A Synodal People
Bishop Shane Mackinlay observed that “learning to be synodal is different to learning to be democratic.” This echoes Pope Francis’ contrast between synodal processes and democratic ones: the former is discernment while the latter is parliamentary; the former seeks unity and the common good while the latter seeks to accentuate difference and the power of winning.
In my doctoral research I the work of the Scottish Philosopher John Macmurray (1891 – 1976), Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford and Edinburgh among other Universities. Macmurray stood out in the world of British philosophy of the twentieth century for his deep focus the human person as an agent and on the primacy of action over theory.
He critiqued much of modern philosophy as being characteristically egocentric. By this he meant that the initial point of thought was the ‘Self’, but a self that was isolated – an ego or an I that was always without another or without a thou.
He argued, in contrast to many other thinkers of his time, that human persons are always agents in relationships with other agents. An agent is not just one who is capable of choosing; but that the choices are the precursor to action. Macmurray notes that human infants are born almost helpless but with a singular capacity that defines each of us: the capacity to communicate with other persons. He suggested that the ‘mother-child’ relation was the basic form of human existence. Almost anticipating some of the demands of a contemporary world, he noted that this was not primarily a biological relationship (though that was its most apt image), but one in which the infant calls out to the other and through the response learns and grows. Macmurray proposed that all human communities grow from one-to-one encounters and relationships – that even in a large group, the interactions are all effectively dialogical.
A synodal people is formed through a series of one-to-one relations and conversations which inevitably broaden into not just a conversation of I and Thou, but to each I and Thou that each of us is involved with. We become bound in a common journey that moves us, no longer as isolated egos but as a community of agents moving together, toward a shared goal.
This goal, which we might call complete human flourishing or the resurrection, calls us on but is also in some manner just beyond the horizon. Since it is just out of reach, there is a tentativeness which demands an attentiveness to the other and a discerning heart. Like Macmurray, Francis does not accept this tentativeness as an excuse for inaction or stagnation. Instead, he tells us that the Church is in need of field hospitals – emergency care but always ready to move to where the need is now. He always implies and often explicitly states that these field hospitals are focused on the margins, directed to the care of those on the periphery who are so often forgotten and abandoned.
A synodal people is not egocentric, rather it is other focused. A synodal people listens and discerns. Above all, a synodal people acts to serve those in need.
- Patrick McArdle is the Chancellor, Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn