A new report for the upcoming synod reached out to the margins to consult with disabled and others on the peripheries. CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters

Report takes synod to the peripheries

  • October 23, 2022

A handpicked team of nine North American theologians, two of them Canadian, has just published a 70,000-word report based on consultations with migrants and asylum seekers, LGBTQ Catholics, women, the disabled, prisoners and other marginalized groups.

Their report was commissioned by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and submitted to the Synod of Bishops as part of a global project called Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries.

The suite of Existential Peripheries theological reports is based on interviews conducted in 40 cities around the world by nearly 90 theologians and pastoral workers who spoke with more than 500 individuals. The five theologians’ reports mirror the five continental synthesis reports from Europe and the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, Oceania and North America.

Getting the theologians involved was an essential step in deepening the synodal process, according to Canadian Dominican theologian Fr. Darren Dias.

“Synodality isn’t just about the bishops. Synodality is about the Church,” Dias, recently appointed executive director of the Toronto School of Theology, told The Catholic Register. “Certainly, bishops play an important role in the governance and the sanctifying and the teaching offices of the Church, but they’re not alone.”

Doing theology in the context of synodality means doing theology differently, Dias said.

“When we ask the question, ‘What does synodality mean for the way we do theology?’ it certainly does open up different methods, new methods,” he said.

Rather than starting with thick heavy books of philosophy and theology, the North American team interviewed people still attached to the Church but well outside the mainstream of parish life. One ex-convict living in Toronto told the theologians, “I just wish churches would open their doors to the people who really need their help.” A gay man in California told theologians, “The image of ‘God is love’ has been so huge for me, and I also wish I would’ve heard… the inverse of that, which is God is not hate.” A Filipina survivor of sex trafficking in New York told the researchers, “I do not go to church. Uh, maybe because I always work, but every single, every minute, every hour God is in my mind, in my heart. So I always prayed.”

The theologians used such statements, informed by their expertise in Scripture, ecclesiology, Church history and other theological disciplines to come up with a sensus fidei.

“We didn’t just report what they said,” explained Dias. “We also interpreted it. And we hopefully interpreted it generously and correctly.”

The theologians came away with a strong sense that the Church is being called to move out beyond the confines of parish life.

“We can say we’re welcoming. But, at least in North America generally speaking, people aren’t coming,” he said.

The image of religion in Canadian society has flipped to the point where an Angus Reid Institute survey earlier this year found 22 per cent of Canadians believed religion contributes more bad than good to the nation, up from just 14 per cent in 2017. Among the growing demographic of non-religious Canadians, 39 per cent told Angus Reid that religion was more harmful than helpful in society, compared to just 12 per cent who said the opposite.

“We see that parishes are closing, attendance rates are dropping, people who identify as religious, that’s lowering, disaffiliation is growing,” said Dias.

The Catholic response should be to heed the great commission and get out beyond parish life, to meet people where they are, said the theologian.

“As theologians, we have work to do. Pastors have work to do. Bishops have work to do. This project asks theologians what our work is in this context,” Dias said. “Theologians are often seen as engaging with texts, engaging with the scholarship, as we say. But rarely (are we) seen as engaging with people where they’re at.”

The theologians, along with some of the people they interviewed, will present their findings at a symposium in Toronto Nov. 10.

In Quebec, the bishops have postponed a planned two-day meeting this month to discuss the Quebec synod synthesis. The Quebec bishops will now meet in March.

“It’s no longer possible to turn back the clock,” Quebec’s bishops said in their national synthesis report. “The faithful have expressed a great desire for change… The necessity of listening affords us the opportunity to change our relationship to time. In a world where everything goes fast, listening to others implies slowing down the frantic pace of our activities and taking time.”

The theologians came to a similar conclusion.

“The thing that was amazing — I think we all agreed on this — was that in the act of listening we were transformed,” Dias said. “It made us rethink things.”

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