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The Challenges of a Synodal Church


The Challenges of a Synodal Church             Gerry OShea

The 16th Synod of Bishops announced recently by Pope Francis, unlike any previous one, calls for involvement in church decision-making by all Catholics in every diocese throughout the world. The pope stressed that the heart of this process involves people walking together and listening to one another, believing there is a divine light prompting the whole ecclesial movement.

The Synod will take two years. The first crucial stage, which began last October, involves worldwide consultations that will continue until April of 2022. This listening phase ushers in further deliberations in each continent lasting until March 2023. The whole process will culminate in October of that year when the bishops assemble in Rome, presumably to make decisions, influenced by grassroots thinking, which will then be passed on to the pontiff for his approval.

The Vatican stresses that the Synod should not be compared to some kind of parliament driven by majority rule. Catholic leadership has always been wary of democracy, and popes and cardinals are adept at concocting rationalizations to justify disregarding popular demands for change. Still, Theology 101 affirms clearly that all baptized Christians are guided by the Spirit of Wisdom with no accommodation for a pecking order.

Rome stresses that the gatherings at all levels should draw up recommendations for needed changes, so surely the views of the majority will carry the most weight. How else can the consultation process be meaningful?

Say, for instance, that the grassroots meetings call for the removal of mandatory celibacy for priests, which, indeed, all polls show represents the thinking of a clear majority of Catholics. However, Francis is known to be very skeptical about dropping this requirement for ordination. How will that work out? Will it be put on a long finger, consigning it to further unending discussion?

 Indeed, the Amazon Synod of bishops voted overwhelmingly to change this regulation and allow married men of sound character to be ordained. The communities in that region, encompassing parts of seven South American countries, only have sporadic contact with a priest, denying them regular access to the sacraments. 

Francis took their sensible proposal under advisement. That was in October 2019 and there has been no action taken since. Will the recommendations that emerge from the bishops’ gathering in October, 2023 suffer the same fate? If there is no serious change after all the consultations, then the Synodal Way will heighten the cynicism that already pervades much of the Catholic community.

So, what are the major issues that are holding back the Roman church, that are stymieing it from fulfilling a mission that it views as having a divine imprimatur? 

The late Cardinal Martini, former Archbishop of Milan, who was edged out of the top job by Benedict in 2005, gave a very revealing interview towards the end of his life. His insights are relevant when assessing the current synod.

The highly-respected Jesuit cardinal began with a critical judgement of the church he had served for so long by claiming it is 200 years behind the times. “The church is fatigued, especially in prosperous Europe and America. Our buildings are big; our religious houses are empty; the bureaucratic apparatus is growing; and our rites and our vestments are pompous. Prosperity weighs us down.”

Focusing on the clerical sex abuse crisis and reflecting on the multitude of terrible stories about damaged children Martini declared that they cry out for a journey of transformation that must be initiated and guided by the Vatican. He also objected to the plethora of rules, laws and dogmas emanating from Rome which seem to be designed to heighten central control without promoting any spiritual purpose.

Francis, also a Jesuit, at times addresses similar issues and directs the Synodal consultations to themes of authenticity and community. He echoes the profoundly meaningful words of Ernest Hemingway, “We are all broke – that is how the light gets in.”

Some countries – unfortunately, excluding America - are taking the Synodal Way very seriously. Germany, Australia and England are at the forefront in declaring that the Church is in a crisis spiraling downwards.   They are looking for meaningful changes in two main areas of ecclesial management and direction.

The clergy rules the roost in the current Catholic power structure. In canon law, all authority is vested in the members wearing Roman collars. The rules point to bishops as the ultimate authority. This is the medieval model, inappropriate for the needs of modern communities.

The hierarchical arrangement has bred a compliant membership which often operates from the dictum that Father Knows Best. This approach may have been adequate in past times when many parishes were poor and most congregants had limited schooling.

 Today, the people in the pews have higher expectations and are walking away from the church in large numbers rather than go along with the old ways. And the deplorable failure of bishops to protect children from predator priests has impacted in a major way on the credibility of all the current leaders from the pope down. How can people have confidence in leaders who failed repeatedly to protect children in their care from awful harm?

Church members have no say in what priests are appointed to serve in their parish or what bishops are promoted by Rome. It is a closed shop with all authority vested in men wearing multi-colored robes. And the use of outmoded titles like My lord, Your Grace and Excellency are embarrassing reminders of how far we have strayed from the core spirit of the New Testament.

 Significantly, this was not the modus operandi of the church in the early centuries when the various Christian communities chose their own leaders and expected accountability from the men – and, yes women - leading them.

The second related area of major concern focuses on the demeaning treatment of women, which is built into the current church protocols for governance. Canon Law 124 states that only those in sacred orders can exercise jurisdiction in the Catholic Church. So, we end up with a group of aging men dressed in medieval attire making all the decisions and even suggesting a touch of divine approval for their actions.

A clear majority at the Amazon Synod recommended that women should be ordained as deacons and thus enabled to provide the Eucharist to the local deprived communities. This important and judicious recommendation is still sitting in a file on Francis’ desk.

Pope John Paul 11 pronounced officially that women are excluded from priestly ordination. He was speaking from the vantage of traditional attitudes, greatly influenced by his conservative Polish background. Some biblical and theological scholars dispute his reading of the practices in the early church, and more importantly, point to a changed  attitude to female participation in leadership in modern times.

Despite John Paul’s unwise and haughty pronouncement, polls show that a majority of Catholics favor change and have no problem with females presiding over the Eucharist as they do in many Protestant churches. The German Synod is calling for a full review of this untenable historical belief about female exclusion from full participation at the altar.

Pope Francis is a good man who realizes that his church is in deep trouble because it needs to modernize and adapt to a changing culture. His papacy so far has been a holding operation. The Synodal Way provides him with a real opportunity to lead the church in new directions. His response will unquestionably define his papacy.

Gerry O’Shea blogs at


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