The minefield of synodality: does hearing mean listening?

hearing mean listening

“The path of synodality is the path that God expects from the Church of the third millennium,” Pope Francis has said.

And so it is not surprising that in region after region Catholic bishops are embracing synodality. The Germans have embarked on a synodal path, the Australians a plenary council, the Irish a synod … and so it goes on and on.

This shows remarkable growth in ecclesiology in a matter of three of four years in comparison with the amount of attention that these same conferences of bishops devoted to it – or to the significance of the Synod of Bishops – in the first decades after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Let us hope and pray that this new enthusiasm for synodality will bring renewal to the Catholic Church, mark an end to the decades of scandal following the scandal, and also allow the Church to put behind it the centralist triumphalism that was so attractive in the nineteenth century.

In an age of imperialism and colonialism, the Catholic Church took on contemporary dress. However, it has been slower than many states at changing its fashion.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to those conservative voices who hope this will all be a flash in the pan, those who murmur — none too silently — that they will just sit out this pontificate and who see this whole “synodality thing” as simply populism. The Church, they remind us, is not a democracy!

To enter true dialogue, one must be open to change

The reason to listen to these voices is that, while many bishops do not share those reactionary perspectives on the Church, very few are actually prepared to accept the implications of synodal processes.

There is a basic fact of human communication at issue here: if you enter a process of dialogue, and then do not accept the conclusion arrived at within the debate, then you lose that dialogue partner.

When a politician says, “I hear what you are saying”, we all know that time is being given to a gripe, but that is all you will get. There will be no change, no action, no new policy. You have been “given a hearing” – that’s your lot!

By contrast, if I enter a dialogue I have to be open to having my views changed, my position altered.

And, if the dialogue relates to activity, then my being in the dialogue makes an implicit statement: I shall accept change if that is the result of the dialogue.

Listening is not the same as hearing. Listening involves openness to change.

If I go to buy a kettle and discuss my exact needs for my new kettle with the shopkeeper, there is an assumption in the dialogue that I might learn more about my needs for a particular kettle and then act on that new information.

Now imagine a series of dialogues in country after country around the Catholic world – they may be called “pastoral consultations” or “plenary councils” or “synods” – and there is agreement on where the argument leads. What happens next?

If nothing happens and there is no change, then the event has actually generated frustration and bad-faith. The relationships between the partners will be more fraught and embittered, if not entirely broken.

What if the bishops reply that they agree with the plans, but say it is “above their pay grade” and issue must go to Rome? Then while their dialogue will continue, a new fissure may be in the course of being opened within the larger Church.

Where then will these men stand? With the local synod to whom they are committed as ministers? Or to the larger Church to which bishops believe they owe not only respect but obedience? To where does their primary responsibility relate?

We may wish that these questions will not be tested in practice, but they should be faced openly, explicitly, and honestly.

This might seem all very theoretical but consider the issue of women in the Church.

Women within the Church

While some bishops and theologians dismiss calls for women to be admitted to the ministry of deacon (not to mention the “higher” orders) as no more than a perverse example of “gender theory”, the fact remains (whether those bishops are right or wrong) that there are some women in the Church who see this matter as crucial to their continuance within Catholicism.

They see an all-male ordained ministry as simply unacceptable and a legacy of a discredited, outdated patriarchy.

Moreover, they have allies!

Recently, I listened to a debate where a loyal son of the Church pointed out that “the will of Christ was that men alone should be ministers – that is why he chose only men as apostles”. And he added some quotes from the appropriate Vatican documents.

I assumed the debate would not turn on the historicity of early texts such as the gospels, the confusion surrounding the term “apostle” in the early Churches where women were apostles (cf. Rom 16:7) or the hermeneutics of historical precedents (if they be “precedents”) within Catholic discourse.

Alas, I was disappointed!

The debate went like this:

“Do you have children?”

“Yes – a son and a daughter,” he replied.

“Are you making equal provision for both in education?”

“Yes – both are at university,” he said with an obvious pride.

“That would not have happened 50 years ago, much less in the time of Jesus.”

That debate on women’s non-admittance to the diaconate stopped there and then.

A First World problem

It might be replied that this sort of attitude to women – that daughters should be treated equally as sons in education – is very much “a First World problem” and dismissed as such (one presbyter in the audience at that debate did just that).

But – do we really want to belong to a Church that does not want all the children upon the planet to have equal opportunities in education?

Items not for discussion

If bishops as decision-makers within the Church have already decided that there are areas where they are not willing to make changes, or that they are not willing on behalf of their sisters and brothers advocate changes with Rome, then it might be a better policy if these “non-negotiables” were clearly laid out before a synodal process begins.

We are all familiar with the notion that there are “red lines” in political exchanges. But are there red lines for the men in red and purple?

The stark fact is this: if these red lines are not set out clearly, there will be an implicit assumption that these questions are open for debate and so for change.

Like it or not, a synodal process is not about debate, even elevated theological debate.

It is about change.

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