Synod on Synodality’s Communication Style: Don’t Debate — Listen, Says Pope Francis

Will This Approach Work for the Synod on Synodality?

Pope Francis attends a roundtable discussion during the synod on Oct. 6.
Pope Francis attends a roundtable discussion during the synod on Oct. 6. (photo: Simone Risoluti / National Catholic Register/Vatican Media )

Speeches during past Church councils and synods are widely referred to as debates. Several media outlets are referring to discussions during the current Synod on Synodality at the Vatican as debates.

Yet Pope Francis has all but banned debates at the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, emphasizing listening and prayer over speaking. Instead of listening to speeches delivered from a podium or a dais, participants are sitting at round tables of 10 or so, discussing matters on a small scale. The Vatican calls it “conversation in the Spirit.”

The organizing document for the synod (called the instrumentum laboris) calls for a “dynamic of listening”; it uses the words “listen” or “listening” 65 times.

The idea, as the Pope framed it last month during his flight back to Rome from Mongolia, is to preserve a “synodal atmosphere” by avoiding “ideology.”

“There is no place for ideology at the synod; there is space for dialogue,” the Holy Father said Sept. 4, according to a Vatican News translation. “Talking with each other, as brothers and sisters, and discussing the doctrine of the Church. Moving forward.”

The Register recently asked communications experts: For a deliberative body, does this method of communicating work?

Local Listening Sessions

It worked on the local level, according to one participant who helped organize listening sessions in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.

Between October 2021 and June 2022, the Diocese of Arlington held 127 listening sessions at parishes — 97 in English, 27 in Spanish, two in Vietnamese and one in Korean; plus 18 special sessions, at Catholic schools, conferences and other venues. At each session either Bishop Michael Burbidge or a local pastor presided. Attendees had three minutes to address the gathering, if they wanted.

“In all those listening sessions, people were free to speak. Everyone was free to say what they wanted, and there was no response to it. The bishop or pastor was simply listening, as everyone else was,” said Father Donald Planty Jr., the Arlington bishop’s delegate for the diocesan synodal phase, in a telephone interview. “All of these listening sessions took place in a mutual sense of prayer, collaboration and charity.”

Certain themes emerged, including how the Church can do a better job of educating adults in the faith, can better perform corporal works of mercy, can invite more cohabiting couples to get married, and can promote more vocations to the priesthood, according to a synthesis produced by the diocese.

“Overall, it was fruitful, because people really expressed gratitude for being able to come together and speak and listen to what each other had to say. It was fruitful also because there was consensus on the main themes that were essential to the Church’s mission,” Father Planty said.

Will Listening Work?

But the approximately 450 participants in the synod in Rome — mostly bishops, but more than one-quarter non-bishops, including laywomen and men — are supposed to present a final synodal document next year to the Pope on Church teachings and practices for his consideration.

While moving in that direction, says the synod’s organizing document, they need to “avoid divisive language” (Paragraph 12), engage in “authentic listening” and avoid “fragmentation and polarization” (28), “refrain from debates or discussions” (37), and offer “attention” to others’ statements “without rushing to offer immediate solutions” (29).

Will that approach work for a deliberative body?

“My initial reaction to this change in procedure is overwhelmingly negative. I believe the marketplace-of-ideas approach is more fruitful,” said Robert Stevenson, a Catholic and a professor who teaches in the Department of Media and Communication at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina, by email. “The marketplace of ideas allows all ideas to be heard, some of which will be proven to be true, some false, and some will be modifiable.”

“Without this approach there is a real danger of tyranny of the majority. Without this approach social change such as civil rights and woman’s suffrage would not have succeeded,” Stevenson said. “Effective listening is effective, but only as a precursor to an uninhibited debate.”

But another communications expert is more enthusiastic about Pope Francis’ approach, saying it builds connection, community and understanding.

Sheryl Perlmutter Bowen, an associate professor at Villanova University who studies intergroup dialogue, leadership and teambuilding, and communication and trauma, among other things, said Villanova has been using a similar “dialogic style” in campus discussions on race, gender and socioeconomic status for about a dozen years, with success.

The Register provided Bowen with several excerpts from the instrumentum laboris, the organizing document of the Synod on Synodality.

She seized on one portion in particular: “Once again, each person takes the floor: not to react or to counter what they have heard, reaffirming their own position, but to express what from their listening has touched them most deeply and what they feel challenged by most strongly” (Paragraph 38).

“This sounds like we could have written it from our program,” said Bowen, who works in the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and directs its Program on Intergroup Dialogue.

Bowen said the Pope seems to be trying to address sharp divisions in the Church and in society by trying to lower the volume of disagreement.

“I think people are trying to find ways to bridge differences, because, oftentimes, people aren’t talking to each other. And there’s no way out if you’re not talking to each other,” Bowen said. “When we try to understand somebody, it also increases compassion. When you hear somebody else’s story, you have to see them as fully human.”

The listening-and-dialogue method, she said, “surfaces different perspectives but not in an adversarial way.”

“It changes the attitude, if you’re really trying to understand,” Bowen said. “And it makes it seem as if you’re interested in learning from everyone, not just the strongest argument.”

The Register asked Bowen about Stevenson’s point, that it’s hard to make decisions without matching differing opinions in a clash of ideas.

Listening, she said, works — as long as you’re not in a hurry.

“I think it is effective for really gaining perspective for a deliberative body. When you have to make a quick decision, you don’t want to do this process,” Bowen said. “But I don’t think these are quick decisions.”