Reading Cardinal Mario Grech’s Oxford lecture on synodality recently, I was struck by his account—which draws heavily on St. John Henry Newman’s—of the consultation of the faithful that happened before the declaration of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
“[Pius IX] defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (8 December 1854) based on the ‘singularis Antistitum et fidelium conspiratio’ (the remarkable agreement (harmony) between the bishops and the faithful). In order to arrive at such a consensus between the Bishops and the faithful, he launched a real consultation, asking all the bishops to inform him with respect to their faith and the faith of the People entrusted to them regarding this doctrine.”
Newman, in his famous article “Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” does not seem entirely convinced of the veracity of this narrative, but he does support the underlying idea that would be affirmed by Vatican II, that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (cf. 1 Jn 2:20) cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium 12). Newman adds, “because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.”
From my own perspective as a young American who grew up in the age of what Massimo Faggioli recently called the period of “Vatican II historicized and lamented” and now working in Catholic media with a front-row seat to church divisions, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine the faithful being able to reach any universal consensus, aside from on the church’s most basic doctrines. It raised the question for me: Does the sensus fidelium exist anymore? Did it ever, really?
Pope Francis believes that it does, even if the faithful cannot reach a consensus. He writes, “In the dynamic of a synod”—like the one he has ambitiously called to hear the sensus fidelium on all things church—”differences are expressed and polished until you reach, if not consensus, a harmony that holds on to the sharp notes of its differences…Therein lies its beauty: the harmony that results can be complex, rich and unexpected,” (Let Us Dream 81).
In his series of lectures on synodality for the London Jesuit Centre, Austen Ivereigh points out that this harmony is not always harmonious: He says it is “tense,” “dynamic,” even “conflictual.” In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis says that we face two temptations when we are in conflict: One is to cling to our own conviction that we are right so tightly that we exacerbate the conflict; the other is to wash our hands of the conflict completely.
“The task of the reconciler is instead to ‘endure’ the conflict, facing it head-on, and by discerning see beyond the surface reasons for disagreement, opening those involved to the possibility of a new synthesis, one that does not destroy either pole, but preserves what is good and valid in both in a new perspective. This breakthrough comes about as a gift in dialogue, when people trust each other and humbly seek the good together, and are willing to learn from each other in a mutual exchange of gifts” (80).
Last week, I heard evidence of this sort of reconciliation in the Archdiocese of Regina’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which aims to reveal the truth of the abuses committed in Canada’s largely church-run residential schools. In a group interview ahead of three Indigenous delegations’ meetings with the pope last week, members of the Regina committee—Indigenous survivors, diocesan employees and Archbishop Donald Bolen—told me that they had been transformed by their dialogue with one another over the past several years. They had discussed their painful history together, discovered common ground in their faith in the Creator and their desire to care for creation, and had ultimately been able to chart a way forward towards healing and reparation. (I pray that the U.S. church can have a similarly fruitful reckoning with its own history of these schools, which has yet to be examined as deeply as Canada’s.)
The Synod on Synodality’s broad mandate to consult the entire People of God—even and especially those on the margins of the church—seemed at first to me as naively ambitious as the idea that the faithful could reach a harmonious synthesis in our disagreements. But the testimony of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee challenges my skepticism. In this case, the kind of transformative synodal encounter with others that Pope Francis always talks about has changed hearts and minds and brought two sides together onto one common path forward. It’s not a consensus, and certainly not all Canadian Catholics nor all Indigenous people are on board, but those who have chosen to participate and face their painful histories together have been able to create a harmony in difference.
Pope Francis’ vision of evangelization in Evangelii Gaudium posits that attraction is more powerful than imposition. I think that is also true of this kind of harmony: It cannot be imposed, but it can attract, and my hope is that it can inspire more people to join the chorus.
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.