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  • Synodality and the Second Vatican Council
  • Christopher Ruddy

THE INTERNATIONAL Theological Commission’s 2018 document, “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” posits a bond between synodality and the Second Vatican Council: “The fruits of the renewal promised by Vatican II in its promotion of ecclesial communion, episcopal collegiality, and thinking and acting ‘synodally’ have been rich and precious. There is, however, still a long way to go in the direction mapped out by the Council.”1 The ongoing worldwide synodal process, officially convoked by Pope Francis in October 2021 and culminating in two sessions at the Vatican to be held in October 2023 and 2024, has likewise repeatedly affirmed that link: a synodal Church shaped by the council, and a council whose ecclesiological vision is coming to fruition in an increasingly synodal Church. The pope himself has drawn attention to the conciliar roots of the synodal “journey,” referring frequently, for instance, to Lumen Gentium’s teaching that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the [End Page 211] last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (LG, 12).2

Sixty years after the opening of Vatican II, as the pope and numerous other Church leaders and commentators have suggested, the ecclesial renewal set in motion by the council is now reaching a new, mature, and perhaps decisive stage: “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.”3 Because this ongoing synodal journey has generated both enthusiasm and concern among bishops, theologians, and the broader Church, it is necessary to examine the link between synodality and Vatican II.

I will look first at the development of the theme of synodality in recent decades, particularly by the International Theological Commission and Pope Francis. Second, I will examine key teachings from Vatican II that undergird an authentic conception of synodality. Third, I will explore conciliar teachings that have been misinterpreted or neglected in some of the synodal discussion to date. I will conclude with a reflection on contemporary dangers that threaten the Synod on Synodality.


“Synodality,” the International Theological Commission holds, is a neologism that has emerged in recent years as a “sign of something new that has been maturing in the ecclesial consciousness starting from the Magisterium of Vatican II, and from the lived experience of local Churches and the universal Church since the last Council until today.”4 Given such newness [End Page 212] and the still-largely embryonic state of reflection on the nature of synodality, it is necessary here to give close attention to recent theological and magisterial commentary, some of which remains at the level of generality and exhortation rather than systematic elaboration.

One key contribution has come from the late French Dominican theologian Jean-Marie Tillard, who wrote extensively on ecclesiology and ecumenism. In his 1995 L’Église locale, he describes synodality (synodalité) as “nothing other than the unfolding of the ‘catholic’ dynamism . . .: the communion of all and in all between all the members of the family of God and all their human places.”5 He fleshes out these words elsewhere in the same book:

The walking of the local Church is governed neither hierarchically where one imposes his will nor democratically or “parliamentarily” where everything is done collectively by votes on motions proposed, amended, and accepted by a majority of voices. It is governed synodally where, at all its levels, the entire community is active but respectful of each one’s function, some of which have been given with the sacrament of [ordained] ministry. One of the difficulties of our age comes precisely from the democratic mores of the western world. . . . Everything takes place on the same level. In the local Church, on the contrary, everything is located at the intersection of two levels whose point of communion is relation to Christ: in one case Christ understood in his members, in another Christ heard in the sacramentum of his...