Experts debate meaning of ‘synodality’ for Global Church

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ROME – Throughout July, some 100,000 people will be able to participate in a free, online seminar about synodality, curated by three theologians from Latin America and including witnesses from all around the world.

“Common Discernment and Decision Making in the Church” is the theme of the first in a series of courses that will be hosted by Boston College’s School of Theology and ministry, sponsored by the bishops’ conferences of Latin America, Europe, and Asia, as well as the Jesuits in Latin America and the organizations of superiors general of male and female religious congregations.

Six of the conference speakers answered questions related to their chosen topic and provided Crux with a sample of what participants will be learning. The initiative seeks to help Catholics understand the concept of synodality ahead of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which was opened by Pope Francis last October and which will conclude in Oct. 2023, when prelates from all over the world meet in Rome.

RELATED: Synod on synodality to be ‘process of spiritual discernment,’ participants say

Below are the questions each received, tailored to their talks, and what they had to say. The list includes lay theologians – male and female – religious sisters and priests. They are from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

Speaker: Judith Gruber, German theologian from Belgium’s Ku Leuven University.

Lecture: Conflict and divergence management

Crux: What role does conflict play in a synodal church?

Synodality also makes space for thinking in new and productive ways about conflict and disagreement in the church – in ways that do not understand conflict as an “extra-ordinary” event in a church that is “normally” in unity. Instead, within a synodal church, conflict can be approached as a challenging, but fruitful pathway to arrive at a deeper vision of the identity of the church and its mission in the world. Synodality is a dialogical process of patient and mutual listening among and across all levels of the church that is oriented towards enabling the church “to listen to God, so that with him we may hear the cry of his people; to listen to his people until we are in harmony with the will to which God calls us.”

Such listening does not provide unambivalent information about the will of God, but is a shared endeavor of discernment of the will of God for God’s creation, here and today.

As Pope Francis has highlighted, such a process of discernment is not free from dispute and he has therefore encouraged theologians to explore contentious issues as part of the journey towards discerning what the Spirit is saying to the church in this place. Synodal ecclesiology, in other words, makes space for disagreement and conflict in the theological conception of the church.

Against this background, we can understand conflict to have revelatory quality – to allow us to discern something genuinely new about church, the world and God, as Pope Francis has put it beautifully in Querida Amazonia when he said that conflict resolution is not simply about finding out who is right and who is wrong, but that the path forward rather should be to “transcend the two approaches and find other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined. Conflict is overcome at a higher level, where each group can join the other in a new reality.”

Speaker: Sister Josée Ngalula, from the Democratic Republic of Congo

Lecture: Women’s leadership and governance in the church

Crux: What difficulties do women have in the African Church that need to be changed?

There are three key difficulties faced by African women in Africa that urgently need to be changed: financial insecurity, the cultural trivialization of violence when it is a woman who is a victim, sexual abuse in the workplace, in the ecclesial environment, as well as in situations of insecurity and war.

Can you share some key concepts of African theology that can help to understand and better receive synodality?

I can think of several but let me share three: ecclesiology of “church as family of God and fraternity (Eglise Famille de Dieu-Fraternité)”, the African palaver as a space where the priority is to absolutely let everybody to express himself/herself; the “ubuntu” vision, where to live on earth means to walk together.

Speaker: German Gregor- Maria Hoff, professor of fundamental theology and ecumenical theology at the Paris Lodron University in Salzburg

Lecture: Power in the church

Crux: How can we define power in the church and what do you think needs to be changed?

The church is the space in which the unlimited creative life power of God must be brought to bear. It is the beginning of and in everything. Jesus Christ embodies it – in his life, in his message of the kingdom of God – and it continues to work as a power of faith and life in the church if and as long as it sets signs of life. That is what the power of the church depends on, that is what it is measured by.

Everything that is deadly must be transformed to new life options. Transformation, therefore, not only in the Eucharist, strikes at the heart of what the church is all about. In concrete terms, this means that where the church does not function as a space in which the creative life power of God can be experienced, it must change. This concerns not least the possibility of all the baptized to participate responsibly in such processes of transformation.

How can the German synodal way contribute to the synod on synodality?

The German synodal way starts with an experience which is determined by the power of the church: the sexual and spiritual abuse of people. It has systemic reasons that have to do deeply with the way power is invested in the Catholic Church: As potestas sacra, as sacral power.

Power must be controlled in its use – this also applies to the church. Transparency at all ecclesiastical decision-making levels is then more than just a technique or a change of functions. It is about the deep spiritual experience that the charisms of all the baptised need space in the church in order to remove false concentrations of power. There is a need for a comprehensive division of powers: spiritual, institutional, but also epistemic. The Synodal Way practices such a division of powers – as an experiment it can have an impact on the church. It is already apparent: topics and problems that are negotiated on the Synodal Way do not only concern the church in Germany. The future of the Catholic Church depends on it seeing itself as truly synodal.

Speaker: Christina Kheng from Singapore, theologian, teaches pastoral leadership at East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila

Lecture: Models of discernment in Asia

Crux: What are the key elements that should be present in a communal discernment process?

An important element is our interior freedom to seek God’s will together. Although each person should certainly voice his or her genuine desires and concerns in a dialogue, there is a need to move from “me” to “we” so that we let go of our own attachments and sincerely ask: “What is the Holy Spirit revealing to the whole community? What is best for the common good?” It is only in this way that we are truly discerning as a community.

What are the challenges and opportunities for building a synodal church in Asia?

Basic livelihood, educational, health, and security issues remain a key concern if not a daily struggle for many people in Asia. They don’t normally think about synodality or co-responsibility for the mission of the church. However, this challenge can also be an opportunity.

Many grassroots leaders have found ways to bring people together in meeting these basic needs, with everyone playing a part and reaching out to the most vulnerable. This was especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. The church needs to build on this momentum in partnership with others.

Speaker: Spaniard Carlos García de Andoin, theologian from the University of Deusto, Spain

Lecture: Synodality, democracy and parliamentarism

Crux: Why is a synodal institutional model for the church not comparable to democracy or parliamentarism?

Decision-making in the church does not respond to political programs but to listening to the will of God here and now. It is not self-referential. The norma normans [norm of norms] is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, already given, not a constitution to be agreed upon. Democratic deliberation is, for us, synodal discernment: what the Spirit says to the churches. A synodal institutional model is not based on antagonistic but communal logics.

What can we learn from contemporary political organizational systems that help ecclesial reform?

The instrumentation and regulation of participation for the adoption of decisions and the election of leadership. The universal character of participation. The subjection to law of the exercise of authority, to avoid arbitrariness. The regulation of counterweights in the exercise of power, avoiding the risks of hyper-leadership or authoritarianism. The need for the vertical principle and the horizontal principle in the exercise of power and its articulation, which in the case of the church requires a rebalancing of the apostolic or hierarchical principle with the synodal principle.

Speaker: Carlos Schickendantz, Argentinian theologian from Chile’s Universidad Alberto Hurtado

Lecture: Accountability: international reports and ecclesial responses

Crux: Why speak of a reform in the church?

In the document on ecumenism, the Second Vatican Council recalled an expression of Paul VI formulated in 1964: “as an earthly and human institution” the church is called by Christ to a “perennial reform.”

Therefore, the renewal of persons and the reform of the institution must be thought of as permanent tasks. Each generation of believers has the responsibility to carry out this “perennial reform” by allowing itself to be guided by the Gospel and its tradition on the one hand, and by the signs of the times on the other.

How can synodality contribute to ecclesial reform and what dimensions does it include?

The synodal process represents a kairos for a renewal of the whole life of the church. It includes a personal conversion of each and every believer and, at the same time, a reform of structures, of the various ways of proceeding in the different diocesan, national and universal instances. In the task of renewal, one should not choose one or the other aspect, personal spiritual conversion or the reform of the institution. Nor should one aspect be promoted first and the other left for a later time.

It is necessary to promote simultaneously personal changes and institutional transformations, even juridical ones. This is the only way to achieve a profound renewal and an effective and lasting reform. In particular, the principle of accountability, which describes a form of governance and leadership suitable for our times, calls for profound adjustments in the ways of proceeding at all levels of the church’s life.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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