Thomas Banchoff is director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He also serves as vice president for global engagement at Georgetown University and as professor in the Department of Government and the Walsh School of Foreign Service.
The world’s largest nongovernmental organization is convening this month without a clear agenda—and that’s by design.
With the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis is gathering several hundred representatives in Rome for an open, extended conversation about the future of the global Catholic Church. Part of a multiyear consultation process that will continue through 2024, the Synod (derived from the Greek word for “assembly”) is bringing together bishops, priests, and laypeople from around the world to address the many challenges facing the Church, including secularization, clergy sex abuse, women’s equality, climate change, and other global issues.
No topic has priority and no outcome is foreordained. As the working document for the Synod puts it, somewhat mysteriously, the aim of the extended dialogue is to identify “pathways the Spirit invites us to walk along more decisively as one People of God.”
For Francis’ critics, this indeterminacy is a recipe for incoherence. For Francis, it is the point.
In the more than 10 years of his pontificate, Francis has celebrated the idea and practice of what he calls “encounter”—bringing people together, in all their differences, to work through inevitable disagreements in a peaceful and constructive way. In his 2020 social encyclical Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers and Sisters All”), he mentions encounter 49 times. Fostering a “culture of encounter,” he writes, “means that we, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone.”
During his global travels, Francis has practiced and preached encounter, encouraging world leaders to squarely address deep national, political, and ideological divides. For example, in 2015 he told a joint session of the U.S. Congress that “the challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States.” Given the complexity and the gravity of the problems, he admonished U.S. leaders, arguing that we should “pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.” For Francis, it is not just our divisions that are the problem; it is also unwillingness to confront them openly and honestly. He made this point in Laudate Deum, released earlier this week, castigating the world community—and the United States in particular—for its collective failures in the face of the climate change crisis.
Of course, encounter should not be alien to democracies, which are home to the push and pull of contrasting interests and, ideally, a degree of open debate about the common good.
The Catholic Church is not a democracy. A hierarchical organization with more than 1.3 billion adherents—about one in six people on the planet—it owes its historical continuity in part to its centralization. The papacy is a monarchy with ancient roots. The Church’s diverse governing structures, from local parish councils to national bishops' conferences and global synods like the one meeting in Rome, are ultimately subject to the authority of the pope.
Francis’ openness to encounter is not an abandonment of his authority. He remains the leader of the Catholic faithful—a source of irritation to conservative critics who welcomed papal primacy under John Paul II and Benedict XVI but now feel its sting. Francis has angered them across multiple issues, including an opening of Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, the suppression of the traditional Latin Mass, a rewriting of the catechism to categorically oppose capital punishment, and a more welcoming approach to LGBTQ+ Catholics. At the same time, he has also disappointed progressives by resisting their hoped-for doctrinal changes. The catechism still refers to homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered,” for example, and Francis has refused to change the Church’s historic opposition to women’s ordination.
What has changed, and is often overlooked, is Francis’ willingness to countenance an open and lively dialogue and debate on these and other issues. In contrast to his predecessors, he is not averse to open disagreement, even as he insists on the ultimate authority of his office. “We too are called to become experts in the art of encounter,” he emphasized in announcing the Synod. He sees Church divisions both as a reality and as an invitation to forge an open future together.
The stakes at the Synod are high. The maintenance of a dynamic unity amid differences, if it proves possible through 2024, would increase the Church’s capacity to govern itself and to advance priorities, ranging from climate change to peace, on the global agenda. It would also provide an example relevant to other organizations, from states to international institutions, of how to address internal divisions head-on in a productive manner.
A failure, by contrast, would deepen divisions within the Church, undercut its effectiveness in global affairs, and contribute further to the general polarization in the world around us.
Francis retains his characteristic optimism. For the sake of the Church and the world, Catholics are hoping that the Synod bears fruit. And all of us can hope that this unique and daring approach to cooperative leadership succeeds, offering an alternative to the divisive authoritarianism so prominent in our time.