When Listening Availeth Not

Listening can work wonders, as we've all found out. It's the only cure for confusion and misunderstanding. In the cacophony that surrounds us, in which hair-trigger attention spans spark snap judgments and freeze sound bites into treacherous misunderstandings, we can never have enough ears who are willing to hear.

The potential for these benefits depend on manifold conditions like the presence of sincere intent and the absence of built-in impediments. Take the current premium being placed on hearing what contributors to the Synod on the Family have to say. The crux of it is an appeal to the hierarchy to listen to what the laity thinks of the church's treatment of family life and what changes they'd like to see.

For that simple process to continue toward a satisfactory outcome, the listeners would have to take the witnesses seriously and be under some obligation to implement the recommendations. In the case of the synod, the bishops themselves would be expected to pay similar heed to fellow bishops. Neither feature is even remotely promised by the synod. Steep lines of authority provide no assurances of anything but the invitation to sound off. Unless the listeners are reformable, listening is all but meaningless. That has been the major flaw in the "pastoral approaches": complaints can be heard with a facade of sincerity but with stone ears.

One wonders how far listening can sustain optimism when all the major points under discussion have been firecracker obvious for years. Was there anyone at the synod who hadn't seen tons of evidence that majorities of American Catholics, for example, believe non-annulled remarried members should be granted communion or that artificial contraception is permissable or that gay marriage is okey with them? How did the much-publicized pre-synod survey of Catholic attitudes on those subject add anything of substance to what everyone paying attention already knew? Are the unordained really believed to be capable of sharing the Magisterium and would listening ever change that?

Granted, the synod exposes divisions among the bishops in more graphic terms, but synods have operated off and on since Vatican II with similar more liberal-more conservative factions and the winner has been the status quo without notable exceptions. No one but the pope can turn the voice of the people into policy and the pope, while a splendid listener, hasn't so far signaled any inclination to do that. Maybe he will, but meanwhile a gathering of bishops, priests, nuns and other lay people can only hope that a wave of inspiration will move Francis to make their wishes come true. Unlike a constitutional monarchy, which devolves actual power to make decisions (initiated by the Magna Carta in England) the Catholic church's authority flows only upward, allowing a bishop's limited prerogatives within his own diocese.

After all is said and done, virtually nothing new is said at the synod. It's purpose isn't to listen, per se, but to allow sides to lobby for their positions with no idea what will become of them, save that the record of synods commends low expectations for reformers.

Listening can be a great blessing -- or it can be a patronizing act of deception.

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