There is obvious resistance in the Roman Curia to the synodality and freedom of expression that the pope envisages. No authoritarian regime can brook freedom of speech. The oligarchy, being subject to groupthink and suffering the corrupting effect of extensive power, may be slower to respond to the prompting of the Spirit than would the People of God if left to their own devices
La Croix June 2021, By John O’Loughlin Kennedy | Ireland
If there is unanimity on one thing in our divided Church, it is on the need for change to stem the decay of congregations and the spread of sacramental famine. We are sharply divided, however, over the direction the change should take. Should it be back to some imagined halcyon past or forward to some unknown future? Should we stay on terra firma or launch out into the deep for a catch?
John Henry Newman offered a spiritual solution to the quandary in his ever-popular poem, prayer and hymn, Lead Kindly Light. He was prepared to implement what he discerned as the promptings of the Spirit regardless of the cost. He was prepared to trust implicitly in Christ’s promise to be with us. He also had great trust in the judgement of the faithful.
People of God
Since then, the Second Vatican Council and the International Theological Commission have both confirmed that Christ’s promise was addressed to the People of God and that this creates a supernatural sense of faith and morals (the sensus fidei fidelium) among all the faithful when they agree “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful”. Whatever level of infallibility the promise implies, it relates first and foremost to Christ’s followers, the People of God as a body, the Mystical Body of Christ.
Whatever its limitations and however extended the timescale, Christ’s promise, was not made conditional on one particular Church structure. It was operative before there was any defined structure. It would apply equally to a Church with some democratic characteristics as it does to the monarchical one, which is in reality a self-perpetuating oligarchy.
In practice, the oligarchy, being subject to groupthink and suffering the corrupting effect of extensive power, may be slower to respond to the prompting of the Spirit than would the People of God if left to their own devices. Quite obviously, Pope Francis does not subscribe to the theory that God’s gifts of grace and guidance for his Church flow exclusively through the top management team.
Consultation at “every level”
The pope wants the Church to be a synodal Church, characterized by ongoing open discussion and a “listening process conducted at every level of the Church’s life”.
He reminds us that the word “synod” comes originally from the Greek and means walking together. This is a metaphor for talking together and for the great value of what we can learn from one another on life’s pilgrimage.
“The Lord asks of us a renewed openness,” said Francis in a homily in Saint Peter’s on the eve of the Synod of Bishops’ 2014 assembly on the family.” He asks us not to close off dialogue and encounter but to gather everything that is valid and positive, even by those who think differently from ourselves and adopt different positions,” he added.
Leading by example and starting at the top, Francis has chosen “synodality” as the theme for the next meeting of the Synod of Bishops. This he recently postponed for a year — until October 2023 — to facilitate better dialogue between the bishops and the rest of the faithful. Francis has also called on all the bishops in their national and regional conferences to develop synodality at “every level” as a normal feature permeating Catholic life. This would necessarily include lower clergy and the laity at “every level” and would preclude filtering to exclude the people that have been calling for change or those who have disassociated themselves from in the Church, despairing of the institutional selfishness, the cover-ups, the misogyny, the spin and the obsession with power at the center.
The Roman Curia stands in the way
There is obvious resistance in the Roman Curia to the freedom of expression that the pope envisages. No authoritarian regime can brook freedom of speech. Francis is clearly ready to risk open discussion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it would be against the nature of the bureaucracy to do so. Genuine synodality cannot co-exist with exaggerated claims to infallibility. It is also bound to conflict with plenitudo potestatis and the universal jurisdiction that was vested in the Bishop of Rome at Vatican I and is exercised by the curia.
If the pope’s call for synods that genuinely listen to people with different ideas were to gain traction it would weaken the tight control of the curia over what the bishops can do and say. It has already put the bishops in an invidious position; trying to figure out how to respond to a reforming pope who is mortal without getting into the bad books with the effective government of the Church, which is permanent and whose ethos is self-perpetuating.
Missionary bishops depend on the curia financially. Bishops in general depend on the curia for all kinds of permissions, derogations, dispensations and, for the ambitious ones, for their chances of further preferment. They know that the curia can make life impossible for them if they do not toe the line.
The current status quo is not delivering good fruit and must change.
The faithful should be consulted in particular on the long-term problems that have proved to be beyond the capabilities of the current management.
Members of the many reform groups that have been campaigning for change should be invited to participate, rather than be left to protest with their placards outside the gates. With their greater freedom to think creatively, they might be able to see the solutions that lie beyond the vision of the authorities.
There can be no progress without some challenge to the established mindset. Group discernment springs from group disagreement.
Synodality must include all Christians, not just Roman Catholics
Similarly, and in line with the quotation from Pope Francis above, if synods are to encompass every level, they should include full participation by non-Catholic Christians who are part of the same Mystical Body and who long for unity. It is only at the visible, organizational level that the Church of Christ is divided, and the divisions are on disciplinary and secondary teaching issues. The solution is dialogue “at every level”.
We are on the same search for truth under the guidance of the same Spirit and Christ’s promise was made to all who would be his disciples –defined by himself solely in terms of love for others and not by doctrinal allegiances. As we walk and talk on our pilgrim way every Christian should be humble enough to accept that he might have something to learn from the experience of others.
We are told that the Catholic Church is “irrevocably committed” to ecumenism. If we continue to search and discern only among ourselves, however, and exclude other Christians from the conversation, we will only ensure that our divisions will only widen as time goes on. The bureaucracy requires that bishops ensure nothing too critical, creative or embarrassing gets a significant airing at diocesan and regional synods.
This is done by ensuring that the majority of participants are clergy who are already bound by oaths of fidelity to the establishment, and by influencing the bishops to choose safe and predictable lay nominees. Canon law limits lay and non-ordained religious participants to one third of the total, thus ensuring that even consultative votes have a safe majority. Synod participants are required to attend and are further required to swear a profession of faith and a detailed oath of fidelity as the price of continued participation. (Can. 833). To the extent that the oath is not freely given it may be invalidated and therefore not binding. (see Can. 1200-01) Moreover, the process of creating a manageable agenda from a very large number of suggestions leaves ample scope for sanitizing the discussion from an early stage. Control of the agenda conditions the outcome.
In the next segment we will look at how these theoretical situations are working out in practice in several countries, with a surprise initiative from Great Britain.
John O’Loughlin Kennedy is a retired economist and serial social entrepreneur. With his wife, Kay, he founded Concern in Ireland 1968 and guided it for its first ten years. In addition to responding to humanitarian crises, Concern currently employs 3,500 people on agricultural development and educational and medical projects in 24 of the world’s poorest countries. His recent book The Curia is the Pope is published by Mount Salus Press.