“Synodality” is a confusing word that attentive Catholics are discussing these days, but its meaning is fairly mundane. “Synodality” refers to the active participation of all the faithful in the life and mission of the Church, while “synod” refers to a council or gathering of church leaders not unlike those in other Christian communions. In the Catholic Church, a synod is primarily composed of bishops, who deliberate about a particular matter or theme under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In the present case, the October 2023 synod is about synodality itself — a deliberation about the nature of authority within the Catholic Church, an institution more associated with hierarchical than horizontal structures.
A central theme of the current papacy has been to bring about more lay involvement in the Church’s governance, and perhaps greater democratization, flexibility, and autonomy. Few dispute the first of these, though it makes some nervous. More, however, have misgivings about the latter trio and fear the German and Belgian bishops’ conferences will use the synod as a means to weaken the authority of central moral doctrines. What exactly Pope Francis thinks about all of this is not entirely clear.
An early and key part of the preparatory phase of this synod was a massive “listening and discerning” data collection effort across the globe, in an attempt to gauge the sensus fidei, or the “sense of the faith” (among the faithful). As a sociologist of religion and family, I was naturally interested. The fruit of this process is now summarized — or rather, synthesized — in the Document for the Continental Stage. The DCS is the Vatican’s interpretation of the data and a document that will be the focus of the seven “continental” meetings scheduled over the next few months. It serves as a precursor to the instrumentum laboris (or working paper) that the October 2023 synod’s participants will discuss and debate. In other words, it’s an important document. I also refer to it as the “Frascati report,” because it was the product of two weeks’ worth of work in late September by its authors at a retreat center in Frascati, Italy, not far from Rome. It was there that a few dozen select interpreters — mostly theologians — were asked to “authentically” synthesize the national reports made by 112 participating episcopal conferences from around the world. Hence, it’s a powerful group.
Making sense of interview and focus-group data from a solitary parish is not a simple task. Add another 10,000 like it from across the globe and you have an impossible challenge.
Inquiring and listening are always good things, I maintain, and lay representation in Church governance merits some experimentation. After reading the DCS, however, I have grave concerns as a social scientist about the methodological mess that has characterized this synod’s massive, unwieldy data-collection – and – analysis venture. Making sense of interview and focus-group data from a solitary parish is not a simple task. Add another 10,000 like it from across the globe and you have an impossible challenge. Then ask for “syntheses” instead of summaries? What results is a very expensive, time-consuming set of interpreters’ personal opinions, with little accountability (and no public access) to the original data….
Full story by social scientist Mark Regnerus at The Public Discourse.