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Entries from March 2023

A Eucharistic Church is a Synodal Church

On February 3, 2023, unbeknownst to most Catholics, a leading ecumenist of our era died at the age of 92. Greek Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas contributed to numerous formal and informal ecumenical dialogues, taught systematics and patristics in Greece and the United Kingdom, influenced the Ecumenical Patriarchate as it developed its ecological theology and presented Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ in 2015. But Zizioulas’ influence on ecumenical thinking on the Eucharist, the episcopacy and synodality is most notable.

In the current Catholic conversations about synodality and the future of the Church, Zizioulas’ legacy should be an important touchstone. Paul McPartlan summarizes in The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology:

What characterizes Zizioulas’ writings on communion or koinōnia is threefold: first, his anchoring of the idea in a theology of the Trinity drawn principally from the Cappadocian fathers; second, his proposal that it is through the celebration of the Eucharist most of all that the church participates in the communion life of God; and third, his conviction that the structure of the church must correspond to and reflect the mystery of that divine communion.

Church life, synodality, is not an expression of democratic principles or enlightened leadership. Rather, synodality flows from the Eucharistic celebration and reflects the mystery of the Holy Trinity. If we follow Zizioulas’ understanding of the early Church traditions, both Eucharistic celebrations and the life of the Church (which necessarily includes synodality) should reflect the Triune God: united in diversity. The Church is fully Church when it gathers at the Eucharistic celebration around the bishop—the visible expression of the unity of the Universal Church. But that Church in its fullness lives practically in its synodal life, making room for multiple voices so that the gifts of the Spirit may be recognized by and within the community—gifts that are inherently revealed when the community recognizes the transformative nature of the Eucharistic event. It is not only the bread and wine which become the body and blood of Christ; during the Eucharistic epiclesis we pray: “Send down your Holy Spirit upon us and these gifts” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). The Eucharistic assembly is transformed and cannot but live synodally, because it now lives the Trinitarian life—we become the Body of Christ.

Zizioulas challenges us to recognize the nature of synodality as more than a process of consultation. Synodality is about being Church—being Eucharistic. Synodality must begin in thanksgiving (eucharistia)—not a conversation about “what we want,” but a recognition of what we have received. I’m not suggesting (the too common) “sharing” but (an ever new) attending to and gratefulness for our giftedness as a faithful yet diverse community whose diversity derives from the reality of humanity coming together as people of faith. Synodality is valuing—even cherishing—the gifts of each. Synodality is acknowledging the invitation of the other and embracing our common journey, sinners as we be, to see and celebrate “God with us.” In gratitude, we learn to listen to each other, not because we agree, but because we learn that the Spirit speaks to us through one another.

Thus, I was struck by the echoes of Zizioulas’ insights in last week’s blog by Tina Beattie concerning The International Survey of Catholic Women. The respondents overwhelmingly affirmed their Catholic identity which absolutely entails an “ongoing commitment to the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist.” However, this commitment also involves a yearning for a Church more open to diversity, that validates female leadership in ministry and is more sensitive to the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ Catholics, divorced Catholics and single parent Catholics. In other words, a Eucharistic Church that calls together its diverse members into a communion mirroring the Most Holy Trinity. A Church unafraid to see itself as it is: broken, sinful and, at times, all too self-righteous. The survey not only calls the Church to “enact immediate reforms and produce guidelines to eliminate sexual, spiritual, physical and emotional abuse in church contexts,” but also expresses concern over church leadership’s faithfulness to the Gospel when it aligns itself with partisan political positions and fails to proclaim Catholic social teaching in the face of “poverty, climate change, homelessness, war and economic injustice.” The survey is not a declaration of political opposition; rather it echoes the Gospel call to repentance, the prelude to the Eucharistic celebration.

The voices heard in the survey hearken back to a Church whose vibrancy stems from a courageous humility to admit its inadequacies, listen for the Spirit and respond in thanksgiving to the Son who manifested the divine love that conquers death. God is triune: a community of being, an ever-dynamic outpouring of love. A Eucharistic Church is trinitarian. A trinitarian community (a community of Divine Love) necessarily encompasses otherness; it cannot remain static and retain its integrity, its essence. Zizioulas reminds us that the Spirit of synodality is the breath of the Church. If we don’t strive for a polyphony of all voices, what are we really? 

Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.

Women and the Synod: Attending to the Sensus fidei fidelis

In 2022, the Catholic Women Speak network, which I facilitate, initiated an International Survey of Catholic Women (ISCW). Initially intended to be an informal survey of our 1200+ members to gather feedback for the Synod, it developed into a more ambitious project.

Pope Francis and Tracy McEwan
Dr. Tracy McEwan presents Pope Frances with a copy of the International Survey of Catholic Women.

Drs. Tracy McEwan and Kathleen McPhillips of the University of Newcastle in Australia – both sociologists of religion – offered to work with me to design a professional survey, hosted by the University of Newcastle. The survey was translated into eight languages by volunteers and distributed through many Catholic networks. It attracted more than 17,000 responses from around the world. A summary report was submitted to the Vatican in August 2022, and in March 2023 a more in-depth analysis was published. It was presented to Pope Francis by Tracy McEwan in Rome on International Women’s Day on 8th March.

The survey included closed questions with tick-box responses and open-ended questions for written responses. The report is available online and it includes a full explanation of the research methodology and analysis of the findings, as well as the questionnaire.

Surveys are blunt instruments and must be interpreted with discernment. We are often reminded that the Catholic Church is not a democracy and, while many of us see scope for greater democratic participation in the Church, the failure of many western political institutions is a reminder that democracy itself can slide into populism and mob rule when it is not underwritten by a shared vision of the good life and the just society.

In 2014, the International Theological Commission published a document titled “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church”, which surveys the role played by believers in the formation of church teaching. Respect for the sensus fidei would entail that church leaders take seriously the ways in which Catholics experience their faith in different cultures and contexts, as a vital aspect of the development and interpretation of doctrine. This creative tension between the core teachings of the Church and the realities of everyday faith is, I believe, a way of balancing the desire for greater democracy with the need to preserve fundamental principles of justice in the context of the sacramental mysteries of faith. To read the ISCW report as an expression of the sensus fidei by thousands of Catholic women around the world is to recognize what a significant document it is.

It showed 88% of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “My Catholic identity is important to me.” The report notes that:

Many respondents expressed their ongoing commitment to the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist. They used terms such as: “love,” “source of grace,” “central” and “anchor” when explaining their relationship with the Eucharist (p. 23).

A majority 82% agreed or strongly agreed that “Catholic social teaching is a good resource for social justice action.” In the open responses, many framed their discontent with the institutional Church in terms of wanting closer adherence to Gospel values and the teachings of Jesus. One elderly woman from Vietnam wrote:

I see myself longing for the values of Jesus lived in the Church and find they are lost in heavy institutionalization, legalism and clericalism.

A younger woman from Poland called for:

A return to the gospel itself and what is most important – love of neighbor. I don’t hear it in churches or from priests. I don’t see respect for every, absolutely every, person.

The survey can therefore be taken as an authentic expression of the sensus fidei fidelis, given that the majority of respondents were practicing

Analysis and Findings
A page from the International Survey of Catholic Women results.

Catholics whose faith meets the criteria listed in that ITC document. While a small minority expressed a desire for a return to a preconciliar model of church, the vast majority (84%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I support reform in the Catholic Church.” Most want greater conformity to Gospel values, to social justice and care for creation—and to a more welcoming and inclusive church. This lends authority to their capacity to discern where the institution fails to be church—in clericalism and abuses of power; in the continuing failure to tackle sexual and spiritual abuse; in a lack of accountability and transparency in church leadership and governance; in the exclusion or marginalization of people on the basis of race, sexuality, marital status and, unsurprisingly, in the failure to fully include women at all levels of church leadership. A majority of respondents supported women’s ordination (69%) and 74% agreed or strongly agreed that “Women need to have freedom of conscience with regard to sexual and reproductive decisions.”

Similar issues have been raised in Synod reports from around the world, most notably with regard to the roles and representation of women. It is clear that the Synod has unleashed a process that must lead to significant reform, or it will leave many Catholics feeling bitter and disillusioned about their voices not being heard and their concerns being ignored. A first step would be to give votes to women attending the Synod and to ensure that these women are truly representative of the rich diversity of women in the worldwide Church. This would be a significant move towards breaking through the barriers of clericalism, misogyny, abuse and corruption that still lead to many explicit and implicit forms of silencing, exclusion and humiliation for women in the worldwide Church, and prevent the living waters of hope, renewal and transformative action from flowing freely through our Catholic institutions and communities.

Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.

“In the eleventh year of my pontificate...”

The 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ election to the papacy is now in the history books. The Catholic Church’s first-ever Jesuit and New World pope has completed a dynamic decade on the Chair of Peter, although he’s not done that by just sitting around at the Vatican. Francis has completed 40 international journeys (to 59 different countries), as well as 35 trips outside Rome to other places in Italy. Within the Eternal City itself, he’s made several parish visits and gone to the Basilica of St. Mary Major more than 100 times to pray before the beloved icon of Mary, “Salus Populi Romani.” Without a doubt, the 86-year-old pope has been slowed by age and declining health, but he has shown an impressive determination to keep up his busy schedule of global bridge-building and evangelization.

And when he’s not been traveling, he’s been busy trying to achieve nothing less than a full-scale cultural and ministerial change at the Vatican, while helping the global Church emerge (without being crushed) from its steadily collapsing Eurocentric paradigm and give birth to a truly global and newly inculturated Catholicism. His not-always-clearly-defined project of making “synodality” the driving engine of these efforts and a constitutive part of the Church’s life and decision-making process has been one of the hallmarks of his pontificate.

A dynamic ten years? No doubt about it. But there have been mixed reactions from the clergy (including bishops and cardinals), as well as the people in the pews. It’s been like a dream-come-true for many Catholics who have long believed their Church needs to change in order to be more faithful to the Gospel, engage more effectively with modern society and other faiths, and simply be more relevant to people of today. But these same ten years have been a complete nightmare for those who believe their Church must resist change in order to remain faithful to Catholic doctrine, provide unambiguous and uncompromising moral strictures for the salvation of its members and stand apart from a secular society run amuck.

Over the next twelve months, whenever Pope Francis issues a document he’ll sign it with words to this effect: “Given in the eleventh year of my pontificate.” The question many people are asking is what, exactly, this eleventh year is likely to bring? Some fear—and others sincerely hope—that it will prove to be the pontificate’s proverbial eleventh hour; that is, its conclusion. One of the main reasons for these two different sentiments is the synodal process, which the pope launched in autumn 2021. This series of widespread local and regional consultations with Catholics (and, in many parts of the world, even non-Catholics) on the current state of the Church and its future has been seen by many as akin to throwing open the doors for debating anything and everything.

The next step in this synodal process will take place this coming October in Rome when the Synod of Bishops (that is still the Synod’s official name—for now) holds the first of two assemblies over the course of 24 months to further discuss the issues and ideas that emerged during the consultations. But bishops will not be the only ones participating in those assemblies. There will also be priests, religious sisters and brothers and other lay people. It’s not clear at this point whether those who are not clerics will be, like the bishops, full members or just invited guests (as observers and experts). The answer to that crucial question will determine whether they will be able to vote on proposals the body surfaces. Pope Francis recently said that all “members”—even if they are not bishops—will be allowed to do so. 

Even though the Jesuit pope has completely overhauled the dynamics and procedures of the Synod, this permanent institution that Paul VI established in 1965 at the end of the Second Vatican Council remains a mere consultative body. The current pope has certainly made it a chamber of much more honest and open debate, but the Synod has no deliberative powers unless its president, the Roman Pontiff, grants it such. No pope has ever done that. And so far, Francis has shown no signs that he’s ready to do so. Quite the contrary. He’s even rejected proposals that were approved by a vast majority of Synod members (like the appeal for married priests in 2019 at the assembly on the Amazon). So, all eyes will be on Rome this October to see what develops. It is possible, of course, that the pope will instruct the assembly to refrain from drafting concrete proposals until the second assembly in October 2024.

As we look ahead, there is also the question of how much longer Francis will be pope. The possibility of yet another papal resignation continues to hang over his pontificate. This means that over the next months, Vatican-watchers and others interested in the fate of the Catholic Church will be keeping a close eye on the pope for any further signs of declining health. Shortly after his election, Francis said Benedict XVI was right to resign in 2013 because of diminished energies. He said at the time that papal resignations were now “something normal.” But this past February he seemed to flip-flop, saying popes should serve for life. Then, just a week ago, he put the possibility of resigning back on the table, admitting that he'd likely step down, too, if he were to experience “a fatigue” that prohibited him “from seeing things clearly.” Only one thing is clear right now, the eleventh year of this pontificate will be as interesting as it is unpredictable.

Robert Mickens is the Rome-based English editor of "La Croix International", the online Catholic journal.

A Heretic in Good Company

Two weeks ago, Cardinal Robert McElroy visited Fairfield, Connecticut, spending time at both Catholic universities in this medium-sized town. I think it is fair to say that he was well-received by most, if not all, of those who came out to see him. Imagine our surprise, then, to discover that First Things magazine, a rightward-leaning but usually more judicious publication, gave space to Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, to accuse the cardinal of heresy, albeit writing in a way that allowed plausible deniability when challenged. In words that persuaded no one, Paprocki argued that he, “intended the discussion to be more rhetorical.” Whatever that might mean.

McElroy is well able to defend himself from what seems to have been a somewhat foolish attack, among other things misunderstanding or ignoring the clear account in canon law of what constitutes heresy. McElroy’s “sin,” argued Paprocki, was to reject the doctrinal and canonical perspective on sacramental access for the divorced and remarried and for those guilty of homosexual acts. But the bishop didn’t understand that becoming a heretic is much harder to do. It has to pertain to the essentials of the faith. The cardinal’s rejoinder, which you can read in the Jesuit magazine, America, on March 2, reiterates his scholarly argument that history does not support the claim that all sexual sins are mortal and therefore anyone guilty of them is barred from the sacrament. For this very reason, pastoral concerns may trump dogma.

I will let the cardinal explain all of this to you, but aside from the specific points at issue, a larger and perhaps deeper set of concerns swirling around the accusation of heresy need to be looked at. The very notion of heresy itself is ambiguous enough. Most commonly, a dictionary definition would say that a heretic is a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma and refuses to acknowledge revealed truth, perhaps with the rider that such a person has fallen into grave error, deserving penalty or even condemnation. There are other ways of defining heresy, however, and it will sometimes simply be said that a heretic is someone whose beliefs or actions are considered wrong by most people because they disagree with beliefs that are generally accepted. This way of explaining heresy has a number of interesting characteristics. It seems to require the judgment of the community that a person’s views are in error because they run contrary to the prevailing opinion. Hidden here is the implication that heresy is not measured by a fixed inherited standard (dogma 1, we might call it), but by the scandal caused by disrupting the community’s instinct for what is right (dogma 2, perhaps). If this sounds a little bit like Vatican II’s invoking of the sensus fidelium, it should. It also implies an understanding of the development of doctrine and, indeed, of the hierarchy of truths.

When Bishop Paprocki seems to be accusing Cardinal McElroy of heresy, his reference to the rights and responsibility of the supreme pontiff is glaringly off-target. He writes of the supposedly hypothetical cardinal that, “only the pope can remove a cardinal from office or dismiss him from the clerical state in the case of heresy or other grave crimes.” Does he imagine that Pope Francis is likely to do this to someone whose views seem to coincide very closely with his own? There is a phrase that has been going around lately, that “opposition to Pope Francis is opposition to Vatican II.” Allow me to amend it a little: “opposition to Cardinal McElroy is opposition to Pope Francis which is opposition to Vatican II.”

Times change, Bishop Paprocki, and not always for the worse. On the door of my office, I have a poster whose headline proclaims, “a heretic in good company.” The list of “heretics” that follows includes, among others, Joan of Arc, Origen, Teilhard de Chardin, the Franciscans, Ivone Gebara and Galileo. Not bad company at all. The point is that yesterday’s heretic is today’s “thought leader.” Even Martin Luther makes the list on my poster, and it was John Paul II who called him in from the heretical cold. The world is changing, and one of the few ways in which it is changing for the better is that we are learning to accept all God’s children where they are, filled as they are with grace as the people they are. Gay, lesbian, trans or merely divorced and remarried. And as this awareness grows more in our society, it is just possible that those who oppose it in the name of rigid dogmatism may be the real heretics.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

Taking Time to Listen to Rarely Heard Voices

I am a cynic by nature on just about anything, including my Church. When the Synod on Synodality was announced, therefore, I was skeptical about what value it might have, assuming the same old voices would be saying the same old things—to the same old response.

As the rollout began, my cynicism seemed validated, as conversations with friends across Canada and the United States suggested an uneven embrace of the listening and information-gathering process, depending not only on who was at the helm in your diocese but even, sometimes, who your pastor was. The very concept of subsidiarity, it seemed, remains optional.

But then a colleague was appointed by the Vatican’s Dicastery on Human Integral Development to join the North American working group of a global project entitled Doing Theology from the Peripheries, designed to ensure that voices of people on the margins were not only consulted but included in the reporting process.

The North American findings were presented recently at a gathering at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College and the information was stunningly moving. As participants—both from the working group and spokespeople from groups who were consulted—spoke it became increasingly clear that it was time to set aside at least some of my cynicism.

The committee was made up of nine theologians from across North America and, as an unintended consequence of COVID, they found their reach extended because of the new acceptance of online meeting tools. And so, the working group was able to speak with migrants on the Mexico-United States border, people living with disabilities and people who were incarcerated. They spoke with people experiencing poverty, members of the LGBTQ community and women who feel excluded and diminished due to their gender. In other words, many of the people you don’t necessarily hear from at the average parish council meeting. (Similar consultations were held around the world.)

The North American consultations resulted in a 70,000-word report. As discussed at the presentation of the findings, a recurring message was that while the Church is comfortable serving the comfortable, its central motivation should be to serve those who face struggles, those whose lives include unique challenges as these people, too, are the Church.

As participants talked, I felt a sensation I hadn’t felt for some time, and that was that my Church was actively engaging in the kind of work it should be doing and, by extension, demonstrating for those of us still in the pews—or feeling a lifelong attachment, even if not still in the pews—that the Catholic Church should be a place of engagement and action, especially with and for those who face extraordinary challenges. This, I realized, was Francis demonstrating his sincerity and his goal of really serving his flock.

But as I listened, I was also forced to do some soul-searching and more than a little squirming. The work of the Peripheries project was powerful, but it highlighted for me how easy it is to insulate oneself from the lives happening around us. I had plenty of opportunities to sit down with street people in my community when I was involved in a supper program at my church, for example, but usually the conversation was over whether it was spaghetti or stew being offered for dinner rather than topics of faith, and my conversations with a gay relative are more likely to be about popular culture rather than examining ways he has been hurt by the Church.

In no way is that to suggest that anyone owes me, a privileged white woman, very personal, often private, details about their lives. Instead, it is confessional, demonstrating how the Peripheries report made me mindful of my lack of appreciation for my own good fortune, something I have always maintained comes with responsibility. If I hold my Church accountable, shouldn’t I be holding the same mirror up to myself?

It is up to me to figure out how I attempt to bridge the divides in my life, my city, my Church. How do I learn about the experiences of others without objectifying them? How do I increase my empathy and understanding and translate that into action?

If the Church is to be what I understand, confess and hope it to be, it should serve as a guide, providing times of encounter when we truly can see the face of Christ in all. And those encounters shouldn’t be only of the often-necessary imbalanced kind, where a volunteer dishes out a meal to a homeless man and then goes home feeling better about him/herself.

My imagination is limited and I’m not sure what that might look like. But hearing from participants in the Peripheries work made me realize Francis is seeking out those who do have ideas about substantive change, including those most affected by that change.

He’s a smart man, that Francis. Now let’s see what happens with the information gleaned.

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.