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Pope Francis is pushing a tricky reform drive, called “synodality,” that puts ordinary people at the core of the hierarchical Catholic Church.

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Pope Francis waves as he arrives at a vigil before World Youth Day in Panama City, Panama, 26 January 2019. (EPA-EFE/Esteban Biba)

Using the word “synodality” at the start of an article is enough to turn readers off. Boring!

And when they learn it’s about the Roman Catholic Church, many might say they’re interested only in its scandals about sex or money.

But the champion of this “synodality” reform drive is Pope Francis, one of the world’s most popular religious leaders. The drive will be either his biggest victory or the worst failure of his papacy. And its success will depend to a large part on how young people react to it.

The term “synodality,” which comes from two Greek words roughly meaning “common road,” is for Pope Francis a process of consultations between clerics and lay people that leads to a consensus. It’s a devolution of decision making, a dialog, but he insists it’s not like a parliament with majority voting.

“I’d define synodality as a new way of being the Church,” said Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent for the Catholic weekly The Tablet in London.

“It’s a church that puts ordinary people at the center. It’s a church in motion, that stops looking inward and looks out. It’s less bound up with its bureaucracies and protocol.”

“Synodality” means ending the Catholic Church’s top-down leadership.

There are now 1.34 billion Catholics, just over half of all Christians in the world, with almost half of them in North and South America, 21% in Europe, 19% in Africa and 11% in Asia. Their views range from conservative to progressive, often mixing the two in ways that don’t neatly fit a right-left political divide.

Francis, who was archbishop of Buenos Aires before he went to Rome, was feted as a rule-breaker when he was unexpectedly elected pope in 2013. He spoke positively about gay people, forgave women for having abortions and hinted he might accept married priests. Even non-Catholics applauded.

But anticipated changes in Vatican teaching and procedures were slow to follow. It became clear that Francis preferred to take time to convince his hierarchy to open up rather than give them orders from above, as previous popes had done.

With sex abuse scandals eroding membership and the pandemic upsetting the traditional model of Catholicism, that time now seems to be running out. Francis is increasingly pushing his bishops to adopt “synodality,” despite warnings from critics that it could break the Church in two.

Probably no other world leader has appealed so often to young people to help bring about change — he literally invites them to “make a mess” — and the success of his reform could depend on how much they join in the process.

Synodality means ending the Church’s age-old tradition of top-down leadership and holding open discussions at all levels to decide the future. Autocratic clerics would have to be more cooperative, and lay people — many of whom are used to Father knowing best — would assume more responsibility.

Pope Francis has made sure dialog is on the agenda.

In late May, the pope outlined a two-year consultation process on synodality itself, starting at the level of dioceses (the church districts run by a bishop), proceeding to the national and regional levels and culminating with a worldwide synod at the Vatican in October 2023.

In each case, clerics and lay people will draw up resolutions on what they want the Church to do and pass them up to the next level.

The decision ensures that synodality remains on the Church’s agenda for several years to come, even if Francis, 84, is no longer around to promote it.

“A synod about synodality sounds a bit like a ‘film about film-making’ or ‘writing a book about books’ (but) it is anything but navel-gazing,” the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad said.

“This global synodal process is not only ambitious, it is also risky,” Massimo Faggioli, an Italian church historian teaching in the United States, wrote in La Croix International.

“The biggest risk … is that it could reinforce the resentment of many Catholics against an institutional Church that continually invites people but never really lets them in.”

Heresy and schism?

The so-called “Synodal Path” consultations held since 2019 in Germany show possible disputes ahead. Participants are discussing reforms in four sensitive areas: power in the Church, teachings on sex, the role of the clergy and the role of women.

These may be the main concerns in the rich West, but bishops in more conservative regions like Africa — but also partly in the United States and Europe — have warned such discussions could lead to a schism.

As pope, Francis has to be concerned about balancing different views in different regions of the globe.

In Australia, where Catholics are preparing their own discussions, Melbourne Archbishop Mark Coleridge — the head of the national bishops conference and an ally of Pope Francis — dismissed this criticism out of hand.

“All this talk about heresy and schism… I just think, frankly, is ridiculous,” he said in a podcast about synodality.

Lamb said most bishops just were keeping their heads down, hoping they could stay out of the debate. The pope’s recent decision to call the synod on synods has now made that impossible.

“It took six years for the Italian bishops to agree to a synod,” he pointed out, despite the fact Pope Francis is the head of their bishops conference and had publicly asked them to organize it.

Can the Church convince young Catholics that it takes their concerns seriously?

Another problem is how genuine the talks are. The pope says a synod is not a parliament with majority voting, as exists in some Protestant denominations, but a consultation that produces a true consensus.

That could be difficult to achieve, as I can attest from personal experience. The Catholic church I attend in Paris held an encouraging series of priests-and-people consultations about 15 years ago.

The head priest behind the effort left soon afterwards, however, and the new pastor opposed the approach and let it die. The result among parishioners? Resentment.

The real test for synodality, Lamb believes, will be whether it convinces young Catholics that a traditionally hierarchical Church deserves their support because it takes their concerns seriously.

Many young Catholics are focused on social justice concerns, which Pope Francis supports but more conservative Catholics often oppose.

A good number of young people have already left, Lamb said.

“A big issue the Church has is that the young people it wants to attract, or who might be attracted by elements of a synodal church, are just not involved in the Church,” he said.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why was Pope Francis hailed as a rule-breaker when he was elected to head the Catholic Church in 2013?
  2. What does “synodality” mean in the context of the Catholic Church?
  3. Can the first pope from the Global South succeed in bridging the differences between poorer countries and the rich West?
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Tom Heneghan was a correspondent, bureau chief, regional news editor and global religion editor during his 40 years at Reuters, with postings in Vienna, Geneva, Islamabad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bonn and Paris. He covered the Soviet-Afghan war, two papal elections and Germany’s reunification, which he analyzed in his book “Unchained Eagle: Germany After The Wall”. Based in Paris, he now writes regularly for The Tablet in London and Religion News Service in Washington.

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DecodersPope pushes “synodality” dialog to reform Catholic Church