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Synod on Synodality: Doesn’t the process require letting people say what they think? — Russell Shaw

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Dozens of Post-it Notes with prayers and requests from young people are seen on the wall at the Synod of Bishops' booth in a park in Lisbon, Portugal, during World Youth Day Aug. 1-6, 2023. (OSV News photo/Courtesy of the Synod Secretariat)

With the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops soon to get underway, there’s a certain question that needs to be faced: Isn’t a Synod on Synodality — which is what this one is supposed to be — a rather embarrassingly self-regarding exercise for the church at a time when world crises abound, from war in Ukraine to famine in Sub-Sahara Africa?

But a defender of the synod might call it unfair even to raise that question. After all, the church didn’t cause problems like those and in fact it’s doing what it can to alleviate them. Moreover, the church deserves time, as at a synod, to concentrate on serious questions concerning its own structure and operation.

Granting all that, however, it’s reasonable, even at this late date, to wonder whether “synodality” is precisely the most pressing issue just now. Not only do the world crises just mentioned overshadow it, simply among intra-church problems that a synod might discuss I’d personally give priority to the shortage of priestly vocations, the virtual disappearance of women’s religious communities, the startling decline in Mass attendance and belief in the Real Presence, the growing difficulty of transmitting the faith to the young, and the apathy and religious illiteracy of so many nominal Catholics.

Frankly, I doubt that “synodality” is the answer to any of these things. Which may help explain why expectations and anxieties focused on the Synod on Synodality differ so wildly.

Religion writer Russell Shaw  (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

For example: pro-synod journalist Christopher Lamb writes angrily in The Tablet of London about people who might actually have the nerve not to be “converted to the process” of synodality — a process, one might note, that so far has been painfully shaky and amateurish. At the other end of the spectrum there’s theology professor Michael Hanby declaring in First Things — weeks before the synod begins — that the Synod on Synodality has shown itself to be “the Synod on LGBTQ affirmation and inclusion.”

Both gentlemen may be correct. But I prefer to wait for the synod to happen before passing final judgment on either its process or its product.

Following a plan decreed by Pope Francis, this first session — which will begin Oct. 4 and continue to Oct. 29 — will be followed by a second session in October of next year at which the participants will reach conclusions and make recommendations. Clearly, however, the Pope is looking to the synod to advance his great project of creating a synodal church, and since Francis will have the last word, we might as well hope the synodal church will be a good thing rather than a permanent replica of the ramshackle process leading up to the present moment.

To sustain even that conditional optimism, though, it is imperative that the gathering in Rome show at least some positive results. And that will not happen if the impression emanating from the synod hall is that participants were force-fed predetermined conclusions instead of being allowed to find their way for themselves.

As someone who staffed American delegations at several synods of the past, I know full well that manipulation of the proceedings is entirely possible. In the short run, the manipulators might get the results they want, but in the long run manipulation will place the launch of the synodal church under a cloud.

At a minimum, doesn’t synodality require letting people say what they think rather than what someone else would like them to think? Fans of synodality should be hoping that’s the rule at the Synod on Synodality.

Russell Shaw, a veteran journalist and writer, is the author of more than 20 books, including three novels.