Monday, March 06, 2023


 I've long criticized modern theological jargon. Theological jargon, even that which has a very good reason behind it, sometimes needs, I think, to be broken up so that it doesn't cover over and choke out more important things; but modern theological jargon often has no good reason behind it all, and is often highly misleading, serving no function except to litter committee reports. I've criticized 'encounter' (in English, unlike its cognates in Romance languages, it means an unplanned meeting, usually by accident) and 'accompaniment' (which in English means a side-dish or a supporting musical part). One that I have not criticized yet, but has been very much in the air the past few years is 'synodality'.

There is a legitimate theological term, 'synodality', which just means that aspect of a bishop's office that has to do with working together with other bishops. A 'synod' is just a meeting of bishops; synodality in the proper sense is just the meeting-power of bishops, which for various theological reasons I won't get into here is always operative, and organizes the whole episcopacy as a sort of council even when scattered throughout the world.

However, in recent years another meaning entirely has arisen; you can tell it's a new one because it doesn't just apply to bishops but to everyone. It seems to have grown around the false etymology of 'synod' as 'journeying together'. The Greek word synodos seems never to have meant 'journeying together'; hodos, road or path, can figuratively mean a journey (i.e., what you do on a road or path), but this is not its primary meaning. The actual etymology for synodos, as far as we can tell, is a meeting of roads, which (long before it became a theological term) became a way of talking about any kind of conjunction, meeting, gathering, or assembly, i.e., our different paths having come together so that we are in the same place. As I said, this meaning became the standard meaning long before it was ever used in theology, and it is this meaning that was taken up into theology. But the folk etymology is really popular among certain demographics in the Church; and it is perhaps not hugely surprising in our day and age that people really want to take a term that is about the destination and make it all about the journey. Maybe the real synod is the friends we met along the way!

Regardless, we are stuck with people using a perfectly good old word for one thing as new and completely manufactured jargon for another thing, so we should ask what that other thing is. Etymology, after all, however culpable it may be for the existence of the jargon, is not definition. If we read the International Theological Commission on it, after they give the false etymology and misattribute it to St. John Chrysostom by mistranslating his comment that ekklesia and synodos are synonyms, they ramble around trying to make the real meaning of the word somehow fit the way it is used in the new jargon, and in the course of their doing so, it becomes clear that the word is just supposed to mean 'communion'. Over and over and over again they have to use 'communion' to explain it. This is the very worst kind of jargon, in which we have twisted the meaning of a perfectly good word doing perfectly good work in order to replace a word that is already much more clear and much more useful than the new twisted word.

The correct Greek for what the 'synodalists' are talking about is koinonia, which means 'communion'. So why would anyone use the word 'synodality', a pompous, gaudy, gilded neologism, when we have the simple and earnest word 'communion' instead? I suspect it's because the people using the word don't listen. They don't listen to themselves, to hear how they sound; they don't listen to others (or they would realize that most people have no idea what they are talking about); they don't listen to those who have come before (or they would realize that they have already been taught the much more accessible word by people who weren't making fools of themselves by trying to sound fancier than they actually were). This is the usual reason why people use jargon of this sort -- you do it when you aren't speaking to communicate, to make a meaning in common, but to sound a certain way regardless of your interlocutor. Or, indeed, to sound like you mean a lot when you can't be bothered to mean much at all.