As a significant milestone on the Church’s synodal pathway approaches with the October Synod on Synodality, it is timely to note some subterranean fault-lines.
Hopefully the Synod will, in accordance with the Instrumentum Laboris, address major challenges facing our church and world like secularity, the climate crisis, immigration, inequality and so on. But it is not being self-referential to hope that significant progress may also be made on the kinds of “neuralgic issues” that have risen in the pre-synodal consultations, notably around the role of women and indeed sexuality and gender in general.
In a recent address to Portuguese Jesuits, Pope Francis chided those whose devotion to traditional church teaching did not allow them to admit any change. He did so under the rubric of “evolution” and pointed to instances like the possession of nuclear arms, the death penalty and slavery. He appealed to Vincent of Lerins for support on this notion of change.
In an interesting piece in the Irish Jesuit journal Studies, written before the Pope’s contribution, Newman scholar Dermot Roantree distinguishes between Newman’s approach to change and that of Vincent. The latter appealed to organic images of growth according to a natural and predictable pattern (variations of which, down through the years, have appealed to an almost syllogistic emergence of conclusions from major and minor premises, or the explicit from the implicit). Newman, however, used the direct image of human growth, the notion that ideas are developed socially through the winding course of life, through trials, false starts, uncertainty, sudden decisions and the constant negotiation of an unfamiliar path. This involves a more radical notion of change—akin perhaps to what Lonergan would later call the “self-corrective process of human knowing”—such that, as Roantree puts it plainly, “Newman became a Catholic because the Church did change, not because it didn’t.” He notes the parallels with Pope Benedict’s assertion that true reform entails “a combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels”—discontinuity in relation to contingent matters “as it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect.” Observing that it is not easy to distinguish between historical contingencies and permanent principle, Roantree notes that conformity with the image of Christ is how Newman approaches this search for adequate criterion, and not “first and foremost continuity with past doctrinal propositions.” This is later taken up at Vatican II under the rubric of the hierarchy of truths.
It is unlikely that at the forthcoming synod the neuralgic issues that I have referred to will arise directly, although it is to be hoped that some real progress around the co-responsibility of women is made, as well as a step forward on the issue of the female diaconate. Nonetheless the issues identified here will bubble up from under the surface. We Catholics have, up to now, cultivated an almost fetishization of certainty and immutability with regard to doctrine. So much so that the late Irish Augustinian theologian Gabriel Daly referred to the approach as doctrinal development by “amnesia” and joked that if ever—as he confidently predicted would happen—the Church came around to ordaining women priests, it would surely preface its announcement with some phrase like “…as the Holy Roman Catholic Church has always taught!” It would be wonderful if, as Pope Francis is indicating, we could find ways of loosening this doctrinal stronghold without good Catholics feeling that we were betraying the “faith of our fathers” (sic). After all, as Vatican II made abundantly clear in so many of its decrees, the Holy Spirit is the inbuilt principle of doctrinal development, leading the Church in fidelity to the life and teaching of Christ and enabling all that to be incarnated in a reading of today’s signs of the times.
It is this principle of the Holy Spirit which points to another underlying issue—the unwarranted limitation of ressourcement to a kind of historic positivism which would allow to happen today only what is strictly shown to have happened at the time of Christ or in the early Tradition. So, for example, it is very useful to be able to show through historical studies that the diaconate once existed for women. But ressourcement needs to be accompanied by aggiornamento, the response of the Spirit to today’s world and the pastoral challenges it brings. Matthew’s reference to “things both old and new” come to mind (Mt. 13:52). If, for example, the credibility of our mission today, allied to the felt call of particular women to ordained ministry, points in the direction of priestly ordination, then it is at least incumbent on us at some stage in the near future to re-examine the scriptural and theological basis for exclusion. This may be the kind of approach being hinted at in the Worksheets of the Instrumentum Laboris where in the context of magisterial teaching the authors note that the “reappearance of a question” can be a sign of a “changed reality or situations” that may require further reflection “on the Deposit of Faith and the living Tradition of the Church.”
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.