Whatever else the Synod on Synodality turns out to be it will remain a tongue-twister. It never helps when a novel initiative—one that is guaranteed to be greeted with skepticism in certain quarters—comes with a seemingly redundant title.
I did not participate in any of the synod’s listening sessions, but have followed the process and surrounding controversies with interest. I read the USCCB’s report, “National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod” (also a tongue-twister). My reaction was mixed. Like most reports written by a committee, the national synthesis is a bit unwieldy, a bit repetitive, and a bit bland. Unlike the synod’s conservative critics, I think it is entirely appropriate for the Church to ask Catholics to listen carefully to one another while refraining from challenging those with whom they disagree, at least for the moment. “Intentional listening” and theological “discernment” can be difficult disciplines, but they are not impossible—and they are not pointless. The synod’s critics seem to think such forbearance is nothing more than a Trojan horse that will soon disgorge all the forces of liberal disarray that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI supposedly banished and that Pope Francis is allegedly determined to smuggle back into the Church. Writing at the Catholic Thing, Robert Royal, president of the Faith & Reason Institute, observes that “many people have been puzzled by the Synod on Synodality—the ‘walking together’ that seems to have some figures in the Vatican (and their immediate allies) highly enthused, but almost no one else.” Even after a year of listening sessions, Royal claims, no one really knows “what ‘synodality’ means.”
Honestly, it’s not rocket science. Perhaps Royal should reread the USCCB report, where the purpose of Pope Francis’s initiative is stated simply. “Discernment is a practice of the Church carried on in a spirit of prayer, meditation, and ongoing dialogue,” the report states. “The rediscovery of listening as a basic posture of a Church called to ongoing conversion is one of the most valuable gifts of the synodal experience in the United States.” Careful listening, the report reminds us, is “a spiritual discipline,” not a diabolical secular invention. Critics of the process obviously do not trust the current pope, an awkward posture for those beating the drum for “orthodoxy.” They have convinced themselves that he is using the synod to lay the groundwork for, among other things, the ordination of women and the wholesale revision of traditional Catholic sexual morality. But is there really any evidence for such suspicions? On some fraught theological and ecclesial issues Francis sometimes muddies the waters, but he hasn’t issued any ringing reversals of traditional teaching. Clearly, he is looking to decentralize decision making and open opportunities for greater lay participation—but also presumably greater lay responsibility—for the Church. Accusations that the synod is an effort to sideline the bishops and hand the keys over to those in the pews are frivolous.