Can the National Synod of the Irish Church be a success?

Synods and synodality are very much in the news in Catholic Church circles at the moment. It seems to me that initiating a Synodal process in the Church is one of, if not the major, reform that Pope Francis is trying to establish during his papacy. In so far as I can understand it, fundamentally what this would mean is a whole new way of exercising authority and making decisions at all levels in the Church. If he is even partially successful it would constitute one of the biggest and most wide reaching changes in the whole of Church history. There are indications that the early years of the infant church did exercise a type of synodality, in which the body of believers joined together in making decisions. But that did not last long. From once the new religion expanded throughout the Roman Empire it took on the form of the civil government of the time. A pyramidal structure of authority was established, with the Pope at the top, followed by bishops and priests, and down to the body of believers at the bottom, taking their orders and their beliefs from the top. The clerical church had arrived. All power and decision making now rested with the ordained, and this has continued right down to our day. For Francis to try to radically change a system that is so deeply ingrained in Church history and tradition is, to say the least, very courageous.

There is a further very important feature to synodality as understood by Francis, a feature that is and will be very difficult to sell to the people. This is what he refers to as discernment. When, historically, the notion of giving people some say in the way civil government operated a system developed that has come to be known as representative democracy, which many parts of the world are in varying degrees familiar with. It works on the notion that the majority rules, and that every now and again the people are given a choice to elect this majority. So voting is important at all levels of representative democracy. The people, by voting for their favoured candidates, decide who their representatives will be, and these become the rulers, with all decisions made by majority vote. This method of government is deeply ingrained in many countries.

But Francis does not want the Church to operate in this way. He regards decision making by voting as divisive. Instead he talks of discernment, which involves coming together in prayer and listening, with openness to one another and to the Spirit, until such time as a unanimous decision can be made. A good example of that was the Synod on the Amazon, where the large majority of the representatives from South America were in favour of ordaining married men as priests, but since a smaller group strongly opposed the change, Francis felt that there wasn’t sufficient listening and openness, so discernment had not been reached. Change did not happen. There was a lot of unhappiness at the end result. While Francis was willing to wait for discernment to be achieved, others saw the result as rule by the minority, who of course were largely made up of men from the Roman Curia.

In my view discernment as a process within the whole Church is not really feasible. It is a specifically Jesuit idea, that is exercised in many religious congregations since the Vatican Council. Within a small group of people who share the same basic values and beliefs it is possible. But to expect it to work among a group as diverse as the average body of believers is, I think, very idealistic. Admirable, but not realistic.

Will the National Synod that has recently been launched in Ireland be a success? And even more so, the worldwide one launched by Pope Francis? I  would have to say that I am not very hopeful. A few major obstacles stand in the way.

First of all, the Vatican has decreed that there can be no discussion on Church doctrine, that it is set in stone and cannot be changed. Francis contradicts himself here. He regularly says that people should speak their minds, clearly and without fear, and that all should be listened to. He also says that we cannot be tied into the past, but that we must move forward and allow development and change to happen. And yet he, or is it the Curial overlords, rules out a lot of issues that are of great concern to many members of the Church. We had examples of it here in various listening exercises that some dioceses engaged in. They found that issues around women, ordination, sexual teaching, and others were not allowed on the agenda. If that is going to be the same in the National Synod it would be as well to call it off now. Too many people have thought these topics out for themselves and have strong views on them. If they are told these cannot be brought up at the various gatherings they will just walk away. We are told that this synod will reach out to people on the margins, and to those who no longer attend church. How can you possibly draw in people like that if you tell them there are only certain things they can discuss. It will not work. No, the agenda must be open, and all topics equally discussed and considered. But that would already seem to be ruled out.

A recent press report informed us that Bishop Leahy of Limerick revealed another feature of the process that I believe is very problematic. He said the the synod would consist of gatherings at all levels in the Church, parishes, dioceses, regional, special groupings, etc. Then the results of all of these discussions will be collated, and given to the bishops. They will sift through all this material, and decide what will be sent to Rome as the findings of the Irish National Synod. I was amazed when he said that. It constitutes a major weakness in the process. That ‘sifting’ is crucial to the whole thing, because it will be there that the decisions will be made as to what goes forward and what is put in the bin. Are the bishops really going to take this on to themselves? And would there be no women involved in the task? Would there be any transparency? For a whole series of reasons the bishops currently don’t have great credibility even among many church goers. They are not universally trusted. If people know that the bishops alone have the final say on the report many will just not bother to get involved. So many things have happened in the last while, apart even from the clerical sex abuse issue. Many efforts at reform and change have been stymied, as we in the Association of Catholic Priests know only too well. A dreadful new translation of the Mass text has been imposed without any consultation. Trust has been eroded. Apart from the many who have walked away, even among those who still belong there is a weariness, almost a sense of despair for the future of the Church. 

For this National Synod to have any chance of success trust is absolutely essential. For that there must be openness and transparency, with no effort to limit or to control the agenda or the process. It must, in so far as this is possible, be lay rather than clerical led. It is only in this way that there might be a chance of stirring up a bit of enthusiasm, and getting people involved, and willing to commit their time and energy to it.

I really hope it is successful, because it is quite possible that this is the last chance for new life to be injected into the Catholic Church in Ireland.7