December 15, 2023 – Marisa Guerin, PhD
Something quietly radical happened in October of 2023. The Roman Catholic Church had a most unusual global meeting at the Vatican – signaling a new step towards what could potentially be profound change over time. From my perspective as a Catholic who is professionally trained in organizational systems and group dynamics, it was fascinating to observe. (From a distance that is; I wasn’t there in Rome.) Maybe its potential will get derailed; and in any case, I am afraid it is too late for Catholics who have left the Church or felt pushed out. But even so, I was flat-out amazed at what Pope Francis has done.
Now, why would I say this?
A few personal reflections appear at the end of this post, but I'll begin with a short analysis. Several factors from the study of groups and organizations go into my assessment: task focus, membership, use of subgroupings, and process. In the dynamics of systems of all kinds, not just the Catholic Church, the right adjustments to each of these aspects of meeting structure and design are unusually powerful. They typically have more influence on the course of a critical meeting than any one participant can have, no matter how charismatic or famous.
The Pope and his synod management team brilliantly shaped the October meeting using these variables, creating the pre-conditions for deep change down the road. It is true that I am a believer and I trust the work of the Holy Spirit in the synod, but I also know that whatever the Holy Spirit may be trying to make known doesn’t get heard unless the channels are open. This synod was designed to unblock the gates.
Conservative bishops who often resist the leadership of Pope Francis were on guard against the possibility that this session of the three-year synod would make changes to traditional doctrine or disciplines of the Church. It did not, to the disappointment of many more progressive Catholics. However, I think the anxious bishops didn’t – and perhaps still don’t – realize that the nature of the meeting itself was the radical intervention.
For reference, a base line: The Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops is a ordinarily a consultative
gathering of bishops and cardinals from around the world that is convened by the Pope every so many years. Photos of synods past show a meeting hall filled with riser-rows of churchmen in their black robes and red trim, the Pope and a few assistants on a dais at the front. The bishop attendees would study an advance document on the selected topic, then come to Rome and make speeches, have discussions, produce a summary of their deliberations to advise the Pope, and return home.
Let me unpack what changed this time, in several potent elements of the synod process.
In October 2024, the synod will complete a three-year process of global consultation in which all Catholics from every part of the world were asked about their experience of being Church. They were asked to share their reflections on what helps them to walk together in mission, and what gets in the way. Two years of consultation have already happened, with a wealth of topics suggested for consideration. All of these questions are held under the theme of “synodality.”
Say what? “Synodality?”
Unfortunately, very few folks understand what the word synodality means without some explanation. Synodality is based on the Greek for the really lovely image of “walking together.” In essence, this translates to a synod focused on how Catholics are being Church together, asking questions like, “Do we listen deeply? Do we accompany one another and share responsibility for the mission and life of our faith community? How is the Holy Spirit calling us to change?”
Synodality is an unfamiliar word and a fairly subtle topic, and it’s not one that sits easily in the heads of American or many Western people. We tend to be focused on the outcome, the policy change, the bottom line, etc. To us, it is perplexing to be asked to examine how the Church is being Church, how it is or isn’t being faithful to its calling as the community of followers of Jesus. It’s not in our nature to be patient with that exploration over a period of years as it gradually it bears fruit in Spirit-led evolution of Church understandings, teachings, and practices.
It is much easier for the Western world and the press to seize on any number of specific concerns that clearly were raised in the first two rounds of global consultation, like the role of women in the Church or ways to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ Catholics. Urgent and real as these and other concerns are known to be, the Pope appears to have deliberately set the focus of the synod not so much on the “what” as on the “how.” He is presumably trusting that a different way of discerning a path forward will eventually generate new understandings and decisions. It may take longer, but could create greater unanimity along the way.
I will note here that the Catholic Church in the USA was considerably less involved in the first two years of this consultation as compared to much of the rest of the world. The US Bishops are largely responsible for that paltry engagement; they didn’t even have the synod on their biannual meeting agenda in 2022. Frankly, I think most of the US bishops had no clue what the Pope was talking about or calling for. That’s not me being flip; I truly believe that most of them were (are?) mystified and probably dismissive of such a hard-to-grasp topic as synodality, even though other parts of the world like the Pope’s native Latin America are quite familiar with a more communal experience of Church.
This first meeting design factor, the unusual nature of the synod’s primary task, puts the focus on a way, not a destination. It has interesting potential to eventually advance quite a range of issues for Catholics. It was powered by the inclusive and egalitarian dynamics set in motion by the next three factors examined here.
For the first time ever, more than a quarter of the 363 voting members appointed to this “synod of bishops” were lay people and 54 of them were women. This is revolutionary, and like the opening of Pandora’s box, it is a change that cannot easily be reversed. If anything, the membership might be further expanded in future synods as most of the bishops come to recognize the value of the perspectives added to the room.
There are some hierarchs, of course, who are not at all happy with the Pope about this decision. They see it as diluting their proper authority to advise him. They aren’t wrong about the subtly subversive effect of this membership shift. With these membership changes, the Pope is privileging the shared authority that all Catholics have through baptism over the more exclusive authority that attends ordained bishops and cardinals. If you follow that logic patiently and long enough, you eventually unravel the dominant power structure shaped by clericalism.
Several helpful dynamics are released by this membership decision. Twenty-five percent non-bishops might not seem like much, but social science research* shows that this is more than enough to clear the threshold of tokenism and create a genuinely new sense of group identity. The synod simply isn’t the same institution anymore, and the bishops who have attended earlier ones will know it.
Other dynamics may have impacted the participants at a less conscious level. The bishops – who are used to gatherings in the dry atmosphere of exclusively celibate men – found themselves for a whole month as members of a community that also included lay and religious men and women, married people and young adults, people of every color and language. They rubbed shoulders and made new friends during coffee breaks and meals, walking to and from sessions, at social occasions and in regular prayer times together. There is no way they would not have felt refreshed and animated by the healthy libidinal energies in such a human gathering.
Further, the synod participants were a multi-cultural, global group that brought all types of ideological diversity into the room with them. As close witnesses to the life of their homelands, they were able in real time to speak about the heart-rending realities – brutal war, violence of all kinds, the plight of refugees – that didn’t stop just because Rome was having a meeting.
The influence of a deliberately more diverse membership on the meeting was profound.
Use of Subgroupings:
The physical layout of this synod represented a dramatic change, probably the first thing anyone would notice in a photo. Instead of the formal rows of bishops in a lecture-hall setting, this synod took place in the enormous, airy modern conference hall of the Vatican, at dozens of round tables. All of the members sat round tables – even the Pope.
Participants were mixed in with one another by language groups with a facilitator at each table, and they changed tables each week or so when they took up different sections of the working document. Also at each table was a sophisticated technology set-up that provided each person with a laptop for reading documents and note-taking, as well as four screens and cameras in the center of each round table that could be used to ensure that anyone wishing to speak to the whole could be seen and heard by everyone on the video monitors in front of them.
Spending every day for an entire month at round tables in small groups sets up the preconditions for breaking the ice and getting to know many new people at deep levels over the course of the synod sessions. The encounter with difference surely happened over and over. For example, I’m guessing that some bishops’ assumptions about the proper place of women in the church were tested by spending many days listening to the thinking and experiences of wise, forthright women. Research tells us that attitudes follow experience, not the other way around.** From all accounts, the experience of candor in the synod hall was often intense.
The physical configuration and small-group composition of the synod was a fundamental factor impacting its dynamics.
Perhaps the most consequential meeting design element evident at the synod was the use of a structured dialogue and listening process called "Conversations in the Spirit." While it would not have seemed especially unusual to religious sisters and most lay people, I am quite certain there were bishops in that room who had never spent so much time holding their tongues.
This is how it worked: As each question from the working document was introduced, there was a period of prayerful silent reflection. Then, the first round of dialogue entailed listening carefully without interruption to each person around the table as they shared their thoughts on the question for discernment. After more silent reflection on what was just heard, a second round of listening without interruption happened, this time focused on what was stirred or important for each person in what they had heard from others in the first round. Only after these two rounds were completed did the group move to a third phase of free back and forth conversation among them to come to a shared understanding and a report on what emerged in their dialogue.
Even if nothing else happens after the synod sessions, disseminating this process of prayer, listening, and discernment to dioceses and parishes around the world can by itself shift the power dynamics of the Church enough to give the Holy Spirit a chance to be heard, speaking from within the heart and life experience of every person in the Church. It is not just another prayer style, and it should not be mistaken for a listening exercise or technique. If it is taken seriously, it is a method for group spiritual discernment that allows for God’s Spirit to lead us.
For someone like me who has worked so closely with religious institutes facilitating similar processes, it was stunning to see deep listening and equality of voice bloom – at the Vatican, of all places! I don’t think most people realize how extraordinary that is. As far as I know, even though there was chafing, there was no outright revolt. The resistance that many organizations often put up against processes of this type was apparently pre-empted by the authority of the Pope to shape the synod as he wished. It is one of the ironies of organizational life that it can take a powerful leader to start dismantling a power structure. If it is internalized, the process change of the synod may be the most significant.
Will it Make a Difference?
These intentional adjustments to its task focus, membership, subgrouping and process have effected a profound change in the synod of bishops and perhaps (eventually) in the very exercise of Church authority. I admire how Pope Francis has shrewdly initiated a radical change in the WAY of being Church while no one was paying much attention, everyone thinking he might be pushing changes in the WHAT of Church policies. No wonder some conservative bishops and cardinals got upset about this new-fangled synod. Sooner or later, important changes may be decided upon by the Church precisely because those in leadership will have had to listen deeply to others and attend to the movement of the Spirit in their own hearts.
The lengthy summary document from the synod that was distributed at the end of October 2023 is interim and transitional because this synod doesn’t formally end until 2024. The document raises lots of very substantive questions for more discernment and study in advance of the final session in October 2024. In that respect, it is a somewhat unsatisfying report. Many Catholics feel that there has been more than enough time and study to understand the changes to which the Spirit calls. As a woman in the Church and as an ally of LGBTQ+ Catholics, I feel especially sad that equality and inclusion are still such a struggle. But I also know that because we are talking about a global church, the realities on the ground are wildly different across the continents. If we hope that the deep unity that Quakers call “sense of the meeting” is to emerge, it will take time. I will personally keep my mind and attention on the process as it unfolds in the coming year.
Over the longer term, I believe that significant things can change in response to the leading of the Spirit now that the Pope has shaken things up. That is, unless the synod momentum gets derailed down the road, which also might happen. Because the stakes are very high and the issues so fundamental, there is at least as much possibility for schism and fragmentation as there is for metamorphosis. And of course, this is all unfortunately too late for several generations in America and Europe. Alienated, scandalized or disaffected former Catholics are unlikely to return to the institutional church, even if they remain imprinted with a gospel ethic of compassion, justice, and peace in their own hearts. I am under no illusions about that.
And finally…the personal impact of this synod is surprising me.
I have always identified myself as a Vatican II-type Catholic, shaped by the earthshaking changes of the 1960’s when the Catholic Church emerged from the Middle Ages and joined the modern world. That was the last time seismic change hit the Church, but I sense tectonic plates shifting again, very subtly right now. These days, I am experiencing the dawning awareness within me that if I want to continue to identify as a Catholic, I will have to move into the future of the Church as it walks together. I must be committed once again to my faith as a journey, an experience of growth.
I have to be ready to listen and ready to be changed. That’s me being ready to be changed, not just my brothers, the bishops. I’m surely as attached to my own version of how to be Catholic as my elderly neighbors were in the 1960’s, the ones who were upset by liturgical changes, etc., etc. The difference this time is that the Pope and his staff are taking time and using a process to include us all in the journey so that we are not caught by surprise as the Spirit urges us on yet again.
I’m no saint, nor has the Church ever been perfect; in the years since Vatican II my own faith life has been buffeted by the toll of coping with scandalizing hypocrisy, moral corruption, endemic sexism and painful intolerance on the part of many Church leaders. For me, coming to maturity as an adult believer has meant needing to develop an informed conscience in order to discern when to follow and when to resist. In the course of struggling to stand my ground, I think have become guarded and at times cynical.
I believe I am in need of healing in my relationship with the official Church. I wonder: Can I become softer and more open to being led on the path of personal conversion, especially how to live as a privileged first-world follower of Jesus? Without disavowing what I truly believe God calls us to in terms of equality and inclusion for all God’s people? The challenge of being a member of this Church in all integrity requires of me honest reflection, responsibility, and courage. I need to be as willing to grow and change as I am ready to protest and critique. It reminds me how much one can’t be Catholic alone. The presence of a community is not a nice-to-have, it is the essence of the Christian calling. It is the meaning of Eucharist. I’m much more likely to be inspired and animated in my faith life by my fellow believers than by any particular leadership statement.
I deeply miss the support and inspiration of the larger Church of my youth, and I am grateful for the communities of faith that have sustained me into my adulthood – long-time friends, my parish, and the religious sisters, brothers, and priests that have been my clients and friends. I will do my best to trust in the leading and the love of the Holy Spirit of God, in the concrete realities of my actual life and my actual parish and community.
The quietly radical synod points to change on the scale of generations, but it will start in everyday moments of listening and prayer with others on the same journey.
I open my heart and hands to hope.
* The work of Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard identified 15% non-majority membership as a meaningful threshold for moving beyond the dynamics of tokenism in workplace groups.
** In particular the studies made of racial integration of the US armed forces in the 1950’s and 1960’s indicated that once behavior changed based on rules and policy that prohibited discrimination based on race, more tolerant attitudes followed. More personal knowledge of the other and interdependency in work and life are the conditions that foster acceptance.