A Power Sharing Model of Synodality from Germany

A whole series of films about popes will hit the cinema screens this autumn. The most promising seems to be ‘The Two Popes’, where the relationship between Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, later Pope Francis (played by Jonathan Pryce) emerges through a series of frank exchanges. One review comments that Pryce exudes ‘that combination of assertiveness and amiability’ that has turned Francis ‘into such a galvanising figure around the world’.

Suddenly popes are interesting. For, I think, two reasons. One is that Pope Francis is news, not just because he has such a positive public profile, but because he has insisted that the vision of the Second Vatican Council (which has gathered dust since that council met in the 1960s) be taken out, dusted down and implemented. And two, because a civil war of sorts has broken out in the Catholic Church between those who are cheering the release of the Vatican Two genie from an extended period of Vatican captivity and those desperately trying to put that genie back in the box again.

Germany is an example. In August the German bishops set up a number of forums – notably on the lives of priests, women in the Church, sexual morality and power and participation. Nothing new in that, you might say. What was different was that each forum would be led by a bishop and a lay Catholic.

This joint approach – lay and clerical – is very much the Francis strategy for the future of the Catholic Church (what’s called ‘synodality’). But some are not happy with this approach. One German bishop believes that it will split the German Church and place it at odds with the Catholic Church in the wider world. Others can see that Francis is hoping the rest of the world would get in step with Germany!

The truth is that there is a split, a clear divide, opening up in the Catholic Church between those who realise that ‘synodality’ (clergy and laity working together rather than clergy dominating laity) is the way forward and those who want things to remain as they were.

Francis is unapologetically on the side of reform, on the need to adopt this ‘synodal’ approach based on the vision of Vatican Two; and forces in the Vatican, led by a few cardinals, are conspicuously on the other side, doing everything they can to stymie him.

His efforts to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, which includes targeting the noxious weed of clericalism, is being resisted strenuously by those who attack him publicly at every opportunity and those who sit on their hands quietly hoping (though nor daring to say so publicly) that his extraordinary health and energy might not last.

Thankfully there’s little sign of that. He has just returned from a six-day trip to Africa where he visited Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius and is now immersed in the detail of three contentious issues, all of them part of his reform programme for the Church: reforming the Roman Curia; pondering the leaderless economy department following the recent conviction of Cardinal Pell in Australia; and the forthcoming synod in the Amazon region of South America where, the indications are, there will be some movement on the priesthood-celibacy connection, in an expected proposal to ordain married men.

Francis is well aware, to coin a phrase, that Rome cannot be dismantled in a day, so he takes things slowly, knowing that change in the Catholic Church doesn’t happen quickly and that there are considerable forces ranged against him. So he puts into practice his ‘synodal’ approach: consulting, listening, discussing and then deciding.

For those in favour of change, it can seem a tortuous, time-consuming approach especially when the need is obvious and extending a process of consultation can mean giving those who oppose it every opportunity to torpedo it out of the water.

But Francis takes his time, building up support for whatever decision that emerges.

He trusts the ‘synodical’ process so, for instance, he has spent six years with his advisers coming up with a plan to reform the Curia and he has refused to be bounced into making decisions about priesthood because he realises (i) how important it is to get such decisions right and (ii) the implications far-reaching changes may have for the unity of the Church.

He has taken the same deliberate approach to the question of vocations. Everyone knows now, I think, that there is a huge crisis in vocations to the priesthood, even if not everyone agrees on how to deal with it.

Francis is taking his time but the odds are that the upcoming Amazon synod will see the beginning of a process of disconnecting priesthood to some degree from the celibacy connection.

That process started some time ago under Pope Paul VI when individual Anglican clergy who converted to Catholicism were ordained as Catholic priests. During Pope Benedict’s pontificate the process was formalised as significant numbers of Anglican clergy crossed over the Tiber, albeit often because of their antipathy to women priests in their former communion.

Now, it seems, Francis is prepared to take the process a step further with a decision to give the go-ahead for the ordination of ‘elders’ (elderly married men) who are respected in their parish community. The Amazon region, a difficult terrain with pockets of population over a huge area, has meant that with few priests Catholics rarely attend Mass, sometimes even just once or twice a year. It is a startling example of how a misplaced loyalty to the connection between celibacy and priesthood has meant in practice a consequent neglect of a more precious gift, the Mass.

It will, it seems, be only a matter of time and need, before what looks like an historic Amazon verdict will apply around the world, including in Ireland. Because if the Catholic Church has to make a decision between celibacy and Mass, and sooner or later it will be forced to do just that, it’s a no-brainer.





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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    So, does the ACP agree that a Catholic canon law system that still fails to guarantee the ‘right’ of laity (to ‘institutions’ that will allow them to ‘manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church’) is unfit for purpose – and that Lumen Gentium #37 (1964) now needs to be honoured by the Irish Bishops Conference, fifty-five years later?

    Until the ACP bites on this bullet it leaves itself open to the suspicion that what it means by ‘clergy and laity working together’ is something well short of a situation in which lay people could lead rather than simply comply with ACP-minded clergy. Clericalism is still clericalism if it privileges an ACP-minded ‘partnership’ of clergy and laity.

    On the other hand, if there could be a non-clericalist defence of this ACP hesitation on Lumen Gentium 37, could we hear it please? Until I get that clarity here I will remain seriously questioning of the ACP perspective on ‘synodality’.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, this site republished the ACI statement on this subject on Sept. 18.

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Sean, I am sure you are aware that John Paul II, through the revised Code of Canon Law of 1983, not only failed to uphold the rights of lay people as articulated by the Council but actually reversed even the pre-conciliar situation. Canon 129 excludes lay people from our time honoured right to take part in major decision making processes. Ladislas Orsy, a canonist of some repute, has said that excluding lay people from any major decision making processes is “reversing an immemorial tradition”

    He has further said that it is ” a novelty and an unwarranted theology”.

    I am thankful to Fr. Gerry O’Hanlon SJ for my enlightenment on this issue through his excellent book “The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis” in which he explains Francis’ aim of making our Church a synodally governed church.

    Gerry is firmly of the opinion that canon 129 would have to be revoked as part of any journey towards a synodal Catholic Church. Gerry does not speak for the ACP. However, I would expect most reasonably intelligent and well informed priests to agree with him, and that would include, I am sure, the current leadership team of the ACP.

    The mission statement of the ACP when it was founded included ” the full implementation of the vision and teaching of the Second Vatican Council …..” and “a full acceptance that the Spirit speaks through all people ..”

    We know the bishops –who have the power –have refused to engage with the ACP. Infact, we heard from the last AGM, from someone only identified as G, that having forever tried to undermine the previous priests’ organisation –was it still the NCPI — they then tried to revive it as a means of undermining the newly formed ACP. It would be hard to make this stuff up it is so outrageous!.

    So, Sean I still think the ACP are the good guys and all of us genuinely concerned for the future –indeed the survival — of our Church should firmly place ourselves in the ACP corner.

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