When we hear the name Alan Alda, several of us still think of his role as Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, the wise-cracking surgeon from the 1970’s Korean War comedy-drama M*A*S*H*. Fewer of us think about Alda growing up in the Bronx. Or that his Liberal Arts degree was earned under the auspices of the Jesuits at Fordham.
Indeed, at this point most people might be more familiar with Alan Alda as the author of the 2018 bestseller, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?. The subtitle is “My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating” and the thrust of the book is about how to best communicate complex ideas and foster understanding and stronger relationships.
Alda’s chief focus is about advancing scientific knowledge. But he could be the teacher the Catholic Church needs today as we try to immerse ourselves in the practice of synodality—a term Alda has probably never heard of, despite his Fordham bona fides. To be honest, even the most devout Catholics are trying to figure out what synodality means.
This is where Alan Alda comes in. Communicating scientific ideas is a challenge akin to what the synodal process hopes to do for the church. It is about clarifying an otherwise confusing landscape. As Alda puts it, “people are dying because we can’t communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another.”
In the case of synodality, nothing is more challenging, or important, than the communication necessary to disentangle a complicated religious idea—particularly one still searching for a definitive epistemology to explain its broad kerygma, the proclamation of the Gospel. In truth, synodality is not just a new language but a hope towards resolving what Alan Alda calls “disengagement.” As Alda puts it: “[D]isengagement [means being separated] from the person we hope will understand us.” It is like Alda’s experience in his early days of the PBS series, Scientific American Frontiers. He had to draw a viewing audience, one that would stick around to understand complex concepts. Because of this, Alda had to first understand why people might tune out or, in congregational terms, why they would leave. For Alda, it is like watching both customers and employees head for the exit until there is only management left. Whether management is scientific or clerical really doesn’t matter.
Alda tells us why communicating seems so difficult—namely, he says, “we tend to miss the fundamental ingredient of communication: empathy. For Alda, “empathy is learning to recognize what the other person is thinking and feeling.” This is more than the ability to listen. It is knowing how to react in a way that we open up to another person. We have to tune in to them, to engage with them in a dance of ideas, and that it may take us in unknown directions.
The point is that empathy is like synodality: it means we go together.
Pope Francis is hoping for this “togetherness.” He keeps inviting the dealmakers in the church to journey together. To change together. For some, this means how to expand the role of women. For others, it is a hoped-for review of the historic priesthood and episcopacy. And for many, it is getting clarity about persons who identify as LGBTQIA. In fact, participation, or inclusivity, may be the most significant fault line currently in the church. To leave it unaddressed would, I suspect, trigger an eventual schism.
But what synodality hopes to address, more than doctrine, is the pathology of “communicative illness.” In short, we generally assume we know more than the other person. As the Jungian analyst James Hollis once wrote: “All generations are seduced into anthropocentrism. We tend to defend our vision of the world as superior to that of others.” Part of our contemporary reality is that we live in a culture that has discarded the mythic roadmaps. These are the maps that once helped us locate who we are in a larger context. “Without these tribal visions of the gods, and their spiritual network, individuals are cut adrift to wander. Often without guidance, models, or help through the various stages of life,” Hollis writes.
Synodality hopes to fix this, at least in some way. At heart it is the basic idea of “synodal listening”—that we should pay more attention to what other people say rather than to our assumptions. Otherwise, we are practicing “disconnected listening.” As Alda says, “in our mind, we tell ourselves we are relating. But in truth, we are leaning over and waiting for the other person to finish talking.” To steal an analogy from Alda, it would be a mistake to think that synodality is the icing the Pope hopes to put on the cake. It isn’t. It is the cake!
This cake metaphor sheds some light on Pope Francis’s intuition. The Pope believes synodality will become “the constitutive element of the Church for the next millennium.” This is not because synodality is easy. Rather, Francis is advancing synodality because of a basic idea implanted in synodality. It is the practice of “being so aware of the other person that, even if you have your back to them, you’re observing them,” according to Alda. As he puts it, this kind of “relating is letting everything seep into you, in such a way that it has an effect on how you respond to the other person.”
Some may argue that this kind of synodality is just acting and make-believe. After all, synods and synodality are not new ideas. Indeed, synods and councils have been an integral part of the church since the early days of Christianity, and especially among the historic Churches of the East. But will they actually change anything? Will anything “happen,” as they say. Yet as Alda says, “there is a difference between planning how to behave, which is acting, from finding our relationship in another person’s eyes, which is life.” At its core, synodality is responding to one another. In fact, synodality insinuates that we are willing to be changed by the other person. “If I do listen—openly, naïvely, and innocently—there’s a chance, possibly the only chance, that true dialogue and real communication will take place between us,” writes Alda.
When this happens, listening circles no longer become interviews and transform into conversations. These are places where we can come in armed only with our curiosity and natural ignorance. This kind of listening becomes contagious. As a result, genuine curiosity positions us to want to understand the other person. This includes their work, their life, and their beliefs. All of this steers us clear from the perils of formality and jargon that pull us out of not relating. That is, we stop the cryptic lingo that breaks human bonds, almost immediately.
Granted, jargon isn’t always a bad thing. As Alda explains, “jargon is all right as long as the people we are talking with know exactly what we mean. But so often, we don’t share the same technical vocabulary.” We forget that the other person is a crucial partner in relating. “It is like borrowing from the mechanics of improv,” says Alda. If there is a bump in the synodal conversation, we have to relate to those bumps instead of ignoring them. Bumps are things to acknowledge and build on.
As Alda notes, “communication does not take place because we tell somebody something.” Communication takes place when we observe the other person. That is, we track their ability to follow what we are sharing. This is because synodality, like communication, is a group experience. We have to be comfortable with one another’s presence and relate in personal ways. In fact, there is no synodality without communication. But listening to good communication is not enough. It takes training for us to learn how to communicate, and how to be synodal. “I’ve been listening to good pianists all my life, and I still can’t play the piano,” as Alda notes with characteristic humor.
Now a fair criticism is that I have not told you what synodality is or is not. Nor what problems it will or will not resolve. For a Jesuit to refrain from offering up an opinion seems unusual. If I had to pick a pithy metaphor to explain synodality to my friends, I would steal an idea from Alda: that synodality is a bit like a “charming argument between two horses, tethered to each other, pulling in different directions, and resenting the other’s influence.”
Unfortunately, synodality is still not yet the dialogue it once was and now hopes to be. It still needs work. But why?
For a variety of reasons, the heart and mind of the church often struggle to work together to resolve conflicts. It is like trying to negotiate a peace treaty of emotion (heart) and reason (mind), where neither side is allowed to win or lose. Synodality asks us to do the same and avoid antagonism. We have to accept that we will be involved in a kind of messy collaboration. As Alda writes, “We have to be open to the possibility that the experience may very well emerge with the conclusion that neither side is right. We could discover another mechanism that no one had thought of yet.”
In this sense, I am less interested in outcomes—not that these do not matter. For now, I am more interested in whether synodality can get us to communicate. As I learned in Jesuit formation, communication is both a “means” and an “end.” The means of how we praise, reverence, and serve God to save our souls is for an interim end in this life: synodality. As with life, synodality will evolve from time to time. Sometimes we will be happy with how this advances, sometimes not. It is like Alda’s difference between practicing the piano and becoming a pianist. Practice is the means, not the end. But listening during practice means we hear music, not just noise.
My prayer is that synodality will be what the people of God hope it might be. Could synodality be the next introduction to making a choice for a good way of life in the church? We shall see. Even if not for the church as a whole, then at least it could be for the people hovering at its front door. The people standing there and wondering whether to stay or to leave. I’d say, “Come on in. It’s a mess in here. We’re like a bunch of tethered horses trying to figure it out. But we will figure it out!”