Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on doctrine, and coordinator of the USCCB's role the Church's global synod on synodality, a three-year process aimed at fostering prayer, discussing, and discernment in the life of the Church.
The synod of synodality has been controversial in the United States, with some supporters of the process calling it an expression of the Church's sensus fidelium, and critics lamenting low participation rates and ambiguity about synod goals and procedures.
Bishop Flores talked with The Pillar Nov. 16 about synodality, the discernment of bishops, and episcopal disagreement in the history of the Church.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bishop, you are trained as a Thomist, and tend to approach theological questions from the lens of St. Thomas Aquinas. So I’d like to ask whether synodality fits into the ecclesiology of St. Thomas.
Did Aquinas think about this notion of synodality?
Perhaps not using this particular language, although there was an experience of the local Church that I think was very vivid in those times.
I think if you want to look for a sense of [synodality] in St. Thomas, you look at how the moral judgment and moral decisions are always in contact with the particular — with particular realities.
You cannot make a decision about the next thing to do if you don't know what the thing is now — and that’s always a particular, right? And in terms of the responsibility of the Church, it's to attend to the real and not just to the idea.
The Holy Father has been pointing out that we can not deal with the problem of ideologies - which are conceptions abstracted from the real - unless we have a sense of what the real is.
Because that distinguishes authentic prudential judgment in the Church from just kind of an idea you have and you want to make everyone fit into it.
And so when I hear the Holy Father talking about [synodality], I hear a very tiny sort of echo that you have to hear it, you have to see it, and you have to appreciate what is in front you - as it is - in order to be able to discern any appropriate response to it. Because you can’t simply impose: ‘This is the truth.’
You very often have to figure out how to achieve the good within a particular reality — because reality is limiting, indeed, all reality is. But if you don’t know a reality, you’re just speaking to it from the outside.
So I think the root of a synodal understanding of the life of the Church is rooted in St. Thomas’ understanding about how human judgment works.
And within the Church, the gift of wisdom - which is a gift of the Holy Spirit - is something that allows the Church to discern where - in a particular reality - is Christ calling to conversion?
And where - in this particular reality - is Christ calling us to move forward?
And what - in this reality - is Christ calling us to move forward?
And so it’s not a calculus, but a judgment, properly speaking.
Synodality has been described as a new thing in the life of the Church, or a long dormant disposition among Christians.
But you are a bishop, and you have a presbyteral council, a pastoral council, and a finance council, and you talk with people, and you listen to them.
Is synodality really something novel, or has the Church been telling you to do that all along?
No — We have been doing it.
I think the United States has a fairly robust sense of this, with the pastoral council and stuff like that.
But this is calling us to do it with a much more deliberate attempt to bring in people who have basically walked away from the conversation, for whatever reason. I think I hear a lot of that in the Holy Father. And I think he’s very astute about what all of our polling tells us: Many people have simply just walked away, or they’ve drifted away.
And we need to re-engage voices so that you wouldn't ordinarily hear in your pastoral council. We have to find a way to re-engage our own people in a lot of ways.
Among them are the great number of people in parishes who feel that they never really have nothing to say. They go to Church, they are believers, they go to Mass as often they can, but really they think that talking about these things is for the priest. And we really do need to encourage that sharing of the wisdom in the Church, because there is a great deal of wisdom there.
But you have to be active about inviting people to talk about what worries them in life.
And practically speaking, in my own experience, we have advisory bodies, but it becomes very routine to listen only to the same group of advisors. And the beauty of this process was going around to different deaneries, or with representatives from different deaneries, where people would stand up to say ‘This is what I heard in the groups.’
And that was very encouraging, and it revealed a certain similarity about hopes, and fears, and the things that strengthen us.
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In your experience, who are those Catholics most likely to think they don’t have anything to say?
Well, many of our churches in the United States are very well-established in certain ways, and there are people who are very poor, and don’t believe they would fit in there.
It’s not that people are saying ‘we don’t want you here,’ but people pick up signals.
And I think one of things about this is asking people who don’t ordinarily say anything, to tell us what they think we might do that would be off-putting to somebody new, or to somebody poor, or somebody from another ethnic background, or another racial background. To say, ‘you tell us, what are we doing?’
Because they might see things we wouldn’t be conscious of, and we would learn some things.
I think we would learn more about [how] we sometimes give the impression that we aren’t interested in other people coming, or we’re not welcome, or maybe we’re not aware what the signals are. Things we wouldn’t even think of.
People can tell us simple things that matter. Maybe the parish has a potluck - and potlucks are great - but maybe there are people who feel bad, because they can’t bring anything, and so we can just know that when we advertise it, and how we talk about it.
So we listen, and you learn stuff that way!
I think there are also a lot of people who don’t think anyone will be really interested in hearing what they have to say. Some people don’t want to be vocal because they're afraid they're gonna be judged, or they're gonna be criticized because they don't necessarily fit with what they think the parish is all about.
And sometimes people operate with ideas about the parish that maybe are not real, either. And so then you have the conversation, and then maybe some of that wall falls back.
‘Oh! I had no idea we were giving that impression!’
There are some parishes that are beautiful churches and have spectacular ministerial programs, but a poor person would feel like he just doesn’t fit in there, and we need to deal with that. Why is that? And how can we deal with that?
Let’s talk about this synodal process theologically.
The process has been described as an expression of the ‘sensus fidei’ or the ‘sensus fidelium.’ Those are very specific, technical, theological ideas in the Church.
Can a process which involved fewer than 1% of Catholics in many countries really be said to represent the sense of the faithful?
Is that term an overselling of the process?
I would look theologically to Cardinal Newman and people like that to give me a sense as to how the Church’s sensus fidelium expresses itself.
And this language is fairly newly being used, and maybe we haven’t examined it. And that’s part of the synod. For this synodal process — in this synodal process — we have to solidify the language, and the sense of this thing, because it is new for the West in terms of how synodality works in relationship to Petrine primacy, and how the bishops have a particular responsibility in a synodal process.
And so what I have been very careful to say is that this was 700,000 baptized people who took the time to go and pray together, and express what’s on their hearts and on their minds. And it is what it is.
It’s not a poll, and it is really something in the Church, something which happened. It’s not nothing. And so at the very least, it is a place from which to start hearing what’s being said.
And the thematic confluence is an interesting phenomenon because the dioceses of the United States are very different [from each other], and the dioceses in the world are very different.
And as it goes into other levels, you can’t make absolute statements about how many people said one thing or another. But you can begin to hear a certain sort of resonance on certain things, and I think certain kinds of pain that are being experienced.
And it's not — well, I don't think the sensus fidelium can be so easily gauged theologically. I don't think the Fathers of the Church understood it that way. It's something that's expressed in the practice of the Church, in the prayer of the Church, in the way the Church responds sort of spontaneously to a challenge.
We were reading Maccabees a couple weeks ago in the Office of Readings. The spontaneous reaction of the Maccabees to the call to defile themselves — in rejecting that, that’s a sensus fidelium, that's an expression of faith.
And, I think, the early martyrs are a similar thing.
So I mean theologically, I think the use of that term, sensus fidelium in this context, is something that needs to be explored.
But whatever it is, this synodal process is actually something, and it's something that we've not had before. And so at the very least, we need to hear it, and we’re going to have to address some of this, at least somewhat.
I don’t think that anybody expects that everybody’s issue in the Church is going to be resolved at the end of this, but at least we’re talking about it. And some people may not like the way the resolution comes, because at a certain point the responsibility of the bishops, in union with the Holy Father, is to readjust what pastorally we can do to be more evangelical, and better accompany people, and even accompany people in great suffering.
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Can you explain the role of bishops in this listening and discerning? Is it the case that the bishop has a kind of charism - and grace - for listening and prayerfully discerning because of his ordination?
See, I think this question needs to be developed as we talk about the synod.
I think instinctively the bishops have a sense that we have a pastoral responsibility.
We do pray that God gives us an ear to hear the suffering, and to hear the hope, but also to hear something from the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit will always lead us to a greater conformity to Christ himself.
And so I think it's our responsibility to continue to call the whole Church to be much more immersed in the Christ of the Gospels and to be a more prayerful, reflective Church — lectio divina and that sort of thing.
But then our responsibility as bishops is then also to hear in the light of the Gospel. And that is a responsibility that it takes some time to discern. And maybe there are certain moments that probably the bishops will have to talk some things out in a serious way. But that's not new in the Church.
I mean the Council of Jerusalem was not necessarily like just that everybody said hello and then they left.
And Galatians is not easy: ‘I told him to his face…’
I think we have to be a little freer in the Church to accept that that's part of the reality. It always has been that successors to the apostles can have passionate senses that are quite different. There's nothing in the way that apostolic Church operated that said that we were always supposed to be unanimously agreed as to what the solution was to a particular pastoral crisis immediately.
But what if the successor to St. Peter has an idea about the solution? Do we have to immediately defer to it?
Yes. If it’s a final judgment. But the Holy Father — the current style is ‘I will let you all talk through this, and we will see when it comes time to discern the Spirit in that.’
And so that part of that is Petrine and part of that is Ignatian.
It’s Petrine-Ignatian, and that’s a unique thing. It’s a gift for the Church because God is gift to us, and so we have to kind of roll with that.
But in the history of the Church, the bishops will often be contentious with each other, as they try to deal with the pastoral response to things, sub Petro, but Peter doesn’t intervene automatically.
I mean, Leo the Great didn’t immediately say, ‘No, don’t even have the Council of Chalcedon, because I’ve already given you a very nice letter.’ He didn’t do that. The Tome of Leo was written and then it was accepted by the Council of Chalcedon, and so an expression of communion came out that: ‘Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo’ — and that’s an important moment.
And I think we need to recover a bit of that spirit. The primacy of Peter does not suppress the work that needs to go on at the local levels of figuring out what the pastoral problem is in the first place, and how it challenges the faith. And then to think about how we can move together to resolve it at a certain point, as it reaches a certain maturity.
I think that’s part of the Petrine role, too, [to judge] that this conversation has reached a certain maturity.
I think we saw that in the Amazon synod, and with the apostolic exhortation afterwards, which was Peter responding to this thing — this conversation.
And it wasn’t what a lot of people wanted him to say, and it said more than a lot of other people would want. But it said what it said. It said what it said.
Like I said, we are sometimes scandalized by things like the bishops arguing, but that’s nothing new. Now, there is a deference [to the pope]. There should be respect, there should be all that sort of thing, and the conversation should certainly be under Peter.
And there’s a certain sense that Francis is opening this up for us. That’s what he wants. And we need to recover this.