A publication of Sacred Heart University
An End to the Age of Hubris?
Why Dante Still Matters, and Especially Now

Taking Stock – Church Reform

One of the positive side effects of this sad time of coronavirus/COVID-19 is that those of us well enough to do so have time to take stock. Where, then, stands reform in the Catholic Church?

I think Michael Sean Winters “nailed” it (03/05/2020). There had been an exaggerated reaction of dismay to the formal response of Pope Francis to the Amazon Synod. Winters is surely right to assert that Francis understandably wanted to focus on matters ecological at that synod, and that the tectonic shift that is happening under him with regard to church reform centers on a synodality that is not reducible to a parliamentary form of government, where issues are determined purely by majority vote. In short, with regard to the issues of married priests and female deacons, issues of concern to the universal church, Francis remained unconvinced that the discernment process had reached the point of peaceful decision.

Nonetheless, this incident has raised concern in some quarters that while the reform of Francis has been strong on personal and cultural aspects, it has been limited at the legal, institutional and structural levels, so that a well-organized and resourced opposition is now scenting blood.

Certainly at the cultural level, there has been real progress - a genuine loosening up of discussion, debate, and a growing familiarity with the practice of communal discernment. And there has been an awareness of the need for legal, institutional and structural change – so, for example, the new laws in Episcopalis Communio around mandatory consultation before the Synod of Bishops, the on-going work of the Council of Cardinals, the shortly to-be-published document on reform of the Curia are all evidence of this.

I would suggest that there are two major issues emerging as the reform seeks to find more secure institutional footing within the church.

Frist, with regard to the relationship between primacy and collegiality as newly focused by the Amazon Synod, John O’Malley, in another context, notes that while it is clear that in the Catholic Church, governance is shared by the pope and the collective authority of the bishops, the practical implementation of this sharing will by definition always be untidy and subject to change. Church governance, like the governance of every institution that is not a dictatorship, consists of lines that are sometimes blurred. We are faced with the practical question of what are the appropriate instruments for making the collegial (synodal) tradition of church governance effective. 

Since the ultimate purpose is the discernment of God’s will (and not some more simple counting of votes, the “parliamentary procedures” of ARCIC III),  one can understand the reluctance of Francis to simply accept tout court – the recommendations of a regional synod that were themselves deeply contested and were also being addressed in other fora. On the other hand, perhaps ARCIC III also has it right in recommending a more deliberative role for the Synod of Bishops and a fuller articulation of the authority of Episcopal Conferences. O’Malley’s colleague at Georgetown, Ladislas Orsy, has already long argued for the effective, not just affective, authority of Episcopal Conferences, proposing that the Holy See can and should retain ultimate supervisory authority over the conferences but more in the traditional manner of a court of appeal.  By offering a more deliberative status to the Synod of Bishops and indeed to Episcopal Conferences, Francis would be laying positive foundations for a more shared ecclesial governance, coupled with a kind of mutual veto to avoid simple head-counting as a means of settling disputed issues, thus preserving the value of discernment.

Secondly, we need to address the role of the laity in church teaching and governance. While, as O’Malley notes, historically the laity at Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II exercised real influence through a consultative process, nonetheless in an age that values participation as of right and in which the share of the baptised in the three-fold office of Jesus Christ (including governance) is more and more acknowledged, it would seem sensible to move in the direction that ARCIC III proposes and offer a more deliberative role to laity in the Catholic Church.

This would enhance the value of the sensus fidei fidelorum in both church teaching and governance, not least as an antidote to the often unconscious clericalism that Francis himself often criticizes and has identified as an obstacle to the creation of a synodal church. But, in addition, it is the “sense of the faithful” in regions like ours that is most sensitive to such neuralgic issues as the unresolved role of women in the Church and the unreceived status of some church teaching on sexuality. These “internal peripheries” (Lakeland, 03/19/2020) of the Church articulate in their voices of dissent a position that requires hearing and discernment if the Church is to regain credibility in our culture.

We may cavil at some of Francis’ own theological instincts and language on such issues but this may be to miss the point. By his synodal decentralisation, he wants a less exclusive emphasis on his own particular position (and the inevitable blind spots of any particular pontiff) and more room for the Holy Spirit to work through the whole Church. Which is why, as Catherine Mulroney urges (03/12/2020), we all need to put our shoulders to the wheel, from parish level up, in bringing about this new church.


Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.

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