There has been swooning in the media over Pope Francis’s appointment of a French woman religious, Sr Nathalie Becquart, as one of two new undersecretaries of the Synod of Bishops, where she will enjoy both voice and vote. The surprise comes from the assumption – which Catholics share broadly though not quite generally – that synod membership is restricted to those who are male clerics.
That assumption deserves to die.
Most Catholics today do not know that the structures and procedures and lines of authority in the Church are of extremely recent invention, or that practically none of them must perforce exist in present form. There is no theological case at all to justify restricting most governance to men in Holy Orders.
That does not mean, however, that bishops are suddenly out of their most important job particular to them as “sentinels” keeping watch over the deposit of faith, which is suddenly up for grabs. Bishops retain and must guard that supervisory prerogative precisely to hand on the faith once delivered to the saints, and neither they nor any synod, however composed, is empowered to impose on everybody dramatic changes to sacraments or creeds.
In other words, authority still has limits in more carefully specified spheres. Perhaps this is most succinctly captured by the homespun wisdom (grounded nonetheless in serious ecclesiology) of my late spiritual father, Archpriest Robert Anderson, who, on meeting a new parish council for the first time, always said to them “You don’t tell me how to change the liturgy, and I won’t tell you to change the paint colour in the parish hall.”
Fr. Bob knew—as we all do now—the danger in reifying centralized structures composed solely of ordained men enjoying monopolistic powers, for these have precipitated and exacerbated many of our current and long-standing ills, not least among them the endless crisis of sex abuse and cover-up. If you doubt this, just read the McCarrick Report (or any of the many other reports going back four decades and more from many countries).
It is not, in fact, a major advance that Francis has undertaken by appointing a token woman to this pseudo-synod. If the Church is ever to be serious about overcoming the present ills, she must ensure that every council of governance in the Church should enjoy broad and equal participation of persons in every state of life: men and women working with their parish clergy and religious, all of them having the same voice and vote under episcopal presidency.
This may sound like radical reform, but it is submitted in obedience to a direct papal request.
“I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard,” wrote Pope St John Paul II in 1995, “above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”
“In the teaching of the Second Vatican Council,” he wrote, “there is a clear connection between renewal, conversion and reform.” He went on to say: “No Christian community can exempt itself from this call.” The whole of Pope St. John Paul II’s ecumenical encyclical, Ut Unum Sint may reasonably be read as practically begging for help with reform of papal structures.
So far the Church has done vanishingly little in response to his request. In the quarter-century since the late pope wrote that letter, it has become even more urgently necessary that we add to the list of reforms today to include those structures governing parishes, dioceses, and regions as well.
Too often, such hopes for reform remain vague and little is achieved (which is what led to my writing very concrete proposals in Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, a book that forms the basis for a lecture I have been invited to give at a Harvard symposium on child sex abuse around the world).
Hard thinking with a view to major structural reform is urgently necessary.
One of the easiest places to begin is terminological: we need to stop calling these gatherings in Rome “synods” for they were never designed and have never functioned as such. In one of those ironies the papacy does so well, it was Pope Paul VI in 1965 who unilaterally decided to bring select bishops occasionally to Rome in a purely advisory capacity. He decided this motu proprio—usually translated as “by his own hand” or “on his own initiative”—and then announced it to the bishops.
Popes have called these periodic gatherings “synods” even though they were not then, and never have been, real synods as the term is used (i) in Catholic history; (ii) in the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox world; and (iii) in much of the Anglican and Lutheran communions. Instead, the gatherings in Rome since 1965 have been, as an early participant—the late Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk—rather archly called them, “international study days of the Catholic bishops.”
Real synods are not—as the current canons and practice mislead us to believe—purely optional and purely advisory bodies stuffed with often unhelpfully loquacious clerics jetting to Rome on an ad hoc basis to bandy their views breezily about while the press preys on the more confusing bits. That does nothing to fix problems back home, and often creates new ones.
What are real synods? Summed up briefly, synods have three main responsibilities:
Synods can and should elect:
the diocesan bishop (as Eastern Catholic synods do)
the patriarch or catholicos (as Eastern Catholic & Orthodox synods do)
the pope (we already do this in restricted fashion called a “conclave”)
Synods can and should pass legislation on such topics as:
liturgical & sacramental practices
policy pertaining to all aspects of running parishes, schools, etc.
vetting, training, and discipline of seminarians, theology faculty, clergy, and other diocesan officials
Synods can and should:
pass the annual budget
set fundraising goals and work to achieve them
demand of the executive authority in the diocese/region (i.e., the hierarch) an annual accounting as to how the monies allocated to him were spent.
Additionally, in some instances, synods function as legal bodies for the trial and discipline of wayward officials, and also as appellate courts hearing appeals of those previously tried and sentenced in a derivative body (e.g., parish council) or neighboring synod.
There is no reason whatsoever for Catholics to think far-reaching reform in this direction is not possible. Latin structures have been much closer to it in the past than they are now, and many ritual Churches in communion with Rome govern themselves along these lines today.
The only real question is: do we want it?
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN). His last article for the Catholic Herald was: “The McCarrick Report: Weak Links“