“Time is greater than space” is a fundamental tenet for Pope Francis and key to understanding his strategy for reforming the Catholic Church. He believes that authentic change takes time and emerges from processes rather than static structures.
The global synodal process underway in the Catholic Church around the world is the product of this reflection. The term “synodal” means “walking together” with the help of the Holy Spirit and describes Francis’ dream of a different way of being Church; one that shifts the power dynamic from the hierarchical model to a “people of God” model as proposed at Vatican II.
Seasoned observers believe the three-year process, which is expected to culminate in a synod of bishops in Rome next year, contains the seeds of fundamental change and the potential to destabilize the prominent position of the Catholic hierarchy. Some call it the “quiet revolution”.
Later this month, the Irish bishops will release their national summary of feedback from tens of thousands of Catholics across the island who took part in the listening sessions that formed the first step in Pope Francis’ global synodal process. .
Their declaration will be an opportunity to assess the attitudes of the bishops towards the synodal process of Francis. It will reveal whether they embrace his spirit of humility and culture of encounter, or whether they are attached to the status quo and seek to retain their power within it.
We already know from the diocesan summary of comments last June that an overwhelming majority of Irish Catholics support equality for women in the church, inclusion of LGBT+ people and an overhaul of the church teaching on sexuality, gender and other issues. The same issues have been recorded internationally through the global synodal process.
The problem is that these views are at odds with current church teaching. If the synodal process is to honor the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the people of God, it will have to consider the possibility of re-examining certain Church teachings. To do otherwise would be to betray the stated purpose of the process (ie deep listening to the Holy Spirit) and reduce the exercise to a workshop discussion.
Some bishops here and abroad have downplayed that possibility, saying the doctrine of the Church is not up for debate. But the woman and senior Vatican official overseeing the synodal process, Sr. Nathalie Becquart, is not so definitive. She described the process as a “creative journey”, saying “we have no idea where this will end”. She said we need to be open to the “surprises of the Holy Spirit.”
In any case (apart from the fundamental beliefs of Christianity), history shows that the doctrine of the Church has “developed” as our understanding of truth has evolved. Theological scholarship has been central to this shift in understanding, and over the past 80 years it has revived an earlier understanding of “the Church” that has helped to inform the synodal process.
Surprisingly, many Catholics are unaware of these developments. They ignore that Vatican theologians now accept that by virtue of their common baptism, the sense of faith in all the faithful (i.e. the sensus fidelium) is such a vital part of the teaching authority of the Church (i.e. the magisterium) than that of the hierarchy.
Many Irish Catholics are unaware of this because their theological training has never been prioritized or sufficiently supported by the hierarchy. Nor does it help that the hierarchy still stands alone as the teaching authority in the church.
People of God
The recovery of the image of the Church as the people of God and the growth in the appreciation of the sensus fidelium are the two theological concepts that animate the synodal process. Neither, however, diminishes the role of discernment assigned to bishops, but they oblige bishops to anchor their discernment in an authentic and faithful listening to the people of God.
In the past, the teaching authority of the church was the exclusive preserve of the hierarchical church. The old “pay, pray and obey” church model was the order of the day. But with the synodal process, that has now disappeared. Where does he have it?
We saw encouraging signs in June when the pre-synodal assembly met in Athlone. There, the bishops graciously hosted representatives from across Catholic Ireland, including members of reform movements. They wisely stood aside and their steering committee presented a synthesis of listening feedback with impressive integrity and accuracy.
As a woman and a gay person, I felt heard that day. It gave us hope. However, in recent weeks, signs of a return to the old order have emerged.
On July 23, in a homily at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, the Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, laid down what could be interpreted as a marker of God’s people, when he said : “Synodalism should not diminish the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops…”
I hope the Bishops’ statement, when released later this month, will not take such a defensive, territorial and fearful approach to the synodal process. I hope it will express a more humble and open response to the creative power of the Holy Spirit at work in the people of God.
I hope she will recognize the need for change on the part of bishops and, like Sr. Nathalie Becquart, will be open to the “surprises of the Holy Spirit”.
Ursula Halligan is a member of the voluntary group We Are Church Ireland which campaigns for justice and reform in the Catholic Church