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Vocabulary of a synod: Are the synodal reports speaking the same language?

Vocabulary of a synod: Are the synodal reports speaking the same language?

As the Church’s global “synod on synodality” continues, groups of bishops and laity are now staging continental-level discussions of the “Working Document for the Continental Stage,” a synthesis document created by a Vatican-appointed working group.

The continental stage’s working document - published by the Vatican in October -  is meant to be a summary and synthesis of texts from bishops’ conferences around the world, which themselves are drawn from diocesan summaries of discussions in parishes and diocesan meetings.

But how well does the “Working Document for the Continental Stage” actually reflect the synodal reports of the world’s bishops’ conferences?

The Pillar aimed to find out.

When bishops’ conferences submitted their national reports to the Vatican last year, 18 conferences submitted their texts in English. These came from every inhabited continent except South America.

The Pillar applied a quantitative textual analysis approach -  called correspondence analysis -  to both conference-level synodal summaries, and to the global “Working Document for the Continental Stage.”

Correspondence analysis looks at the frequency with which different words and phrases appear in different documents, and then produces a visual representation of how unique particular phrases are to particular documents.

When words appear with equal frequency across all the documents, they are shown near a graph’s origin point — shown as 0,0 on the X,Y axes of the graph.

Words common in some documents but not others are plotted further from the center, near to the names of the documents in which they appear most frequently.

So what did we learn?

Well, on one hand, correspondence analysis shows nothing but patterns, and frequency relationships — data that by itself might prove very little. But on the other hand, those patterns make suggestions — and in the case of the synod on synodality, they suggest differences in concern and emphasis among the reports of countries around the world, which were taken up with varying degrees of frequency by the drafters of the “Working Document for the Continental Stage.”

Let’s take a look.

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In the following correspondence analysis graph, we have magnified the central area of a correspondence graph, to separate words crowded in that area.

These words  - such as “dialogue”, “faithful”, “people”, “want” and “feel”  - appeared with similar frequency across episcopal conference documents and the Vatican’s “continental document.”

Korea and the Nordic countries had the most average usage of terms, and are thus plotted near the center of the graph. Other conference documents fell into particular sets, which suggested some interesting similarities and contrasts.

Pillar graphic

Correspondence analysis suggested groupings of nations whose episcopal conferences clustered around certain themes.

The U.S., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, Canada, and Malta (whose official languages are Maltese and English) formed a cluster. Those countries mentioned leadership, the abuse crisis in the Church, young people, and families, more than reports from other regions did.

A second group of synodal reports consisted of Germany, alongside a set of countries from what is sometimes called the Global South — in this case, Malaysia, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, and Antilles). The reports from those countries spoke about bishops, the poor, and the laity more often than other regions.

Three smaller groups consisted of Scotland and Japan, the Nordic countries and Korea, and England, Wales, France.

But the global “Working Document” stood apart from any of the national reports analyzed by The Pillar, talking more about topics such as women, Christ, and synodality, and speaking less about bishops, the abuse crisis, and the laity.

The Global South

The most striking similarity between conference documents from the Global South, which distinguished them from documents from other countries, was the frequency with which they spoke about the poor.

On average, the documents prepared by the Antilles, Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei, Zimbabwe, and the Philippines mentioned the poor 19 times out of every 10,000 words. By comparison, other conference documents used the word only six times out of 10,000 words and the global “Working Document” used the word only three times per 10,000 words.

Documents from those countries also mentioned the family more frequently — 24 times per 10,000 words —  than documents from other parts of the world (12 times per 10,000) or the global document (10 times per 10,000).

Not only did those documents discuss the family more than other documents – the document from the Antilles was typical saying :“The voice of the Holy Spirit also resounds in calls to prioritize family life in the Church” —  but they also found the family to be a fruitful metaphor in discussing the Church.

The document from Zimbabwe spoke often of the Family of God: “Our understanding of the Church as Family of God challenges us to improve the quality of our journeying together within individual families and with other families in the journey of life and faith.”

With the exception of South Africa — which mentioned marriage 24 times for every 10,000 words — no conference document mentioned marriage more than five times for every 10,000 words.

The global document referred to “marriage” or “marriages” only two times for every 10,000 words, an average frequency for all documents, including those of the Global South.

But reports from the Global South discussed divorce more often than those from the rest of the world.

Divorce was mentioned five times out of every 10,000 words in that region, while across the rest of the world and in the global report, divorce was mentioned just slightly more than three times per 10,000 words.

The outlier, again, was South Africa, which mentioned divorce at a rate of 12 times for every 10,000 words.

The Global South mentioned LGBT issues with the same frequency (five times per 10,000 words) as the rest of the world, while the global report mentioned them least of all (one time per 10,000 words.)

There was, however, significant variability among countries in the Global South on that issue. Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei mentioned LGBT issues about nine times per 10,000 words, while the Philippines did so seven times, the Antilles four times, and Zimbabwe did not use any of the common terms or acronyms for people who identify as gay or lesbian.

LGBT identifying people were mentioned as communities on the peripheries, which the Church needed to seek to reach out to more. The document from Malaysia specifically mentioned the Church’s need to differentiate its approach from Islam.

None of the documents from the Global South indicated a desire to change Church practice, such as by blessing same sex unions — a topic raised among European Catholics often in recent months.

While the Global South is known to have many more young Catholics than more affluent countries, most of the reports from that region actually mentioned young people less.

The report from Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei was the outlier in the region, mentioning young people 28 times per 10,000 words, but among the other three reports, the average was three mentions — and the Philippines did not mention young people at all.

In other parts of the world, the average report mentioned young people nine times out of every 10,000 words, though again there was significant variability with Ireland mentioning young people 26 times per 10,000 and France never mentioning them at all.

Reports from the Global South also mentioned parishes (52 times per 10,000 words) and bishops (20 times) more often than the average for the rest of the world.

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The Anglosphere

A group of English-speaking countries, which included the US, Australia,South Africa, Ireland, Canada, but did not include England & Wales, clustered at the upper left corner of the correspondence analysis chart due to a number of similarities in their synodal reports.

These countries bore some similarities to the Global South in the words and concepts they mentioned frequently, but were different in other respects.

They discussed families frequently, mentioning family or families 21 times per 10,000 words compared to 24 times for the Global South and just two times for the other bishops conferences. These countries also discussed divorce with the same frequency as the Global South (five times per 10,000 words), while other countries mentioned divorce on average less than two times per 10,000 words.

The countries of the Anglosphere mentioned LGBT issues more often than any other regions, using some form of the acronym seven times out of every 10,000 words, as compared to five times in the Global South, 2.5 times in the rest of the world, and just once per 10,000 words in the global “Working Document”.

These documents also mentioned the laity more frequently than other regions: 11 times per 10,000 words in the Anglosphere, 10 times in the Global South, and seven times in other reports.

Women in the Church were discussed more often in Anglosphere reports (19 times per 10,000 words) than in those from the Global South (11 times) but not as often in the rest of the world (23 times).

The global “Working Document” mentioned women most often of all: 33 times for every 10,000 words.

Young people were also more of a focus in the Anglosphere than in other parts of the world. They were mentioned in synodal reports 12 times for every 10,000 words, as compared to eight times across the other reports from across the world and seven times in the global document.

Within the Anglosphere, the most frequent mentions of young people by far was found in the Irish document, which mentioned them an average of 28 times per 10,000 words.

The Abuse Crisis

Some issues did not fall neatly into regional divisions. Among important issues in the Church, the crisis of sexual abuse mentioned nearly four times as often in the reports from the US, Germany, and Ireland than in reports from the rest of the world.

Those three countries, all of which have had major reckonings with the legacy of clerical sexual abuse in recent years, mentioned abuse an average of 19 times per 10,000 words.  Among the other conference level reports The Pillar reviewed, the average was just five mentions per 10,000 words.

The global “Working Document” was similar to the rest of the world, with six mentions.

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The language of synodality

There can be a certain tendency in Church documents to use frequently terms which are in ecclesiastical fashion.

While the truths of the Catholic Church do not change, the buzzwords which are used to refer to those truths often do. Once upon a time, discussion of the “new evangelization” and the “gospel of life” was frequent in Catholic circles and documents. However, none of the episcopal conference documents which we analyzed mentioned either of these phrases even once.

In the 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (whose derivations for English usage are famously exhaustive, with the print edition of the dictionary running to twelve hefty volumes) there was still no entry for the word “synodality.” The WorldCat database of books does not show any books dealing with the topic before 1990.  (The term “synodal” in English is much older. The OED notes that it moved from late Latin, “sinodal, -alle” into English usage in the 14th century.)

Unsurprisingly, since synodality is the topic of the synod on synodality, every document we analyzed used the term. However, the frequency of its use varied in the documents prepared by different bishops’ conferences.

The document from the US used the word synodality least frequently at 3.5 times per 10,000 words, followed by the Antilles (3.9 times), South Africa (4.9 times) and France (5.9).  Among all the documents, Australia (40 times per 10,000 words) was the only bishops conference to use the term more often than the global “Working Document” (32 times).

Another term which appeared with varied significantly in frequency across different documents was “discernment”. This word was most used by the US document, which used it 28 times out of every 10,000 words. That was more than twice the average of 11 times per 10,000 across the documents prepared by all bishops conferences analyzed. The global “Working Document” was higher than average at 18.

Several commentators have noted the frequent use of the term “People of God” in the global “Working Document”. The text used the term at a frequency of 16 times out of every 10,000 words, but three bishops conferences actually used the term even more often: Korea referred to the People of God 28 times out of every 10,000 words, the US 21 times, and England & Wales 18 times.

The average across the other 10 documents was just three mentioned per 10,000 words.

Another piece of synodal vocabulary which was used frequently in some reports was the term “structures.”

The term was used most frequently in the report from the bishops’ conference of Zimbabwe, which used the term structure[s] at a rate of 36 times per 10,000 words. In one example from that report, using several common pieces of synodal vocabulary, it says, “Many voices have expressed the positive role of synodal structures that aid discerning and deciding.”

The global “Working Document” had the second most frequent usage of the term structure, at 20 uses per 10,000 words, followed by Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei (19) and South Africa (17). However, the US document did not use the term at all and those from Canada and Australia used it only four times out of every 10,000 words.

While various bishops’ conference document had the most frequent use of different synodal terms, the global “Working Document” ranked among the highest frequency for all of them: second most frequent use of “synodality”, second most frequent use of “discernment”, fourth most frequent use of “People of God”, and second most frequent use of “structure.”

The German Exception

Correspondence analysis of the report from the German bishops’ conference places it near the reports from the Global South in terms of its word usage patterns, a result which many might initially find surprising. But what makes the German report look like those from the developing world to the quantitative analysis tools?

Like reports from the Global South, the German report speaks frequently about leadership in the Church. The word “bishop[s]” appears 68 times per 10,000 words in the German report, more than six times as often as bishops are mentioned in the global report and three times as often as they are mentioned in the reports from the Global South.

The German report also refers to “leaders” or “leadership” 34 times per 10,000 words, a rate similar to the global south (30 times) and far more than in the other national reports (15 times) or the global report (6 times).

The German report talks fairly little about young people or about marriage, two topics which are mentioned less frequently in synodal documents from the Global South than from more affluent countries. It also does not frequently use the term “People of God” (used often in the global report and those from Korea, the US, and England & Wales), another similarity with documents from the episcopal conferences of the Global South.

And the German report discusses LGBT issues even less than the reports from the Global South – something that may come as a surprise to those familiar with the recommendations from the German synodal way.

But there are also key differences between the German document and those from countries such as Zimbabwe, the Philippines, and other conferences in the Global South.

The German report does not refer frequently to the poor, a theme which is discussed far more in the reports from the Global South than those from other countries. And the German report does not mention the family at all, a topic which is discussed frequently both in the documents from the Global South and the Anglosphere.

What is going on here?

This is where quantitative analysis cannot answer all the questions, and an understanding of the structure of the written document is helpful.

The German document is broken into two halves. In the first part, it describes the history of synodal activities in Germany from the immediate reception of Vatican II to the formation of the Synodal Way. Of the 40 times that bishops are mentioned in the 5,918 words document, 30 of them occur in the introduction and this first part. Bishops are mentioned often in this section because it is very institutionally focused, describing the actions of the German bishops in instituting synodal and consultative processes.

The second part is a summary of the answers from German Catholics who participated in synodal sessions given to ten themes brought up by the “Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality”, a document provided by the Vatican at the beginning of the synodal process to guide conversations during the synodal process.

This sections talks a great deal about leadership within the Church, and suggests that leader should come less from clerics and more from lay people and volunteers: “Many responses relate to a ‘beneficial decentralization of the Catholic Church.’”

Although some might assume that a desire to change Catholic teachings and practice lurks below the surface of this call for changes in leadership, the document is surprisingly unadventurous in its calls for changes.

For instance, it observes that “there is a call for women to participate in the World Synod of Bishops and to be entitled to vote there” and “Liturgical celebrations led by appropriately trained women, young people and volunteers... are welcomed, e.g. word of God celebrations, liturgy of the hours, funeral liturgy, digital services” but there is no actual call for women priests or even women deacons.

One Synod, Many Directions

The synod on synodality has set itself a very difficult task: to gather responses reflecting the experiences of all the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics and then allow the bishops to reflect on them in a way which somehow encompasses the whole lived reality of modern global Catholicism.

The mechanism for achieving this was for synodal meetings, beginning at a very local level and then on up the hierarchy of the Church, to produce reports to be summarized and passed on with as little filtering as possible.

And yet, as we saw in our application of quantitative text analysis to the diocesan, regional, and national documents from the United States, those tasked with preparing the synodal documents appear often to apply their own interpretations and impressions to the work. In that analysis, we found that the diocesan, regional, and national documents all spoke about different topics with different frequencies.

Having analyzed the documents published in English by various national bishops conferences, and comparing them to the global “Working Document for the Continental Stage,” our results suggest that at the global level, too, those tasked with summarizing more regional results into a single whole have been unable to avoid imposing their own interpretations on the synodal reports.

While the national reports fall into several groups which discuss different topics with various frequencies, the global report falls in its own unique corner, not particularly close to any of the national reports in its emphases, rather than falling into the middle of these groups.

Some topics the global report discusses much more than the average national report, such as women in the Church, synodality, the People of God, and structures. Other topics, such as the poor, clerical abuse, the family, leadership in the Church, and LGBT issues it discusses much less than most of the national documents.

As the continental synodal sessions gather to discuss the working document, they will to a great extent be responding to the impressions and desires of those tasked with writing the global “Working Document” rather than the concerns of the Catholics who participated in the local, diocesan, regional, and national synodal sessions.

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