Steadily slaloming our way through the synodal pathway

Our synodal experience – was it applied correctly? Where are we poised to go? Dr Eamonn Conway offers important insights.

The first two phases of the Synod of Bishops 2021-2023 concluded on August 15th. The first involved listening and consultation at diocesan level and at the level of religious institutes and other bodies.  The second involved the preparation by episcopal conferences of a synthesis of the outcomes from the various listening processes and consultations. Those involved in producing synodal syntheses at diocesan and national level across Ireland deserve our gratitude. It was a monumental undertaking within a tight schedule.  So, what comes next?  

 Globally, the next step is the continental phase. Within the next couple of months a document pulling together the various submissions from all over the world will be released. So as not to lose touch with those ‘on the ground’, bishops have been tasked with ensuring that the forthcoming document will be discussed and reflected upon in the local dioceses. Catholics in Ireland can therefore expect that before Christmas they will be invited to express their views again as part of the synodal process. Those who have yet to have their voices heard will therefore have another opportunity. 


The reason for this goes to the heart of what Pope Francis has initiated. He wants synodal listening at grassroots level to be the modus vivendi et operandi of the Church, that is, the ‘reflex muscle’ of how the Church lives and works into the future.  

 Early in 2023, assemblies of representative groups of lay Catholics, religious, deacons, priests and bishops will take place in each continent. For Europe, it is expected that this gathering will take place in the Czech Republic next February. The stage will then be set for the fourth phase: the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2023. In the past these assemblies were made up almost entirely of bishops; few others were present and hardly any of these had speaking or voting rights. This is expected to change. One of the first fruits of the synodal pathway will be much more participation in the General Assembly by lay people. Of course, the entire synodal process is consultative: at the end of the day the Synod of Bishops can only function legitimately ‘with and under Peter.’ So even decisions taken by those authorised to vote in synods remain subject to the Pope’s authority.  

 Between the continental phase in spring and the universal phase in autumn, various documents will issue that will, in effect, form the agenda for the October gathering. In the past, a synod concluded with the publication of an exhortation by the Pope. Until now, generally, post-synodal exhortations have enjoyed long shelf lives and little else. They have had little meaningful impact on the day-to-day life of the faithful. However, from the outset the Synod 2021-2023 has envisaged implementation of outcomes as a key moment in the synodal process. This movement from local to universal and back to the local brings to life the rich and mutually sustaining relationship between local dioceses and the world Church so beautifully articulated at Vatican II in Lumen gentium (n. 23).  

 Syntheses from bishops’ conferences in countries such as Argentina, Spain, The Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Poland, England & Wales, Italy, Australia, France, as well as Ireland, have consistently mentioned three core issues: the role of women in the Church, how authority and power are exercised in the service of the Church’s mission and by whom, and the inclusion of those considered on the margins of Church and society.  


Regarding the role of women, Vatican II taught that “every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent”. It specifically mentioned the right of women “to embrace a state of life or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognized for men” (Gaudium et Spes, 29). The Church today ought to be championing the dignity and equality of women as indeed it did in previous times. Instead, the perception today, virtually universal both in and outside the Church, is that the opposite is the case. This has now become a very serious impediment to the Church’s mission. The issue of the voice of women in the Church and their role in ministry must be addressed meaningfully and urgently, and this has to begin on the ground.  

 Regarding the exercise of authority and power, the extent of the loss of credibility by Church leaders in several cultural contexts, including our own, is incalculable. It is not all down to cases of sexual violence and their mishandling. It is also due to a history of spiritual abuse and manipulation experienced especially by many in the older age groups, and indeed among them many priests and religious as part of their upbringing, formation and ministry. Credibility will only be recovered by a new generation of servant leaders in local faith communities who are genuinely close to those they are called to serve and who are able to exercise a convincing yet gentle form of personal authority that evidently flows from a deep, humble, and life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ, and who, as Pope Francis has said, understand their role as that of forming people’s consciences, not replacing them.  

The reality is that in many countries, ours included, diocesan priesthood is on the verge of collapse. We are increasingly dependent on priests coming from overseas and on permanent deacons. The diaconal ministry is important but is primarily at the service of witnessing in justice and love to those on the margins. There is only one reason to ordain permanent deacons, namely, a shortage of deacons, not a shortage of priests.  With the arrival of Ukrainian refugees into Ireland, many of whom are of the Greek Catholic tradition, we are getting used to married Catholic priests and their families in our midst and it is difficult not to see this as other than a blessing and an enrichment. Celibacy is still valued in the Eastern Catholic Churches but is associated predominantly with monasteries where celibate priests have the support of a community. Celibacy makes sense in the context of community; it seems increasingly unsustainable, however, where priests are likely to be isolated and without meaningful and vibrant community support. So, the issue of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests in cultural contexts such as ours will have to be addressed but again, a decision on this from a General Assembly of Bishops called to address synodality is unlikely. Meanwhile, much can be done to formally institute catechists and integrate them into the life of the faith community without awaiting any decision or directive from Rome. 

The third core issue mentioned in the various bishops’ conferences syntheses is about those on the margins of society and who feel excluded from the Church. The Irish bishops’ national synthesis highlighted the plight of the Travellers, refugees and of LGBTQI+.  The Church in Zimbabwe identified those in prison, single mothers and fathers, those widowed, those in polygamous marriages, homebound individuals, the blind, street kids, people living with disabilities, ex-priests and ex-nuns. 


Generally, the Irish Church has been better at outreach to the marginalised than it is often given credit for but nonetheless there are some findings in the synthesis that give cause for concern. For instance, it is worrying that, seven years after the publication of Amoris Laetitia (also known as The Joy of Love), the exhortation that followed two Synodal Assemblies of Bishops in 2014 and 2015 on marriage and the family and is a formal part of magisterial teaching, recommendations from the synods regarding the pastoral care of LGBTQI+ have, according to the national synthesis, seemingly not had any impact on the ground. Amoris Laetitia affirmed the dignity of every person, regardless of sexual orientation, and called for the pastoral accompaniment both of LGBTQI+ people and their families (n 250). Yet the synthesis reports that LGBTQI+ feel that the Church “indirectly creates an atmosphere where physical, psychological and emotional abuse of gay people is tolerated and even encouraged”.  

Another concern is that for the divorced and remarried the Church’s teaching is considered ‘draconian’ and that some believe that they could not receive communion even though they weren’t in second unions. This is particularly concerning because it shows that the exhortation that followed has not yet been properly taught or received here.  

I know of one diocese, for example, in Austria where, following Amoris Laetitia, divorced and remarried people were offered and received accompaniment in a pastoral discernment process so they would be able to judge if in their particular circumstances they could in conscience receive communion. In turn, some of those who were so accompanied have become part of a diocesan outreach to others in similar circumstances.  

Regrettably, the only reference to Amoris Laetitia in the Irish bishops’ synthesis misconstrues its meaning. The synthesis states that: “Pastoral care of members of the LGBTQI+ community can be enriched. In accordance with Amoris Laetitia, we can engage in a ‘dynamic discernment’ in making a ‘what is for now the most generous response which can be given’ to those in non-sacramental unions, remaining ‘ever open to new stages of growth and new decisions’”.  

This seems to be suggesting that, following Amoris Laetitia, the Church (‘we’) is to engage in a ‘dynamic discernment’ resulting in the most generous stance we can adopt to those in non-sacramental unions, while remaining open to new stages of growth and new decisions. Growth in regard to what, and decisions by whom is unclear.  In any case, this is not what Amoris Laetitia states. The paragraph quoted by the bishops (n. 303) refers in general terms to those in “certain situations that do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage’. The exhortation encourages people in irregular unions to grow in the discernment of their consciences and in particular calls upon them to recognise ‘what God himself is asking amid the complexity of one’s limits.’ While encouraging them to recognise in conscience ‘what for now is the most generous response which can be given (by them) to God’, it reminds them that ‘discernment is dynamic’ and that as such their discernment of their situation before God ‘must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realised’. 


The ideal being referred to is the Church’s understanding of marriage and the family and this is core to the pastoral strategy that Amoris Laetitia is promoting here. This misrepresentation of Amoris Laetitia in the synthesis is therefore quite unfortunate and misleading. Taken together with the recent intervention by Bishop Phonsie Cullinan in which he expresses concern in regard to an undue emphasis being given to some topics over others, one must ask if sufficient time and attention was given to Phase 2 of the synodal process, which required a proper discernment by episcopal conferences of what surfaced in the diocesan consultations. It is to the bishops’ credit that they did not wish to censor the diocesan syntheses. Nonetheless, it is surprising, for instance, that defence of the unborn is not mentioned even once, neither as an issue of concern raised in the diocesan consultations nor even among the issues bishops note, that “did not emerge in a significant way”.  

As far back in 2013, Pope Francis stated, “It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”. It is likely that the synodal process is going to hold up to the light just how effectively bishops’ conferences are functioning in terms of leading the Church’s mission at local level, bearing in mind that Francis is the first Pope since Vatican II to affirm the key role that they must play in Church governance. Apart from the three core issues identified above there is much in the National Synthesis for the Irish Church to be getting on with without any nod from Rome necessary. The national synthesis is valuable in that it provides what is in effect an agenda for the Irish Synodal Pathway which is also underway. In a more systematic way than heretofore and without awaiting any further phases of Synod 2021-2023 efforts should also go into the implementation of previous synodal recommendations.


As the bishops’ synthesis itself acknowledges, “The recommendations of Christus vivit need to be attended to”, referencing the exhortation that followed the synod on youth four years ago. This exhortation called for intense pastoral accompaniment of young people so that they could develop the inner freedom necessary to choose their true vocation in life. Amoris Laetitia, which followed the synods of 2014 and 2015, recommended far better preparation and accompaniment of couples preparing for the sacrament of marriage and support for them in the early years of married life. It also spoke powerfully about the need for the care and support for the elderly and the need for education in sexuality for the young that reflects the Christian understanding of the human person. Clear action now on the outcomes of these synods would imbue confidence in those contributing to Synod 2021-2023 that their efforts are likely to bear fruit.  

Fr Eamonn Conway is a priest of the Tuam archdiocese and Professor of Integral Human Development in the School of Philosophy & Theology, University of Notre Dame Australia.  


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