Equality & Synodality – discernment and disagreement in the Spirit
Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
I invited the community to interpret St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians (1Cor 2:6-16) applying these questions. When he uses the term “we” who do you think this refers to? Is it, for example, the apostles, the disciples from Jerusalem, church leaders? Or, is it each person who accepts the Spirit of God? Or, is the “we” a reference to both? Or someone else? Please interpret.
I interpret the “we” whom Paul speaks of to include all who accept the Spirit of God. This Spirit is Wisdom of God who, as the apostle says, knows the inner thoughts of God. (1Cor 2:10) Of course she would, being divine herself. This is the source of our equality as People of God, we the Mary of Magdala community who celebrates our equality through inclusivity.
This is why I am more than a little suspicious on the way synodality is being carried out. At the top, let me offer admiration for Pope Francis’ intent to have a process that reaches out to the entire membership of the Roman Church. Have you seen his book, “Let Us Dream: the path to a better future?” It is an invitation, written in conversational style, to participate in the national and regional synods, as well as a presentation of impacts and outcomes that have already happened as a result of the synods. He adds an outline on ways to proceed in three chapters, “A Time to See; A Time to Choose; A Time to Act.” It is a process reminiscent of the Catholic Action organizations that in the past were formed to put into practice the Social Teachings of the church.
Here is my suspicion that synodality is not a gathering in equality and inclusion of all who know the inner thoughts of God – well, besides the fact that the Roman Church is decidedly not a democracy. First, are the boundaries placed around what may and may not be discussed. Dogma and doctrine are excluded from discussion; customs and practices are included. Francis speaks of plurality when he writes: “The Spirit always preserves the legitimate plurality of different groups and points of view, reconciling them in their diversity.” (p.65) This sounds to me like I have been excluded from the “we” who decides what constitutes “legitimate plurality.”
Then there’s Francis’ concern about the reality of disagreement and conflict in the Church. He writes, when referring to synodality as a valuable path on the forward March of the People of God, “the danger of becoming trapped in conflict is that we lose perspective.” However, it could also be that walking together on the march means enduring disagreements, allowing them to be transcended on a higher level of equality and freedom.
Otherwise, the invitation to engage in open and honest dialogue that excludes the people’s views on dogma and doctrine is an empty one. An open and honest dialogue would benefit from two graces of the Spirit, one is discernment and the other is disagreement. For discernment, Francis offers in the chapter, “A Time to Choose” three aspects of this first grace.
First, is the procedure used while seeking truth; not the ready-made kind of truth of arithmetic wherein there is only one answer to one plus one. Francis chooses the second kind, the ancient meaning of truth, the Greeks called it aletheia. It is an unveiling that reveals truth; the commitment to constantly explore truth, its manifestations and its meanings as acknowledged by the Spirit who knows the inner thoughts of God.
Secondly, discerning embraces questions, disagreements, separations, and disputes. One refreshing feature of “Let Us Dream” is Francis’ openness to issues at hand. For example, he writes of one revelation that happened at the Synod of Amazonia, the South American region that is economically poor, environmentally rich and ill-equipped to deal with both capitalism’s and authoritarianism’s assault on its natural resources and riches. This condition points out the great need for pastoral and priestly leadership and ministry. The synod’s revelation was that part of the priest shortage in the region is the result of bishops who ordain men whose view of priesthood does not include a missionary spirit to serve their own people. Too many of these clerics want to be sent to the United States and Europe where their lives will be more comfortable than in the missions of Amazonia. This does not fully explain let alone address, the priest shortage. But it may just point out the need for synodality to include discussions on dogma and doctrine – in this case, in the name of equality and missionary spirit, the necessity for married priests as well as priests who are women.
The third aspect of discerning is to do more than review issues that are in contention in the here-and-now. It also calls for an openness to discovery of the path of equality and freedom that are graces originating in the hidden plan of God. As we heard in Corinthians today, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard… what God has prepared for those who love God.” (1Cor 2:9) When such love is thwarted, when the “we” who decides what is allowed to be discussed is not the “we” who know God’s hidden depths, then disagreement is sure to ensue.
In church life, all too often, disagreement is feared by the “we” who are in control. This explains their choice for boundaries, deciding ahead of time what will or won’t, may or may not, provoke conflict. To his credit, Francis writes positively about this when he writes: “The task of ‘holding’ disagreement and allowing it to become a link in a new process is a valuable mission for all of us. When Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ (Mt 5:9) this is surely the mission he meant.” (p.78)
However, Francis puts a boundary on this Beatitude reference when he later writes about making peace through synodality. He says: “These are processes that take time, that demand maturity, perseverances, and decision. They call for sowing seeds that others will be able to harvest.” (p.92) He further advises those who may disagree to take the grace on offer. In other words, “Settle for what ‘we’ approve.”
I have recently become acquainted with Jacques Ranciere, French philosopher, who is retired but thankfully still writing. He has helped me appreciate how disagreement honors equality. For him equality is about space and not power relationships. It’s about counting all members of society (I will add, church); about including all parts even, and especially, those who don’t agree with us. This view of equality – counting even those who are excluded from giving their own account – is what Ranciere calls politics. It doesn’t mean elections and political power, or hierarchies and institutions. He says politics is the human activity whose basis is equality. When one’s faith commitment acknowledges equality among all God’s people then differences and disagreements must necessarily enter. Ranciere has a lot to say about equality, about including all, about dissent and disagreement, and about the weakness of those who believe they can make boundaries that hold.
I’ll have more to say about my new friend, Jacques, this year. For now I would like to end with a metaphor Pope Francis uses to end his chapter, “A Time to Choose.” It’s a metaphor about what’s possible and who gets to define possible in the first place. He tells the story of a local governor in Argentina, people who are called caudillo. This man was leading a group of travelers who got caught in a torrential downpour. He directed everybody to set up camp until the skies cleared. This direction came to be seen by the people as wisdom from the caudillo, wise counsel of their governor.
Well, for those who commit to equality and freedom, I hear them saying, “We see the skies clearing not so far away. We will break camp to go bask in the open skies and the sunshine.”
All honor and glory be to you, Creator God, who makes us in your image and likeness.
We acknowledge your presence among us when we agreee and when we disagree. Only then do we include all your people. We include those who count and those who don’t, those who occupy all parts of the whole of your people, and those to whom you have given space on this earth – our common home.
This is the equality of your Spirit, the freedom of your children.
We pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen.