How does the center of institutional authority—in the Catholic Church, the papacy and the Vatican—allow dialogue within a global, decentralized, talk-back culture? The answer is: with great difficulty.
Pope Francis’ open and friendly communication style has stirred interest globally, especially among communication-study specialists. Much attention has been focused on his personal style in communications, but he is also developing and implementing a new style of communications within the church itself. When the pope urged candid discussions at the recent assemblies of the Synod of Bishops on the family, it was interesting to see how this worked and where it proved challenging among church leaders.
There were two types of challenges visible in the synod: negotiating the content divisions—the arguments over the theological material at hand and the decisions to be made—and dealing with the processes set up to facilitate healthy dialogue. While the discussions over content, especially about Communion for the divorced and remarried, received the most global media attention, the way the dialogue itself worked was at least as fascinating. This is not surprising, because process issues are basic to facilitating fruitful dialogue. Much valuable theory and practice already exist to aid the institution in establishing authentic dialogue. But the system resists.
The issue is this: How does a tradition of centralized hierarchy interact with and communicate effectively in a decentralized digital world? This devolution of power is a current challenge for many centralized organizations and power structures globally, as Moisés Naím has explained expertly in The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States.
When he spoke to the bishops on his trip to the United States, Pope Francis spoke of a “culture of encounter” in which “dialogue is our method.” He recognizes that whatever challenges may be encountered in official, centralized communications, there is a deeper and more basic level at which communication—in the sense of dialogue and encounter—is at the heart of the church’s mission to carry the message of the Gospel to the world.
While the recent synod meetings provided plenty of evidence of difficulties with and even occasional resistance to this commitment to dialogue and encounter, Pope Francis was not deterred. He showed patience at synod sessions. This patience is motivated, it seems, by a long view of how the process of dialogue within the church needs to develop.
The pope has said that the church should not be run like a top-down organization, with all authority and power radiating from the center; he said it should be an “inverted pyramid” in which the bishops and pope exercise their authority and deepen their identification with Jesus “in serving the people of God.” In his address marking the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, the pope made clear the church should not just hold synods; it should become synodal. He said that the Second Vatican Council’s hope for “the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized,” and he urged a “healthy decentralization” away from Rome.
Indeed, these challenges are not new. Over 30 years ago, while attending a conference on communication and theology, I had a lovely lunch in a quaint Italian village with three respected theologians, one each from France, Germany and the United States. Fueled by a glass of Italian wine, I asked them, “What is the key challenge facing the Catholic Church today?” They answered virtually in unison: “truly listening to the local church.”
The three decades since have seen a significant development of resources in communication and theology that can help to facilitate a synodal church. Here are a few examples:
• Eight international meetings have been held linking communication studies to moral theology, ecclesiology and other areas of theology.
• For a decade, an annual seminar was held at the convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America so theologians and communication specialists could interact and think together.
• European Catholic funding supported a small international ecumenical commission to meet annually for a decade on various continents to think together with local leaders about media, religion and culture.
• For three years the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Vatican have sponsored seminars at Santa Clara University allowing theology and communication experts to push these ideas further.
• A document called “A Communication and Theology Resource Kit”has been produced, collecting key writings to date.
As valuable as all these resources are, however, the larger challenge is to implement these ideas at the parish and diocesan level so that the life of the church can be enriched by more dialogue, drawing in the gifts of the people of God beyond the hierarchy, of women and other laypeople. This has already been demonstrated in Europe where Matthias Scharer and Bernd Jochen Hilberath have developed a project, documented in The Practice of Communicative Theology, involving workshops that attracted hundreds of church members.
According to one participant, through “experimenting with, and reflecting on, group processes that promote personal and collective discernment and decision-making in the church...they have developed a theologically integrated approach to group communicative practices.” Similar workshops could easily be organized regionally in the United States. Another example is the practice of local diocesan synods, such as the one conducted in 2014 in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., discussed at length by Bishop Frank Caggiano in an interview published on America’s website (“Church Reform From Below,” 7/27/14).
One insight emerging from all this work is that churches, for centuries, have used various communication channels as instruments of conversion. Now, however, communication and computer technologies have merged into global dialogic networks. Individuals, groups and cultures have become mediated—totally suffused by a global media ecosystem. Churches have found their one-way messages are not being heard or valued either internally or externally, especially by young people. Desperate individuals and leaders have not been listening appreciatively to each other; gridlock has spread. William Isaacs, who wrote Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, says that in most dialogues, “we don’t listen; we just reload.”
Pope Francis has spoken out against “a hermeneutic of suspicion” or “hostile rigidity.” In his encyclical “Laudato Si’” he used the word dialogue 25 times.
Communication theory and practice are keys to the church’s future success. Digital communication technologies are an essential part of the infrastructure of connection, but they can be used effectively only if the church learns how to integrate dialogue and listening at the heart of its structures of authority. This is especially important as talk proceeds about decentralization. It is also critical if “the people of God,” predominantly at the level of local churches, are to be deeply involved in this renewal.
The pope reminded the bishops at the synod: “I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.” The whole church needs to hear that encouragement as well.