The Instrumentum Laboris (IL) or “Working Document” for the 2023 General Assembly was released in late June by the Synod Secretariat. You can read a clear and concise overview of the document here, which outlines both its intended purpose and overall structure. The IL’s two-part structure includes a reflection on the themes and priorities that emerged during the Continental Stage, followed by a series of worksheets with questions for the General Assembly to consider.
For my own commentary on the Working Document, I’ve published a series of posts reflecting on specific aspects that stood out to me. You can read Part One here and Part Two here. In Part Three, I reflected on IL’s analogy of the Synod as a “liturgical assembly.” As the 2023 General Assembly begins, I explore an important implication of that analogy in Part Four.
Pathways of Reconciliation
The IL describes the Synod as a liturgical assembly in part to minimize the sense that it’s “a parliamentary structure with its dynamics of majority building” (#48). The analogy points to the heart of why this synodal path is happening in the first place. As an expression of “synodal life,” the General Assembly “must come to terms with the contradictions, limits and wounds of history” (#49). Those wounds, formed by conflict and division, "need to be healed and require pathways to be forged for reconciliation" (#50). A “parliamentary structure with its dynamics of majority building” tends to inflict and exacerbate wounds – I’ll go into that shortly – but a Church embarking on the synodal journey is one that seeks out pathways of healing and reconciliation.
As a first step though, the Church needs to “come to terms with” its challenges, face them with sobriety, rooted in intellectual and theological depth and the witness of the Apostolic Faith. For an excellent example of sober reflection on concrete challenges in a synodal context, we can look to our dialogue partners in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Their experiences with the increased role of women, rising secularization in the Middle East, navigating the differing circumstances between elderly parishioners and youth, and other very 21st-century challenges was the subject of a recent documentary on Salt + Light TV and Salt + Light Plus. You can watch the trailer for “Listening to the East” here:
The documentary explores something akin to what I briefly mentioned in Part Two of this series on the IL, that these conversations are difficult because they hit on multiple layers: our personal lives, the intellectual and organizational life of the Church, and the cosmic and existential reality of God as expressed in theological reflection and Scriptural interpretation. In the synodal path, all of these layers are laid open to the work and will of the Holy Spirit, who reminds us that the personal, structural, and existential are all deeply intertwined. The Instrumentum Laboris, it seems to me, is directing the General Assembly to propel the Church into meaningfully broad, deep, and intertwined conversations that connect these layers. In his homily at the Opening Mass on Wednesday, Pope Francis quoted a phrase of the Pope that guided Vatican II to its conclusion:
In synodal dialogue, in this beautiful “journey in the Holy Spirit” that we are making together as the People of God, we can grow in unity and friendship with the Lord in order to look at today’s challenges with his gaze; to become, using a fine expression of Saint Paul VI, a Church that 'makes itself a conversation' (Ecclesiam Suam #65, emphasis added).
This is what it means to form the Church to be more synodal.
Winners and Losers?
How might the Synod “come to terms with” the complex and difficult issues facing the Church today, and help us do so going forward? Let’s start with something it might not do. I'm intrigued by the proposal that this month’s General Assembly won't include any voting on resolutions or documents. The idea is that this will help the assembly avoid that "parliamentary structure with its dynamics of majority building," in favour of transparent conversation followed by a synthesis or consensus document. Parliaments are designed to build majorities that pass votes, creating a large block of winners and a smaller block of losers. I'm inclined to think there’ll still be some voting, since that can still be an important way for people to express public approval, and is something we can point to for that approval after the fact. If a document or resolution is approved with clearly expressed votes, then the 2023 Assembly can pass it on to the conversations in the intervening year and the 2024 Assembly with greater authority and clarity.
Nevertheless, the IL suggests that there will be less voting and more talking than previous Synods. More importantly, the proposal to limit or eliminate voting from this Assembly speaks to the Synod's purpose, which is itself quite open-ended. The Synod on Synodality aims to form a Church that listens better, and form Catholics of all stripes who can understand each other better and love each other better. The proposal also reminds us that these conversations (including those of previous Synods) are personal, that doctrine and moral reasoning always involve the concrete lives and relationships of people today, even as we, in turn, appeal to Scripture and the Great Traditions of Dogmatic and Moral Theology to make sense of our lives and relationships.
As I mentioned above, a focus on up-down voting as the primary means of decision-making is simply inadequate to fully penetrate the deeper layers of conversation. This is because it creates a situation of “winners” and “losers.” If there is such a thing as “winners” and “losers” in these deeply meaningful and personal conversations, then we all lose, in part because that situation creates the illusion that our only options are two sets of opposing experiences and perspectives, when reality is often more complicated, and the Holy Spirit is more creative, than that. The resulting vote creates the further illusion that one set of experiences and perspectives is right, more valid, or at least the one we should choose, simply because more people agree with it. We lose the possibility of new “pathways of reconciliation” that can include more people: those ideas instead fall away in the cracks between competing binaries. More importantly, relying on an up-down vote to make decisions means that one group of people goes away empty-handed, possibly with their concerns unheeded, and their contributions to the unity and welfare of the Church excluded or undervalued.
Facts, feelings, identities
Scripture “speaks a better word” than that (Hebrews 12:24). St. Paul insists that “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21).
We need a method of synodal conversation that will form relationships rather than parties, one that is rooted in God's own loving presence. The genius of conversation in the Spirit – the beauty of the Holy Spirit – is that he can move through every facet of our lives, and that he moves and sees beyond us. He is present in the lives of those who are different from us, and is
the Holy Wisdom of Scripture and Tradition above us. In the famous saying of St. Augustine, God is interior intimo meo et superior summo meo
: "more inward than my inmost self, and superior to my highest being" (Confessions
I think the Synod will put forward a path of ecclesial conversation, especially on controversial and challenging issues, that enables us to more deeply integrate those various facets of our lives as Christians, as communities, and as a Church. In their 2010 bestseller, Difficult Conversations, organizational consultants Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen categorize these various parts of our lives, and offer some helpful distinctions between them. Their insights are rooted in organizational psychology, and therefore give a clue to what people, in their psychological makeup, bring to this Synod Assembly and to important conversations generally.
Echoing the phrase of Pope Paul VI, Stone, Patton, and Heen use the term "conversations" to describe these parts of our lives and communities. They note that our different layers often reveal themselves, usually simultaneously, when we openly and literally talk through a conflict or controversy. First, there is the “what happened” conversation – looking back on a controversy, this conversation sorts out the facts of what occurred or what was the case, and imagines what might have or should have occurred instead. Participants also state the rationale for their choices (p. 9-12). The strength of a “what happened” conversation is the pursuit of objectivity and mutual understanding. It helps participants see that they rarely have a full picture of another participant’s circumstances and intentions.
However, on its own it can’t forge a consensus, compromise, or reconciled relationship, because our personal and communal lives don't depend purely on bare facts, which can contradict each other. The authors write,
Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values. [For example] they are not about what a contract states, they are about what a contract means. [To take another example] they are not about which child-rearing book is most popular, they are about which child-rearing book we should follow (p. 10, emphasis original).
To cast this in an ecclesial key, the conflicts and challenges facing the Church aren’t mainly about what the words of the Catechism says, for example. Those are facts for all to see; that clarity is the Catechism’s greatest strength as a tool for formation, but also means that it’s merely a tool in the larger task of holistic formation, communal and relational growth, and integral human development. Our difficult conversations are about what Church Teaching means for real people in today’s world, and our grappling with the challenge, as set out in the IL, to “imitate ever more closely its Master and Lord, who walks with all in unconditional love and proclaims the fullness of the Gospel truth” (Worksheet B.1.2, emphasis added).
So a healthy, productive conversation about difficult things can’t only lay out the facts. Stone, Patton, and Heen assert that the pathway to healing and reconciliation requires an awareness of participants’ feelings and sense of identity, which play a part in developing intentions, interpretations, and motivations. They are therefore the categories that make up the other two types of conversations. As the name suggests, the “feelings” conversation specifically addresses emotional reactions in a conflict, and the value we ascribe to those reactions (p. 12-14). The “identity” conversation, which may be the most difficult, asks what the conflict says about who each person is in relation to others in the conflict, and what their place in these relationships is (p. 14-16).
Again, these two types of conversations are necessary to offset the potential for someone to devalue the importance of feelings and identities in a conflict. Those conversations “dig deep” and uncover the importance, the validity, of how another person experiences a situation, whether or not that aligns with the other participant’s intentions or understanding going in.
Curiosity and Self-understanding
Stone, Patton, and Heen ultimately call for a “learning” conversation that combines the best of all three conversations while mitigating their limitations (p. 16-17). To enter a learning conversation, in which participants seek to understand the other person’s story, they must shift from a posture of certainty to a posture of curiosity and empathy. The authors use personal examples, but the types of questions they suggest are ones that Synod participants, and anyone who wants to live charitably with others, would do well to ask those with whom they disagree. They write,
There’s only one way to come to understand the other person’s story, and that’s by being curious. Instead of asking yourself, “How can they think that?!” ask yourself, “I wonder what information they have that I don’t?” Instead of asking, “How can they be so irrational?” ask, “How might they see the world such that their view makes sense?” Certainty locks us out of their story; curiosity lets us in (p. 37).
The result is that this deep curiosity can open up the possibility of what the authors call the “And Stance,” which acknowledges that multiple, differing experiences and perspectives are valid, and in our case, that the other person may genuinely want to build up the Church, walk faithfully with God, and love their neighbour. The And Stance acknowledges that participants’ experiences can be good and beautiful, can both involve real, painful histories, and even have a measure of truth to them (p. 39-40), all at the same time. Curiosity and learning enable us to uncover that truth contained within the experiences of others, and help us understand why one aspect of truth matters more to them than the aspect that may matter more to you. Perhaps more importantly, the And Stance develops a deeper empathy that enables us to care more, feel deeper bonds of communion with our neighbours near and far. That is the type of communion that radiates the love of God in a divided world.
Furthermore, the opportunity, the great hope of synodality, is that we develop a richer understanding of, and deeper relationships with ourselves. We are invited to show that same curiosity and empathy to ourselves as people, as Catholics, as Ecumenical Christians, and as a Church, as well as with our neighbours and our communities. Self-curiosity enables us to discover and accept our limits, and above all to rediscover and bolster our strengths all the more.
As Pope Francis expressed at the beginning of this whole endeavour in 2021, synodality is a journey of discernment, formation, and transformation: who and what is the Holy Spirit calling the Church to be in the world, and what is he calling us to let go of? It’s that deepened self-understanding, which involves a richer understanding of our brothers and sisters in the Church, that leads to clearer discernment of what we’re meant to do and be, and wider participation in our mission. Through these synodal learning conversations, the Holy Spirit can transform us into agents of peace and wholeness with others, as “bearers” in word and deed “of a message of salvation for all of humanity” (Gaudium et Spes #1).
The Adsumus Prayer is always in season, but perhaps now more than ever:
We stand before You, Holy Spirit,
as we gather together in Your name.
With You alone to guide us,
make Yourself at home in our hearts;
Teach us the way we must go
and how we are to pursue it.
We are weak and sinful;
do not let us promote disorder.
Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path
nor partiality influence our actions.
Let us find in You our unity
so that we may journey together to eternal life
and not stray from the way of truth
and what is right.
All this we ask of You,
who are at work in every place and time,
in the communion of the Father and the Son,
forever and ever. Amen.