Pope Francis’ appointment of Xavière Sister Nathalie Becquart and now-bishop-elect Luis Marín de San Martín to the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops is only the latest step in his efforts to push the global church toward a synodal model of leadership. That is, a model in which bishops and lay people speak freely together about the issues affecting them and where they believe the Spirit is calling them, and, through discussion and voting, reach decisions together.
Synodality is not necessarily a process of democratization, as final decisions still rest with the synod of bishops and, ultimately, the pope, but embracing co-responsibility between the bishops and lay people does help “overcome clericalism and arbitrary impositions” and gives “special attention to the effective participation of the laity in discernment and decision making, favoring the participation of women” (Querida Amazonia 88, 92).
Furthermore, Francis sees this type of mutual respect and listening—when one enters into it honestly, not with the goal of emerging as a “winner” or getting one’s own way—as a key to achieving the elusive unity he’s called for the church to embrace.
The pope has taken Vatican II’s call to synodality seriously: After acknowledging in the first year of his pontificate that the synod of bishops was “half baked” in comparison to the model the Second Vatican Council called for, he instituted a college of cardinal advisers who he suggested could eventually be elected by the Vatican’s standing synod of bishops and held high-profile synods on the family, young people and the Amazon. He appointed a handful of women, including Sister Becquart, as consultors to the synod and now, by appointing her as undersecretary to the synod, has for the first time allowed women a vote in the synod. The extension of voting rights to more women, which has been called for for years, is now under consideration at the Vatican and could be granted as early as 2022’s planned synod on synodality.
Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops are in dire need of the collegiality being pushed forward at the Vatican. The most recent example was the bishops’ embarrassing response to the election of the U.S.’ second Catholic president, to which some bishops responded by questioning the integrity of the election, issuing a combative statement that sparked Vatican intervention and constituting, then disbanding, a committee to determine, without the input of President Biden’s (more sympathetic) local bishops, how to deal with Biden and whether he should be allowed to receive communion.
The bishops who pushed for these initiatives generally embrace a “culture warrior” approach to church leadership, putting their effort into scoring political points and building their own cult followings—the exact opposite of the synodal call to unity, cooperation and listening.
At the Vatican’s summit on the protection of minors in 2019, Pope Francis forced bishops who denied that abuse was an issue in their dioceses to sit and listen to survivors from around the world until they understood the gravity and breadth of the problem. At that summit, the U.S. bishops were seen as the experts in the room, having dealt with the abuse crisis for years, while others lagged far behind. If the American bishops continue to behave as an exclusive and infighting group, come the 2022 synod, they will be the ones forced to sit down and listen to lay experts on synodality—like Sister Becquart—until they understand.
Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.