Synodality will not survive without decisions

Synodality will not survive without decisions Pope Francis signs a letter to parish priests during a meeting with pastors from around the world who were chosen by their bishops to share their reflections with the Synod of Bishops on synodality May 2 in the Synod Hall at the Vatican. Photo: CNS/Vatican Media

Fr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ


The second (and final) session of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on synodality convenes in Rome next October. Where are we at?

Judging by the Irish response to the 2023 synthesis report, ‘Towards October 2024’ (May 2024), we are very much on track. In that response – garnered from consultations in dioceses and ecclesial groups as part of the characteristic circularity of synodality – there is strong endorsement of the synodal process as the appropriate way to exercise mission in Ireland. There is also an honest and realistic recognition of traces of apathy, hesitation and fear of the process – change is not easy. There is, in addition, a sharper appreciation of the canonical changes that will be required in order to make ‘differentiated co-responsibility’ a reality at all levels of the Church. For example, “There is a strong perception that real differentiated co-responsibility is only going to be possible when the unique authority given to the parish priest in Canon Law is balanced with some definition of the authority of the faithful”.

Particularly striking in the Irish response is the appendix, offering a rich compilation of synodal good practices at diocesan and parish level, most of them using some form of the ‘conversation in the Spirit’ discernment methodology.


Interestingly, while the consultation focused on the co-responsibility intrinsic to recreating Church as the People of God, other themes familiar since the National Synthesis of 2022 resurfaced. These included the primacy of baptism, the role of women (with mention of the totemic issue of ordination), young people, welcome and inclusion of those on the margins, formation, and the role of clergy. As to the latter, it is worth noting that there was some evidence of a more positive response among priests, hopefully given added momentum by the meeting in Rome in April-May of over 200 parish priests from all over the world. The bishops have rolled out a leadership training course in different parts of Ireland as part of a strategic drive towards formation, which has been availed of by a mixed cohort of laity, priests and religious.

In response to last October’s synod the Pope identified 10 themes for synod study groups”

In the meantime, while other countries have been similarly engaged in a consultation process, the fruits of which will become apparent in a new Working Paper (Instrumentum Laboris) for the October Synod, several other relevant developments at global level have occurred. In response to last October’s synod the Pope identified 10 themes for synod study groups (among them the diaconate and the possibility of female deacons, and the theological criteria and synodal methodologies “for shared discernment of controversial doctrinal, pastoral, and ethical issues”). The study groups are not due to report till 2025 but may be asked for an interim account of progress at the Synod next October.

These study groups, faithful to last October’s findings that “conversation in the Spirit” needed to include a better integration of the intellectual with the emotional/spiritual, have become even more relevant in the light of certain other global developments which have involved the Pope himself. There was the controversy over same-sex blessings with the publication of Fiducia Supplicans; the remarks from Cardinal Hollerich (reported in Synodal Times, May 23, 2024) which seemed to open the possibility of female ordination, while counselling patience as a way of proceeding, and then, around the same time, the Pope was quoted in an interview with CBS as apparently saying “no” to even women deacons; and then, a week later, there was what I heard the BBC call an “almost apology” on behalf of the Pope for a derogatory, homophobic term he used in a closed meeting with Italian bishops, when questioned on the issues of the admission of gay men to seminaries. This was interpreted by many within and outside the Church as a slur on gay people.


How do we as Catholics manage to tie ourselves up in such knots over issues of sex and gender? And to what extent does this become an obstacle to mission?

All this opens up two related fields of enquiry which the synodal process will have to tackle at some point down the road. The first has to do with the limits of a purely pastoral approach, and the need at some stage to also tackle the issue of doctrine, of Church teaching. A careful reading of what the Pope had to say in that CBS interview gives pause to any quick interpretation of a simple ‘no’ to the female diaconate. He makes it clear he is speaking of diaconate understood within the context of ‘Holy Orders’, presumably a short-hand for the transitional diaconate which had become common in the Church as a step towards priesthood.

Pope Francis has been brave, in the spirit of synodality, in attempting to articulate the reasons for various teachings, and has advanced the notion of ‘complementarity’”

However, as the 2023 synthesis document makes clear, we are now in an era where increasingly we are aware of the ‘permanent diaconate’ as distinct from the transitional one, and the full ramifications of this have yet to be realised. Hence the ongoing study around the female diaconate.

However, the question of priestly ordination still keeps being posed, and there were developments around this as well. Pope Francis has been brave, in the spirit of synodality, in attempting to articulate the reasons for various teachings, and has advanced the notion of ‘complementarity’, in particular the Petrine and Marian typology so beloved of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, as a reason why women may not be ordained as priests. However, in dialogue with theologian Sr Linda Pocher and two colleagues, the Pope and his Council of Cardinals were confronted by the theological weaknesses of Balthasar’s hypothesis, and it’s far from theologically normative status.


This is precisely the kind of role theology should be playing in testing the basis of Church teaching which the ‘sense of faith of the faithful’ finds unpersuasive.  It is at the heart of synodality. And so, whatever about reasons of prudence and practical judgement (to maintain unity in the Church, for example), it’s clear that such questions of ordination cannot be declared ‘off the table’ until such time as the faithful are at peace. This requires the kind of consensual reception of teaching that was found at Antioch in Acts 15, when the community there received with joy the new teaching about how Gentiles were to be treated.

The second issue that arises is the role of the papacy itself. Pope Francis, in line with Pope John Paul II and stretching all the way back to Paul VI, has been prominent in acknowledging the need for its reform, and has spoken about the need to “decentralise” the Church. At the same time, it is very clear that the Synod of Bishops – as intended by Paul VI – still remains, in its purely consultative nature, an instrument of papal primacy. This is instead of being a truly deliberative body which might in creative tension offer a “better balance of vital forces” (Ladislas Orsy) in marrying primacy and collegiality. Popes, as Francis is the first to admit, are fallible: he himself only ever uses the term ‘infallible’ to describe the consensual ‘sense of faith of the faithful’, and even Vatican I limits papal infallibility to very rare instances.

Have we allowed what the late historian John W. O’Malley called the ‘papalisation’ of the Catholic Church in the second millennium too much space?  Is synodality a time to recalibrate, and to explore a more shared governance model, while continuing to rejoice in the ongoing ‘soft power’ of papacy as a focus of unity, and indeed a service not just to all Catholics but to all Christians? Might an eventual move towards a recognition of the deliberative power of the Synod of Bishops, with lay and other participation, be the way forward, with the Pope retaining powers of veto?

To simply allow diverse practices and teaching in different parts of the universal Church may be to open up the floodgates to other kinds of local, culturally acceptable ways of proceeding which are clearly not in accord with Gospel values”

There is no silver bullet solution to any of these issues. Many of the hot-button issues mentioned above have not attained a consensus across the rest of the Church, and, absent this consensus, it is not so clear how to proceed just now. To simply allow diverse practices and teaching in different parts of the universal Church may be to open up the floodgates to other kinds of local, culturally acceptable ways of proceeding which are clearly not in accord with Gospel values. But gradually decisions will need to be taken – synodality will not survive without decisions, and already there are rumblings of ‘consultation fatigue’.

Synodality, however, by its provision of safe spaces for open speaking and listening, for debate and discussion, is a wise way of tackling the relevant issues, guided by the Spirit. We need to pray for guidance on the way forward, combining patience with persistence.  All this will become even more concrete and urgent for those of us in Ireland after next October’s Synod, when our own bishops will come back to us with an invitation to wider and deeper consultation, in preparation for a series of national synodal assemblies which will address issues with a particular bearing on our Irish situation. These are exciting times to be a Catholic.