Gerry O’Hanlon SJ: Ireland’s synod report reveals a country that is largely ‘suspicious’ and ‘intolerant’ of its Catholic inheritance

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ writing in America magazine:

August, vacation time, can often be a quiet time in the news and opinion cycle. But the quiet was disturbed this year in Ireland with the publication on Aug. 16 of the synthesis document for Ireland’s contribution to the universal synod on synodality.

The Irish Times, Ireland’s premier newspaper, led with the news on Aug. 17, proclaiming that “Irish Catholics demand changes in church” and focusing in particular on issues like the church’s attitude to women, L.G.B.T. people and those who have been divorced and remarried. They quoted former President Mary McAleese, who also has a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and who described the document as “explosive, life altering, dogma altering, church altering.”

Later in the week, in an editorial, The Times came back to the topic and concluded that “unless the church can change, its survival in Ireland is an open question.” The week concluded with one of its columnists, Breda O’Brien, offering her opinion in a piece headed “Catholic Church is not a democracy so forget about radical change” and concluding with the words: “But those waiting for the church to become something it is not will wait in vain.”

As the dust settles on this controversy, what is it saying about the synodal process initiated by Pope Francis and now completing a global consultation stage? For all the buzz surrounding its publication, the Irish document is both sober and humble in tone and yet inspiring and hopeful.

It notes in the introduction the difficulties around engaging the young and disaffected, the fears of some that the exercise would be just listening without any action, that “gatekeepers” would filter proposals or that certain topics would be vetoed and the final document censored. This sense of apathy, indifference, even skepticism and cynicism gradually gave way on the part of those who engaged, and people began to enjoy the safe, patient, listening environment that supported honesty and transparency.

This sense of apathy, indifference, even skepticism and cynicism gradually gave way on the part of those who engaged, and people began to enjoy the safe, patient, listening environment that supported honesty and transparency.

Not all shared this positive view of the process: Some feared that the essential teaching and practice of the church would be undermined. But when the compilation of the fruits of this consultation were presented by the National Synodal Steering Committee to a National pre-Synodal Assembly in Athlone in June, there was a palpable sense of peace and even joy. People felt that they had been “heard,” that the discernment process had reached a point of “confirmation.”

The contents set out more formally in the August document covered a variety of different themes. These ranged from abuse as part of the story of the church to co-responsible leadership, the role of clergy, lay ministry, the need to develop a greater sense of belonging, the role of women (with calls for equal treatment in leadership and decision making and access to ministries ordained and non-ordained), L.G.B.T. people (a more welcoming approach and, from some, a request for change in teaching), sexuality and relationships (the theology underlying current teaching is but one strand in a far richer tapestry), adult faith formation, liturgy (funerals and other special occasions are done well, but in general liturgies are “boring, monotonous, jaded and flat: they no longer speak to people’s lives”), youth, education and catechesis, family, the Covid-19 pandemic, and culture.

The document goes on to note various issues that were not strongly present in the consultation: the wider ecumenical and interfaith context (at a time in Ireland where peace is still a delicate flower in Northern Ireland, and there is a sizable influx of non-Christian immigration to the island); the environment (climate change and biodiversity); social justice (at a time of a housing crisis in Ireland and many other instances of social injustice); the sacramental life of the church (little mention of other sacraments apart from the Eucharist, but also a sense that Irish Catholics may be “sacramentalized but not evangelized”); and the missionary outreach of the Catholic Church.

The document concludes with an interesting reflection on the general context of the church in Ireland. It spoke, for example, of how coming toward the 200th anniversary of Catholic Emancipation, the dismantling of the church’s hegemony in Irish society means that a profound change is being experienced “from a national identity overly dependent on Catholic culture, to one suspicious and often intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.”

The dismantling of the church’s hegemony in Irish society means that a profound change is being experienced “from a national identity overly dependent on Catholic culture, to one suspicious and often intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.”

There is no romanticization of the process of synodality itself. Echoing the words of Pope Francis that the translation of the rhetoric of synodality into the reality of ecclesial life can often be “wearisome,” the Irish report concludes that “a synodal process is not easy—it often entails the Way of the Cross,” and yet “the church in Ireland is heartened by the enthusiasm, energy and expectation generated,” which has “whetted our appetite for what lies ahead.” (The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in March 2021 committed the Irish church to a five-year synodal pathway that will continue to harvest the fruits of this initial consultation period.)

A closer analysis of the Irish experience may yield some interesting perspectives of more global interest. First, as the document itself notes, the focus of this initial consultation is mainly on intra-church issues. This is against the background of the warnings of Pope Francis against being self-referential, his desire for a church that is a “field-hospital, with the “smell of the sheep,” going out to the world with missionary intent to bring hope and mercy.

I think this initial ad intra focus (in Ireland but also elsewhere) is understandable given that this is the first time for so long that open speech (parrhesia) had been encouraged within a church where many discontents have been building up for so long. It is also appropriate in an Ireland where it is clear that we are still dealing with the “open wound” that is abuse and struggling to find ways not just of doing justice to victims and survivors but also of opening ourselves to the healing that only they can bring. Nonetheless, our next steps on this synodal pathway will undoubtedly have in mind a more ad extra focus.

Synodality, sensus fidei and the development of doctrine

This will be helped, secondly, if we gain more clarity around the link between synodality and church teaching. It has been an open secret for decades, now laid bare for all to see in the synthesis document, that most Irish Catholics (and this surely applies more widely in our Catholic world) have not “received” some core current church teaching on sexuality and gender. On one reading the pope, quoted to this effect by the Irish bishops in a letter accompanying the synthesis, seems to disallow any link between the synodal process and church teaching: “What is under discussion at Synodal gatherings are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. The Synod is concerned mainly with how teaching can be lived and applied in the contexts of our time.”

There are many historical examples to support this argument that the process of synodality may also be part of the process of doctrinal development.

However, this is the same pope who introduced the ministries of lector and acolyte to lay people (including women) by explaining that they were a doctrinal development brought about in part by synodal processes, and who, moreover, introduced a significant change in church practice around the access of the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist (with doctrinal implications) in a document directly issuing from a synod.

What are we to think? A helpful way of approaching this sensitive topic is to note the pope’s own conviction that at the heart of synodality is the retrieval of the “sensus fidei fidelium” (“the sense of faith of the faithful”) and to recall what the International Theological Commission had to say on this topic in their 2014 document “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.” In this document they note that while the “sense of the faith” may not simply be identified with majority opinion, still public opinion, and in particular institutional means like synods, can be good means of gauging what the faithful think and feel (Nos. 74-7; 120-5).

They go on to say that “where the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful is met with difficulty and resistance,” the magisterium should reflect on that teaching and “consider whether it needs clarification or reformulation” (No. 80). While “clarification” may simply mean better communication, “reformulation” is open to a stronger interpretation, as indeed is suggested by the reference to the role of theology in this process where it is proposed that theologians can help to identify “in which areas a revision of previous positions is needed” (No. 84).

Later the document notes that “problems arise when the majority of the faithful remain indifferent to doctrinal or moral decisions taken by the magisterium or when they positively reject them…. [I]t may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium” (No. 123).

The Irish process has been very respectful of the right of the magisterium to teach authoritatively and of the universal magisterium to decide on issues of universal import. In this context, in the conclusion of the synthesis, they respond to the invitation of the general secretariat of the Synod to highlight “those points regarding which it is considered important to solicit the further discernment of the church,” instancing in the first place “a strong desire for women’s involvement in leadership and ministries—ordained and non-ordained—and additionally, a concern around the Church’s approach to the L.G.B.T.Q. community and to the hurt experienced by its members.”

There are many historical examples to support this argument that the process of synodality may also be part of the process of doctrinal development. The issue right now may hinge rather on the prudential judgment around whether it is possible or wise to tackle this head-on with the risk of a conflict that could be divisive. By not tackling it, of course, one risks ongoing suffering by those at the sharp end of contested teaching and an image of church that is unattractive due to teaching on issues that are biblically and theologically contested.

An ongoing process of debate and discernment

Thirdly, and finally, the Irish experience has articulated a felt need to deepen our skills of communal discernment. It is right to make prayer integral and to focus on “spiritual conversation” rather than solely on an adversarial debate and discussion method. But, let’s not be too purist about this either: Argument, debate and discussion can all be healthy parts of a search for truth; discernment need not be anti-intellectual.

We have more work to do on this, but I like the pithy description given by ecclesiologist Richard Gaillardetz in America back in 2012:

At an ecumenical council, saints and sinners, the learned and the ignorant, gather together. They share their faith, voice their concerns, argue, gossip, forge alliances and compromises, enter into political intrigues, rise above the intrigue to discern the movements of the Spirit, worry about the great tradition in which their identity is rooted, seek to understand the demands of the present moments and hope for a better future.

A major challenge going forward is articulated well in the conclusion of the synthesis: “There is a challenge to sustain the encounter and the participative nature of synodality, grounded in respectful listening, for long enough to arrive at the point where specific decisions are discerned to be necessary, given the risk that such decision points are inevitably difficult for those of a contrary disposition.” However, the momentum and hope generated by the synodal pathway to date give confidence that the whispers of the Spirit are being attended to in Ireland, and we look forward to the gathering of the wisdom of other local churches, and of the universal church, to help us on our way.

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  1. Sean Connell says:

    From the very start of this process Pope Francis has asked for the wishes of the Holy Spirit as expressed through the baptised and not those of pressure groups or influential individuals, which seams to be what has happened in this country. We the laity (at least as far as I can see) were not even asked to pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance and then, in most cases there was very little effort made to ask the laity what the Spirit was saying to them. This needs repeating over and over…

    1. Sean O'Conaill says:

      “Pressure groups” versus “the baptised?

      So if a baptised person – a woman, say – wishes to speak up in favour of the ordination of women, does she thereby lose her status as a baptised person, and become merely a member of a “pressure group”?

      By this logic “the baptised” are only those who never feel strongly enough about anything to raise their voices at all. Is that what is being argued here?

      Certainly there were many whose voices were not heard in the synodal process. In my own parish that was true too, but not for the reason implied above – that these deliberately distanced themselves from synodal discussion out of attachment to the church as it is. Instead the most obvious reason is that having distanced themselves from the church over recent decades through loss of any expectation that they would ever be able to raise their voices about anything, the news of this synodal opportunity never even reached them.

      The fiction that the synodal process was hijacked from ‘the baptised’ by ‘pressure groups’, and did not represent the loyal and active baptised is therefore an urban legend in the making. As many of the diocesan reports, and the national report, make clear, much of the discussion centred not on controversial issues but on the alarming lack of interest of younger generations – including, obviously, the most recently baptised – in regular church liturgies. This very vigorous discussion was dominated by an interest not in change on ‘hot button’ issues, but in concern for the continuity of belief in the core inherited teachings of the church. Is that not an essentially conservative concern?

      So that emerging yarn of the synodal process as one of “pressure groups” versus “the baptised” can be sustained only by failing to read the diocesan reports and national synthesis with the care they deserve, relying instead on short media summaries focused on the hottest buttons. It is deeply unfair to those who did participate. More seriously, it is untrue, and demonstrably so.

      As for the prayerfulness of the process, every synodality event I attended began and ended with prayer to the Holy Spirit – with special attention to the missionary purpose of the process. Why should it be believable that those who responded to a call to synodality from the pope himself, often in challenging circumstances, would not also be sincerely prayerful throughout?

      We are in the most serious crisis of continuity because we have been non-synodal – i.e. non-missionary – for over half-a-century in a rapidly changing society. We must, therefore, be synodal from now on, ideally with all Catholic pressure groups involved – including those now mistakenly trying to misrepresent synodality as a sell-out. That too is ‘pressure’ applied by some of the baptised – but not pressure in favour of communion, participation, recovery and renewal.

  2. Brendan Butler says:

    There are two elements in the Irish Synodal Synthesis which ought to be carefully distinguished from each other.
    The first element is the fair and accurate synthesis of the contributions made at parish and diocesan level by the Irish Catholic faithful. The second element are comments made by the writer(s) of the report that are interspersed throughout but especially made in the concluding remarks.

    Some of these remarks are used to highlight the article originally written in America by Gerry O’Hanlon S.J. and reproduced here.
    These highlighted concluding remarks state: “The Irish Synodal Report reveals a country that is largely suspicious and intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.”

    I believe that such comments give an unfair and negative representation of what is actually occurring in the Irish Catholic Church at present.
    It may be interpreted as such by some writers as a liberating moment and breaking with the chains of the past.
    However, I would interpret this movement as a positive development.

    The Apostle Paul used the example of a child’s development into adulthood to explain his own spiritual development so equally such a development is occurring within the Irish Catholic communion: it is growing from being treated as a child to now asserting its own adult individuality. This spiritual development doesn’t mean that we are intolerant of our Catholic past or even suspicious of it. However, just as adults must integrate their childhood past so too we as adult Catholics must do likewise and acknowledge our Catholic past, warts and all.

    Those concluding remarks in the Synodal report, I believe, should be revised to represent present-day Irish Catholic thinking in a more positive and real way.

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    It is surely not the synodal report that needs revision but the mistaken Inference allowed by the unfortunate article title – that it was those involved in the synodal process itself who were ‘suspicious’ and ‘intolerant’.

    In the national report itself those words were clearly descriptive of the external hostility to Catholicism engendered by the church of the past – the authoritarian institution that was obsessive about regulation re the sixth commandment, that was hypocrytically secretive about clerical abuses re that very same commandment – and was also in denial of any need for synodality.

    ‘Suspicion’ and ‘hostility’ – rampant especially on the Internet – is the external challenge that the synodal Irish Catholic church now faces, not the attitude of those who retain what was always best in Irish Catholicism, an attachment to the source of all compassion and kindness, the Trinity. It is that attachment – not suspicion or hostility – that compels us now to be synodal.

    Authors of articles are at the mercy of journal editors and sub-editors when it comes to the entitling of articles. This is a classic example.

  4. Soline Humbert says:

    Talking about Catholic inheritance, these are the deeply misogynistic writings that the Dicastery for the laity, family and life displays prominently on its website as inspiring resources and models for family life and relationships women/men in the 21st century. Some inheritances deserve to be discarded: they have done enough damage over centuries, not least by poisoning the Gospel with patriarchal prejudices.
    (See esp. Tertullian on women’s fashion).

    1. Sean O’Conaill says:

      Yes indeed, Soline – all women will benefit so much from this passage from Tertullian (c.155 – c.220) on ‘women’s apparel’:

      “And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.”

      Never in the Gospels does Jesus address women in this way, so why is this malignant nonsense recommended to anyone other than those who want to find the church forever more abusive and crazy than wise?

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, pretty naked misogyny from Tertullian there. I don’t think it’s at all typical of Catholic discourse.

    As with other flawed characters and texts in history, we have to take note of the sinister utterances and be alerted by them, but not allow them to cause us to dismiss the genius and insights of such as Tertullian, Jerome, Chrysostom, Augustine or such as Hegel, Heidegger, T. S. Eliot, D. T. Suzuki, or whoever else is singled out for ‘bashing’.

    Oh, I am flabbergasted that the text by Tertullian actually is recommended by some michievous fogies in the Vatican. They should be fired. I hesitate to look at the other ‘pearls’ they’ve dragged up.

  6. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Yes Joe – I know well that Tertullian has interesting things to say about other matters. For example, somewhere he says that ‘emulation’ – i.e. rivalrous imitation – is ‘the mother of all heresies’ – and rivalrous imitation is obviously the same thing as Girard’s ‘mimetic desire’. He may even have redeemed himself on the subject of marriage and women elsewhere in his copious writings – that awful piece strikes me as theatrically over the top in the mode of a 1950s Redemptorist setting out to give Lenten retreatants their full money’s worth of self-loathing on day one – as dramatic preparation for the final revelation at the end of the week that God loves them all dearly anyway!

    As you suggest the fault lies with those who have set up that site – who cannot have thoroughly read the texts they have made clickable under the following extraordinary introduction:

    “The Fathers of the first four centuries, whose works were full of the spirit of the primitive Christian community, help us to better understand the mission of the family, its essence, and the unbreakable bond between man and woman.”

    It’s just sheer laziness to evade the task of excerpting from the complete documents those passages that truly merit this fulsome introduction – linking to the full text elsewhere for those interested. I have emailed their ‘info’ address to complain, but probably I’ll have to run any reply through Google translate!

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    I hope they take the embarrassing site down straight away.

    Sean, can you find the reference in Tertullian to rivalrous emulation? — I am working on his De praescriptione haereticorum (The Disqualification of Heretics, is how I’d translate the title).

  8. Sean O’Conaill says:

    ‘On Baptism’ – Ch. 17. “Emulation of the episcopal office is the mother of schisms.”

    My memory of it was garbled, obviously – but the insight is nevertheless acute. The bishop’s social status must have grown by Tertullian’s time, making it an obvious object of mimetic envy and rivalry, so the temptation to insist that “so-and-so is wrong about this or that” – as in the case of Paul and Apollos – would naturally follow.

    I found that when looking for evidence of an understanding of the danger of covetousness among the pre-Constantinian fathers some years ago.

    ‘Emulation’ was applied to rivalry in personal adornment also, and deprecated. The modern term ‘power dressing’ catches that same phenomenon, but it would be a brave homilist who would complain about that today!

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean O’Conaill and not Sean Connell is right. The councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon look on the surface like squabbles among pressure groups, yet the creed they gave us is a work of the Holy Spirit.

    Synodality means letting the people be heard. The temptation to dismiss what the people are saying as a product of ignorance and failed catechesis is one to which the scribes and pharisees succumbed. “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” (Jn 9:34).

    The synod is happening at a time of spiritual depletion. How can we make opening to the people chime with a new opening to the Spirit? The Synod must allow a hubbub of factions. How can this Babel become a Pentecost?

  10. Sean O’Conaill says:

    But Tertullian is still gloriously there on the English language page for the site, Soline! Tonight at least. You’ll find that if you select the English translation. Curiouser and curiouser?

    Will there be different selections of authors and texts for different languages, or is the site ‘in process’?

    No response to my complaint as yet anyway.

  11. Soline Humbert says:

    @14, yes indeed Sean, I think it’s a site in process situation, with mad scrambling to find equally outdated, misogynistic writings. It probably will take a few hundred years…Ambrose’s wisdom for widows is also due to go…As far as I am concerned this whole Patristic Resources section should be removed in its entirety from the dicastery’s website.
    On the issue of sexuality, there is an excellent new documentary on the obligatory celibacy for priesthood worlwide, including an interview with Austrian priest Helmut Schuller. However it’s in French!…

  12. Paddy Ferry says:

    I have now read Fr. Gerry O’Hanlon’s excellent piece twice. How lucky we are at home to have scholars of Gerry’s calibre. We do not have such a resource over here, sadly.

    However, I am puzzled that sensible men like Brendan and Seán would challenge the statement that “The Irish Synodal Report reveals a country that is largely suspicious and intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.”

    Seán, you explained this as being a form of “external hostility”,

    Well, I can tell you that I am still very much internal, still right in here hoping for the best. And, I can completely understand Gerry’s use of the words “suspicious and intolerant”. How could anyone who has spoken to people at home about the church not understand the use of those words?

    Have we already forgotten the scandal of priests sexually violating young children for decades and bishops doing everything in their power to protect the criminals who committed such heinous crimes; the scandal of the crimes committed in mother and baby homes run by religious orders all over the country; the slave labour in the Magdalene Laundries and the unspeakable evil in the so called industrial schools run by religious orders? The people who are not suspicious and intolerant are those who now no longer think seriously about the church anymore. They have long ago given up completely.

    And, as for the nonsense from Tertullian, why would we waste our time and mental energy on that kind of stuff?

  13. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Paddy – here is the passage from the conclusion to the Irish national synodal synthesis in which the phrase ‘suspicious and intolerant’ first occurred:

    “Approaching the 200th anniversary of Catholic Emancipation, the dismantling of the institutions of Ireland’s Catholic superstructure in our cities and towns reflects a profound change in modern Irish identity. This change is being experienced, from a national identity overly dependent on Catholic culture, to one suspicious and often intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.

    “An encounter with the dominant culture requires the Church to be open to considering what is of value in society’s new norms and what is valid in its critique of the Church. That discernment requires us to be alert to the risk of assimilation and to ensure that the fruits of dialogue are shaped by the Spirit in careful and prayerful reflection on the Gospel.”

    So the phrase was first used descriptively of the ‘dominant’ secular culture that is now reacting negatively to a church that once itself was ‘dominant’. Yes of course there is also internal suspicion and intolerance of a clericalist culture that hasn’t gone away, and is resistant to this synodal moment – but those who are now synodally engaged in confronting both that negativity and the challenge of continuity are not ‘suspicious and intolerant’ of what they want to preserve of our Catholic inheritance.

    There is room for confusion here, originating not in Gerry’s article itself but in the title given to it by ‘America’ which led Brendan Butler to complain that:

    “I believe that such comments give an unfair and negative representation of what is actually occurring in the Irish Catholic Church at present.”

    Clearly Brendan supposed that it was those who were positively involved in synodal discussion who were being described in Gerry’s article as ‘suspicious and intolerant’ when Gerry was clearly NOT saying that. He was describing the ‘cultural context’ – as the national synthesis was doing also. Let us not misunderstand one another.

    1. Paddy Ferry says:

      Thanks, Sean for the clarification.

  14. Gerry O'Hanlon says:

    Sean O’Conaill is right to suppose that the title given my America article was not mine, but America’s.

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