On December 2, 2020, Pope Francis published a book entitled Let Us Dream (Simon and Schuster) with the subtitle: A Path to a Better Future.
The book is the result of his interviews with British journalist Austen Ivereigh, who is also his biographer (The Great Reformer – Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope).
Praise of Synodality Against Polarization
Continuing from the encyclicals Laudato si’ (2015) and Fratelli tutti (2020), the book is presented as the Pope’s response to the crisis of the modern world as revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is an opportunity to come back to all of Francis’s favored themes, especially synodality, presented in lyrical terms: “In the dynamics of a synod, differences are expressed and polished until we reach, if not a consensus, at least a harmony which preserves the fine nuances of any differences. This is what happens in music: with seven notes, their sharps and their flats, we create a harmony that allows us to better articulate the singularities of each note. This is where its beauty lies: the resulting harmony can be complex, rich, and unexpected. In the Church, it is the Holy Spirit who creates this harmony.”
To this synodal harmony, the Pope opposes Tradition, which in his eyes is fixed and rigid: “Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer (sic), and doctrine is not static, but it grows and develops, like a tree which remains the same but which grows and always bears more fruit. Some claim that God has spoken once and for all—almost always exclusively in the manner and in the form that they already know well.”
The notion of the “homogeneous evolution of dogma,” where the understanding of the revealed deposit can evolve but not its content (nova sed non nova) seems to have escaped Francis, just like the idea that Revelation closed on the death of the last apostle, St. John.
In the name of synodality, the Pope denounces what he calls “polarization,” that is, the attachment to an immutable truth that transcends personal viewpoints. He invites us to overcome divisions, and the current crisis favors, according to him, an “overflowing” which should disturb all false certainties and allow the world to come out that much better from this difficult period.
In all candor, he admits: “My concern as pope has been to encourage such shakeups within the Church, reinvigorating the old practice of synodality.”
Synodality, explains the Pope, is a remedy against the spirit of conflict and sterile polarizations. And this goes beyond the Church: “instead of being trapped in the labyrinth of accusation and counter-accusation,” men must “engage in conflict and disagreement” in order to find “a new way of thinking that can transcend this division.” “This synodal approach is something the world needs badly now,” he insists.
For Francis, synodality is a search within the Church for “harmony which makes it possible to better articulate singularities.” Each person “experiences the gift of God according to its own culture, and in each of them the Church expresses its true catholicity and the beauty of its many different faces” (regarding this, see the notion of a '“Polyhedral Church,” dear to Francis).
This requires mediators and, in his eyes, it is the only path that leads to true reconciliation. He gives a secular example of synodality that he seeks to promote still more: the European Union which, through its original project but also through its recent rescue plan against the coronavirus, tries “to harmonize the differences within the framework of a global effort to find unity.”
The Expected Fruits of the Synodal Process
In the Church, Francis recalls the fruits he observed during the three synods of his pontificate—on the family, on young people, and on the Amazon,—fruits which first came, according to him, from the wisdom of the people of God, but also from an experience of conversion proper to the synodal process.
We must let ourselves be overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit: “Our God is a God of surprises, always ahead of us.”—We know that since Vatican II the dynamics of pressure groups have been conveniently identified with the action of the Holy Spirit; the pope shows here that he is well in line with the Council.
Against the sterile polarizations and the spirit of conflict which animate the world and the Church, the Pope proposes this synodal path as a remedy, which is reminiscent of the “synodal path” in which the German bishops have been engaged for more than a year.
It is from this perspective that he sheds light on the notion of “discernment,” to which he so often returns. Sometimes you have to make a compromise, he explains: “sometimes even, it is the only thing you can do,” but a compromise is “a temporary solution, a model of waiting, which allows a situation to mature to the point that it can be resolved by a path of discernment, at the right time, by seeking the will of God.”
Francis attacks the expression “non-negotiable values,” stressing that all true values are non-negotiable, but he wants to recall that, faced with “noble but abstract criteria,” it is necessary to apply “discernment,” because “we debate concepts, but we discern the real.”
He condemns “existential quietism”—the origin of fundamentalism—which closes the door to discussion, because “a fruitful thought must always remain unfinished in order to leave room for subsequent reasoning.” These fortresses of certainty, in the Church in particular, are at the origin of the Argentine Pope’s allergy to “moralism and other ‘-isms.’”
An illuminating example of “overflowing” synodality—in Francis’ eyes—is provided by the Synod on the Family, where access to communion was discussed for “remarried” divorcees. The Pope regrets that the media then presented the Church as having to either “relax its rules” or “maintain its strict position,” thus establishing a “sterile” conflict that the Synod precisely sought to overcome.
He welcomed the “excesses” brought about by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, recalling that no general rule could apply to all situations. This allowed the synod to “agree on the need for case-by-case discernment.” “It was not necessary to change the law of the Church, but only the way in which it was applied,” observes Francis with dismaying satisfaction.