What Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich has called ‘an ecclesial dialogue without precedent in the history of the Church’ will enter a new phase in 2023. Hollerich is the General Rapporteur of the Assembly of Bishops and others who will gather in Rome in October 2023 – and again in October 2024- to discern the fruits of the world-wide consultation which has been going on since 2021. This is the ambitious project of synodality: will it work?
Common global trends have emerged, among them: a focus on young people, the role of women, the desire to welcome marginalised groups in the church, a critique of clericalism and a desire to foster co-responsibility, a culture of encounter and a real opening in faith to the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The global south is likely to encourage the global north to be more explicit in confronting issues of social and ecological justice. This commonality, albeit with diverse emphases according to specific locations, is heartening: despite the enormous cultural differences the Church has found a unified voice, testifying to the new Pentecost which Pope Francis spoke about in his visit to Ireland, the blending of the cacophony of Babel into the harmony of a unity with diversity.
This was evident in the Irish experience of synodality: the Athlone event of last June 18, 2022 was an unforgettable experience for up to 200 representatives gathered in an upper room of the Sheraton Hotel, and afterwards in thanksgiving and praise at the 6th century monastic site of Clonmacnoise. In the acknowledged shadow of clerical child sexual abuse, and with the open and respectful naming of a litany of negatives about the Irish Church, there was nonetheless, and predominantly, a sense of ‘going deeper’, an experience of the joy and peace that comes in the context of open speech and generous listening when ‘walking along the way’, as the two disciples did on the road to Emmaus.
But, as critics rightly point out, the numbers involved (in Ireland and worldwide) are small. Is this really representative of Catholicism? Well, Jesus did not stress huge numbers (where two or three are gathered…), the gospels often distinguish between the 12, the disciples and ‘the crowd’, and when a small group is filled with the Spirit it can imbue the world with enormous hope and love.
Do the critics really imagine (when all surveys show to the contrary) that a larger group would have different views on, for example, the role of women and controversial teaching on gender and sexuality? And, most importantly of all, if you are one of those who did not join in the process over the last 18 months, please consider doing so now – the invitation is for all, and the only conditions are a willingness to abide by the ground rules of open speech and patient and generous listening.
There will come of course a point where speaking and listening have to lead to the kind of discernment that issues in decisions. Sometimes (as in the stress in Ireland on adult faith formation and lay ministry) that can be relatively organic and unproblematic.
At other times (as in the move by Pope Francis to open up more generous access to Eucharist for the divorced and remarried) it can cause a greater stir, and we need time to see if the new way is being ‘received’ by the sense of the faithful. Such, of course, was the process surrounding the monumental decision to allow Gentiles to be baptised without being circumcised in the early Church, decided by the first formal synod known as the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), and requiring years of preparation and ratification.
We may be reaching such a point around the role of women in the Church today. I think with the global expression of the sense of faith of the faithful expressed in the Document for the Continental Stage (October, 2022), any bishop – including Irish bishops of course- when answering questions in the public forum about the possible ordination of women, might find it useful to reconsider what it is appropriate to say.
A bishop will, of course, take very seriously his role of being the authoritative leader in his diocese of teaching in fidelity to the scriptures and tradition, as well as taking on board the ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘sense of the faithful’.
There was an attempt made in the 1990s to silence any discussion about female ordination and to reaffirm the teaching that such ordination was beyond the authority and power of the Church. The Pontifical Biblical Commission in the 1970s (which included such luminaries as Raymond Brown and Carlo Martini) came to a different (unpublished at the time) conclusion, so it was curious to note the Magisterium taking this view.
Now, however, I propose that already at this point in the synodal pathway, it is clear that there is a significant divergence on this issue between official Church teaching and ‘the sense of the faithful’ in many, though not all, parts of the world.
When this happens there are well-known means within Catholic theology and teaching to resolve the impasse, including a recourse to the rich tapestry of theological opinion which, as well as providing arguments in favour of the current teaching, also offers alternative views.
At such a transitional moment, I suggest it is perfectly in line for any orthodox bishop in the public forum to wonder aloud whether this is, after all, not an ‘open question’, and to seek guidance from the Universal Church in its discernment – as the Irish Church did in its National Synthesis with regard to the role of women in general.
Our culture prizes authenticity: when a bishop is asked about questions like this on the national airways and answers by merely reasserting current teaching with a generalised reference to ‘scripture and tradition’, something jars, there is a perception of a lack of authenticity, an ostrichlike denial of what is in front of all our faces, and this becomes an obstacle to mission. We need to reconsider.
This is clearly what the Pope himself is doing in establishing a second commission on the possibility of the female diaconate, opening the way to a transitional phase which requires a new approach. That kind of discernment runs the risk, of course, of causing conflict and division. It needs then to be rooted in what unites us, the encounter with Jesus Christ which Pope Francis never tires of speaking, an encounter which provides us with the Spirit who knows how to gift us with a unity that is characterised by diversity.
Within this kind of community of faith we will be less inclined to look to the Church for certainty on all matters in its teaching, we will more easily recognise the different degrees of authority adhering to the hierarchy of truths proposed by the Magisterium, and we will more confidently assert the intrinsic role of the ‘sense of faith of the faithful’ in forming and receiving Church teaching.
There has been a real quality of quiet consolation for those who have taken part in the Irish experience of synodality to date, which is echoed in global reports. Our church is being renewed and reformed. It would be wonderful if more of us joined in the journey, if we succeeded in reaching out better to marginalised groups, and if our concerns gradually move beyond intra-Church issues outwards to our wider world.
Gerry O’Hanlon, SJ (member of the Synodal Steering Committee, writing in a personal capacity).