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Synodality and its Perils (20180409)

Synodality and its Perils

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Contemporary Catholic Belief and Action

 

Synodality and its perils:
Baby steps towards a more representative church
Massimo Faggioli
 
The catholicity of the church is not just measured in terms of the orthodoxy of its content, but also in terms of how these teachings are carried out.
 
The Catholic Church and the world's constitutional democracies are today facing the same critical challenge - how, as institutions, they can credibility represent their people. We saw this in the church several days ago after some 300 young people who met in Rome to offer their views on the next session of the Synod of Bishops issued their final document.
 
Their text was just the latest occasion for the usual critics of Pope Francis, especially in the United States, to once again take aim at the pope. The critics accused the teens and young adults that drafted and approved the final document of merely parroting the pope and being manipulated by him. The young authors of that document have officially denied the allegations.
 
Interestingly, in denying the charges, the youths also pointed out the gap between the healthy ecclesial ethos modeled by their gathering in Rome and the polarization that has become so evident among Catholics in the United States. Many young people around the globe asked one of the U.S. participants, Katie Prejean, whether "Americans are really at each other's throats all the time" and if they hate each other as much as it appears from the outside. 
 
This criticism of Francis is a new form of what the 81-year-old pope has called the "hermeneutic of conspiracy" (actually tame in its English version compared to the original Italian, "ermeneutica cospirativa"). Francis used the phrase during the 2015 assembly of the Synod of Bishops to denounce those who claim certain development currently underway in the church are the product of a scheme or plot.
 
It is ironic that the pope's neo-traditionalist critics are now demanding that the Synod of Bishops be more representative of all the various members and groups in the church. These same people had no such concern during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI who were much less eager to give this role to the Synod.But such criticisms against the preparations for next October's assembly on youth are far more insidious than criticism against the pope. They go even further by calling into question the credibility of Pope Francis' representative role in the church.
At first glance, these complaints against the pope's methods to develop synodality look like just another way of trying to politicize his pontificate. Certain American critics, in particular, attack Francis because his vision for the church does not correspond to their political narrative of institutional Catholicism. They have been harping on about this since his election five years ago.
But there is something deeper going on now. In strengthening synodality with the church, Francis is also offering today's world a model for effective representation in our social and political bodies.
 
"A synodal church is like a standard lifted up among the nations (cf. Is11:12) in a world which - while calling for participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration - often consigns the fate of entire peoples to the grasp of small but powerful groups," the pope said in his 2015 speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops.
Francis' speech on synodality and the way he is transforming the working of Synod assemblies are important to understand the meaning of his pontificate. There are many parallels between the crisis of representation in our democratic systems and the crisis of representation in the church. In both cases, it is a crisis of incarnation (what we embody as a people),  of  imagination (how we express what we are), and of vicarial representation(who and what makes us feel represented).
 
For what concerns the church, Francis is trying to make the Synod more representative. Paul VI instituted the Synod of Bishops in 1965 during the final session of the Second Vatican Council. He intended it to be representative of the church in a very limited sense, that is, through the bishops. It was a hybrid between an anti-representative and monarchical church (pre-Vatican II) and a church that was growing in the belief that some kind of representation must be part of the ecclesial process (Vatican II).
During the 20th century, and especially between World War II and Vatican II, the Catholic Church accepted the ideas of political, representative and constitutional democracy - at least at the level of the history of the Catholic tradition. At the ecclesiological level it is still trying to discern how much of modern representation can become part of the institutional church. Francis is not afraid to let the people be active participants in the ecclesial process. It is true that his pontificate has only taken baby steps, but it has done so in a direction different from those of his predecessors.
 
However, there is a new problem today. Democracies are experiencing a crisis concerning the idea of representation and the ideal of the secular. And this is having an impact on the church. The Catholic Church is catching up with the democratic revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries only now as representative democracy is being challenged by the virtual world of social media and social networks. 
 
What is true for our political process - the danger of manipulation of consensus through automated profiles that can keep the real faces hidden - also poses a problem for synodality in the Church today. While it is hard to imagine in the near future a WikiSynod or Internet Ecumenical Council, there is no question that the virtualization of the ecclesial experience on social media can be used to influence the process and the outcomes of decision-making in the church.
 
We saw this when participants at the pre-Synod gathering of the youth in Rome pointed out the gap between their discussions in person and the agenda pushed by some groups on social media.
"A consistent bloc of more or less 30 individuals flooded the six private Facebook pages of the pre-synod with praise for the traditional Latin Mass, thereby pushing it for a while to the top of trending topics on social media counters," said one of the Rome participants
 
We are still trying to understand how to make good use of social media in the church. But it is dangerous when proponents of a supposedly more traditional and orthodox Catholicism, who think they are being marginalized by Pope Francis' Synod, use social media to oppose the official results of the synodal experience made up of real people. Their tactics reveal a very weak "sense of the church," a quasi-Leninist understanding of church membership.
 
The credibility of the church is based on its fidelity to the Gospel. But what is typical of the church - compared to cults and sects - is the tacit acknowledgment that ecclesial institutions and bodies are still, albeit inadequately, representative of the Catholic Church, despite all their limits and flaws, more than small groups with their own agenda. It is one of the main differences between the church and other religious groups, like for example Islam, which has no visibly unified representation in one given country in the West.
 
Part of the insurgency tactics of neo-traditionalist Catholicism - very different from what we could call classic conservative Catholicism - is the constant effort to undermine the representative function of Francis' pontificate and of the decisions made by ecclesial bodies and events called by this pontificate. 
The catholicity of the church - its teachings and actions - is not just measured in terms of the orthodoxy of its content, but also in terms of how these teachings and actions are decided and carried out. Representation in the church is not the same as democratization of the church. But a weakened culture of participation means also a weaker ability of the church to represent, that is, to make possible the effective presence of the Trinity through Christ and the Spirit.
 
Undermining, in the name of an idiosyncratic idea of orthodox teaching, the legitimacy of the institutions that cooperate in representing Christ in the church means working towards an authoritarian-corporate or, on the other side of the spectrum, a populistic-demagogic system. The Catholic Church represented in the preparation for the Synod assembly on youth is more representative of the church - with all its limits - than the opinions expressed in a Tweet or in a column. 

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