Reimagining and Rediscovering Catholic Tradition

By: Gerard J. McGlone

October 25, 2023

Synod of Encounter? Addressing Divisions in the Global Catholic Church

The history of the Catholic Church is filled with divisions, tensions, and differences. Time and time again, councils, synods, and ecclesial gatherings of various types and genres have attempted to seek common ground and address political, pastoral, and theological disagreements. Doubt, difference, and debate are to a degree very Catholic. Doubt is, according to Pope Francis, necessary and can be the essence of the faith. It should not be surprising that today we see deep divisions, tensions, and differences within the church; one might contend these have existed since the very beginning of this faith community. Today’s challenges might in a way point us to being more true, more faithful to our actual tradition and history. It is our tradition therefore to live within such realities and to actually thrive because of them.

The first task at hand might very well be to reimagine our tradition as such. It also might be about rediscovering an ancient model for engaging differences that is part and parcel of our tradition, evident in the numerous councils and synods of our ecclesial history. This requires simple presence, ample time, respect, and deep listening. Pope Francis encourages such a traditional manner of engagement in a nuanced and timely “culture of encounter” as outlined and described by many. It also requires a spiritual and emotional maturity that does not run from conflicts but embraces them as necessary to our faith and tradition. This maturity, however, is foreign to our current societal and ecclesial environment.

Today’s conflicts and debates exist within very different settings and styles of communication than in previous times. This is due to the reality of a form of communication that is easy, immature, immediate, impulsive, and often reactive. For example, there are the instant news cycles with immediate and well-funded social media depictions of political and Church leaders that are often cruel, misleading, nasty, and divisive. They describe and depict “heretical” versus “traditional” images of Church leaders. The rapidity, constancy, and ease of information-sharing through social media and various forms of instant communication tends to highlight and even heighten these debates and differences. These forms of communication are unprecedented in our societal and ecclesial history.

This style of communication also tends to vilify the other within any debate or in any disagreement. There are constant and repetitive depictions of disloyalty and questions of loyalty to the “true” church teaching and beliefs. The depth of the disagreements might also depend on the depth of mischaracterizations and the pervasiveness of social media use in specific cultures and regions of the globe. There are clearly deep theological disagreements that surround clericalism, gender, sexual orientation, and the role of women in the Church. However, these quick and reactive social media portrayals do not allow for personal relationships, listening, time, presence, and above all an actual “encounter” with another human being, as does the ancient and traditional process of councils and synods. Francis’ “synodal path” is actually quite countercultural.

From the First Council of the Church in Jerusalem, the first true apostolic encounter throughout the history of the Church and its many councils one sees consistent debates and tensions in developing doctrines, dogmas, and practices. The heated and deep debate between Peter and Paul at the First Council in Jerusalem might very well help us in understanding today’s Church. In many ways, the early debates regarding circumcision were about who could claim true membership in the Church, who was to be included. Are the debates of today any different? It may even make the debates of recent cardinals’ dubia seem trite and stale in comparison. Peter and Paul provide an apostolic model for the type of culture Pope Francis is asking us to reimagine in our faith community.

It is at this very First Council that we see there is also a consistent tension between perspectives or even groups that always see the truth of the gospel and current practices lying only within the faith community’s historical beliefs. They viewed—and view—doctrine, truth, and teachings as being static, always revealed as such. As an example, any and all new believers must adhere to the Mosaic code and its manifestation in circumcision. However, those on the opposite end of the spectrum view doctrine and dogma in the very “mission” of the church that is always in a state of adaptation, change, and engagement with the changing pastoral needs of the situation. We see this same dynamic operational in the deep divisions within the Church today.

In addition to these historical trends and tensions, there is also a unique Roman Catholic existential tension built within the very framework or tradition of a “both/and” theology. God is both human and divine, is immanent yet transcendent, is one yet triune, and creation is seen as good yet flawed. Perhaps the “both/and” of our theology is reflected in the “both/and” of our divisions. It is in no small measure that the very richness of our tradition to believe and live in this tension is nothing to be feared but rather embraced. It also requires an intellectual, pastoral, human, and spiritual maturity to hold these realities together. It requires paradoxical living and thinking. It also clearly points towards a listening that respects and honors equally both the authority and power of the baptized and that of the ordained.

This is the long tradition in the Church that some have forgotten, want to diminish, or even dismiss. The necessity to listen to one another, to encounter one another, is at the heart of Pope Francis’ vision for this Synod and the one that will follow next year. Clearly, the current Synod is not Vatican III. The pontificate of Pope Francis is the continuation, natural outcome, and implementation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. For some, this is a very threatening time; for others, it is a time that is long past due. The images and symbols coming from Rome these days are quite striking and speak volumes. In the 1960s, one saw the bishops and cardinals leading the way into the Vatican Council. Today it is the women and laymen who lead the cardinals and bishops into the Paul VI Hall. Pictures show bishops, laymen, and women sitting at round tables, each one equal in stature and in voice. It is a vision and symbolic representation of baptismal equality; it is a symbolic effort to depict the rights of the baptized as equal to the rights of the ordained. It is applauded by some and decried by others.

Indeed, there are deep divisions at this time in the Church. It is not a break from tradition, but in essence is the restoration of the long-standing tradition of the Church to gather together in this way, to walk together, or to “journey together” on a synodal path with all of these differences in mind. It is being true to the very Greek meaning or definition of two roots (syn and hodos) of the word “synod” itself. It is this reimagining of the tradition that can provide us with the hope that differences and divisions have existed and do exist. Pope Francis’ vision of creating a “culture of encounter” that values and listens to the other is far from a radical departure from tradition, but is in reality a restoration of a tradition long ignored and forgotten. It is time to rediscover our tradition in this way.

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