An open letter response to the Synthesis Report of the XVI General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops 2023

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 

Synthesis Report of the XVI General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops 2023

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.

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  1. Peadar O'Callaghan says:

    O dear! – this ‘Open Letter’ and its academic assessment of the first session of the Rome Synod is depressing reading and I ask myself is not Ecclesiastes right: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9).
    But then I recall that it was another assembly, exclusively of red-robed cardinals, under lock-and-key and protected from all by medieval-clad guards that gave the Church Pope Francis; discerned from white chimney-smoke on my colour TV.
    I’m not suggesting that the participants in the next session of the Synod should be similarly locked-up but from the experiences of the stable in Bethlehem and Pentecost I feel discernment of the Spirit at work should never be underestimated or predicted or indeed relegated to documents.
    Not the letter but the Spirit who gives life and light.

  2. Joe O’Leary says:

    I stumbled on Mary McAleese’s address at the Spirit Unbound event and in a moment of distraction I thought — how wonderful to see the church speaking and discussing in such a warmly human way. Bravo Pope Francis! But then I immediately realized that this was not the Synod but rather a demonstration of what the Synod should be. Perhaps the Synod was a grace-filled, pentecostal event — the media blackout means we have to wait for witnesses to come forward to tell us so — and as Peadar reminds us, something similar can be said of the original Pentecost story. But note that those visited by the Spirit in the upper room immediately went out and proclaimed the event to the whole world. Instead, the hugely hyped Synod is followed by silence. Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. I do not agree with the description “academic assessment” as attached to the Open Letter (which is being published along another post-synodal reflection from Dr McAleese in the forthcoming Japan Mission Journal — despite much searching we got no article in praise of the synod yet. On the contrary the Open Letter names frankly the issues that are burning in the minds of Catholics worldwide and that had vividly surfaced in the lay input which the Vatican solicited and then suppressed. “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.”

  3. Peadar O'Callaghan says:

    Dear friends, maybe not quite an “article in praise of the synod” but outlining a positive experience by a Synod participant can be found at:
    Father James Martin: My experience at the Synod – Outreach

    While not as detailed or referenced as the ‘Open Letter’ (above) I think Fr. James Martin gives us a sense of an atmosphere of charity in the open dialogue that prevailed and the positive encounters that took place. Regarding LGBTQ+ issues and the Synod Fr. Martin says:
    “One experience that I did not expect was to have so many cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, religious men and women and lay leaders share their stories about their own LGBTQ ministry (or talk about LGBTQ family members) and, very often, ask for advice on this ministry. And when “LGBTQ” was dropped from the final report, many shared their support and they said, “Corraggio!”

    Fr. Martin concludes his article by looking forward with hope:
    “What will happen next October? Will we use the synthesis as a jumping-off point or will other issues have emerged in the next 11 months? What will the people of God tell us in the intervening months? Will there be greater openness now that Synod members know one another? Or will positions harden? “What will be given?” said Father Radcliffe at the end of our retreat. “We wait to see what the Lord in his wisdom will give us, which will certainly not be what we expect.” As for me, I look forward to next year with great hope.”

    I think Fr. Martin’s experience of the Synod’s first session, and in his own pastoral ministry in Outreach, is an example of what Pope Francis said: “… the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction … The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness”. [Evangelii Gaudium 88]

  4. Soline Humbert says:

    #3 Peadar
    Synod members in Rome sharing stories about their ministry to LGBTQ + people or stories about family members is not enough. There needs to be Synod members (including the ordained) who can be open about their sexuality and share about their own lives as lesbians, gays, transgender, queers.
    But can the Synod bear that much reality? That would require a good deal of courage and truth-telling.

    I read that Cardinal Parolin, number one in the Curia, has just told the German bishops that the ordination of women to the presbyterate and changes to the church teaching on sexuality/ LGBTQ + are NOT to be discussed.
    These issues are not disembodied.

    What we teach about women being unfit for the presbyterate and the sexuality of LGBTQ + people being “disordered” matter, for the worse.
    They cause wounds to people, claiming it is in the name of Christ.
    I could add: until you recognise the vocations of women to the ordained ministries, don’t bury my ashes.

  5. Peadar O'Callaghan says:

    Thanks Soline for referencing the webpages in your posts, I was not aware of them.
    Though long familiar from my early childhood with ashes to mark the beginning of Lent it was not until I watched the scattering of a brother’s ashes at sea a few years ago off Wales that the ‘symbol’ of ashes began to breathe new life in significance for me.

    The reverence for ashes of a loved one was beautifully portrayed in March 2022 in the translation and scattering of the ashes of Thich Nhat Hanh at the first monastery he founded, Plum Village in France. See Ceremony of the Scattering of Thay’s Ashes at:
    Photos / Coming & Going in Freedom | Plum Village

    Damasus Winzen, in the mid-nineteen-fifties, and before Vatican II drew attention to the loss of symbolism in the Catholic Church, when he wrote: ”Even in our day, many Catholics think that symbols are a “luxury” and even a dangerous one, because they so often defy definition and seem to put Christianity on an equal level with pre-Christian beliefs or superstitions. They are unaware of the power the symbol has to heal the breaches that rend the world by fitting the visible to the invisible, the material to the spiritual, the divine to the human, the individual to society.” [p.16 Introduction, Symbols of Christ]

    Another rediscovery of the importance of symbolism I attribute to the very colourful Pride parades in cities and towns and villages. The Rainbow, the sign of the first Covenant with Noah, has come down from heaven. We all need to be reminded that: “God made an everlasting covenant with Noah and with all living beings (cf. Gen 9:16) It will remain in force as long as the world lasts.” [CCC 71]

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    Soline, thanks for revealing a new theological syndrome: creeping fallibility.

    Top cardinal says: lay voting at synods, women priests, change in teaching on lgbt — all UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE

    Next year: women priests, change in teaching on lgbt — both UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE.

    The dominos are falling one by one.

  7. Soline Humbert says:

    Thank you Peadar #6 for your interesting mentions of the potency of symbolism, especially ashes and rainbow…I had a look online at the ceremony in Plum Village.

    Thank you Joe #7: your “creeping fallibility “syndrome gave me a good laugh.
    Cardinal Hollerich, the Relator for the Global Synod, has now given his own assessment of the Synod (in French, but he speaks slowly and clearly!)

    #8 Thank you too for the piece on atonement. Always good to know how little one knows…just as well my salvation doesn’t depend on it.
    “In the evening of life, we will be examined on love”!

  8. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #8 From the article Joe has referred us to:

    “… the precise nature of the atonement … remains a ‘deeply divisive contemporary issue’.”

    Both these divisions and the complexity of that article are a most serious challenge for ‘mission’, which demands a straightforward proclamation of ‘Good News’. That in turn demands a decision as to the central claim that ‘Jesus saves’ as well as clarity on how he does that.

    Who can imagine presenting that article – or any similar article setting out the complex history of the problem – in response to the question ‘But why did Jesus have to die like that, to reconcile us to God?’ It is surely that complex and ‘vexatious’ history that lies at the root of our missionary hesitation. Must the absence of an ecumenical consensus forever paralyse us, or must we instead opt for nettle-grasping: discernment on ‘what works for us’?

    As someone who has observed the impact of the claim that ‘God loves us all equally unconditionally’ – presented warmly and with conviction to both adults and teenagers – I can attest to its effectiveness as a ‘reconciler’, both to God and to sacramentality. As a lay teacher of history I see that impact also both in the New Testament and in the historical impact of early Christianity – in ‘humanising’ the culture of the Roman empire. Power itself had come to be re-understood – as the power to raise up rather than to crush – and the Trinity is believed to have done this.

    What is central to this approach is an emphasis on the Resurrection – both of Jesus from actual historical death and of ourselves from despondency of the spirit – and of this second ‘liberation’ of ourselves as the intention of the Trinity and the meaning of the Cross. For me, because I am so aware of the historical context, there was a revelation of the judgement of ‘the world’ as always ‘passing away’ and subject to the always higher judgement of the Trinity – and this applies also of course to any judgement of the church – God’s people – as ‘past its sell-by date’.

    ‘Lord, by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free!’

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    I agree that intricate accounts of the variety of understandings of Atonement are discouraging. I suggest that we should give massive priority to the basic landmarks, which I would identify as Paul and John, both of whom summed up their vision of salvation in a few lines: “Jn 1:(12) Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — (13) children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (14) The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

    “Rom 8:(29) For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (30) And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

    These utterances may contain many puzzles but they have the merit of being capacious, covering the entire reach of salvation, and of emerging from deep contemplation, and with Apostolic authority.

    Theorists of atonement may say, “all this we have known from our youth”, but I wonder do they not need to rediscover these bedrock utterances.

  10. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #11 You have hit it Joe – John and Paul. Christus Vivit!

    Would you believe that I picked up the Gospel of John as a teenager and read it straight through as an adventure story? I had never, and will never, read a better. Until we receive the Creed in the same way, as a hero narrative, we truly cannot get it. What centuries of Christendom did to it, the re-making of it as a sequence of theological dogmas, all of equal importance – by a top-heavy institution – led to its dismissal as ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ – and relativism.

    Eventually it became Bishop Strickland’s ‘deposit of faith’ – an unquantifiable miasma of undeterminable but precious particulates – with the very same deadening and imprisoning power as the 613 laws of Leviticus – in which the kerygma had disappeared among the minutiae of canon law.

    Always, always – as Paul reminds us – love is more important than knowledge. That is the easy yoke that mission requires at its centre. Kerygma before exposition, always.

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    Christmas is a great boon, as it spreads the Christian message more effectively than any of our drab ceremonies. Non-Christian Asians are very touched by it. Peace and love and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled — what’s not to love? Let’s celebrate it with enthusiasm, accentuating the crib and the carols, so that they can be perceived amid the commercial noise.

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