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Synodality and the Catholic Church


                                   Synodality in the Catholic Church         Gerry OShea

The clearest divergence between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict, lies in their different expectations from church members. The last pope emphasized traditional beliefs and rules that Catholics are expected to follow. To maintain these high standards, Benedict would  accept fewer church members favoring a kind of ecclesial purity.

Francis certainly carries a different banner. His pronouncements are always cognizant of people who are struggling, and his first priority is to extend a helping hand to them. He shows no interest in inquiring about  their belief system or their religious observance; instead, he follows the biblical injunction: “Go into the highways and byways and invite everyone you meet to the wedding feast.”

This focus on the human dimension by Francis spills over into the Synodal Path which he announced for the universal church on October 10th last. In this historic Vatican declaration he spoke of “journeying together, laity, pastors and the Bishop of Rome, listening to all of the baptized.” He acknowledges that this principle is much easier to enunciate than to apply in practice.

The Catholic Church is a hierarchical institution with the clergy in control at all levels. Ironically, even the Vatican sometimes casts a cold eye on this pervasive clericalism, correctly pointing out that it infantilizes the laity which is an embarrassment in a church aspiring to convey a modern image. However, in reality the exercise of authority rests overwhelmingly in the hands of men wearing vestments and birettas.

The disposition of power is a salient dimension of every human institution. It certainly counts as an important consideration in the Roman Church. The people in the pews are expected to show deference to pastors, to bishops, to cardinals and, of course, to the top man in the Vatican.

Females are excluded from exercising any authority – in fact, they are precluded by Canon Law from any serious decision-making role in their church. This is a major bone of contention among many modern women, who point out that treating them in this diminishing way shines the light on an outdated institution, mired in woolly logic that flirts with misogyny.

 Past societal attitudes affirm these prejudices but times have moved on and many young women, resenting the unchanging gender strictures, have simply walked away from the church. A recent study showed that just 14% of millennials in America call themselves Catholics.

Ongoing revelations of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests and brothers have done untold damage to the credibility and moral standing of the church. Not only were innocent children grievously wronged, but, even worse, church leaders all the way to the top in Rome, failed to deal maturely with the crisis. This resulted in predators, still under the cover of priestly garb, being moved from one parish to another to continue their corrupt behavior with new child victims.

How did a clerical culture supposedly anchored in the New Testament allow such blatant immorality? How could men versed in the highest levels of theology not have protected the most vulnerable members of what they call their flock? If parents and grandparents were involved in the ecclesial power structure, they would surely relate very differently to these ignominious outrages by demanding removal of the perpetrators and immediate protection for the children.

 These matters loom large in the deliberations of every diocesan synod. It is the raging elephant in the room, especially as new reports of national abuse investigations emerge every month, prompting urgent questions about institutional negligence.

The pope has declared that Catholics taking part in the Synodal Path must strive “to become experts in the art of encounter.” Carl Rodgers, the eminent psychotherapist, started the Encounter Movement which was very popular fifty or so years ago. It has faded since but the language used by Francis to explain the desired quality of synodal communication remains very similar.

This admirable talk in the Vatican stresses the need for authentic communication, listening carefully to others, journeying together guided by the Spirit. It is meant to be an open, generous, magnanimous conversation where people’s feelings are respected and a degree in theology is certainly not required of participants.

The bishop in each diocese will set up the consultative process. This is likely to give him a veto over who participates and how the agenda will be dealt with. How many of the current church leaders will welcome the alienated voices in the wilderness crying out for radical changes?

Synodal gatherings were already underway in some countries before Francis’ recent announcement that diocesan synods will report to a continental one which in turn feeds the information to the Vatican. The whole process will culminate in October 2023 with a major convocation in Rome of bishops from dioceses worldwide. This group will make recommendations to the pope.

Francis has a poor record in implementing synodal recommendations. He convened the Amazon Region Synod in 2019 and about 170 bishops or their representatives met in Rome to consider how to alleviate the suffering of the people in that vast area that touches six countries as well as Brazil. The primary concern centered on how best to provide access to the sacraments for the millions of mostly- poor people living in isolated parts along the great river.

They recommended by a vote of 128 to 41 that church law be changed to allow married men of good character – in churchspeak viri probati  -to be ordained to help bring the Eucharist on a regular basis to the people in that region. In addition, they urged that serious consideration be given to ordaining women to the deaconate, again by an overwhelming vote of 137 to 30.

Pope Francis thanked the participants and took their recommendations under advisement but nothing has been done to advance either proposal. Tough luck on the poor Catholics in the Amazon!

This highlights the conundrum at the heart of the Synodal Way. The people gathering to pray and consult come up with recommendations which don’t meet with the approval of the top men in Rome because they are deemed too radical. Conservatives occupy top positions and their arguments copper-fastening traditional beliefs and practices carry undue weight in the system.

 Strong majorities of believers favor progressive changes. They are thanked for their commitment but then told that the church is not a democracy. Somehow, the Holy Spirit is not deemed to work that way, and so we drift back to the leaders and governing philosophy that got us into trouble in the first place.

Polls of Catholics in many countries have found broad approval for returning to the tradition of married clergy which prevailed for the first millennium in Christian communities. Will the cry for change in this discipline be heard? What about the ordination of women and full respect for the gay lifestyle, ideas which again are favored by most Catholics?

Cardinal Gresh, a key Vatican leader in the area of synod planning, recently affirmed an ambitious agenda: “The time is ripe for a wider participation of the people of God in a decision-making process that affects the whole church and everyone in it.”

 We will see what changes emerge when the all-male bishops and octogenarian pope assemble in Rome in October 2023. We live in hope.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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