Voice, Engagement, and Learning: The Catholic Church Synod and the United Nations Summit of the Future

By: Katherine Marshall

October 31, 2023

Synod of Encounter? Addressing Divisions in the Global Catholic Church

The Synod meeting in Rome brings together leaders and representatives of a rare, if not unique, truly global community: the Catholic Church. Under the leadership of Pope Francis, its lofty ambitions look to a brighter future, for the Church and for the world well beyond it. It aims to listen to the wide-flung Catholic voices from all corners of the world—formal leaders, but also others—with a notable focus on those who are marginalized. It opens the possibility of having their voices heard in decision-making processes, in ways never before tried, and, in our digitally connected world, never before possible. The Synod’s broad agenda reflects an extended and very global consultation process. It covers a wide range of issues but in essence, “this Synodal Process…is intended to enable the Church to better witness to the Gospel, especially with those who live on the spiritual, social, economic, political, geographical, and existential peripheries of our world.”

With a quite similar timetable, the United Nations General Assembly has decided to hold a Summit of the Future on September 22 to 23, 2024. Inspired by Secretary-General António Guterres, it was preceded by a preparatory ministerial meeting at the United Nations in New York on September 18, 2023. Like the Synod, it involves a deliberate and ambitious effort to engage and capture wide-ranging voices through a process that involves very global consultations.

The parallel efforts reflect responses to what many see as a critical moment of inflection in global affairs, a “Kairos moment” of great need for vision and direction. The hope from many perspectives, given the grave and interconnected problems the world faces, is that these events and processes can spark bold and creative shifts both in policy directions and in underlying decision-making processes. And since both summits involve high hopes for the future of one and all, the consultation process—hearing and involving people everywhere—takes on enormous importance.

The challenges facing the Synod and the Summit of the Future are many, but two are at the forefront of my mind: how to organize meaningful consultation and participation in such truly global exercises, and how the UN’s secular mandate and ethos relate to the religious, spiritual ethos of the global Catholic Church.

In a wide open, global consultation process, where one objective is to hear voices that are often stifled, distorted, or simply unheard, how can meaningful themes be discerned? How best to listen to, hear, and draw from what must necessarily be vastly different experiences and wisdom, expressed in countless different tenors and languages? Who decides which voices to hear and how to interpret them? And which to act upon? The answers are obviously “with difficulty.” These questions demand openness to diversity, curiosity, empathy, and, perhaps most of all, wisdom. A central objective, which comes through communications about both the Synod and the Summit, is the desire to ensure that all feel heard and included. But that important aim is insufficient to accomplish the stated goal of taking fully into account the views expressed.

The effort is complicated in both cases by the formal hierarchies and the practical exercise of those with decision powers, in one case the Church leaders and in the other the United Nations’ member states. Yes, the goal is to hear the unheard, to reflect in these global processes a truly global perspective. More specifically, in the Catholic Church Synod, a central concern is to assure that poorly represented communities of women and youth are seen to have an authentic, meaningful say. And at the United Nations, especially when democratic institutions are so challenged, how can those outside governments be a meaningful part of the process? In the end, the deciders will be those who have authority and power. So, what can come of huge global consultations?

The parallel timing, rough ambition, and overlapping agendas of the Synod and the Summit raise the obvious question of whether and how these two large, inclusive, and ambitious global consultation processes might relate to each other. It also poses the complex question of how religious and nonreligious perspectives and voices intersect and interact. Can and should the Synod process form part of the UN process and, more broadly, the global governance institutions? Pope Francis focuses on this question implicitly in his focus on the governance challenges in the new papal exhortation Laudate Deus and in many other comments and texts. He leaves little doubt that in his view religious voices have distinctive importance and perspectives in these global matters. The answer from the United Nations perspective is less clear.

For the UN Summit of the Future, the Vatican’s special role as an official UN observer state assures a specific channel for its voice. Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, as Vatican spokesman, commented on the Summit in September 2023. Though he did not specifically address questions about a “religious voice,” some answers are implicit:

“The Summit of the Future now presents the occasion to appraise our progress on the path laid out in the foundational documents of the UN, and to identify what shape possible reform might take. This collective endeavour should not drown in platitudes, but rather lead to agreement on effective strategies to ensure the collective well-being, safety, security and prosperity of our nations and peoples. Undertaken in the spirit of true multilateralism, this calls for the pursuit of consensus, to avoid power being co-opted only by a few countries and to prevent cultural impositions… Many are the challenges to overcome in the present, but Pope Francis reminds us that ‘we […] are called to unite as a family that is stronger than the sum of small individual members.’ United as one human family, may we choose to embrace hope, for ‘hope is the door that opens onto the future.’”

Reflecting on the two tightly linked challenges, the Church’s use of the rather distinctive term “synodality” may offer some clues. It aims at a style rooted in listening and dialogue. The demands of participation, governance, and authority in the Church pose the question: how can synodality and hierarchy coexist? What kinds of hierarchy are essential to ensure effective decision-making and effective implementation without reinforcing hierarchies of unjust power (perceived or actual)? How can a potential cacophony of voices or ideas “drowned in platitudes” emerge instead as a common vision for the future? The same questions and challenges might apply for the United Nations.

The Summit of the Future is seen as a once-in-a-generation opportunity, a moment to mend eroded trust and demonstrate that international cooperation can effectively tackle current and future challenges. Ambitions for the Synod are not dissimilar in tone. Both focus less on the ‘“what” than on the “how”—how to cooperate better to deliver on hopes and specific goals? How to better meet the needs of the present while also preparing for the challenges of the future? Can the wider net of ideas and voices and deliberate efforts at inclusion offer opportunities to put us all on a better path?

Human rights law and language focuses on the roles of “duty bearers”: entities or individuals having a particular obligation or responsibility to respect, promote, and realize human rights and to abstain from human rights violations. Commonly used to refer to state actors (or to make a parallel to the Church, ordained clerics), a possible outcome of both the Synod and the Summit is to thrash out a wider understanding of both duties and rights, with non-state actors also considered duty bearers. Taking into account the ever-present importance of context, individuals, local organizations, private companies, aid donors, religious bodies, and international institutions can also be the duty bearers, truly hearing the voices of all, especially those furthest at the margins, with humility, empathy, ambition, and an ardent desire to chart a better path forward, as part of a new understanding of voice, engagement, and community.

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