Nnaemeka Ali, O.M.I
Synodal Process and the Danger of Manifest Destiny
Updated: Mar 26
For some time now, Synodality has become the new Areopagus for the Catholic Church. The church authority recently appeared to view it as the missing rib it has been searching for since this era's dawn. And, in every quarter, clergy and the lay faithful struggle over who gets the lion's share. Everyone from the North to the South is rejoicing, like we have discovered the missing piece in our struggle to reform one of the oldest institutions in the Word. The matter appears more urgent now that Pope Francis is celebrating his tenth anniversary as the head of the Catholic Church.
Besides, while listening to a BBC World program[i] a few days ago, I realized Pope Francis had proved all those who underestimated him wrong. Despite many cardinals being named prospective popes in that program, no one ever considered Francis, the next pontiff. I feel reaffirmed that Francis was indeed the man that the Church needed, seeing that he realized what those random individuals of different ages and origins were expecting from the new pope.
I am, however, skeptical about how the Church is pushing forward the synodal process launched by Pope Francis. Considering its current state, I doubt if it has indeed proved to be the new Areopagus, where the universal Church is called to discuss its newly found unknown God. It might instead become a repetition of history, where those with louder voices control the conversation.
I fully agree that this is a wonderful opportunity. It is important to celebrate that parishes, dioceses, and national and continental churches are all eager to take the opportunity to redress their local church situations. However, I doubt it's the Pentecost we crave, for unlike on the day of the Pentecost, I am uncertain if the South hears “Their language being spoken.” (Acts 2:6). As a result, I am curious if the process might be hijacked again, as it has often happened in different stages of our ecclesiastical development. I am concerned that the process might become another tale of a single story.
Interestingly, the energy invested in this process makes one wonder if the Church and the West have discovered synodality for the first time. This phenomenon has always been present among indigenous nations. For example, the palaver, baraza, village square gatherings and shade tree discussion have always offered every member of the society a place to express their views. For many years, the Cameroonian theologian Jean-Marc Ela unsuccessfully urged the Church to embrace this[ii], [,iii]. Similarly, the indigenous North Americans already had talking circles when the Christian missionaries arrived. However, they also minimized their wisdom and enforced the paradigms of dialogue of the deaf on them.
However, our reflection is not on whether synodality is a new process but whether the synodality process, as projected today, might not be another road to (Christian) Neocolonialism. There is no reason to believe the terms addressed in this synodal process are invalid. For example, I fully agree that the place of women and many minorities in the Church requires a serious re-examination. I also recognize that clericalism and abuse of power are part of the diseases that plague the Church. I completely agree that the models on which these principles were constructed are now outdated and must be revisited if the Church wants to faithfully read the signs of the time.
If my preoccupations are true, the synodal process as it is carried out today could serve as a confirmation of another moment of destiny manifest. As we know, destiny is the historical sin of Christendom. It is:
“The assumption of the superiority of Western culture over all other cultures [and] … the conviction that God, in his providence, had chosen the Western nations, because of their unique qualities, to be the standard-bearers of his cause even to the uttermost ends of the world.”[iv]
Over the centuries, the West has influenced the Church's history. They develop one fancy ideology at every age and impose it on the Church. They create the impression that God has spoken from the thrones, and everyone else in society has to say “amen” to this “western prophecy.” Furthermore, moral standards incorporated into their new theological categories were simply a result of their national, cultural, and social-historical contexts. For example, the Platonic dualism that holds Christian theology hostage is an excellent example of such a false, universalized ideology. This is why, today, any theology that does not follow western philosophical paradigms is considered suspicious and rarely finds a chair in the theological pantheon.
Moreover, during Christianization, colonialism was dressed in the coat of mission and sold out to every culture and nation western missionaries visited. And with all the political powers surrounding them, they made no exception in making tribes swallow their methods, hook, line, and sinker. But then, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the puritan, and Victorian ideas they sold to the world were no longer accepted by their society, and they changed their theological quills. Since then, until now, Barth, Ranher, Congar, Moltman, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Armstrong, Ratzinger, and many others, inspired again by their historical-cultural contexts, built up another theological monument, forcing all of us again to adapt to their experiences of God.
I have no problem with their narratives, but obliging all of us to re-adapt to their wills and caprices becomes problematic for me. I would like to clarify that I am not blaming their theology in any way. It is impossible, but I question the universal objectivity of their narratives since we all know they will eventually be redefined once they no longer suit their society. Furthermore, God speaks through our cultural matrix, just as He speaks through theirs.
Why does the European Church, for example, believe they must propose a new way to an African Church when the ideas being reformed are brainchildren of the same European Church and society? Why is it that the Asian Church must adapt to American ecclesiology, when the model contested today was first conceived in American society? If the dominant narrative eventually originates from the same ecclesial context that gave us the Church we intend to reform today, then what is synodality? If the Church outside the West has its ideas, why would it abide by them when the West is the one who brought us to the present quagmire? Why should the declining Western Church tell the growing Southern Churches how to be good churches? If they know what to do, then why are their cathedrals and basilicas becoming cultural centers and museums?
In summary, the Church is called upon to reject any form of cultural hegemony today, for no society should impose its cultural heritage and experience of God on others. The first step to achieving a true synodality is to accept that every experience of God is worth consideration. Furthermore, it is also important to recognize that no society should impose its cultural and spiritual narratives on others. Theologians and leaders of the Church should embrace a moment of decolonization. Starting with recognizing that the Lord is present in every situation [vi]. That he is speaking to every creature and society. Although the idea of the West may be good, it is necessary that the West does not forget that the western experience of God is only a single narrative and that other societies have their own. And, as the South engages the Church in this process, the southern Church should also be bold to embrace the process of decolonization. Today, most of what is defended in the Church in Africa, Asia, South America, and other indigenous nations is a borrowed spirituality. They are perpetuating a colonial narrative of Christ's incarnation in their history. Finally, it is true that the synodal process initiated by Pope Francis is a wonderful opportunity for the Church to review its theology. The issues being discussed are also crucial to the future of the Church. It is, however, only authentic if the process considers the experience of the entire people of God. God. Therefore, let no church speak for the other. Everyone in the Church should have a voice, regardless of their social-historical developments or theological contributions.
[i] “What Does the Conclave Mean to You?,” Audio, World Have Your Say (BBC, March 13, 2013), https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p015cdyj.
[ii] Jean-Marc Ela, My Faith as an African (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009).
[iii] Jean-Marc Ela, Le Cri de l’homme Africain: Questions Aux Chrétiens et Aux Églises d’Afrique (Paris: Le Harmattan, 1980).
[iv] David J. Bosch, TRANSFORMING MISSION, Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Orbis (New York: Orbis Books, 1991), 305. [v] Randy Woodley, Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine, Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2022), 107–8.