Paul L. Heck is a professor of Islamic studies in Georgetown University’s Department of Theology and the founding director of the Study of Religions Across Civilizations. His scholarly interests focus on the history of skepticism in Islam, mysticism and the role of spirituality in Muslim society, views on martyrdom in the three monotheist traditions, the phenomenon of theo-humanism, the emergent field of comparative scripture, and issues in political theology. Heck previously taught a class supported through the Berkley Center's Doyle Seminars project. He is the author of Political Theology and Islam: From the Rise of Empire to the Modern State (2023); Skepticism in Classical Islam: Moments of Confusion (2013); and Common Ground: Islam, Christianity and Religious Pluralism (2009). Heck received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.
Those who follow Church affairs will have noticed a peculiar thing in recent years. Catholics use the same language but mean different things by it. Take human dignity. For some, it means the right of individuals to be affirmed as they are. By this view, it is a violation of human dignity not to allow women to preach at the pulpit, not to bless same-sex unions, not to offer communion to all. For others, it is millennia-old Church teachings that best protect the dignity of individuals against today’s many unproven claims that change is best. By this view, our dignity is put at risk when we are told not to accept our bodies as they are; not to see marriage as divinely purposeful and to think of it, instead, as a means to garner society’s approval; not to see the Church as Christ’s Body whose Spirit is irreducible to political definitions of equality.
This confusion has provoked deep-seated anxieties in Church circles and is now being projected onto the current Synod of Bishops, the Synod on Synodality, which began in 2021 and will close in 2024. The Synod’s three-week assembly in October 2023 in Rome, which has gathered hierarchy and laypeople, men and women, has only heightened concerns.
What is the goal of the assembly? Is it a model for consensus building in divisive times? Is it going to change Church teachings on controversial issues? All want it to heed the sentiments of the faithful, but sensus fidei does not have the same meaning for all. Is it a sense we can trust new experiences or a sense we are better off trusting ancient teachings?
With this Synod, the Church is seeking a way to proclaim its message anew in a rapidly changing world that has trouble making sense of its teachings. What new wineskins will best preserve the new wine of the Gospel so that the Church not seem to be “old wine” that nobody drinks anymore?
The media paints the Synod as a battle of two camps within the Church. To be sure, there are difficult questions involving Church governance and teaching authority. Synodality is actually a gesture toward tradition, as Church governance has always had two interactive modes, the collegial alongside the hierarchical. However, decentering governance need not imply decentering teaching authority. Parish communities know their local societies best and can be trusted to make the best decisions not only on their internal affairs but also on their outreach, even while they can be expected to be united to the universal Church when it comes to teachings on faith and morals.
Still, a decentering of governance is not without ambiguities. If synodality means that governance is no longer to be clergy-centered, what does that mean for parish priorities and outreach? Parish monies, missions, and messaging? If parish leadership is no longer to be clergy-centered, well, what about the homily?
Amidst the debate, we risk losing sight of the Synod’s main aim as set forth by Pope Francis. Speaking at the Synod’s opening Mass on October 4, he emphasized that its “primary task” is to renew the way the Church is to gaze at the world “with the consolation of the Gospel” and embrace it with “God’s infinite love.” The idea that the Synod is at heart a reminder that “being Church” means being empowered to look at the world with a heavenly gaze does not make for great news, but it is a story the world needs to hear.
Today’s crises are endless: climate, human trafficking, migrants, labor devaluation, mental health, unnecessary abortion, to say nothing of humanity’s unquenchable thirst for war-making. Good policies are important, but they are not enough. The bottom line, as recent papal writings suggest, is that the state cannot save us. The modernist idea that the state, its policies and regulations, will ensure prosperity for all is now bankrupt. Synodality, then, is also a call to envision the Church as a res publica—a public thing—in the words of Augustine. The Church as a public thing does not mean control of politics but does imply a political agency animated by the Eucharist as society’s north star. This idea is to be modeled by the Church, not legislated.
The essence of Church life is the Eucharist which, because it is a priestly sacrifice, is a heavenly banquet. As such, in recollection of the pope’s opening synodal remarks, it authorizes the Church first and foremost to gaze at the world “with the consolation of the Gospel” and embrace it with “God’s infinite love.” Synodality is, then, a mandate, given to those whose hearts God has filled with infinite love to communicate it to the souls of others so they, too, might be healed by it—and that in a world where people turn to opioids because they are deprived of love; where cross-class friendship, proven to reduce poverty, is increasingly rare in our age of haves and have-nots; where the poor, despairing of human goodness, entrust their well-being to gangs, yet happily embrace new life when touched by God’s love. Jesus Christ has commissioned the Church to be a healing presence amidst all peoples, not just some. Thus, where the state fails, the Church succeeds, yet the new wine it offers needs new wineskins in order for the Gospel—needed now more than ever—to be heard in a cacophonous world. Synodality is a way for the Church to better position itself in the world and better mediate God’s love for it.
One last thought: The call of Jesus Christ to lavish God’s love on all of creation does not mean abandoning Church teachings, but we need creative minds to help us see how to pour the new wine into new wineskins. One such mind is Eve Tushnet, whose writings offer much wisdom on gay life and the Church. Eve thinks with the Church as the Body of Christ and actually draws on its deepest traditions to help us see the way today’s gay experience can be a new wineskin for the Church’s new wine, highlighting and deepening the Church’s mission to be a place where all (not just some) know and mediate God’s love.
Synodality is not a call for the Church to be naïve about the world, but it is a call for us to be on guard against the temptation to become a gated community where everyone looks the same, thinks the same, and shops for the same products. Conformism rules over the saeculum today. Is it to rule over the ecclesia? If the Church is a gated community, it will gaze at the world not “with the consolation of the Gospel,” only with its own self-satisfaction.
All who seek to make the Spirit of Christ sovereign over their souls belong to the Church—and are to be heeded. Synodality—the Church listening to all so that all might see themselves as the Church—ensures that the Church remains the beloved community, the Church of Jesus Christ, who never fails to send new wineskins for it to be better able to gaze at all of creation with the eyes of his heavenly father.