Earlier this week, the USCCB tweeted a graphic featuring “seven attitudes we can all adopt as we continue our synodal journey together,” which many on social media criticized for various reasons. Some criticized its apparent “corporatese.” Others argued that the seven attitudes were unfamiliar or did not correspond with their notions of authentically Catholic terminology. Although these terms were new and strange to many, they came from a Vatican document, and all of these concepts are rooted in the teachings of Pope Francis and his predecessors.
Here are seven attitudes we can all adopt as we continue our synodal journey together. Which one inspires you the most? Let us know in the comments below. @Synod_va
— U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (@USCCB) January 10, 2022
These seven attitudes—innovative outlook, inclusivity, open-mindedness, listening, accompaniment, co-responsibility, and dialogue—feature heavily in the larger “Synod on Synodality,” a multi-year process involving the whole Church. This process, which began in October 2021 and will conclude in October 2023, could potentially re-examine everything about Catholic life today, such as parish life, the challenges of modern media, the difficulty of evangelization, responding to current events, the abuse crisis, clericalism, catechesis, and the role of women in the Church. This Synod is much different from the typical work of the Synod of Bishops because, in principle, everyone at every level of the Church has opportunity to participate. While it’s likely that, in reality, most dioceses will not be able to provide a forum for every Catholic to speak, no Catholic (or non-Catholic) is explicitly excluded from the process, and all are invited. Perhaps a great irony, then, regarding the hundreds of negative comments on Twitter, is that even this feedback is welcomed by the Synod.
The seven attitudes tweeted by the USCCB are drawn directly from the Vademecum, or handbook, for the Synod. This guide for the synodal process is intended to help set a frame of reference for how all Catholics should approach participating in it. The Vademecum is drawn from the mission and approach of Pope Francis, especially his vision for the way forward for the Church. His understanding of a synodal Church involves the participation of all Catholics.
The Vademecum distills the teachings of Pope Francis on synodality and provides a list of “attitudes,” each followed by a brief synopsis of how it should be applied. The seven attitudes that correspond with the USCCB tweet relate specifically with local participation in the synod—the level at which most Catholics will have the opportunity to participate. These are:
- An innovative outlook
- Being inclusive
- An open mind
- Listening to each and every one
- An understanding of “journeying together”
- Understanding the concept of a co-responsible Church
- Reaching out through ecumenical and interreligious dialogue
Each of these corresponds to one of the attitudes in the USCCB graphic. The USCCB shortened the names and obviously didn’t have room to include full descriptions of each attitude. This lack of clarity likely contributed to some of the backlash.
So what is the significance of these seven attitudes? Why did the synod organizers pick them? Why has the Church chosen to highlight these areas? Perhaps a look at these attitudes in light of the teachings of Pope Francis and the Vademecum will clarify some of the confusion (the USCCB term is in parentheses).
An Innovative Outlook (Innovative Outlook)
We are connected like never before, yet our distance from our neighbors grows. We are the wealthiest we have ever been, yet poverty and inequality abound. In the Church, we are seeing a decline in engagement, while arguably at the same time the Church is failing to address fundamental needs. Pope Francis has asked us to “find in the treasury of the Church whatever is most fruitful for the ‘today’ of salvation” (Gaudete et Exsultate 173) but we also must be unafraid to think things through again. What is essential and what is merely contingent. What are merely cultural accouterments amassed over time?
A key theme for Pope Francis throughout his papacy has been “creativity.” It is not enough to simply look into the past and recreate what was done before but, as the Vademecum says, we are called to “develop new approaches with creativity and a certain audacity.” This faithful creativity responds to the unique challenges of our time.
Being Inclusive (Inclusivity)
One of the clear challenges of the modern era is our “tribalism.” New ways of connecting and engaging on social media and offline, along with limitless choices of groups and identities available to us, has facilitated the creation of more specialized and isolated groups. What is not new, however, is the continued divergence between people “in the know” or in power, and those on the periphery. Some are involved, engaged, and active, whereas others are excluded and shunned. We continue to make assumptions about each other and form social groups based upon superficialities or shared opinions.
But all Catholics, by virtue of their baptism, are called to participate in the life of the Church, to bring their respective gifts and talents for the benefit of the larger community. The Synod ought to include and prioritize the inclusion of their voices. The Vademecum calls for “a participatory and co-responsible Church, capable of appreciating its own rich variety,” pointing to the diversity present in the universal Church, and calls for all of us to “embraces all those we often forget or ignore.” To deny anyone’s opportunity to be heard could further divisions within the Church or exclude important messages from being heard.
An Open Mind (Open-mindedness)
A popular school-age adage is that one should not have a mind so open that your brains fall out. It’s also true, however, that a mind closed off to the world is sure to suffocate and die. When we refuse to listen, enter into dialogue and debate, or consider the ideas and positions of others, our culture becomes sterile (cf. Centesimus Annus 50). Perhaps most pointedly directed at the Twitter critics, this attitude calls for dropping “ideological labels” and considering “all methodologies that have borne fruit”. We ought to see here not a naively optimistic “try everything” approach but rather a process of discernment–another major theme from Pope Francis and the Synod preparatory documents–whereby the Church tests everything and keeps what is good (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21). “In a synodal style, decisions are made through discernment, based on a consensus that flows from the common obedience to the Spirit,” according to the Vademecum. But if we are closed off to change or to the possibility that others may be right, we limit the growth of the Church and may contribute to its decline as its relevance in the life of the faithful dissipates.
Listening to Each and Every One (Listening)
Similar to having an open mind, listening to everyone means understanding that all the baptized have a role to play in building “the wonderful multi-faceted reality that Christ’s Church is meant to be”. Even if the suggestions and contributions of others are different than what we are used to, or make us uncomfortable, that does not necessarily mean that they are wrong or that their contributions are invalid. Even more so today, with millions living on the periphery of their faith, or only tangentially connected with our parishes and dioceses, we should ask what is on their mind and how we can better serve them. We will never know if we don’t seek their input.
An Understanding of “Journeying Together” (Accompaniment)
Leaning on the specific gifts and ministries of every Christian, the whole Church journeys together and helps one another grow in faith, hope, and love. In Francis’s ministry, journeying together takes on two primary dimensions. First, there is the fact that we are journeying with our fellow Catholics on the path to God. We are not simply isolated individuals who overlap in some aspects of our lives but are in fact united at the core by our shared love of God and our acceptance of his gift of mercy in Christ Jesus. This basis for our communion as a Church unites us in one purpose so that we can truly say that we are “partners” on this journey. The second dimension is that we share our journey with the clergy. Both out of material necessity (vocations are declining) and for theological reasons (the universal call to holiness and common priesthood of the baptized), the Church of the third millennium needs to emphasize that priests do not rule. They are not CEOs or spiritual guides with exclusive access to the grace of God. We, priests and laity alike, all can learn from one another as we move forward together.
Understanding the concept of a co-responsible Church (Co-responsibility)
Moving away from clericalism and envisioning the Church as “journeying together” leads us to “co-responsibility.” We often criticize the Church we love and we spare no ire for the bishops that lead it. However, co-responsibility emphasizes the role that the laity also plays in helping the Church to fulfill its mission and to evangelize the world. We must see ourselves as truly responsible for the future of the Church, even and especially when we offer constructive criticisms of her institutional elements. In many cases, this will mean rooting out entrenched clericalist attitudes, to remove processes and institutions that stifle the creativity and energy of the laity. Embracing our co-responsibility as lay men and women can lead to our fuller engagement in the synodal process, and we can hope it will in the future will yield a more fully engaged laity, a laity that is respected, valued, and integral to the success of each parish, diocese, and the Church as a whole.
Reaching out through ecumenical and interreligious dialogue (Dialogue)
Christ wills that all may be one (Jn 17:21), united in a shared love of God and one another. To that end, in the spirit of fraternity, Pope Francis in particular has opened up dialogue with other religious traditions in an unprecedented way. Dialogue with those different than ourselves is essential if we hope to bridge our divides that lead to strife and even warfare, but also to purify ourselves of all our false ideologies and destructive ways of life. Being open to dialogue outside of the Church and with others in the “human family” can carry the attitudes and habits of the synod as we live as salt, light, and leaven in the world.
Following the list of attitudes that foster synodality, the Vademecum provides a list of “pitfalls” to avoid. The third pitfall is the temptation to “only see problems.” There is no doubt that Catholics around the world will continue to be critical of the Synod on Synodality, its processes, its infantile typeface, but we have to acknowledge that our criticisms—that is, when they are baseless and unconstructive—only serve to poison the well, to slow the growth of the Church, and to prevent the Church from bearing fruit in the third millennium.
Perhaps ironically, given the criticism of the “attitudes” on social media received, the first pitfall says, “Synodality is not a corporate strategic exercise.” Unfortunately, for those who have not paid attention to Francis’s message or do not understand the trajectory of the Church today, the USCCB’s tweet may have looked like just another bit of “corporatese,” or a way of giving into the ways of the world. Clearly, however, that is not the case. As the Vademecum explains, synodality “is a spiritual process that is led by Holy Spirit… Our humble efforts of organization and coordination are the service of God who guides us on our way. We are clay in the hands of the Divine Potter (Isaiah 64:8).”
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.