The October Synod and the Challenge of Pluralism in a Globalized World

By: Jocelyne Cesari

October 25, 2023

Synod of Encounter? Addressing Divisions in the Global Catholic Church

The October Synod stands as a poignant testament to the challenge posed by pluralism to the Catholic Church. Pluralism is not merely acceptance of diversity. It is a theological elaboration of the multiple expressions of the other from non-Catholic religions to nonbelievers. In this respect, against the backdrop of the Holocaust and decolonization, Vatican II was a striking turning point which set up a new era for the Catholic Church by providing a theological aggiornamento (update, modernization) for the Church’s relation to non-Christian religions. Since then, the concept of pluralism has expanded to include other dimensions that challenge today’s theology and religious practices across all faith traditions immersed in a secularized and globalized world. From this perspective, one of the most sensitive challenges for all religions is internal pluralism—in other words, the demands within each tradition to theologically revisit women’s religious role, the status of sexual minorities, and atheism (see the Theologies and Practices of Pluralism project that I coordinate with José Casanova).

It is therefore not surprising that these challenges have taken center stage in the preparation and planning of the Synod, which is due to discuss priests’ celibacy, women’s positions in the Catholic hierarchy, and the status of the LGBTQ community within the Church.

Even before the opening of the Synod, controversies flared up. Pope Francis has decided to include about 70 laypeople, half of whom are women, alongside the cardinals and bishops among the 365 “members” with the right to vote at the Synod. On the eve of the Synod, conservatives held a conference in a theater one block from the Vatican, saying any discussions on doctrinal issues should come from the top and lay people should not have a say. Only men can be ordained in the Catholic Church.

Along the same lines, Pope Francis released a letter in response to questions (dubia) posed to him by five cardinals on these hot-button issues, including same-sex marriage. Although he reiterated the sacredness of heterosexual unions, he also declared that “we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.” In his opening homily for the Synod, the pope emphasized that “everyone, everyone, everyone” must be allowed in. LGBTQ organizations welcomed the change in tone, while Church conservatives blasted Francis for appearing to dilute Catholic doctrine and sow confusion. Cardinal Raymond Burke, a Rome-based American who is one of the pope’s leading critics, has called for a defense against “the poison of confusion, error and division” he feared the Synod might introduce.

Another pressing concern is the rise of religious nationalism, wherein faith becomes a tool for political mobilization. This phenomenon has manifested in various forms across different cultures, with leaders leveraging religious identity to consolidate power and influence public opinion. Simultaneously, the world grapples with religious persecution, a harrowing reality faced by many communities. The October Synod is an opportunity to shed light on these atrocities and mobilize collective efforts towards fostering religious freedom and tolerance.

Furthermore, the Synod serves as a crucible for addressing socioeconomic inequalities through the lens of religious ethics. Delegates deliberate on the role of their respective faiths in promoting social justice, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development. This convergence of religious and political thought not only shapes the internal dynamics of faith communities but also contributes to the global discourse on ethical governance.

A distinctive feature of the October Synod is its commitment to interfaith dialogue. Recognizing the interconnectedness of a diverse and globalized world, religious leaders engage in conversations that transcend doctrinal differences. This interfaith dialogue serves as a powerful antidote to religiously fueled conflicts, fostering understanding, tolerance, and collaboration. The Synod's emphasis on interfaith dialogue is particularly relevant in an era marked by geopolitical tensions where religious differences often exacerbate existing conflicts, as witnessed in the horrific attacks of Hamas on October 7 and the ensuing retaliation of Israel on Gaza. The Synod could serve as a platform for leaders to exchange ideas and build bridges of understanding, away from the war zones.

In sum, the October Synod stands as a microcosm of the intricate interplay between religion and politics in our contemporary world. As religious leaders from different cultural and religious backgrounds converge to address the challenges and opportunities facing their communities, the Synod becomes a crucible for forging a path toward a more ethically grounded global society. For this reason, the discussions and resolutions emanating from the October Synod have far-reaching implications, not only for the internal affairs of religious communities, but also for the broader discourse on global governance. By navigating the complexities of faith and politics, the Synod contributes to the ongoing narrative of shaping a world where diverse religious traditions publicly commit to social justice and human dignity.

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