Pope Francis was a young man when the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) met in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 and produced five documents that realigned the church relative to the poor and to the authoritarian political systems that were dominant in that decade and later that went by the collective name of “national security states.” In their efforts to encourage participatory democracy, the bishops at the meeting drew attention to the paucity of what they called “mediating structures” in most if not all of the nations of Latin America. If political life is to be vigorous, they thought, then attention must be given to creating these structures, organizations or groups that fill the gap between the individual and the state. Without them, all you have is the vote, and that in itself does not make for true participation in civic life. When individuals have entered into associations and then use the power of the group to promote their social agenda, then perhaps sufficient influence can be exercised over elected officials that real change might occur.
This idea of mediating structures might be useful in our current political meltdown in the U.S. Of course, we may be inclined to think that in a mature democracy such as our own with a tradition of involvement in local government and civic life, these structures are already in place, and we need not fear for democracy. Perhaps we are less inclined to have this kind of confidence in the aftermath of the assault on the Capitol, but maybe not. But then, look at Kansas, where a plebiscite scotched the plans of politicos to remove the state’s protection of abortion rights from its constitution. Regardless of where we stand on the implications of the Dobbs decision and the overturning of federal protection of abortion rights, we should be very wary of the disconnect between the views of political parties and the decisions of the Supreme Court on the one hand, and the views of ordinary Americans on the other. It does seem to suggest that those organs of civic life that should give expression to the views of Americans and bring pressure to bear on legislators either do not exist or are ineffectual or are simply being ignored by a cabal of elected officials with no respect for the electorate that put them into office.
The more pressing issue for us, however, might be within the American Catholic Church itself. It seems fairly clear to me that Pope Francis’s raising the banner of synodality is motivated by the papal recognition that an authoritarian church in today’s world is unscriptural and likely to be ineffective. The call for synodality resonates with Medellín’s affirmation of the importance of mediating structures. Absent synodality, there is no structure between the faithful Catholic and the bishop and, eventually, the pope. Pope Francis is trying to change this situation at both ends of the process. He has worked to turn the Roman Curia into a servant of the global church and he has frequently reminded bishops of their need for humility and to be sure to “smell of the sheep.” And he has encouraged ordinary Catholics to raise their voices and express the kinds of concerns that can only grow out of love for the church. If his initiative fails, it will be a sad day for the future of Catholicism. But if it succeeds, does even Francis know what he might have started?
Think back to the Kansas decision and apply it to the church. In any number of important issues there is a disconnect between the people of God as a whole and their ordained leadership, especially at the level of the bishop. While American Catholics may be divided on any number of issues, the majority seem to want an end to mandatory clerical celibacy. Most are supportive of LGBTQ persons and a sizeable minority is unfazed by the idea of same-sex marriage. A majority of Catholics believe that while abortion is morally problematic, there are some circumstances in which the procedure is regrettably necessary. The vast majority of American Catholics simply ignore church teaching on birth control. Most seem to think that women should have a far larger role in ministry, even ordained ministry. Most love their church, but do not believe that people of other religious traditions are in any way at a spiritual disadvantage because they are not followers of Jesus Christ. If synodality becomes effective in ecclesial life, the future is going to be exciting. It’s easy to see why Francis likes the idea, and not too difficult to understand why more than a few American bishops are dragging their feet.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.