Edinburgh Newman Association: Fr Gerry O’Hanlon’s address: Synodal Pathway – Where Are We Now?

The Edinburgh Newman Association.

Last Thursday evening Fr.Gerry O’Hanlon SJ spoke at our Edinburgh Newman Association on the Synod and “Where are we at on the Synodal pathway?”

I now share below what Gerry had to say to us.

Paddy Ferry.

Where are we at on the Synodal Pathway? – Speaking Notes for Newman Association, Edinburgh, April 27th, 2023

It’s good to be in Edinburgh again. Many thanks to Paddy Ferry and the Newman Association for the invitation to be with you again.

I’ve been asked to speak a bit about synodality, where we’re at as Church on the journey, and the Irish experience. I am no expert on what is happening here in Scotland, and would hope that after my input your local situation would be one of the focal points of our discussion.

I propose to proceed by way of outlining where we’re at in general, through the lens of the Irish experience, but then focussing more precisely on some issues and questions which are emerging as the journey gains momentum.

Part One: The Synodal Pathway so far, through the lens of the Irish experience

I can be relatively brief on this as am supposing that much will already be familiar to you.

On March 2021 the Irish Bishops announced a 5 year project, the ‘synodal pathway’, to culminate in a national synodal assembly or assemblies. It was to be under the rubric of the question: what does God want from the Church in Ireland at this time? In May of the same year Pope Francis announced the universal synod on synodality, to begin the following October. The Irish bishops agreed to fold one into the other, however untidily. A steering committee was established of about 22 people, 11 women and 11 men, chaired by a married woman, with 4 bishops, some other clerics and religious and a variety of lay people. I am a member of that committee. The bishops also established a 4 person Task Force, a priest and 3 women, who worked closely with the Steering Committee.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, 2021-2 was a year of consultation at parish, diocesan and national level, done in Ireland in discerning mode by way of ‘spiritual conversation’. The fruits were gathered by the steering committee and task force in May 2022 and shared with a 200 person pre-synodal assembly in Athlone in June. There was nervousness around the presentation: would the group resonate with what we presented? In fact that was a day of consolation: it felt that the Holy Spirit was with us, that the Babel of many tongues had been transformed into a new Pentecost. The Bishops published the Synthesis Document, compiled by the Steering Committee in August 2022.

As you will then know, these different national syntheses – 112 of them- were gathered together in October 2022 in a document called the Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS, entitled Enlarge Your Tent), which then, after some subsequent feedback, became the basis for the 7 world-wide continental assemblies in February/March 2023. The European Assembly took place in Prague in February. The fruits of this exercise were published on April 19th, 2023 and will be brought to Rome (via the Instrumentum Laboris, June 2023) for the universal synod in October 2023 and again in October 2024. Ireland, in the meantime, will continue with its own synodal pathway, designed to specifically address the situation of the church in Ireland and taking on board what is emerging from the universal synods.

There was a great deal of overlap between the contents of the Irish submission and that of the DCS document. There was a strong focus on the need for conversion, reform, and change. This was not least due to the ‘open wound’ of clerical child sexual abuse and how it had been mishandled, with the implicit critique of clericalism that this involved. And so there was much talk about co-responsible leadership, focussing on the notion of the church as the People of God with Baptism – not Orders-as the primary and foundational sacrament, and recourse to the theology of Vatican II in highlighting the priestly, prophetic and kingly share of all the baptised in the mission of Jesus Christ.

So, there was a call for lay formation, more lay ministries, an enhanced role for women, a more welcoming and inclusive attitude towards the LGBTQI+ community and all those in so-called ‘irregular situations’, a liturgical renewal, a recognition that the culture had changed and that the old way of being church was no longer adequate in this new cultural space. It was encouraging for us in Ireland to see so many of these themes echoed by the DCS, including, perhaps surprisingly, the call for women ‘to participate fully in the life of the Church. A growing awareness and sensitivity towards this issue is registered all over the world’ (n 60). This was also confirmed in the concluding document emanating from Prague, published on April 19th, 2023.

The DCS, and particularly the contribution of the global south and parts of the East, alerted us to the need to be more outward looking and missionary in terms of issues around social justice, migration and care of the earth (the south) and ecumenically (the East). All parts called for greater knowledge and skills around communal discernment and the ability to conduct our talking and listening through an encounter with Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit.

In general it can be said that many places, including Ireland, noted that initially there was much scepticism and apathy around the process (would free speech really be allowed/ would the findings be filtered through gate-keepers, who would screen out what was not welcome?) but that, for those who took part, that gave way substantially to a more joyous satisfaction in having one’s voice heard and recognising that this was so in the published syntheses.

The bar has been set high in favour of transparency, accountability, open speech (parrhesia) and inclusivity: those local churches and hierarchies which did not meet this standard are now aware of their failure, and will have second, third and many more chances to try again. In fact this whole exercise is for the Catholic Church very much an exercise in learning by doing (solvitur ambulando), as the seemingly unplanned inclusion of lay people in the continental and universal synods has made clear. Some will find this disquieting, used to old certainties; others, perhaps the majority, will find it enormously refreshing, realistic and humane.

So much for a general overview. It will help I think to get a more precise idea of what’s at stake by focussing on some emerging issues. I will take four: co-responsible leadership, church teaching, communal discernment, and low numbers.

Part Two: Emerging issues

a) Co-responsible Leadership

The issue here revolves around the translation of the rhetoric around shared governance into the reality of concrete structures and institutions. There is a growing sense that we must move from episcopal collegiality and synodality towards ecclesial synodality: the theology around the primacy of baptism (over, inter alia, the sacrament of Orders) is taking hold, a new culture is being created mainly through a consultation process that values parrhesia and the fundamental equality of all, with the concomitant undermining of clericalism and a requirement that the principle of Roman Law operative in the medieval church be honoured: ‘Quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus tractari (et approbari) debet’ (Pope Francis, 50th anniversary address). In other words, the direction of travel is clear. But how do we embed this more securely in corresponding structures and institutions, with legal underpinning (a requirement which the post-Vatican II church failed to observe)?

One can see some emerging attempts. So, back in 2020 the Australian Church in its Light from the Southern Cross drew up detailed recommendations of what shared governance might mean, at parish, diocesan and national level. In Latin America there have been developing moves in this direction under the overall direction of CELAM (the regional episcopal conference), with the move in Venezuela to establish a permanent Plenary Council with mixed lay-clerical participation to be part of decision making, drawing on secular expertise where appropriate, as well as the formation of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon (Luciani).

Something similar, though now seemingly taking on a decision-taking capacity (with ultimate powers of implantation remaining with individual bishops and dioceses) is being proposed by the German church with its focus on the creation of a ‘synodal council’, with mixed clerical/lay participation and with not a little resistance from Rome. The Anglican Roman Catholic paper on ‘Walking Together On The Way’ (ARCIC III, 2017) had already suggested the need for the Roman Catholic Church to move to a more deliberative and not just consultative role for lay people in church governance, citing the Anglican model of weighted majorities with sufficient controls to give effective voice to laity while safeguarding the decisive authoritative role of bishops and being particularly careful when it came to matters of doctrine. And the Pope himself, in Praedicate Evangelium (2022) had focussed on canonical mission rather than Orders as the source of authority in the Church, thus confirming the more liberal interpretation by Australia of Canon 129 which had seemed to many to limit the decision making powers of laity. It remains to be seen how this particular papal initiative plays out in the wider church and in perhaps a revision of canon law.

Canon lawyers themselves (see Wiljens and Alphonse Borras in Campion Hall) seem to be preparing a revision of canon law which will take account of the distinction between decision making (a structured form of consultation leading to the actual decision) and decision taking (the act of bishops and, when necessary, of the pope). In this kind of revision it is often envisaged that the bishops themselves are part of the consultation processes and thus would feel almost duty-bound to take the final decision in line with what the consultation has proposed. But of course this may not always happen and what then? Already the Pope himself seems to be moving in the direction of lay people and religious, men and women, attending and having voting rights at episcopal synods: it will be interesting to see if this is carried through in the two October synods to come (Natalie Bequart already included in this fashion?). And, in fact, on the day before this talk was delivered (April 26, 2023), it was announced that the October 2023 Synod would be historically inclusive of non-ordained voting members, female and male, so that a significant (albeit minority) of non-bishops would have full rights of participation in the deliberations.

Again, I repeat, all this has to happen at parish (parish councils), diocesan, national and universal levels (it will be interesting to see how, for example, a more precise answer is given to the respective spheres of authority of the pope and the bishops). And it will not be neat and tidy. John O’Malley, late distinguished historian, puts it well (When Bishops Meet, 2019): ‘the question facing the church today, therefore, is not the theoretical question of who is in charge. Vatican II answered that question. The question today is the question Vatican II did not have an opportunity to answer: what are the appropriate instruments for making the collegial (synodal) tradition of church governance practical and effective? (p 81). He goes on to note that this practical implementation of synodality will always be untidy – ‘church governance, like the governance of every institution that is not a dictatorship, consists of lines that are sometimes blurred …working out the answers to the question will not always be neat and clear, but such is the condition of real life’ (81).

There is real movement in this area then, movement which will help realise that our church is the People of God, our parishes belong to this people and not to the Parish Priest or Bishop, and yet, according to our different charisms, priests and bishops retain a distinct role in realising that unity that embraces diversity, and articulating that common understanding of truth that develops through attention to the signs of our times.

b) Church Teaching

In the Irish submission at the European Continental Synod in Prague last February (2023) there is a reference to the courage and wisdom of the Spirit in renewing and inspiring ‘any necessary doctrinal, structural, canonical, and pastoral changes without destroying communion or losing sight of the person and teaching of Jesus Christ’ (my emphasis). This phrase is retained in the April 19th document of the Prague Assembly.

This issue of doctrinal change (development) is contested, but I would argue that historically (the admission of Gentile/slavery/religious freedom/headship of man in marriage) and even in contemporary times (see Pope Francis himself on divorce and remarriage access to communion, the creation of ministries of acolyte, lector and catechist) there is clear evidence that doctrinal development takes place through discussion in the church that is often processed through councils and synods.

This is so not least because (DCS, n 8) a synod is not simply a sociological survey of Catholic opinion at any particular time but is a privileged instance of the ‘sense of faith of the faithful’, a favourite theme of Pope Francis. As Rafael Luciani puts it re Latin America: ‘…the synodal spirit manifested at Medellin presupposed a model of church as people of God that gave primacy to the sensus fidei and the sensus fidelium (LG 12). Thus, the infallibility in credendo of the whole people of God – experienced in a concrete historical reality – was the context within which the pastors’ infallibility in docendo was exercised’.

This is why the International Theological Commission in its 2014 document on The Sense of Faith in the Life of the Church can propose a clear protocol with regard to instances where there is a clash between current church teaching and the ‘sense of faith of the faithful’. In such cases, the ITC document states, we should be concerned and, inter alia, should consider whether the non-dogmatic teaching in question requires clarification, reformulation, or, (in dialogue with theology) revision (nn 80 and 84). This of course brings up the whole area of doctrinal development: it seems to be that the operative Catholic position here can be somewhat utopian in its stress on linear development and not yet be sufficiently open to what Lonergan in other contexts has referred to as ‘the self-corrective process of learning’, to what, in other words, the ITC document has named in terms of ‘revision’.

This is not simply a theoretical issue. We are well aware that in many parts of our church current teaching on sex (contraception, same-sex relationships) and gender (the ordination of women) have not been received. While these are important issues of themselves, involving as they do the intimate lives of so many people, their non-reception has implications also for the credibility of the church and the efficacy of its missionary outreach to our world. The synodal consultation has revealed the widespread nature of this lack of reception – this is not just the concern of elites. And nor can it be considered an ‘ideological’ concern: rather those who insist on repeating current teaching without taking on board the resistance expressed in this ‘sense of faith of the faithful’ are arguably the real ideologues – orthodoxy at its best takes on board all the evidence, and, if it does not do so, it falls into ideology.

Still, one notes here the inevitably of conflict (not bad in itself, ‘to be embraced/endured’) and the danger of division. So, we need to thread carefully, with great respect for other viewpoints – in other words according to that communal discernment which is based on our encounter with Jesus Christ and the gift of the Spirit of wisdom to guide us on our synodal journey.

c) Communal discernment

Francis does not want synodality to be characterised as a parliamentary procedure only (rich and necessary as this may be as part of the process – see remarks after Amazon Synod) but by communal discernment. What does this involve?

Well, first, I note its purpose: it is to help us (M.P. Gallagher on ‘discerning the culture’) to go beyond assimilation to the ‘spirit of the age’ (the Zeitgeist), however alluring and seductive this may be, to a deeper grasp of the ‘signs of the times’ – i.e. the presence of the Holy Spirit in our world and often in new ways. This is the kind of discernment first practised communally by the Church in the period immediately after the death and resurrection of Jesus when a decision was made about the terms of access to the Church by the so-called Gentiles, based on the discerned experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit in these people despite non-circumcision.

Then, a word about its nature: it is a kind of ‘felt knowledge: in other words, it involves feeling, emotion and desire, as well as reason, concepts and logic. One of the masters of discernment whom Francis draws on, St Ignatius of Loyola, speaks in terms of ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’ as key criteria of authentic discernment. Again, think of the early church in Acts 15: 28: ‘it seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit’, and the confirmatory reception of the good news by the community at Antioch: ‘They rejoiced at the exhortation’ (Acts 15: 30). It is an art, not a science: there is what Ladislas Orsy has called the ‘paradox of peaceful mistakes’ attendant on even good discernment, so that we may be forced to return to the same matter in due time to develop or correct our stance.

Necessary predispositions for good discernment include open and honest speech (parrhesia) and humble and real listening to others, even and especially when they disagree with us (hypomene). This does not mean a putting aside of our deeply held convictions, but rather an openness to submit them to the judgement of the community as a whole, having sought to put a good construction and discover the hidden core of truth in positions which differ from our own.

Finally, with regard to method, as Luciano puts it, ‘spiritual conversation’ is one part of a process that may include counsel, reflection, discussion, analysis, and debate – in other words, all the ordinary human means of gaining clarity in a particular situation. I mention this because the focus on ‘spiritual conversation’, necessary as it is and a counter to a more argumentative way of proceeding prone to abuses of power, should not overly spiritualise the process and be seen to be anti-intellectual.

d) Low numbers

Critics often object that the low numbers (in Ireland and worldwide) involved in the synodal process to date call into question its validity. Are the results to date really representative of Catholicism globally and nationally? The fear of change seems to accompany this objection: it is voiced most often by traditionalist voices which initially were rather dismissive of the whole exercise and failed to participate but who now, as they perceive momentum gathering behind the project, are scrambling to come on board.

It seems to me that the important thing to stress is that everyone is invited to take part. No one can say that they were excluded, except if they show an unwillingness to abide by the criteria of open speech and respectful listening. It is good in this context to remember that the biblical 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 in human affairs it is often small groups at first who become activists on any particular issue and then later the ripple effect reaches the wider societal group. Do the critics really imagine (when all the surveys show to the contrary) that a larger group would have different views on, for example, the role of women and/or controversial teaching on gender and sexuality?

What is clear is that, as Karl Rahner predicted many decades ago, in the more pluralist, non-Christendom, secularised world and culture of now and the future, the Christian will not be supported in the same way as before by the surrounding culture. Rather, the Christian of the future will have to be a ‘mystic’, not in the sense of experiencing extraordinary visions but in the more traditional, ordinary sense of cultivating the habit of ‘finding God in all things’, an intentional discipleship that is grounded in an encounter with Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit.


It is this rooting of the synodal process in a faith encounter with Jesus Christ that is most distinctive of the synodal process proposed by Pope Francis. This is no exercise in church renewal or reform (necessary thought both are) for its own sake: rather, it is precisely because of our faith that we work with God’s help to make our church a more effective sacrament of the loving mercy of God shown in the face of Jesus Christ and those of us who are his followers. It is this mercy – and not any crude proselytising push for converts – which can be the source of hope for our needy world, suffering from so many wounds – think of war, of migration, of poverty, of our broken planet earth. It is in this sense that encounter leads to mission, the raising of a banner of hope to our suffering world from a church that wants to be ‘of and for the poor’ and to become more and more like a field-hospital for humanity.

All this is in imitation of the Jesus who calls tax collectors and sinners to be his companions, in his company the last shall be first, he is the personification of the biblical call ‘to enlarge your tent’, and we his followers can be assured of unity, despite and even because of the deep diversity that always threatens to fragment us but is grounded in the miracle of divine Trinitarian love.

And so, I repeat, the invitation is open to all. If you are one of those hesitating, I encourage you to put your toes in the water. If you are already on board and are becoming conscious that we have a long way to travel and the process can often be tedious, wearisome and even discouraging, then I encourage you ‘do not be afraid’, ‘put out into the deep’. We are living a kairos time for our church, a moment of opportunity: let’s answer ‘yes’ to the call of the Holy Spirit.

Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J. member of the Irish Synodal Pathway Steering Committee, writing here in a personal capacity.

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One Comment

  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Many thanks to Paddy Ferry for facilitating Gerry O’Hanlon’s latest address in Edinburgh and for making it available here.

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