Pope Francis greets the faithful after Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 29, marking the conclusion of the first session of the Synod of Bishops on synodality. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Synodal Catholics walk together

By  Richard Shields, Catholic Register Special
  • November 1, 2023

The months leading up to the now concluded first phase of the Synod on Synodality were marked by anticipation and anxiety in influential Catholic circles. While the majority of Catholics might remain perplexed or indifferent to the Synod, invested Catholics saw change on the horizon. A Church meeting usually does not draw much media attention; but rumours of the Pope’s openness to same-sex unions, women’s ordination and other progressive themes garnered several headlines and created expectations.

For those Catholics who anticipated changes that they either could not live with or were long overdue, the Synod’s Message to the People of God will be disappointing. The letter, issued last week, restates the Synod’s mandate to bring together ordinary Catholics, “in virtue of their baptism, to sit at the same table to take part, not only in the discussions, but also in the voting process of this Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.”

These discussions recognised the current state of the Catholic Church. First of all, they revealed the need for unity (communion) in the Church in the face of so many “hot button” topics that divide Catholics. Second, they modelled a Church that is more participatory (co-responsibility) and attentive to the experience of its members.

Media attention has focused on issues characteristic of Western liberal cultures. While important to the Church’s credibility in the West, they tie the Church to a now dysfunctional Eurocentric model. In the eyes of one African bishop, the Synod has “made it clear that Catholicism today is centred in Africa, and a little in Asia too.” When the priorities of the global Church and those of the West do not coincide, the need for a wider dialogue becomes obvious.

Of course, these issues are not going away and the closing statement of this year’s synodal session does not sweep them under the rug. But the reason for this meeting was never to decide those questions. Perhaps the core difficulty is the concept of “synodality” itself.

By creating a space to discuss once taboo topics and by including lay Catholics in the dialogue, the Synod set in motion a process for change and a rejection of religious ideologies, which separate people into “loyal” Catholics and “backsliders.” Synodality calls for a “pastoral conversion” — an uncompromising collective soul-searching which will free the Church to find more effective ways to embrace “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age,” affirming that “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in the hearts of the followers of Christ.”

The participation of lay Catholics in decision-making challenges a skewed esteem of clerical power  and its patriarchal culture that, according to Francis, “is a scourge” that “enslaves God’s holy and faithful people.”

While there remains a distinct governance structure in the Church, the bishops can no longer justify their authority without the input and collaboration of ordinary Catholics. With this Synod, the Pope is proposing a model of Church as a people of faith walking together, able to courageously acknowledge those inconsistent practices and competing moral demands that are already disrupting communion in the Church and hindering its mission. It is a bottom-up model, based on the conviction that baptism gives every Christian a voice; and that priests and bishops ignore that voice at the peril of their own authority and with a heavy cost to the institution they are committed to protect and lead.

The biggest challenge, then, for Canadian Catholics today is to hone their ability to have grown-up conversations about the complex issues that cannot be solved by papal decree, Catholic tradition or the Bible alone. These issues have to be owned by the people of the Church and not just the hierarchy. In a word, laity and clergy together must take responsibility for what happens next. A faithful response to the Church’s mission happens on the ground, in the local church, in dioceses, parishes and Catholic organizations and institutions.

Gone are the days of a Eurocentric, Vatican-controlled Catholicism. A “world Church” embracing a multiplicity of cultures can no longer enforce a uniformity of thought and action, once the hallmark of the Roman Church. While the path into the future remains uncertain and tentative, a retreat to the past, to the pseudo-orthodoxy of the Synod nay-sayers, will only make the Church, in Pope Francis’  words, “a world apart, doomed to doing the same things over and over, and incapable of being challenged by novelty or appreciating the beauty which God bestows beyond their borders.”

(Richard Shields is a retired adjunct professor of practical theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. He received his doctorate in religious studies from McMaster University.)