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In a state of synodality

  • 21 October 2021
One takeaway from the First Assembly of the Plenary Council that might come as no surprise is that the controlling elite in the Church, the bishops, are not dependent on popular support. They are appointed not elected. They are generally irremovable. They come from a culture that is about preserving ‘the tradition’ (which can easily be expanded to include historical novelties that are not really part of the tradition). Moving into the new world of synodality brings obvious challenges.

The methodology of the Australian Plenary Council is similar to the one proposed by the preparatory document of the Synod of Bishops: a deep, prayerful listening. As the preparatory document states: In a synodal style, decisions are made through discernment, based on a consensus that flows from the common obedience to the Spirit [30].

In many ways this synodal process is somewhat counter-intuitive to the usual way in which groups, whether secular or ecclesial, make decisions. We are comfortable with the parliamentary style with its emphasis on ‘who has the numbers’. Deals are done and compromises sought to elicit support for a particular idea. Often there are winners and losers, with the losers marshalling to fight a rear-guard action.

The problem with agitating for reform and presenting ‘an idea’ and seeking support, especially from a controlling elite, is that good ideas are easily dismissed. The elite consider themselves intelligent and when confronted with a new idea, something out of the proverbial ‘left field’, the tendency is to be dismissive. The subliminal thought process goes like this: ‘Here is a new idea. I have not thought about things that way. Since I am intelligent either I should have thought of it (and I didn’t), or it cannot be a good idea. Really it is not such a good idea (because if it was, I would have thought of it).’ 

The mistake that some of the proponents of the reform make is to assume they can use the usual methodology of parliamentary persuasion (mustering the numbers) to impose their views on the bishops. The presenter of the idea looks to marshal support, exert pressure, ‘sell’ the idea, and try to persuade the controlling elite to change their minds and embrace the new way of thinking. This works if the position of the elite is dependent on ‘popular support’. It does not work so well in the Church.

Coalitions of reformist groups and public shaming in the secular media are