St. Peter's Basilica is seen at the Vatican. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Synod shining light on Church warts

  • July 6, 2022

What the Church believes, what it thinks, what it cares about and where it’s going are subjects of debate and speculation every day in classrooms, in parish halls and on social media. But Sudbury, Ont., theologian Christopher Duncanson-Hales is seizing on the synod process to inject some real-life, empirical data into the Catholic conversation.

As diocesan reports on the two-year worldwide Synod on Synodality, launched by Pope Francis Oct. 10, 2021, begin to surface on websites, Duncanson-Hales is collecting, reading and analysing the Canadian results of the largest, global public consultation ever attempted in history. (The synodal process is seeking to shape how the Church carries on its mission of evangelization moving forward. The process will culminate in an assembly in Rome in October 2023.)

Duncanson-Hales is looking at the diocesan synthesis reports as “a snapshot of the Church in Canada.”

So far, the freelance theologian, formerly at the University of Sudbury, has collected publicly available reports from the Dioceses of Calgary, Sault Ste. Marie and Peterborough. He believes a fuller picture will emerge over the summer as more dioceses release their reports.

Regional assemblies of bishops (Western Canada, Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada) are preparing their own syntheses of diocesan reports for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The CCCB will produce a synthesis of all these reports before a continental phase of consultation between the CCCB and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The national conferences of bishops must have their reports in to the Synod of Bishops in Rome Aug. 15.

Not all dioceses are choosing to make their synthesis documents public. The Archdiocese of Toronto will let the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario speak for it.

“We are allowing the regional synod bodies to release their syntheses, which we think will be fulsome reports on the thoughts of Ontario’s and Canada’s Catholics,” said Archdiocese of Toronto spokesperson Mark Brosens in an email.

The CCCB did not respond to questions from The Catholic Register about when and whether its national synthesis will be made public.

Duncanson-Hales concedes that many diocesan reports are likely to be very similar to one another, but he’s looking for the variations from diocese to diocese and region to region.

“There will be variations across the country. I will be really interested to see what comes out of Quebec,” he said. “They may be similar, but there are going to be regional nuances that I think are going to be important.”

In Peterborough, more than 4,000 people participated either in person or online in synod discussions.

“Some feared that inviting input might lead to the transformation of a Church that they prefer would remain the way it is or the way it was,” said the 10-page Peterborough diocesan synthesis. “Others were impressed that the Church was actually asking for their input and often commented that they had never been asked before for their opinion.”

In the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, which includes Sudbury, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and a huge swath of rural northern Ontario, 123 different groups came together to answer 10 questions put forward by Bishop Tom Dowd.

“There appeared to be a belief that there is no evidence that the laity are listened to, and there is nothing to show that opportunities are created to change this,” said the Sault Ste. Marie report.

In Calgary, the synodal journey involved “almost 3,000 disciples, young and old.”

“True to His promise, the Holy Spirit amazed us with His gifts, filled us with courage and strength and breathed new life and hope into the weariness that we have been experiencing in these past few years,” wrote the authors of the Calgary report.

Big city or small town, all of the reports available so far bring up difficult subjects — ordination for women, LGBTQ acceptance, clashes over liturgy, political polarization over Church social teachings, Church complicity in Canada’s Indian residential school system and clerical sex abuse.

“In different ways, there was a developing awareness of the Church’s loss of innocence,” said the Calgary authors. “Prior generations viewed the Church as an organization without blemish. We now find ourselves confronted with her sinfulness and very human frailty.”

The Peterborough authors held themselves back from the temptation to correct or reject commentary that wasn’t in line with Church teaching.

“Reading through the critical and even harsh feedback was humbling,” the Peterborough team wrote. “There is the natural inclination to correct some of the input and the understanding of authentic and accurate Church teaching is critical. However, the synodal process is about listening and accompanying, and less about telling.”

The extent to which dialogue and consultation are becoming part of the culture of the Church is one thing Duncanson-Hales hopes to measure when he has a broader sample of diocesan synthesis documents.

“The road to Emmaus is sort of the root metaphor for all of this,” he said. “If you don’t hear what Christ is saying to your heart, then how are our hearts going to burn? The heart is not going to burn if you’re not listening.”

In Peterborough and Calgary the synod conversations in parishes, religious communities, schools and elsewhere will feed into existing pastoral planning processes.

“The intent of the process now is to continue the consultations and work toward a diocesan pastoral plan in the Easter season of 2023,” wrote the Peterborough team.

In Sault Ste. Marie, parishioners sent a message to their bishop that they want more, not less, conversation.

“This process should become integrated, regularly, into the life of all parishes,” said the Sault authors, summarizing local reports. “We need honest listening and transparency — full disclosure — an opportunity to see the answers submitted during this process along with a time to dialogue.”

Each of the three reports admits to failing to include the broadest possible range of respondents.

“Some groups were notably under-represented — for example, men in general, young adults and the elderly or home-bound,” the Calgary authors said.

The attempt to reach out to the peripheries faltered in Peterborough.

“Respondents who are from different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds or who identify themselves as marginalized were critical of the Church’s welcome, describing it as cold and unaccepting. They say there is little or no effort to learn about them or to grow in mutual understanding,” wrote the Peterborough team.

In Sault Ste. Marie the authors saw the synod conversations as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

“Obviously, the perspectives vary tremendously,” they wrote. “But the common denominator that unites the many respondents of this process is the desire to know God and to learn how to open our hearts to Him.”

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