Synodality or Supremacy? Orthodoxy and Rome

Catholic University professor C. C. Pecknold has a column out today regarding the failure of “synodality” in the modern Roman Catholic Church as practiced under Pope Francis. There is a reference there to Orthodox conciliarity:

Governance within Orthodoxy is built not around the papacy but around “sister churches” gathering together for collaborative, deliberative self-governance in synodal assembly. It is important to understand that “synodality” applies models of governance derived from Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology to the Latin Church, whose fundamental governing structure is Petrine rather than Synodal. As Lumen Gentium 22 clearly states, “the body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.” So what do you get when you haphazardly tack on Eastern synodality to Western papal primacy? You don’t always get the Vatican II collegiality you want. Instead, you might just get the appearance of caprice and conflict in governance currently rocking the East. Synods have been a mixed bag for over fifty years, but the attempt to elevate “synodality” brings with it all the tensions and divisions that we see unfolding within Orthodoxy. It might be that the problem is “synodality for me but not for thee.” But it also might just be that synodality doesn’t govern the Church well.

I’ve been working for a while on formulating in my head why the RCC misunderstands what Orthodox conciliarity is actually for, and I think this piece helps me articulate it.

“Synodality” (in English for the Orthodox, it’s usually conciliarity) is supposed here as a kind of representative republican replacement for a centralized papal supremacy. But the presumption is still supremacy rather than service to tradition, and the Petrine trump card is always on the table. For the Orthodox, there is no such card.

Once you presume papal supremacy, merely delegating some elements of it to a group of bishops doesn’t actually achieve conciliarity. Orthodox conciliarity works because there is no supremacy to be had among men at all, papal or otherwise.

Yes, one sees that this makes for a messy governance at times, but the overall historical result is observable: Fidelity to dogmatic, moral, theological tradition. How is that possible? God makes it possible.

That’s no cop-out, either, and it might be hard to believe but for the historical record. There is simply no way that a governance model as messy as the Orthodox one could produce dogmatic fidelity as one sees in history if God were not involved. His strength is made perfect in our (often tragically obvious) weakness.

Models that presume supremacy of whatever type, however, are inherently progressive and innovative, because that is who man is. The question is simply who gets to do the innovating.

Supremacy models in church governance ultimately presume a kind of deism, which is why you need a vicar of Christ. The model presumes that Christ isn’t actually trusted to work things out or isn’t going to do it. God isn’t actually governing, so you need a vicar or a vicariate.

That is why the messiness of Orthodox governance is in this piece used as a warning. Orthodox fidelity to, well, orthodoxy, isn’t even mentioned, because it’s not understood as part of why conciliarity works over time. Orthodox conciliarity isn’t supremacy by a group instead of a man. It’s not supremacy at all.

It is true, of course, that international governance in the Orthodox Church is currently in something of a mess, and it is also true that there are challenges to our understanding of how ecclesiology works. So I won’t pretend that there aren’t major theological issues in play at the moment. But there is no risk of altering our dogmatic or moral tradition, and even if one great Orthodox primate or another should attempt it, such an attempt will simply fall flat. That is what history shows, and even at this moment, there really is little apparent appetite for the kind of innovating language one sees in certain ecclesiological pronouncements.

Make no mistake: The current RC crisis is a crisis precisely of orthodoxy, and because of the RCC’s supremacy model for church governance, it’s really just a matter of which faction will capture the moment. Theologically, the moment can be captured. Because papal supremacy is a thing and because papal infallibility is a thing, that means that if the papacy can be captured, then dogma itself can be captured.

For the Orthodox, there is no way to make such a capture. Even though we do have people who frustratedly (and loudly) wish otherwise, there is literally no mechanism in place to innovate in dogma, morals, etc., and attempts to put such mechanisms in place never go anywhere.

To be honest, I don’t know how Rome can put the supremacy genie back in the bottle. Once that power is arrogated to men, there will always be a contest for who will try to wield it. And even if one pope should say that he’s giving it up forever, there is nothing at all to stop his successor from taking it up again.


  1. Fr. Andrew,
    I deeply appreciate this short article. I think it states the point brilliantly: “Orthodox conciliarity isn’t supremacy by a group instead of a man. It’s not supremacy at all.” The “messiness” of Orthodox synodality is rooted in love, in mutual submission, and trust in the providence of God. Thanks for this piece. I will bookmark it.

  2. Fr Damick,

    I am reading this as a Protestant inquirer of Orthodoxy, and I have a question regarding one of your statements.

    “That’s no cop-out, either, and it might be hard to believe but for the historical record. There is simply no way that a governance model as messy as the Orthodox one could produce dogmatic fidelity as one sees in history if God were not involved”.

    How do we know that Orthodoxy has indeed produced dogmatic fidelity — can’t someone just as equally say that the “chips fell randomly” in response to historic controversies? For example, can one really say objectively that the use of icons in worship is dogmatic fidelity, or is it simply the outcome that came about, by chance, when one party won the day? Is there a kind of circular reasoning here with a claim that the Spirit guides the Orthodox Church, but then whatever comes about is credited to the Spirit.

    It occurs to me that there are a few presumptions made (rightly or wrongly) — namely that Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide the Church, and secondly, “we” are that Church. These presumptions lead to the conclusion that whatever we decide in council, it must be from the Spirit. But Rome makes the same claim, and clearly both cannot be right at the same time when they oppose each other dogmatically (papal infallibility, for example). The Spirit cannot be leading at least one of the Traditions (or both), even though both make the same claims (Spirit will guide the Church, and we are that Church).


    1. Ultimately, it’s very hard (maybe impossible) to say anything at all objectively. I can give my reasons for why I believe that Orthodoxy has been dogmatically stable for all its life (by examining it century by century) and that Rome and of course the Protestant groups have not, but if you don’t buy those reasons, then you don’t buy them.

    2. As a protestant who converted to Catholicism and then to Orthodoxy, I can say that the Church does not need only a Pope (or Patriarch or bishop) to maintain Truth, but it needs the Holy Spirit. Our Church relies only upon one man, Jesus Christ. It is a massive scandal when our leaders become greedy, corrupt, schismatic, or heretical. But the Body of Christ is not just the bishops and priests, it is the lay people and the saints who are ever with us. The Holy Spirit acts through all. As it says on Acts at the Council of Jerusalem, “It seemed good to the Spirit and us”. May God have mercy upon us!

  3. Interesting article, Fr Andrew. But isn’t the Orthodox lack of “supremacy” – as you put it – at least in part the result of an ossification and lack of vitality? “The [Roman] Catholic Church, Soloviev says, has not been afraid to dip her cloak in the mud of history. In ministering to the people in its communion, the papacy has shown more concern for her flock than for her appearance. The Eastern Church, however, has emphasized isolation over engagement” ( ). In other words, the Eastern Orthodox has conserved more perfectly dogma and liturgy, but at what cost? At the cost of not engaging society, not having the kind of evangelism protestants and catholics have?

    1. Well, I disagree with Soloviev, of course. I do believe that Orthodoxy’s temporal experiences (e.g., domination by Islam and Communism) have made its outreach difficult in our current times and even lacking because of sin, but that does not mean that the Orthodox Church isn’t concerned with its flock. For one thing, what has its flock been up to? The degradations of modernity have their origins in the West, so there is a chicken/egg issue there WRT Rome’s concern for its flock. They do now touch the East, of course, and Orthodoxy is in the process of responding. That said, what exactly should the response to history’s changes be? To change, as well, i.e., submit? Or to offer the same life-giving way that has been offered from the beginning? Yes, we are certainly working on new ways to communicate that same way, but that does not mean that we ought to depart from the way.

      The “ossification” accusation only works if you really don’t have experience of the actual life of the Orthodox Church and if you presume that changeability is itself a virtue. What can be more alive than Christ? And what is heresy and distortion in liturgical life but departure from Christ?

      If there is a choice between remaining in Christ and staying au courant with modernity, I think the choice is pretty clear.

  4. Given that we’re witnessing a historical blunder papacy, it’s rather rich that a Catholic theologian should talk about Orthodoxy’s “tensions and divisions… unfolding… that synodality doesn’t govern the Church well.”

    As Lumen Gentium makes it clear, the college of Catholic bishops is impotent to balance a pope hellbent on demiurgically making the Roman Catholic Church to his own liking and likeness. The cardinals who submitted their dubia to Francis would certainly agree. Through papal supremacy and infallibility the Roman Catholic Church painted itself in a corner.

    Unfortunately, that’s why I believe that it’s impossible for us to be in Communion again. Notwithstanding the model proposed by then Card. Ratzinger, that the pope would retain his prerogatives just in the West, which would guarantee another Great Schism. The modern papacy, as codified in the Gregorian Reforms, is incompatible with Christ’s Apostolic Church. What is possible is for Catholics to become fully Catholic in the Orthodox Church, where they’ll find everything that they’ve always loved and then some!

  5. It’s like the “One Ring” was sitting there in the stream bed reflecting sunlight into the eyes of various Roman Patriarchs for centuries until one of them finally picked it up and put it on. Now, there’s no going back. It must be destroyed, or it must destroy whoever bears it.

  6. You say: “Supremacy models in church governance ultimately presume a kind of deism, which is why you need a vicar of Christ. The model presumes that Christ isn’t actually trusted to work things out or isn’t going to do it. God isn’t actually governing, so you need a vicar or a vicariate.”

    I think you seem to assume that the cause of the RC way of doing governance is from lack of faith rather than out of an actual faith that God has set something up a certain way. This seems rather ‘ad hominem’. I am not RC, but it seems to me that IF God had created a system in which there was a ‘vicar of Christ’ such as the pope, he would preserve it – it would, in fact, be God governing! You yourself claim that IF God were not in charge, Orthodox conciliarity would not work either. In my opinion, then, your article claims a lot more than it can support – inasmuch as it rests on a logical fallacy. The most you can logically say is that Orthodox conciliarity is correct because it is the ordained way of God. ANY way (Orthodox or RC or Protestant) will fail if God is not the guide by his Holy Spirit.

    1. What you say is basically true, but that doesn’t mean that it makes no difference whether one teaches that Christ needs a stand-in or not. We can in fact critique that doctrine. Of course RCs believe that that is a divinely revealed dogma, but that’s why it’s being critiqued here.

  7. I so appreciate your grappling with this hard-to-pin-down difference. I came up with something that seems to immediately make sense to people: it’s that the Orthodox Church is guided by *community memory.* It’s guided by the grandma’s memory of what their grandmas remembered from their grandmas, etc. People can grasp that, and instantly see how different it is from any kind of supremacy.
    It omits, of course, saying that authority is in truth found not in anyone’s memory but in our Lord, that he is the real Head of the Church. But saying that doesn’t seem to click as well with people, because everyone thinks their own church is led by Christ. It sounds like just air. It’s like saying “Our church is the one that follows the bible.” Everyone thinks they follow the bible.
    The question about “but how do we know it has remained faithful?” is answered by the way the Church is consistent over all the centuries, in all different lands. This is an astonishing and conclusive confirmation, but I find its not as immediately grasped, because people don’t believe it. They have to research it and see it for themselves. They are usually impeded by beliefs that they consider indispensable which the Church does not hold. Yet once you see it, it’s overwhelming how the consistent faith of the Church has shown out unchanged in every continent, in every time.

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