This letter has been written by Dr Mary McAleese, Former President of Ireland, key speaker at the recent Spirit Unbounded Lay-led Assembly, and by fellow key Voices, Dr Luca Badini Confalonieri, Executive Director, Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research; Miriam Duignan, Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research; Jamie Manson, President, Catholics for Choice; Penelope Middelboe, co-founder Root & Branch and Spirit Unbounded. It’s a response to the
A response to the Synthesis Report of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
We welcome the Synthesis Report of the XVI ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. It affords us a lucid insight into the thinking of our current bishops. We acknowledge the bishops’ recognition that the laity have an important part to play in discernment.
On close reading, the Bishops’ Report is not one document, but two. It is not so much a synthesis as the minutes of an apparently unresolved quarrel.
One voice is filled with hope, with renewal and the fresh air of a Spirit unbounded, rejoicing in the emerging lay church (1). The other belongs to bishops who have yet to find the courage to let go of their privileges (2). By the end we understand that this is not the first document of a new synodal age. It is the record of an Episcopal Conference in which prophetic voices won no significant concessions from the powerful and wealthy forces of conservatism.
This document will disappoint and wound the many faithful, from all quarters of the Catholic world, who had called in their submissions for progress, among many other pressing issues, on women’s ordination, on teaching on LGBTIQ issues, on the celibate priesthood, on reproductive rights or on measures to end the many forms of clerical abuse.
Underlying these was a question that goes to the heart of them all. For a church to be synodal the bishops will need to accept a new model of authentic co-responsibility with the laity. The hopeful voices in the synthesis claim that all Christians ‘should be listened to carefully, regardless of their tradition, as the Synod Assembly did in its discernment process.’ (7b) But, the experience of many millions of faithful parishioners throughout the world has been that, in the months leading up to this assembly, their bishops did not listen to them carefully. Indeed, many did not listen to them at all. To claim therefore that this flawed process validates the bishops’ conservative conclusions because it was already synodal is unhelpful.
The synthesis in fact establishes no co-responsible institutions. While, during the Assembly, the Holy Father denounced the ‘scourge’ and the ‘scandal’ of clericalism, which, he declared, inflicts ‘scorn, mistreatment and marginalization’ on the laity, the bishops ended their Assembly by recommending only an extended period of episcopal committees and inquiries (3). It becomes clear that they are not yet ready to let go, either of clericalism or of control.
The synthesis tells us that progress in the Church, along the lines Pope Francis has set out, does not lie with these men. For the present it lies with the faithful people of God, discovering the consensus fidelium in their emerging communities, and living, as the synthesis itself recognises, in ‘the closeness of the day-to-day, around the Word of God and the Eucharist.’ (18e) It lies also with those presbyters ready to join in faithful partnership with the laity on a common path to renewal.
Dr Mary McAleese, President of Ireland 1997-2011
Dr Luca Badini Confalonieri, Executive Director, Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research
Miriam Duignan, Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research
Jamie Manson, President, Catholics for Choice
Penelope Middelboe, co-founder Root & Branch and Spirit Unbounded
(1) The first voice rejoices in the equality of all the baptised and their co-responsibility in the governance of the church, even in matters of doctrine. ‘Laymen and laywomen, those in consecrated life, and ordained ministers have equal dignity.’ (8a) ‘All believers possess an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, the sensus fidei…. Synodal processes enhance this gift, allowing the existence of that consensus of the faithful (consensus fidelium) to be confirmed. This process provides a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the Apostolic faith.’ (3c) These bishops point with excitement to the emerging lay church of small communities. It is, they say, a ‘charismatic sign.’ ‘Synodality grows when each member is involved in processes and decision-making for the mission of the Church… We are encouraged by many small Christian communities in the emerging Churches, who live the closeness of the day-to-day, around the Word of God and the Eucharist.’ (18e) Lay associations, ecclesial movements and new communities are a precious sign of the maturation of the co-responsibility of all the baptized.’ (10c)
(2) The counter voice has no time for a new model. It concedes that ‘we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Each is the bearer of a dignity derived from Baptism.’ But it adds, damningly, ‘and each is called to differentiated co-responsibility.’ (1a) The qualifier betrays the intention: lay and ordained can never be truly co-responsible. There follows the chilling observation that ‘pastoral practice at the parish, diocesan and, recently, even universal levels, increasingly entrusts lay people with tasks and ministries within the Church itself.’ (8j) For all their talk of synodality, these bishops do not consider the laity to be ‘within the church itself.’ Instead, the laity will have to be, as they put it ‘inserted into the missionary dynamism of the synodal Church’ (8l). To these men, synodality cannot be permitted to ‘jeopardise the hierarchical nature of the Church.’ (1g) ‘The presence of members other than bishops as witnesses to the synodal journey was appreciated. However, the question remains open about the effect of their presence as full members on the episcopal character of the Assembly.’ (20e) It is only ‘possible to think of successive steps (an ecclesial Assembly followed by an Episcopal Assembly).’ (20f) A synodal process in which the bishops retain the power of decision is, of course, not a synodal process at all.
(3) Cindy Wooden, ‘Listen to, trust the lay faithful, pope tells synod members’, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic News Service, 25 October 2023.