Synodality and the Crisis of Democratic Politics
Pope Francis is now leading a three-year process of what he has called synodality in the Roman Catholic Church across the world, an initiative designed to encourage mutual listening in which all involved have something to learn. He has done so to provide that community’s members with an opportunity to engage with one another and with that faith tradition’s teachings and doctrine in the context of the circumstances in which those individuals find themselves. The Pope has been clear that he believes two challenges especially demarcate the political, social and economic environment in which the synodal effort is proceeding. First, we live in an age in which too many individuals have lost faith in the possibility of selfless love, the other-regarding possibility governed by empathy and interests beyond self. Secondly, abstract ideology today too often rules behavior in lieu of an in-principle commitment to addressing lived reality, based on persistent dialogue.1 As a recent review of the initiative by Bishop Daniel Flores of Texas put it, for Francis, that interchange demands “listening [as the] sensible attentiveness to the other, a genuine metaphysical opening to let the other express themselves.”2
It also implies what Flores labeled “a contemplative gaze” rooted in a charitable willingness to regard others, even very different individuals, with dignity.3 In the Church’s case, as a Christian institution, the plain hope is that the Holy Spirit will enable this constant contact with reality, despite the ugly and dispiriting nature of the lies, conspiracy-mongering and ideology that provide an intangible view too often unrelated to reality that today dominates social and political discourse in our own and many other nations. To the extent synodality can achieve the contemplative selflessness Francis hopes for, such dialogue could ennoble those engaged in it, enliven their commitments to their shared aspirations, their faith tradition in this instance, and help each to come to a more considered and more robust common conception of reality within their lived circumstances. In Francis’s view, this synodal dialogue between the concrete and individual as well as Church perceptions, beliefs and tenets, must persist across time to keep the faith and its faithful rooted in actual conditions, rather than distorted imaginings or shibboleths.
I am struck by the similarity of Francis’s conception of the challenges confronting his church and those today threatening democratic governance across the world, including the United States. The very same underlying conditions that the Pope perceives as eroding the foundations of his Church are those that have sent democratic possibility spiraling into crisis. As I write, here in the U.S., for example, GOP Senators are stating that they will not support sensible gun regulation of powerful semi-automatic weapons, despite the now almost daily carnage of mass shootings in the United States and despite widespread popular support for such measures. Many of those same officials and their House of Representatives counterparts have embraced lies concerning the November 2020 election and the January 6, 2021, attempted coup, as well as fabrications concerning immigration and education, among other issues, designed foremost to manipulate and mislead voters. They have adopted these fabrications despite their corrosive implications for the possibility of deliberation, the democratic equivalent of Francis’s contemplative potentiality. Likewise, democratic politics relies on civic virtue within and among the citizenry to play the role of encouraging deliberation assigned the Holy Spirit in the Catholic synodal process.
Considered in Pope Francis’s terms, GOP lawmakers have worked assiduously to concoct a false reality predicated on a rigid ideology, demagoguery and hatred that is floating free of the dialectical rootedness that synodality aims to realize. In this sense, one might say our democratic politics likewise needs its own grassroots dialogue of the sort Francis envisions for his church. Nonetheless, one must wonder whether such can now occur.
George Orwell pithily captured the dangers of developing a political language of absolutes and othering aimed at mobilization around falsehoods. Writing in 1946, he suggested:
In our time, it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. … In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. … Political language is designed … to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.4
Orwell contended this sort of obscuring language corrupts thought, even as it profoundly damages those who accept it, as well as those who author and offer it.
Pope Francis has warned similarly that as such rhetoric disorients, it disconnects its audiences from the lived reality they share with millions of others in favor of an artificial and deeply unreflective, division and hatred. In fact, this is what seems to be occurring here in the United States as the Republican Party has drifted into a posture of profound disdain of any perspective other than its own shifting views and similar disregard for the legitimacy of any other claimant. The GOP daily finds mechanisms by which to whip its supporters into a fevered frenzy of othering and cruelty on a wild array of fantastical bases. That is, the party, as Leonard Pitts has recently acutely observed, has now embraced,
Alternate reality as its forwarding address
A newly brazen racism and xenophobia as its heart
Conspiracy as its voice
Violence as its ‘good right arm’
And Trump as its face.5
The GOP and its media allies are actively seeking to unmoor their supporters from contrary ethical claims while pressing for unequivocal disregard of the dignity of others in the name of power and revenue, and they are doing so in ways that undermine the possibility for deliberative exchange or shared understanding of reality among diverse groups of citizens. The GOP partisan population can and is being pressed into believing so-called and almost daily manufactured “crises” occasioned by, for example, imagined imminent Communist overthrow, wildly inflated and distorted assertions concerning the import and character of critical race theory, professed outrage concerning books that must be censored, supposed immigrant hordes conspiratorially mobilized by “them” to replace the White population, and similar dotty lies. Indeed, the Party’s representatives and their allies have made it clear they are willing to offer any lie, any claim, no matter how prima facie implausible or outrageous, if they believe it may result in financial or social aggrandizement or political mobilization. The principal result of this descent into a manufactured madness of constant contempt and fear, as Francis has grasped and Orwell understood decades ago, is a politics of meaningless nihilism fueled by empty hate.
What stands out within the increasingly debased reality of American politics is the fragility of the norms that foment and protect honest and deliberative citizen understanding and exchange. This tragic situation is pointed up by Donald Trump recently advising his political allies to work to seize control and delegitimate the daily press narrative arising from the ongoing House hearings concerning the January 6, 2021, attempted coup by lying and creating an alternate reality for those disposed to support such assertions. Indeed, as Trump’s complete cynicism attests, we now have a major political party assiduously and self-consciously attacking deliberative possibility. It is difficult to imagine democracy surviving in this scenario in the longer pull unless Americans writ large grasp the preservation of such considered exchange as their foremost concern and actively resist and work to overcome the GOP’s daily calls to hate.
This sobering reality led me to recall a passage in Laurence Rees’s searing history of Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi killing camp, in which he contended:
Nonetheless, it is reasonable to conclude that one form of partial protection against more atrocities like Auschwitz lies in individuals collectively ensuring the cultural mores of their society are antipathetic to such suffering. The overtly Darwinian ideals of Nazism, which rested on telling every ‘Aryan’ German that he or she was racially superior, created of course, precisely the reverse effect.6
Both the ongoing synodality of the Roman Catholic Church and the reasonable functioning of our country’s democratic political process assume that participants in those efforts can empathize with others suffering and consider deliberatively, and, more broadly, and hopefully contemplatively, their respective perspectives and life conditions. And yet both our politics and the Roman Catholic Church are today the subject of concerted efforts to prevent or undermine just such a norm in favor of a power built on hate and anxiety-fueled demagoguery. It remains to be seen whether either the democratic or synodal processes can summon the delicate human potential on which each relies. Nonetheless, as Rees highlighted, such an outcome is essential to the preservation of freedom and democratic possibility and, more deeply, to prevent the wholesale usurpation of decency and shared humanity. Our society today is fully in the throes of this existential contest whose outcome depends ultimately on the probity of the electorate writ large; the very bases of which are now actively under assault.
1 Pope Francis, “Evangelii Gaudium,” Apostolic Exhortation, November 24, 2013. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html, Accessed June 4, 2022.
2 Flores, Daniel E. “Closeness and the Common Journey,” Commonweal, June 2022, pp. 26-31 at p. 29.
3 Flores, Daniel. “Closeness,” p. 28.
4 Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language,” The Orwell Foundation, https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/politics-and-the-english-language/, Accessed June 8, 2022.
5 Pitts, Leonard. “Conservatives appalled by the ‘crazy’ were too silent for too long. Now, it’s too late.” Miami Herald, June 3, 2022, https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article262080562.html, Accessed June 5, 2022. 5
6 Rees, Laurence. How Mankind Committed the Ultimate Infamy at Auschwitz: A New History. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2005, p. xxvi.
June 13, 2022