Dead bones dancing: Can the Synod revive the Church? A feminist view

For the Synod on the Church to be truly effective, the voices of all women must be heard, writes Catholic theologian Tina Beattie.

In my interactions with Catholic women’s networks around the world, I was not surprised to encounter widespread scepticism when the aims of Synod 2021–3 were announced. This is a critical time for those who are questioning if there is a place for them in the Church. Battered and broken, empowered and renewed, yearning and searching, we are returning to our usual patterns of worship and community profoundly changed by the pandemic, and this Synod carries an enormous weight of expectation and opportunity. Will we discover in 2023 that we have become a church of dialogue, encounter and shared discipleship, or will we find that the bishops have essentially set the agenda and defined the terms of engagement so that the illusion of having listened will mask the reality of defending the status quo at all costs? I hope the Church’s leaders understand how high the stakes are.

Past experience has left many feeling doubtful and disillusioned.1 If we go back to the 1980 National Pastoral Conference in the UK, it generated what Michael Hornsby-Smith describes as ‘euphoria’ with regard to the possibility of radical change in the Church.2 As Pat Jones points out, however, the visit of Pope John Paul II to the UK two years later diverted attention to ‘the planning of another historical ecclesial event’.3 There are few signs of the Congress having achieved any lasting transformation, but that must surely be attributed as much to the authoritarianism of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as to a failure of local leadership. The heavy-handed approach of these popes who shared a disciplinary mindset seems, in my view, to have sapped our bishops of the energy and courage that would be needed to revitalise the spirit of the Congress during the current Synod.

It remains to be seen how effectively they will rise to the challenge, for however extensive these preparations are, the Synod will be discredited if those labouring to prepare submissions feel they have been ignored. The issue of discernment is crucial, because even as we are told that this is an inclusive process of reflection by the world’s Catholics, the final task of discernment rests with those self-same bishops in their feedback to the Vatican and in their discussions at next year’s gathering in Rome. As a Catholic friend observed, in confirmation we are strengthened in seven baptismal gifts, at least four of which relate to discernment: wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence and fear of the Lord. Is it actually ecclesial for the bishops to appropriate to themselves those gifts which are the shared beneficence of all the confirmed?

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