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Entries from October 2023

Synod: Unpause—What happened here and what the next 11 months hold

In his opening address at the synod on October 4th, Pope Francis referred to the synod as a “pause”—a time when synod participants would take a break from their frenetic lives in order to come together in Rome, to listen to one another, to have “conversations in the Spirit” on our most pressing issues and to identify the convergences, divergences, ideas and questions that emerged in these conversations.

The comment came in the context of the pope asking synod participants to “fast” from speaking to the media, and urging reporters like me to communicate that the synod was about listening. Although he didn’t name it, it was clear that the pope wanted reporters to take a “pause” this month from reporting on the intra-church disagreements we so often focus on. (By the way, I do not recommend telling people not to talk to the press about a story and telling reporters to cover that story positively in the same breath. It’s not a great PR strategy. But I digress.)

For the month of the synod, the press has been surprisingly “good,” as one prominent synod cardinal told me. There have been leaks, but nothing on the scale of the Amazon synod’s Pachamama incident, and only a few analyses have made this out to be a “single issue” synod.

But every pause is, necessarily, temporary, and as the synod comes to a close, it is time to plan for what is next. As synod spiritual director Timothy Radcliffe reminded the synod participants on their retreat, the disciples at the transfiguration did have to come down from the mountain. As synod relator general Cardinal Hollerich reminded them at the beginning of the synod discussions on participation, the success of the synod will be judged on what they accomplished in this momentous “pause.”

The final document for this month’s meeting is expected to be approved and released on Saturday, and it will outline the results of the synod’s conversations—as previously mentioned (and mentioned ad nauseam in the synod hall), the convergences, divergences, questions and ideas. It seems apparent enough that after two years of listening to Catholics around the world, the convergences and divergences on the key questions about how the church fulfills its evangelizing mission will be fairly representative of previous conversations. The questions and ideas that arise will require deeper reflection and investigation; synod officials have already said they may involve possible changes to canon law.

The next 11 months before the synod reconvenes will be a time for discussing those questions and ideas broadly in the church and deepening our reflection on them. This isn’t just a job for the synod participants. They’re coming down the metaphorical mountain not with stone tablets like Moses, but with stories of a profound experience like the Transfiguration that will inspire our next conversations as a community, focus our intentions going forward and inspire us to think differently about what may be possible. It’s this conversation that the synod participants will bring back to Rome next year; this is the “circularity” of synodality that we so often hear about. The pause is coming to an end. Ready, set, go.

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming book on grappling with faith while covering the Vatican will be published by Penguin Random House in spring 2025.

A Journey Faith

In speaking of synodality, there is no word that Pope Francis deploys more frequently than “journey.” After all, as he likes to say, synodality means “journeying together.” Pope Francis clearly relishes the adventure of this way of being church—“I think this is truly the most wonderful experience we can have: to belong to a people walking, journeying through history together with their Lord who walks among us!” And yet not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Where, they wonder, is this journey headed?

Many times over the last ten years, I have returned to the extraordinary interview Pope Francis gave to the Jesuit press some months after his election as pope. There he shared his understanding of the church (“a field hospital”); his views on the confessional (“not a torture chamber”); his feelings about a gay person who sincerely seeks God (“who am I to judge?”); his love of opera, the films of Fellini, the art of Chagall; and his “dogmatic certainty” that “God is in every person’s life.”

But among the nuggets buried in this revealing interview, there was an image that clearly identified the difference between Pope Francis and many of his critics. That was his distinction between what he called a “lab [or laboratory] faith” and a “journey faith.” He said, “There is always the lurking danger of living in a laboratory. Ours is not a lab faith, but a journey faith, a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.” In a way that distinction points to many of the tensions and fears that have surfaced in the lead-up to this synod, a tension between those who adhere to a “lab faith” and those who embrace the adventure and uncertainty of a “journey faith.”

         What is the difference? In a “lab faith,” everything is certain and mathematical; the greatest threats come from relativism, doubt and uncertainty. (Compare Cardinal Ratzinger’s speech to the conclave of 2005 wherein he identified the “dictatorship of relativism” as the greatest threat facing the church; Bergoglio, in contrast, identified that danger in ecclesial introversion, a hesitancy to go out to the peripheries.) But such a faith can be inflexible—ill prepared to deal with the messiness of life or the nature of reality, which is not all black and white,  yes or no (as demanded by the authors of the most recent “Dubia”). Presuming that all the answers are theoretically knowable in advance, a lab faith may leave us impervious to the surprising promptings of the Holy Spirit.

In contrast to a “lab faith,” a “journey faith” is at home on the frontier; starting with experience rather than with abstract truths. It is constantly open to uncertainty and risk and to new, unexpected information. If a “lab faith” prizes certainty, a journey faith values trust, patience and a capacity to endure or even embrace uncertainty.

In a journey faith, we don’t know all the answers in advance. We have to pray, to practice discernment, to listen to how God is speaking to us through the events of history or the circumstances of our own lives. As Pope Francis notes, “Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing … We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us … God is encountered walking along the path.”

Clearly, for Pope Francis, the significance of the synodal path does not lie in any particular outcomes. It is a way of being church that is comfortable with uncertainty, that travels by the light of faith, that is open to new insights, that is incomplete and always engaged in the “adventure of the quest for meeting God.”

Is there a way of reconciling these two styles of faith—that of the “lab” and that of the “journey”? Both styles have always been present in the church—though typically it has been the “lab faith” that held official sway, while those of the “journey” persuasion were consigned to the margins. Here, in contrast, the balance has been reversed. The difference is that those on the “journey” tend to be more tolerant of diversity, while their “lab” partners sound alarms at anything that seems to stray from the well-worn path. Nevertheless, Pope Francis believes that it is possible to walk “united with our differences. This is the way of Jesus.”

Concluding his homily for the opening Mass of the Synodal Path, he issued this invitation: “Dear brothers and sisters, let us have a good journey together! May we be pilgrims in love with the Gospel and open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit. Let us not miss out on the grace-filled opportunities born of encounter, listening and discernment. In the joyful conviction that, even as we seek the Lord, he always comes with his love to meet us first.”

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books. His most recent book isDearest Sister Wendy. . . A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.

Dubia(s) Faith

This week’s beginning of the Synod on Synodality evinced stark contrasts. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former master of the Dominican Order and one of the great spiritual writers of our time, gave an illuminating retreat for Synod participants. At the same time, a group of Cardinals released a statement saying that they had submitted dubia to Pope Francis concerning the Synod and issues to be discussed there, and that after receiving what they considered to be an inadequate response, they had resubmitted with a request for a “yes/no” answer. These events—and the response the Cardinals received from the Pope—tell us something about inquiry in good and bad faith.

Radcliffe, a former student of the great Hebert McCabe, OP and heir to the English Dominican tradition of intellectualism, is no stranger to learned inquiry, and his role as retreat leader sought to connect mind and heart. Radcliffe notably prayed that members of the Synod would have their hearts freed from fear. This, of course, is easier said than done—truly freeing our hearts from fear requires immense spiritual discipline. He also noted that “orthodoxy is spacious and heresy is narrow,” arguably one of the themes of Pope Francis. Radcliffe further dwelt on the nature of disagreement in the Church, pointing out the need especially to listen to one another yet also refusing a bland “both sides” approach in pointing out the hurt that so many people in marginalized communities have felt from the institution of the church.

The dubia Cardinals, including the American Raymond Cardinal Burke, an implacable critic of Pope Francis, were engaged in a different mode of discourse clearly geared to their press release just ahead of the Synod. This is seen in the phrasing of the four questions they posed. The clear intent was to pose leading questions in order to show the Pope’s unwillingness—read inability—to answer forthrightly. This would enable them to raise the alarm about the project of the Synod and to fearmonger—the quest for “yes/no” answers and the timing of their release on the Monday before the Synod began speaks to this.

This kind of bad faith “gotcha” questioning is endemic to our politics, particularly as it plays out on social media. So much of what passes for political discourse in certain sectors consists of “just asking questions,” serving to stir doubt and derision without spelling the likely consequences of such a position or laying out any constructive alternative. This approach to vaccines alone has cost many thousands of lives. Such questioning is poisonous to inquiry and corrosive to faith.

By answering the dubia, Pope Francis demonstrated shrewdness in the face of cynicism. When the Cardinals came out with their statement, he was prepared to make public his own response to their questions. Thus, rather than leave room for speculation about what he said that the Cardinals found so inadequate, Francis left people free to read it for themselves. In so doing, Francis trusted that people of good will would understand that the questions the Cardinals posed do not lend themselves to simple “yes/no” answers but must be dealt with in their complexity.

Beyond political deftness, however, what Francis demonstrated is his openness to good faith questioning and discussion. While it is not in the scope of this column to get into the substance of the answers that Francis gave to the dubia, what they clearly demonstrate is a sympathy and inclination toward inquiry. Thus, on matters such as women’s ordination where he and other Popes have staked out a clear though widely controverted position, he thus indicates it is possible to study the question and that prior statements fall short of dogmatic definition. This may seem obvious to many readers of this forum, but many Catholics—whether they agree or disagree—likely viewed the Cardinals’ approach as closer to the stated teaching of the Church on these matters. The Synod will, of course, have to take its own approach to the possibilities on such issues, but what Francis offers in his letter is a path forward for good-faith inquiry.

Good faith questioning leads to insight and spiritual nourishment; bad faith questioning leads to cynicism and despair. So much discourse about Pope Francis from his enemies has taken this form, and the dubia represent a kind of culmination. Radcliffe’s retreat provides us with the wisdom we need to pursue this questioning. This is seen especially in his evocation of the road to Emmaus: “A real conversation cannot be controlled. One surrenders oneself to its direction.”

Open inquiry is challenging; it’s much easier to set everything up so you know the answers in advance. I learn this twice a week when teaching an undergraduate seminar asking students to think for themselves about texts and important issues without my providing comfortable conclusions. Inquiry requires discipline to resist cynicism, to keep an open mind and open heart. Let us pray with Radcliffe that the Synod takes this to heart.

Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.