and Catholics councils, it is the same thing: bishops reunite to assume decisions after counselling, in the name of desired consent that would assure the unity of the Church.

Seeking such consent has had advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, it stimulated theological thinking and refined community relations, but on the other hand, it preserved the myth of infallible authority of the Church. And thus, from inspired guides, the clergymen became all too often the wardens of consciences. Not to mention the challenge of successive schisms, because people in minority, threatened by a levelling authority, sought refuge in alternative communities.

Yet, in principle, synods remained spaces of dialogue, so that summoning them is always a great idea, because it is an opportunity for requesting and confronting ideas. Yet, results may be occasionally disappointing. In a retrospective view of two millennia, we may notice that one of the great diseases of the old Churches still is clericalism. The only people to decide during the synods are bishops, eventually backed by theological counsellors who are themselves clergymen. It is difficult to introduce positions that would grant more credit to the decision capacity of laypeople.

After a century Orthodox priests discussed the opportunity of summoning a new Pan-Orthodox Synod, they finally decided the date and the place: St. Irene Church in Istanbul, in June 2016. It was the result of an unexpected agreement between the two actual rulers of the Orthodox world:  the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill I.

Today’s Orthodox churches are either national, representing communities on the territory of a national state (first of all Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia), even if some of them represent a minority to other dominant confessions (such as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Estonia or Albania), or “historical”, representing regions that are formerly Byzantine (Syrian Antioch, Jerusalem, Egyptian Alexandria) that once enjoyed massive prestige in the Christian world, but are underrepresented today and especially exposed to waves of Islamic aggression. There are also the Churches of Diaspora, in the USA by example, where, for many generations, various immigrants of Orthodox confession reunited in rival Ecclesiastic organizations. Precisely the issue of Diaspora will be one of the debate points of the forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Synod, because the existence of several Orthodox bishops in one area strikingly contradicts the principle of unity. Actually, the synod is exposed to the risk of debating mostly church policy issues, meant to divide the influence circles of various churches and focusing less on matters related to the adaptation of Orthodoxy to the contemporary world. There are few chances that this synod would be a reformist one, after pattern of the Catholic council Vatican II, and a conservative consent is predictable. Anyway, the mere reunion at a sole table of dialogue of Churches that lead an autonomous life for a few centuries, without having the responsibility of seeking each other’s opinion in controversial matters, if a challenge worthy of some hopes.

Actually, things are not simple for Catholics either. The Synod of Bishops appeared at the same time with Vatican II, precisely to perpetuate the renewed experience of bishop solidarity. Although it is merely consultative for the Sovereign Pontiff, the influence of its position cannot be denied. Recently, Pope Francis summoned it to discuss family-related matters, as contemporary Catholicism has received criticism as being retrograde on this topic. The debates were lively, there were positions supporting or opposing certain reforms, such as granting Holy Communion to remarried divorcees. It seems a minor issue, yet it is decisive for many bishops because it targets both the conception of indissolubility of religious marriage and that of moral conditions required to receive Holy Communion, a fundamental practice for the life of the Church. So far, divorcees are excluded in a sacramental sense, a situation that may seem as unjust discrimination.

If each of the two Churches attempts to activate its synod-summoning dimension as efficiently as possible, further attempts are continuously being made for increased closeness, after a millennium of separation and conflict.

The new Pope went to Istanbul to visit the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, a meeting that became traditional since Pope Paul the Sixth. The last half of a century witnessed a progressive decrease of suspicion, yet, identity-related tensions were not missing either. In Orthodox Romania, by example, the perspective that the two Churches would reunite has multiple and vehement opposition. Even the relations with local Catholics are sinuous.

Even the last century and a half was not free of confession-related controversy. As the first two kings of Romania were Catholics, suspicion was spread that top political decisions may be harmful to Orthodox interests, such as the long-criticised Concordat agreed with Vatican in 1927.

The Constitutional law that imposed the Monarch to educate his children in Orthodox faith even created a personal drama for Catholic King Ferdinand, who found himself excommunicated. Orthodox pressure followed in favour of reunion with Greek Catholics, in the new context of the national state that included Transylvania.

Communists took advantage of this trend and imposed a forced union after they overtook the power, deepening the old suspicions between the two confessions. After four decades, with the fall of the Communist regime, the conflict was perpetuated under the form of patrimonial requests.

Greek Catholics managed only partially and after endless delays to regain Churches that once belonged to them. And Roman Catholics as well endured the repressive rigours of Communism, as bishops and priests were thrown in jail, as their activity and organizational structure was forcefully reduced and confessional schools were closed.

The visit made by Pope John II in 1999 reduced some of the tensions, yet a certain convergence persisted afterwards. One of the reasons of secular debate tends to become invalid. As recently mentioned by Pope Francis after returning from Istanbul, the Uniatism, represented by Catholic churches of Orthodox confession, is more and more obsolete. Nonetheless, there are many other misunderstandings in the path of reunion. A new universal synod still remains a vague possibility. Maybe, above all, they should meditate on the stakes of this synod, instead of viewing it merely as the re-enactment of a prestigious tradition.




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