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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 10, 2023
Participants at the assembly of the Synod of Bishops recite morning prayer before finishing their discussions on the assembly's first module, which was on the meaning of synodality and how to promote it in the church, in the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall Oct. 7, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The synod is now in its sixth day, and I am particularly struck by how its members have adhered very closely to Pope Francis’ call for “confidentiality” and “reserve” during the synod and not to disclose what they themselves or others have said in the small-group sessions or indeed what has been said in the plenary sessions. This is almost unprecedented in my experience covering synods for more than three decades.

So, too, is the lack of details being revealed in interviews with synod members by journalists; very little has been disclosed about what was said, and by whom, inside the Paul VI audience hall. In past synods, “synod fathers,” as they were called before non-bishops became full voting members of the synod, would give inside information as the synod was in session, often revealing tensions and clashes. Today, almost no synod member wants to go on record or provide such information, except in a most general way, as we have seen at the press briefings.

I have spoken to several synod members over these past five days and learned some of what was said at the synod but on the condition that I do not disclose the source or the one who said it. At the same time, and perhaps more important, I have received important clarifications about the synod.

“The synod is not a council. It does not take decisions as a council does. Its task is to discern, not decide,” one synod member explained to me, comparing the Second Vatican Council to this Synod on Synodality. The synod’s role is “consultative, not decisional,” he emphasized.

Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, in his speech at the synod’s opening session on Oct. 4, said the task of the synod is “the common work of discernment.”

This is also stated clearly in paragraph No. 7 of “Episcopalis Communio,” the apostolic constitution of the synod approved by Pope Francis on Sept. 15, 2018, which is the framework for the synod. It first recalls that “[t]he history of the Church bears ample witness to the importance of consultation for ascertaining the views of the bishops and the faithful in matters pertaining to the good of the Church.” It goes on to state the following, which merits attentive reading if one is to understand properly what to expect from this synod:

During every Synodal Assembly, consultation of the faithful must be followed by discernment on the part of the bishops chosen for the task, united in the search for a consensus that springs not from worldly logic, but from common obedience to the Spirit of Christ. Attentive to the sensus fidei of the People of God—“which they need to distinguish carefully from the changing currents of public opinion”—the members of the Assembly offer their opinion to the Roman Pontiff so that it can help him in his ministry as universal Pastor of the Church. From this perspective, “the fact that the Synod ordinarily has only a consultative role does not diminish its importance. In the Church the purpose of any collegial body, whether consultative or deliberative, is always the search for truth or the good of the Church. When it is therefore a question involving the faith itself, the consensus ecclesiae is not determined by the tallying of votes, but is the outcome of the working of the Spirit, the soul of the one Church of Christ.” Therefore the vote of the Synod Fathers, “if morally unanimous, has a qualitative ecclesial weight which surpasses the merely formal aspect of the consultative vote.”

The role of the synod is therefore consultative; its task is to provide discernment on the given issues and make proposals to the pope.

I learned that one member, speaking during the free intervention session in the general assembly, explained that “one discerns experiences, not ideas.”

That is a most important clarification in view of the discussion of the many concrete issues mentioned in Modules 2, 3 and 4 of the working document, some of which—like the role of women in the church, the poor, young people, migration, justice, war and peace, divorced-and-remarried Catholics, L.G.B.T.Q. people and human trafficking—have hit the headlines. Others—like islands disappearing as a result of climate change, witchcraft, polygamy and persecution—have hardly even been noticed. Members told me that issues considered important in one region of the world may not be a priority in another, and this presents a challenge to the synod not to overlook any of them.

Anna Rowlands, who teaches Catholic social thought and practice at Durham University in Durham, England, pinpointed the challenge in discernment when introducing the second module on communion, citing a key question from Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.: “Can we find the courage to encounter reality, as it really is?”

Indeed, as I said on the “Jesuitical” podcast, a litmus test of the success of this synod is whether its members can find ways of overcoming the polarization in the church around certain difficult topics by accepting to discuss them, as brothers and sisters in the faith, in a mutually respectful way. That is the goal of the conversations in the Spirit, and it is the path that enables discernment to take place.

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