22 February 2024, The Tablet

Reading the synodal map and how not to get lost on the journey

by Frank Callus

Reading the synodal map and how not to get lost on the journey

Bishops at the closing Mass at last October’s Synod on Synodality.
Photo/Alessandra Tarantino/AP/Alamy

The end of the First Session of the Synod on Synodality in October 2023 brought with it the Synthesis document. It was a summary of the areas and issues under discussion. It included a series of proposals for how things might be taken forward.

It is not difficult to recognise the difficulty of the task. Several hundred people have spent four weeks discussing some of the most urgent questions facing the Church. We can have nothing but admiration for anyone being able to capture the depth and complexity of the debates. If the Synod is a lifelong journey to which all the baptised are called to join, then we need to look for models of mapping and navigation that suit the majority of the clergy, religious and laity. If we cannot read the map or follow directions, we are likely to get lost. If we get lost, we stop participating.

Understanding the synodal process and having the confidence to participate are both dependent on knowing where we are and where we are going. From the start of our synodal journey we have been encouraged to reach out to those on the margins. To recognise those whose voice is not heard – the poor, the homeless, the refugee. These, Pope Francis reminds us, are the ones we must ensure are heard now if never before.

Those on the margins of our society include the economically poor and those who lacked the access to early education. They often share some key characteristics - low levels of confidence and limited literacy. The Synthesis is a weighty document. It runs to forty-two pages and 21,000 words in the English version. It requires a degree of reading resilience that cannot be assumed in many parts of the Anglophile world. The length of the document could be off-putting even if written in plain English. The fact that it is written in a particular variation of Vatican English adds to the level of complexity. The regular use of the titles of encyclicals and other papal documents only adds to the impression that these documents are written by and for a small coterie who understand the code.

Assessing the readability of any text is well-established. Fleisch-Kincaid is one of many available tools. It is recognised by most word-processing software as giving a dependable guide to how accessible a text might be. It can measure the difficulty of a text as well as giving an indication of the educational level required to access the text. Assessing the readability of the Synthesis document showed that it required the reading standard achieved by post-graduate students and / or experienced senior managers. An objection might be raised at this stage. The summary of discussions on aspects of theology will require text to be dense. It is the very nature of the work of the synodal teams to debate difficult issues.

The Synthesis is hard to read because it records conversations that would have been complex and involved. We need to accept, and expect, that any summary of complex matters will be dense. This is the material with which theologians and others will have to engage. If we accept the basic foundation of the synodal process, that all the baptised are to be involved, then we need to think about issues of how we make that available in terms that people can access. The questions for discussion, the process and the synthesis of debate need to be cast,too, in ways that are inclusive. For the First Session of the Synod, a Working Document was produced, except that it was entitled Instrumentum Laboris. There followed 60 pages of dense text setting out how all the baptised were to be involved. Again, a random sample of text showed that it was capable of being accessed only by those with a reading capacity equal to post-graduate students. The document was an effective barrier to the participation of the vast majority of Catholics. The content was concerned with inclusion and openness, the text was written to exclude and limit involvement. Form failed to match function.

Is there a solution? Can we maintain the intellectual rigour of the synodal process but encourage greater confidence in participation, not just by an educated elite but by all the People of God? The Board of Trustees of ACTA considered the issue recently. The Synthesis document had to be made more manageable: it had to be made more accessible. In the world of business and, frequently, in the public sector, major policy documents are accompanied by an executive summary. The central document contains all the material for supporting professional engagement.

On the other hand, the executive summary gives a brief, but accurate, reflection of the whole. It allows the non-specialist to access the thinking and the rationale for any policy development. An executive summary is how a business, or a government agency demonstrates a commitment to openness and transparency. It is the means of engaging the wider public and fostering trust. It adds to the dimensions of accountability and candour. Therein lies the answer to increasing understanding of, and participation in the synodal process. It is to develop texts suitable for the constituent elements of the Church.

Those attending the Synod last October are entitled to a document that reflects, accurately and faithfully, the discussions held over a period of a month. The average Catholic, juggling work commitments and the demands of family, will want something shorter and shorn of copious references to papal encyclicals. We should be capable of writing both. The Synthesis report came close to recognising this reality when it spoke of the need for formation: “Formation in a synodal key is meant to enable the People of God to live out their baptismal vocation fully, in the family, in the workplace, in ecclesial, social, and intellectual spheres. It is meant to enable each person to participate actively.” If we are to be a listening ,synodal Church we need to move to an environment in which all texts are made accessible to the vast majority of the clergy and laity. Alongside every document issued by the Vatican, there needs to be a digest, an executive summary, written by experts but for those who are not. This process can be extended so that discussion groups are open and accessible to all.

The way that questions are framed as well as explanatory text needs to be considered from the point of view of the average member of the laity. Reading and understanding the question is a prerequisite for active and confident responses. ACTA has produced an Executive Summary of the Synthesis document. It does not replace the original text. It is designed to make the process of access easier. Its purpose is to build the confidence of the majority of the laity to engage with the debate to which we have been called. It has retained all the titles of chapters with references to paragraphs so that the reader can move from summary to Synthesis easily. It will form the basis for a series of discussions on the Synthesis document during Lent and is a document that can be read by the average high school student. It is not a solution to the difficulties of engaging and retaining interest in a synodal process. It is not intended to replace rigorous debate and discussion. It is a small signal, however, that the Church wants all the People of God to continue their journey together, whichever map they have used to find their way.

Go to: acalltoaction.org

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