For others the process is an ominous departure from ‘tradition’ – the manner in which Catholic bishops in the past have deliberated. With the addition this time of a minor component of lay people – including women – and the unknown quantity ‘synodality’ – some suspect a pre-determined outcome that could endanger the full ‘deposit of faith’.
However, can there truly be something sinister in the seating of members at round tables, to symbolise their equality in dignity as Christians, with bishops and lay people together for ‘genuine sharing and discernment’ – the words of Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the synod co-ordinator? Will this necessarily endanger the principle of hierarchical governance to which ‘conservatives’ are attached – given that the purpose of synodality is to somehow find consensus on controversial matters that do tend to cause polarisation but also concern the whole church?
In an interview article in the Tablet the papal biographer and theologian Austen Ivereigh explains that previous synods took place with the bishops in ‘theatre’ formation – rows of seats arranged according to the rank of the bishops.
This time the participants sit in small groups at separate round tables, sharing ‘conversations in the spirit’ – alternately listening and speaking on the procession of issues raised. The end goal is to produce a document that synthesises all contributions.
“The object of this whole exercise is synodality itself,” Austen Ivereigh explains. “It’s a new way of proceeding, of operating, of thinking within the Church which centres on communion, participation and mission, that is to say the involvement of people in processes of discernment prior to decision taking in the Church.”
Inevitably there will be points of disagreement but the process aims to contain these differences to prevent sterile polarisation, through prayer and discernment aided by the Holy Spirit.
A resulting document will then be discussed by the whole church, in preparation for the synod’s final stage in October 2024.
For the complete Tablet article, click here.