Synod vocabulary: Are the synodal reports speaking the same language?

As the Church’s global “synod on synodality” continues, groups of bishops and laity are now staging continental-level discussions of the “Working Document for the Continental Stage,” a synthesis document created by a Vatican-appointed working group.

The continental stage’s working document – published by the Vatican in October –  is meant to be a summary and synthesis of texts from bishops’ conferences around the world, which themselves are drawn from diocesan summaries of discussions in parishes and diocesan meetings.

But how well does the “Working Document for the Continental Stage” actually reflect the synodal reports of the world’s bishops’ conferences?

When bishops’ conferences submitted their national reports to the Vatican last year, 18 conferences submitted their texts in English. These came from every inhabited continent except South America.

The Pillar applied a quantitative textual analysis approach –  called correspondence analysis –  to both conference-level synodal summaries, and to the global “Working Document for the Continental Stage.”

Correspondence analysis looks at the frequency with which different words and phrases appear in different documents, and then produces a visual representation of how unique particular phrases are to particular documents.

When words appear with equal frequency across all the documents, they are shown near a graph’s origin point — shown as 0,0 on the X,Y axes of the graph.

Words common in some documents but not others are plotted further from the centre, near to the names of the documents in which they appear most frequently.

So what did we learn?

Well, on one hand, correspondence analysis shows nothing but patterns, and frequency relationships — data that by itself might prove very little.

But on the other hand, those patterns make suggestions — and in the case of the synod on synodality, they suggest differences in concern and emphasis among the reports of countries around the world, which were taken up with varying degrees of frequency by the drafters of the “Working Document for the Continental Stage.”

Let’s take a look

In the following correspondence analysis graph, we have magnified the central area of a correspondence graph, to separate words crowded in that area.

These words – such as “dialogue”, “faithful”, “people”, “want” and “feel” – appeared with similar frequency across episcopal conference documents and the Vatican’s “continental document.”

Korea and the Nordic countries had the most average usage of terms, and are thus plotted near the center of the graph. Other conference documents fell into particular sets, which suggested some interesting similarities and contrasts.

Correspondence analysis suggested groupings of nations whose episcopal conferences clustered around certain themes.

The U.S., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, Canada, and Malta (whose official languages are Maltese and English) formed a cluster. Those countries mentioned leadership, the abuse crisis in the Church, young people, and families, more than reports from other regions did.

A second group of synodal reports consisted of Germany, alongside a set of countries from what is sometimes called the Global South — in this case, Malaysia, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, and Antilles). The reports from those countries spoke about bishops, the poor, and the laity more often than other regions.

Three smaller groups consisted of Scotland and Japan, the Nordic countries and Korea, and England, Wales, France.

But the global “Working Document” stood apart from any of the national reports analyzed by The Pillar, talking more about topics such as women, Christ, and synodality, and speaking less about bishops, the abuse crisis, and the laity. Continue reading

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , ,