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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - An eminent social scientist is arguing that Pope Francis' methodology for his pet project on synodality is empirically vague and open to manipulation by ideologically driven synodal experts.
"I have grave concerns as a social scientist about the methodological mess that has characterized this synod's massive, unwieldy data-collection-and-analysis venture," writes Dr. Mark Regnerus in an article published in the Public Discourse journal on Jan. 8.
Regnerus, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, debunks the synod's modus operandi as a "very expensive, time-consuming set of interpreters' personal opinions, with little accountability (and no public access) to the original data."
Regnerus is the author of four books published by Oxford University Press and more than 40 articles in peer-reviewed journals. He's regarded as one of the world's leading experts in the fields of religion, sexual behavior, family and marriage.
In 2011, the sociologist converted to Roman Catholicism from a Dutch Calvinist background, maintaining that the Catholic Church is "not just theologically astute on matters of sexuality and marriage. They're also right."
In an article titled "Census Fidei? Methodological Missteps Are Undermining the Catholic Church's Synod on Synodality," the Catholic convert asks why the synodal process has chosen an "impossible challenge" that operates by collating "syntheses" instead of "summaries" from respondents across the globe.
According to synodal documents, the "synthesizing" requires experts to highlight "those points that strike a chord, inspire an original point of view, or open a new horizon" in a manner that pays "special attention to the voices of those who are not often heard," Regnerus notes.
Thus, it is the "synthesizers at every level of the process [who] have wielded considerable power to personalize their own sentiments," he observes. "The result of the process is a sensus marginis instead of a sensus fidei."
The sociologist explains how "a few dozen select interpreters" who met at Frascati outside Rome prepared the "Working Document for the Continental Stage" (DCS) by cherry-picking "a great deal of woundedness and suffering" from the responses.
Regnerus, a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, explains:
The power to decide the sensus fidei instead lies with the interpreters at every stage, from the parish all the way to Frascati. In other words, the DCS is about as likely to convey the sensus fidei as it was originally conveyed as children are to successfully repeat phrases while playing "the telephone game."
Regnerus observes how "emotive terms saturate the document," since the questions were directed at the "subjective experience" of the respondents. For example, the word "feel" appears 25 times, "dialogue" 31 times, "discernment" 28 times, "listening" 38 times, "experience" 43 times, "journey" 33 times and versions of "welcoming" 18 times.
"Are these the norm within the Church?" the social scientist asks. "Exactly whose voices are these?" Regnerus queries the meaning of ambiguous statements like: "[I]f the Church is not synodal, no one can really feel fully at home."
Moreover, the "powerful group" of synthesizers in Frascati have chosen to highlight certain voices from across the world with no context or "markers like age, sex (discernible from a pseudonym), religious tradition, marital status, and occupation," the sociologist observes.
"In the DCS, there is only a country identifier, which tells the reader next to nothing about the person offering the perspective," he argues. "There is no context to the persons behind the snippets of a story — nothing to indicate they are young or old, male or female, rich or poor, married or unmarried, observant or alienated."
"Instead, selected quotes 'were chosen because they express in a particularly powerful, beautiful or precise way sentiments expressed more generally in many reports,'" the expert laments.
"Empirically, the vagueness in the DCS is symptomatic of the use of participatory action research, a 'method' of sorts that is light on rigor and heavy on fostering social change," Regnerus underscores.
"Remarks that imply an overhaul of Church teachings may be in order are numerous (for example, on the female diaconate, on access to the Eucharist, on LGBTQ matters, etc.)," he emphasizes.
Regnerus also refutes the suggestion by Susan Pascoe, a Frascati synthesizer, that the DCS is a "kind of census of the church in the world."
"No. A census is something in which everyone is supposed to participate, as even Luke's gospel makes clear. In a census, all participants provide information, there is no self-selection bias at work, and the results are summarized and reported, not 'synthesized,'" Regnerus stresses.
On Sunday, Pope Francis announced that an "Ecumenical Prayer Vigil" would be held on Sept. 30, just before the Synod of Bishops.
The path to Christian unity and the Church's synodal conversion are linked, Francis stressed, inviting "brothers and sisters of all Christian denominations to participate in this gathering of the People of God."
High-profile Anglican converts to Catholicism have warned of the perils of Francis' Synod on Synodality, drawing on their experience of the Church of England's own synodal process.
Two former Anglican bishops, Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali and Dr. Gavin Ashenden, who recently came home to Rome, have cautioned against the synod being hijacked by "pressure groups" and the listening process "mistaking the spirit of the age for the Holy Spirit."
Pope Francis has insisted that the synodal process "involves listening to all the baptized" and that the Church needed "to pass beyond the three or four percent that are closest to us, to broaden our range and to listen to others."
The so-called listening process should involve lapsed Catholics, Protestants, agnostics and atheists and people of other religions, the pontiff has instructed.
In October, Church Militant reported on the DCS embracing strident demands for the "radical inclusion" of Catholics who are living in polygamous, LGBT or divorced and remarried unions and also calling for women preachers, female deacons and the inclusion of women in the governing structures of Church bodies.
The working document is titled "Enlarge the Space of Your Tent" — a reference to a verse from Isaiah 54:2. It presents the image of the "tent" as a place of "radical inclusion" from which "no one is excluded" and serves as a hermeneutical key to interpreting the DCS.