Dr Philippa Martyr: On the usefulness of buzzwords

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Synodal assembly participants gather in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2020. The German definition of ‘synodality’ does not seem to be the same as Pope Francis’s. PHOTO: Harald Oppitz, KNA

It was lovely to hear from so many people who responded to my column on my father’s beautiful Holy Communion on his deathbed. For those of you who don’t know, he passed away a week later.

Say what you like about Vatican II – I was privileged to give my father Viaticum a week later as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. I’ll be eternally grateful for it.
So it’s nice to change tack and pursue a different avenue. That’s the question of synodality.

I will be honest: I’ve been making fun of this word ever since I first heard it. It reminds me painfully of the corporate buzzwords that infest the Church in high places: ‘synergy’, ‘leaning in’, ‘reaching out’.

synodality…It reminds me painfully of the corporate buzzwords that infest the Church in high places: ‘synergy’, ‘leaning in’, ‘reaching out’.

What’s tickled me is that there is no clear and agreed-on definition of ‘synodality’. This didn’t stop the authors of The Light from the Southern Cross from deciding for the rest of us what it meant.

Here you go: ‘Synodality involves the active participation of all members of the Church in its processes of discernment, consultation and co-operation at every level of decision-making and mission.’

Yes, that’s certainly one definition of synodality. But is it the same as everyone else’s?
Of course not. Because no one has ever defined this pesky term conclusively. The Church in Germany, for example, has some interesting ideas about what ‘synodality’ means in practice. Mostly it means ‘unlimited sex’ and ‘schism’.

So actually my gut instinct – to dismiss this as a corporate buzzword – was not far wrong. It’s vague, infinitely flexible, and makes people feel good when they use it in a sentence. But no one actually knows what it means.

The Church in the West has a wonderful fifty-year tradition of vague buzzwords. ‘Liberation theology’ was huge in the 1970s. ‘Praxis’ was very hot in the 1980s. And ‘[your chosen adjective] space’ is always fun – no one ever does anything religious in a boring old building any more.

‘The spirit of Vatican II’ has been a lasting favourite. It’s been used to justify all kinds of abuses. That is, until people started reading the documents of Vatican II and pointing out the difference between these and the abuses. Until we have a clear and agreed-upon definition of ‘synodality’, we’re going to struggle to develop it.

Given that Pope Francis effectively coined this term in the first place, it would be great if he would define it for us. St John Paul II coined the phrase ‘the culture of death’. He was able to tell us exactly what this looked like, and what it meant in practice. Same with the ‘culture of life’.

Same also with ‘Theology of the Body’ – which is a complicated concept, but we all at least understand what the basics are. If ‘synodality’ is to actually mean something in the Church – if it’s not going to follow ‘synergy’ and ‘praxis’ into the dustbin of history in a decade or so – we really need a definition.

Dr Philippa Martyr is a Perth-based historian, lecturer and researcher. She can be contacted at: [email protected]