On synods

Anthony Towey

Many moons ago, I was involved in a two-year exercise designed to redraw the contours of Religious Education. This involved a series of fact-finding engagements up and down the country, a detailed survey involving over a thousand participants and a whole list of consultations with experts and policy makers. Unfortunately, towards the end of the process, our discussions were necessarily telescoped to meet a self-imposed deadline such that despite the vast amount of evidence gathered, a set of proposals was made which bore little relation to the opinions of those expected to implement them.

I have been reminded of this lately by the Pope and Brian Clough. I recently watched a documentary on the latter, a legendary football manager. He was notoriously opinionated and famously dealt with disagreements by saying ‘well, we have a little bit of a chat before agreeing that I’m right’. While this might work when forging unity among a relatively small équipe, Pope Francis has a much more complicated challenge on his hands, attempting to unify and galvanize the billion or so souls who identify as ‘Catholic’ across the globe, however loosely or intensely. His chosen instrument – a synod – is in preparation already with forms of consultation taking place in dioceses and parishes far and wide.

So far, so good. But I confess to a nagging worry that for all the good intentions of the synodal process, we might be walking a pastoral plank by stirring a global pot of expectation. In my lifetime, going back to the Liverpool ‘Easter People’ Pastoral Congress, I’ve learned to be a little suspicious of euphoric gatherings which powerfully express a sense of Church but are powerless to effect canonical change. Perhaps the most notorious was a synod where a religious sister wished to raise the possibility of a female priesthood, only to be told by her archbishop that she was ‘invalid matter’. It is one thing to invite opinion, it is another to live in charity with the opinion giver and still another to accept that in matters ecclesial, some opinions carry more weight than others.

The Church is no stranger to sincerely held disagreement, and I am always consoled by the account of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. The identifying features of the Church were being challenged, and for different reasons Peter and Paul may for once have been on the same side (cf. Acts 10.15 and Rom. 14.1–4). The proposal that consuming unclean food should now be permissible seemed too big a step for some believers brought up more intensely than any of us with the creed ‘You are what you eat’. Christianity became a new wineskin in so many ways, but we would be religiously insensitive not to register the pain of those changes for some and the letting go of cherished identifiers.

Although it is hard to plot an untrodden path, we might be consoled by the invitation – Duc in altum – ‘put out into the deep’. Michael Hayes in his work with doctoral students would occasionally chide the presumptions of applicants with the question ‘Why would you spend years supposedly discovering something if you already know the answer?’ If the synodal consultation is an honest attempt to assay the sensus fidelium, it must be open to hearing views that recommend a return to older practices as well as those that are novel and suggest canonical change.

Secondly, at the risk of circumscribing the scope of the event, I wonder if being clearer about the terms of reference might be a buffer against disappointment. Establishing exactly what is up for discussion universally rather than at diocesan level may limit the range of topics covered, but it might also limit the scope for disappointment. On the one hand, the ambitions of the synod can’t be too far ahead of the community expected to implement them, on the other, it would not be helpful for Pope Francis to do a Brian Clough.