The upcoming Synod on Synodality has theologians like, from bottom left, Fr. Darren Dias, Moira McQueen and Sr. Nathalie Becquart excited, for the field of theology and for the Church. Register file photos.

Synod is a theologian’s dream

  • April 27, 2023

Zane Chu picked up his PhD in theology just shy of two years ago. At 37, as a sessional instructor at St. Mark’s College in Vancouver, his career in theology is just getting underway.

On the flip side, bioethicist Moira McQueen is an emeritus professor at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College and a member of the International Theological Commission — a select group who advise the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In between, Dominican Fr. Darren Dias, executive director of the Toronto School of Theology and professor of systematics on the Regis-St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, has reached mid-career.

All three of them are excited. The Synod on Synodality is opening new horizons for the practice of theology.

“It’s kind of open-ended. We don’t know exactly where it will go, what things will look like,” Chu told The Catholic Register. “It’s interesting to be along for this ride.”

“I really do think this is one of those sea changes,” said McQueen. “It must be the way people felt when Vatican II (opened).”

There is a mandate for theologians embedded in Pope Francis’ ardent desire to recover the synodal truth of what the Church is and has been since the Apostles were gathered in Jerusalem, Synod of Bishops undersecretary Sr. Nathalie Becquart told The Catholic Register in an email from Rome.

“Theologians themselves must allow their way of doing theology to be transformed by taking as their point of departure the peripheries,” Becquart wrote.

For Becquart, the challenge is to reimagine both how theologians do their job and who theology is for.

“I dream of a Church that is reborn from the margins, following Christ who came to us in poverty and who speaks to us in the voices and experiences of those who are on the peripheries today,” she said. “God is calling us to decentralize ourselves.”

Chu, an expert in St. Thomas Aquinas and Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan, doesn’t think theology has to change so much as it has to catch the moment.

“I just think that it’s a really opportune time for theologians to get on board with that,” he said. “To really help and be able to make a difference in the Church.”

Chu doesn’t think theology has to change because the discipline has already changed. In his lifetime, theology has never been a walled-off domain for dusty volumes of Latin and Greek, abstract thinking and latinate jargon. (Though he has certainly read lots of Aquinas in the original Medieval Latin.)

“The way I was formed, the context in which I was trained, was always to be looking to see how (theology) might have pastoral implications,” he said. “Everybody knows that theology is supposed to serve the Church and the pastoral nature of the Church. It’s easy, as an academic, to get caught up in the very academic debates that we do. There is a call for theologians to develop this pastoral sensitivity.”

Catholics have in the last century seen the role theologians play in a discerning, synodal Church, said Dias.

“Around the time of the (Second Vatican) Council and then immediately following, there was a closer link, a closer relationship between theology — let’s say academic theology — and the pastoral offices of the Church,” he said. “The bishops and theologians at the Council were having these fruitful conversations. It seems that there’s less of that now.”

As the Church rediscovers theology 60 years on from the Great Council, it will see that theology has new methods, new tools for understanding — interdisciplinary approaches, ways of reading the culture, collaborative studies that cross borders. Contemporary theology is by nature synodal, said Dias.

“Francis’ idea of a synodal Church doesn’t come out of a vacuum,” he said. “In some sense, it probably represents a bit of the zeitgeist. There are many movements — social movements as well as religious movements — that would reflect the same kind of concern for non-hierarchical, more democratic, more participatory processes. And it so happens that this is completely in line with the Second Vatican Council’s ecclesiology.”

The movement toward the Synod on Synodality began in 2018 with a paper from the International Theological Commission called “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church.” Long before the questionnaires, Zoom meetings and assemblies, sober, conservative, establishment theologians were advising the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on the urgent necessity to recapture synodality as an explicit expression of Catholic faith.

“Synodality manifests the pilgrim character of the Church,” read the ITC report. “The image of the social, historical and missionary character, which corresponds to the condition and vocation of each human person as homo viator (the human on the move). The path is the image that clarifies our understanding of the mystery of Christ as the Way that leads to the Father.”

As that paper came into being, McQueen found her own sense of the faith awakened.

“There’s connection with the Second Vatican Council, which we all know has not really been fully implemented yet. Francis gives us another step in that direction,” she said. “If you’re now a lay theologian, you’re going to do more — you’re going to feel impelled to do more within that context.”

McQueen knows there’s some hesitation among clergy she’s spoken to.

“There’s a bit of fear that their task, their mission, would be a bit swamped in a Church where lay people were more involved than they already are — let’s say at a higher level, or a recognized level,” she said.

At the same time, McQueen is certain that the Holy Spirit is behind the movement to include everybody actively in the life of the Church.

“The idea of synodality — I think we miss the point if we don’t see it involving everybody. The theology — the communion, participation, action, mission part — to me that’s a very solid theology coming from the Church itself,” she said. “It’s theologically grounded. Everybody can see that. So, theologians can be of use.”

“Theologians are at the service of this dialogue of listening and discernment, as we listen to one another and together hear what God is saying to all of us,” said Becquart. “Theology today must be attentive and listen to the sensus fidelium, that is the sense of faith that inhabits all members of God’s people.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.