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Pope encourages speaking truth to power at Synod

Why did Pope Francis take to the floor unexpectedly at the Synod on the Family in Rome last Tuesday? According to Dr Gerry Whelan SJ, it was to ensure that the bishops would honour the procedural change which he introduced to the Synod since last year. It was a crucial change and has been a major issue for the Synod so far. Dr Whelan explains this in an interview from Rome with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications.

Pope Francis did not want the Synod to proceed along the usual lines of large plenary sessions, Dr Whelan notes. These often end up in parliamentary-style debates that can be polarising. Instead he wanted the bishops present to break out into small groups and discuss, with respect and active listening, their pastoral concerns. “The Pope made a direct appeal to those present not to engage in parliamentary-style debating but to engage in honest sharing and reflection on their concrete experiences in dealing with issues arising from family life across the five continents.”

This change in the way of proceeding caused quite a bit of unease for those who had come to Rome last week. ‘Conservative’ groups in particular were concerned about not getting to gather and vote in plenary session. This, they thought, would mean the more ‘liberal’ voices from smaller groups might sway the Pope to bring in changes after the Synod that were not agreed by a majority of those present.

Dr Gerry Whelan says that the Pope’s desire that those gathered engage in conversation and dialogue is very much a reflection of his formation in Ignatian spirituality. “He expects the bishops to conduct their deliberations in consolation. So he’s relying on them to be prayerful and reflective, to be honest and talk openly about what they feel and think. And to do this in the knowledge that they might not be agreed with or that their Superior might reach a different decision from what they desire. This is a way of proceeding that Jesuits would be very familiar with.”

Pope Francis’ newly inaugurated procedural change is characterized by the Greek word parrhesia – a word used by the Pope himself, according to Whelan, who lectures in philosophy at the Jesuit Gregorian University in Rome. He draws on the work of Michel Foucault to explain the term. “Foucault believes the term parrhesia reflects a key theme in Greek philosophy. He defines it as meaning a kind of risk-taking, a truth-telling that is ready to confront the prejudices of majority opinion and of political power.”

Foucault writes that Socrates was considered to be a model practitioner of parrhesia and that Plato elaborated on how the young need to be schooled in this quality, adds Dr Whelan. “Another line of thinking, the rhetorical tradition, disagrees with Plato and suggests that such an appeal to parrhesia is impractical and would make it difficult for democratic government to function. The rhetoricians point out that public debate in a democracy must be capable of arriving at single, clear, decisions. As a result, groups such as the sophists sought to school the young in the persuasive powers of the demagogue.”

Foucault states that there is value on both sides of this argument. Plato, he held, had little time for democracy, believing that the mass of voters would never develop a capacity of authentic parrhesia. So Dr Whelan speculates on whether there is something of relevance here for the Synod: “We witness a good deal of politicking around the Synod, not least, it appears, by conservative voices who are afraid of changes in the status quo. Can we recognize an insight from the rhetoricians here? Is it a little naive to expect that Churchmen will give themselves honestly and openly to parrhesia and not be keeping an eye on more political concerns? Or can we have hope that the Holy Spirit will really help the Church start to adopt this more consultative and spiritual approach?”

As the bishops gather in groups according to their languages, it is clear that Pope Francis continues to favour a move away from a centralised papal authority model to a devolution of discussion and decision-making at a more local level, namely that of the regional bishops’ conferences. Dr Whelan agrees that this dialogical method could be (and in some cases is) replicated by bishops in their dioceses where the laity become much more involved in deliberation and decision-making.

When asked about the issue of the invisibility of women at a Synod on the Family and the criticism in that regard by former Irish President Mary McAleese, he says there is a lot of work to be done to make women and lay people a more integral part of  Church synods. He does point out however that the situation is not totally bleak there as there are a number of women and couples present from around the world as ‘auditors’ and they do have interaction with the bishops.

Furthermore, Whelan is chaplain of the World Union of Catholic Women who have their headquarters in Rome and five million members. And he says they were asked to make a contribution to Instrumentum Laboris, the preparatory document for the Synod. So they gathered and collated as many opinions as they could from around the world on the role of women in the Church and the need for their greater involvement.

He was struck by the diversity of experiences from women across the globe.  And he noted the call from African women asking the Church not to promote a ‘traditional’ model of family which for them is synonymous with oppressive structures for women. “The problem of clericalism was also widely raised as an issue for women, as it is indeed for Pope Francis himself.”

It’s early days yet in Rome but already, according to Dr Whelan, the procedural change that got Pope Francis  up on his feet for an unscheduled intervention last Tuesday may well be one of the most influential factors arising from this Synod.