In legal terms, a consultative process is a procedure designed to create an open dialogue among appropriate individuals, regarding issues of concern or disputes. In this context, it is a two-year process set out to consult every Catholic parish and diocese worldwide on the future direction of the Catholic Church.
The consultation scheme has been formally titled ‘For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission’ and will consist of 3 main stages. The first being the ‘listening phase’, in which people in the parishes and diocese will be able to discuss the issues at hand. The second being the ‘continental phase’, in which bishops will congregate to consider and unify their findings. The third phase being the ‘universal phase’, in which a month long gathering of Bishops at the Vatican will take place in October of 2023.
Pope Francis has been careful to emphasise the importance of Catholics listening to one another in the new consultative process and has stressed the Church’s desire to hear from members of society perhaps traditionally marginalised by the Church. Particular attention will be given to ensuring that the voices of women, young people and minorities within communities are heard.
The main topics expected to be discussed at parish/diocese level will be centred around issues that have long since dominated Catholic discourse e.g. the role of women within the Church. Other points of contention for some will be conversations regarding same-sex relationships, the ordination of women and ecclesiastical marriage.
Further issues to do with the Church’s social role are expected to be raised. In particular, there will be a spotlight on the Church’s public policies, which have traditionally been centred around relieving poverty within communities etc. Notably this time, the Pope’s commitment to climate change will be subject to review.
Most excitingly for many, will be the fact that any issue is permitted to be raised during the new consultative process. Meaning that for many Catholic communities, this will be the first time that they will have a significant chance to talk through issues relating both to their own communities and to the Catholic Church as a whole. Particularly crucial will be the discussion of whether the Church listens to women, minorities and young people enough.
While liberals are hoping that this process may eventually lead to what they see as some much needed reform, sceptics say the scheme may be side-stepping the Church’s most challenging issues. The most serious of which being the historic child sexual abuse. Others argue that the consultative process fails to address a plethora of additional issues, including the catastrophic decline in Church attendance and systemic corruption within the Church.
Yet it is arguable that far from side-stepping these issues, the consultative process may in fact be exactly the right place for the community to start unpacking issues contributing to the Church’s past failings.
The Catholic institution is notoriously uncompromising. However, if Pope Francis is actively warning against the Church’s tendency towards ‘complacency', and its notorious failures in addressing current world issues, perhaps there may still be a role for the Catholic Church in the future?