With the publication in October 2022 of the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) we are in a better position to judge the trajectory of the synodal project of Pope Francis.
As I reported here in June about the Irish stage of this process, there was clearly a sense of joy among the admittedly limited, but committed, number of participants worldwide. People were so glad to have their voices heard, many of the same concerns emerged globally (albeit with particular national and regional emphases), and there was a sense of momentum engendered. This has been helped to no small degree by the openness and transparency with which the process has been almost universally conducted: and where this has not happened, it is clear that a template has been established, to which non-conforming episcopal conferences may be held to account in on-going iterations of the process.
The DCS notes tensions that accompany the process. Let me focus on one. The Continental Document calls for discernment on the part of the universal Church of the desire for a more welcoming space for marginalized groups such as remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in polygamous marriages and LGBTQ+ people (n 39). It also calls for discernment regarding the role of women (n 64—with a seeming positive inclination towards diaconate ordination and a “much greater diversity of opinion” around priestly ordination). What is already extraordinary is the fact that these issues are so universally noted. For example, with regard to the full and equal participation of women in the life of the Church, it is stated “…a growing awareness and sensitivity towards this issue is registered all over the world” (n 60).
What might the discernment on the part of the universal Church involve? Well, take for example the desire “to enlarge the space of your tent” (title of the DCS) by adopting a more welcoming attitude to LGBTQ people. Does this mean opening our hearts to “sinners” (which of course, in Catholic teaching, includes all of us), or does it mean reconsidering the Church’s teaching about sexuality as applied to gay people? Similarly, does the desire to offer women an equal role in Church life mean the creative expansion of decision-making roles for women within the existing discipline around ordination, or does it also call for a reconsideration of the teaching on diaconal and priestly ordination?
Of course, it is clear that whichever way we as the Church proceed there are tensions and political implications. It is to be hoped that part of the genius of the synodal pathway is the opening up of a culture of encounter and dialogue that allows us to go beyond “culture wars” to an appreciation of those who hold different views to ourselves, and a rediscovery that what we have in common is more important than what divides us. Nonetheless, as the early Church taught us at the Council of Jerusalem about the issue of the Gentiles, differences, too, must be confronted and, when the time is mature, resolved.
To this end, in the issues that I have highlighted above, I note a very significant point highlighted in n 8 of the DCS, which states that the document is not conclusive nor is it of the Church’s Magisterium, but “…nevertheless it is theological in the sense that it is loaded with the experience of listening to the voice of the Spirit enacted by the People of God allowing its sensus fidei to emerge.” Not definitive teaching then, but neither just a sociological report—no, this is an expression of the “sense of faith of the faithful.” The study issued by the International Theological Commission in 2014 (SF), under the aegis of the then-Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, outlines clearly how the Church is to proceed in the event of a clash between current teaching and the sensus fidei fidelium. In particular, it advises “clarification or reformulation” of such teaching (SF, 80), even to the point, with the aid of theology, of indicating “…in which areas a revision of previous positions is needed” (SF, 84—my emphasis).
As I noted above, there is a fair wind blowing behind the sails of synodality and a growing sense that “we are all in the same boat.” This augurs well for a time in the not-too-distant future when difficult issues can be confronted and when discernment at the universal level can lead to decisions. In the Ignatian tradition, discernment is precisely for decision, it is not a mere talking shop with the conscious or unconscious desire to avoid decision-taking. We are now in the phase of decision- making, and this needs to be remembered, even if we also need to ask for the grace to know when it is wise to move to the phase of decision-taking.
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.