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Synod working document encourages cautious optimism


The Synod of Bishops on Synodality first assembly is almost upon us. The Instrumentum  Laboris (Working Document) for the October 2023 meeting has just been issued by the secretariat in the Vatican. Its international reception has been largely favourable, because it seems to provide for opportunities for open discussion of the issues troubling many Catholics, like equality for women, lay co-responsibility and inclusion. Some critics, however, wanted still stronger attention to matters like the church’s response to child sexual abuse and the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ Catholics, while others condemned it as too progressive. 

The Australian bishops enthusiastically welcomed the Working Document, encouraging the Catholic community to ‘continue their engagement with the global synodal journey through prayer, ongoing discernment and local conversations’. Archbishop Tim Costelloe, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) President, stressed that Catholics should consider ‘how the wisdom gathered through this synodal process can be applied in a local setting’. Dr Trudi Dantis, National Synod of Bishops Coordinator, promised additional resources for this task in coming weeks. In doing so she pointed out how Australia has had the benefit of undergoing the Plenary Council (PC), which was a sort of local trial run.  

But the PC experience and developments since then cut both ways for many Australians as they have been both encouraging and disappointing. It remains to be seen whether it will be the PC or the Synod on Synodality which will have the greater impact on the Church in Australia, given that the two processes will either reinforce or undercut each other. 

Taken on its own the Synod on Synodality Working Document is a good start – an impressive achievement by its compilers, because it reflects many of the widespread concerns of the international Catholic community about ‘communion, mission and participation’ in an open and readable way. It also lays out the historical and theoretical background to synodality and suggests creative ways of approaching many contentious questions. 

The document cannot be taken on its own, however, because the broader context should be considered. This context has two main elements. First, it will be the subject of discernment not by a representative cross-section of the world’s Catholics, but, despite the recent addition of some non-ordained people to the ranks of the synod, largely by a cross-section of the world’s bishops. 

Secondly, recent Australian and international history demonstrates the folly of expecting too much. In Australia there has been considerable foot-dragging by those in authority when the modest PC ideas have been given to the bishops for implementation. Internationally, there has been considerable disinterest in and push-back by too many bishops against the synod process. 

The working document may be a good start, but as ordinary Catholics are told relentlessly, we are on a long journey. The first Synod Assembly, like the first PC assembly, is just the preliminary event to the much more important second assembly in October 2024. The 300 participants, including two bishops and some others from Australia, must continue to hear the voices of reform from around the globe and not be allowed to strangle the life out of all that is good in this preparatory document. 


'Our optimism as lay Australian Catholics must be tempered by reasonable reservations. Those of us looking to the Synod for forward momentum would be unwise to neglect the cautionary lessons of experience.'


The Vatican document was issued while dialogue continued about what success and reasonable expectations might look like for the synod, just as occurred in the lead up to the PC in Australia. Gentle disagreement has even emerged among reformers, for instance between Sister Joan Chittister and Prof Massimo Faggioli, both of whom have played a considerable role within reform efforts in the church in Australia. 

The reform movement has generally looked favourably on the international Synod from the time its framework documents were issued in October 2021, just as the PC first assembly closed. Those disappointed in the PC often put higher hopes in the Synod and in the Synod secretariat in Rome than in our own church authorities. While most others dropped away after the massive PC consultation effort, the reform movement displayed remarkable commitment to the new process. 

Yet it has been a struggle for everyone to juggle both the PC and the Synod. Both ordinary people and bishops have found this. For all the benefits of experience, doing both side by side is also a source of confusion and an inevitable drain on human resources. Only recently at Pentecost the ACBC sought more community engagement through another document of its own called ‘Carrying Forward the Plenary Council’. It too is an attempt to put synodality into action through community involvement, discernment processes and prayer. It is a call to all Catholic faith communities, including parishes, schools, dioceses, agencies, groups, and movements. While it is a useful manual, including summaries of the PC Decrees themselves and sets of questions to use in approaching their local implementation, this is no substitute for episcopal leadership and presupposes an endless supply of energy among Catholics.

Yet such energy has already been drained, even as the ACBC is calling for us to inject ourselves further into both the PC and the Synod. Notably, while almost a year has elapsed since the conclusion of the PC second assembly last July, ‘Carrying Forward the Plenary Council’ is totally void of any update on what has happened since then around the Australian dioceses. This absence is inexcusable; we are left to conclude that not much has happened. 

For all the attractiveness of many parts of the Vatican document, any member of the Catholic community who has followed Australian participation in the Synod so far must have some reasonable reservations.  

Our Australian response to the Continental Phase of the international consultation took place within Oceania. While it was too removed from any direct involvement from ordinary Catholics its meeting in Suva produced some pleasing results. The Oceania document was generally progressive in tone and its emphasis on climate action based on Laudato Si was an important signal in an international context. 

There were also warning signs, however, that the on-going disinterested and dilatory approach of many Australian bishops towards the Synod, reflecting the late Cardinal George Pell’s rejection of the whole process and his opposition to the spirit of Pope Francis, continued into the Oceania deliberations earlier this year. 

This was evident not so much in the document itself but in the provocative pastoral reflection on the Oceania Continental Response offered by the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania (FCBCO). This reflection was a tantalising mixture of hopes and reservations, once again protected by a lack of transparency about who thought what among the bishops. While the Oceania bishops’ federation expressed confidence that Christ was moving the church forward and, somewhat patronisingly, trust in ‘the process and the people we appointed’, it also wished for broader participation as the synodal process unfolds (which is a bit rich given most bishops put little effort into encouraging any participation by lay Catholics at all). It also questioned the realism of the ‘desire for practical applications of synodality in the present moment’. 

The FCBCO reflection again warned that synodality ‘would be a long journey’ and that the continental response was just a ‘postcard’ along the way. Such warnings inevitably deflate community enthusiasm. Ominously it noted that ‘Not every bishop found every part of the document wholly convincing or complete, and some had doubts and concerns about where this might be leading us’. Many bishops apparently want to rein in the aspirations of their own communities. 

We don’t know how many Australian bishops were represented in this anonymous 'minority report' from within the Oceania bishops, but we can assume there were some. It continues a worrying trend established throughout the PC years of episcopal scepticism towards ‘unrealistic’ Catholic community expectations.  

No matter how promising this Synod working document is, it must be put in the context of a synodal process still dominated by bishops. These bishops include among their number some who would echo the disparaging views of the late Cardinal Pell and others influenced by the anti-synodal disease afflicting the conservative majority among American bishops. 

Our optimism as lay Australian Catholics must be tempered by reasonable reservations. Those of us looking to the Synod for forward momentum would be unwise to neglect the cautionary lessons of experience. Forward progress must be hard fought, and many battles remain. 




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and was a member of the Plenary Council

Main image: Czestochowa, Poland, Jasna Gora Monastery. Clerics praying during Mass. (Depositphotos) 

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Synod, Bishops, Catholic, Church, Assembly



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Existing comments

Thanks for this update, ranging across the various dimensions of follow up to the plenary council and preparation for the synod. The clarity and balance of your work helps provide the energy that you identify as needed by lay people to advance implementation of synodality. Thank you.

Denis Fitzgerald | 06 July 2023  

Because I was expecting a more filtered Instrumentum Laboris to emerge from Rome, like the Australian beige summary of our Plenary Council process, I was pleasantly surprised by the clear expression of some of the ideas put forward by the courageous (in my view) German Synodal Way. I have a feeling the Vatican Secretariat has a better understanding of how far Francis is prepared to tolerate frank & fearless discussion of contentious issues. Certainly the shadows cast by the rigidity of Canon Law & the Catholic Catechism have not been allowed to dim the light of innovative ideas. This must be hard for those who treat Theology like it were a branch of spiritual Mathematics to swallow.

Uncle Pat | 06 July 2023  
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O darling Uncle Pat, I fear you have a stool there to be miserable upon! In my own Parish of St Iggy's Toowong, shortly to be returned to the care of the Jesuits (Hip! Hip! Hooray!) our focus has been on 'Laudato si', which for all who read, enunciates a Theology of Creation that is categorically at odds with that of Sacrifice & Atonement that has so disheartened & driven away so many of the People of God.

Our Parish Priest, Wrex Woolnough, a Scripture Scholar of note, assiduously avoids the victimising and vindictive mention of original sin and its concomitant penalties of punishment and damnation. Our superb liturgy focusses on spreading the Good News of Grace and taking it out into the world to spread Love & Hope for an otherwise demoralised and cynical world.

Our ministry extends in several outward-looking directions as we seek to support our connection with the University of Queensland, which educates a large number of our youth. And our St Vincent de Paul Society reminds us that, despite our lofty hill-top location, our primary mission is to and for the poor who scramble up, like me, every weekend to help break open Jesus' Gospel.

Michael Furtado | 13 July 2023  

Construction the Church's doctrine of Original Sin as an instrument of victimization and vindictiveness fails to do justice to the gravity and mystery of sin manifest in any era of human history, while correspondingly weakening appreciation of God's graciousness proclaimed and celebrated boldly in the Exultet that accompanies the lighting of the Paschal Candle in the Easter liturgy: "O happy fault . . . which has gained for us so great a Redeemer." What's more,
the doctrines of Creation and Original Sin are not mutually exclusive in a holistic Christian anthropology.

John RD | 15 July 2023  

Thanks John. I also lost the energy to contribute further, so did not bother with anything for the Synod, after providing a group submission for the PC. I have seen nothing change as a result in my parish and doubt anything will, except the inevitable dying of the congregation , not being replaced by enough young people.

Frank S | 07 July 2023  

Thanks, John, for a considered and informative appraisal of the progress of synodality. However, as you note, the Plenary Council called for all dioceses to establish a diocesan pastoral council; further, Canon Law already provides for all dioceses to establish a diocesan pastoral council. It is of concern that still very few dioceses have established diocesan pastoral councils, a fact that does not indicate strong commitment from our bishops to either the Plenary Council or to Pope Francis' critical principle of synodality.

Peter Johnstone | 08 July 2023  

John, if the Vatican appointed Bishops continue to rule the roost, hide behind some archaic notion of blanket forgiveness, deny 50% of the church's female population any meaningful participation in its affairs, then the hierarchy will remain a boys only red hat club and history will repeat itself.
If recent revelations in France on abuse are any guide, then 330,000 working class child victims have been sacrificed on the altar of priestly aristocratic gratification.
It takes more than a plenary council and lofty humbug about synodality to eradicate clerical ingrained paedophilic recidivism and denial of Art 2 of the UDHR.

Francis Armstrong | 09 July 2023  

All the stress and concern!! Why don't we all just give it away and join the long established synodal Anglican protestant Church.

John Frawley | 09 July 2023  

Much of the talk by self-styled 'concerned Catholics' about the Synodal Way sounds a bit like discussing rearranging the deck chairs as the Titanic goes down.
The great revivers of the Church have always been divinely inspired men and women such as St Francis of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena or our own St Mary McKillop, who were often regarded with scorn by the ecclesiastical authorities. With bishops such as the late unlamented Ronald Mulkearns, who ruled over Ballarat when it was 'Paedophilia Central', I have little faith in our current ecclesiastics or their apparatchiks to lead us anywhere. The Church needs spiritual revival, not more window dressing or bureaucratic reform, although the latter would be a good thing, but not an end in itself. A strong dose of repentance (which originally meant 'turning again') by the episcopate might be the beginning of real reform. Following the German Synodal Way or the Anglican Communion is a sure path to utter irrelevance. We are wasting time and energy concentrating on irrelevancies. Jesus said: 'Feed my sheep.' I see no real sustenance being provided.

Edward Fido | 10 July 2023  

The confusion and division generated by revolutionary demands of the German "Synodal Way" suggest that despite its claims for inspiration by the Spirit it is heading down the wrong path. Serious criticisms of the "Instrumentum Laboris" of the Synod on Synodality by bishops and laity suggest it is heading the same way. The unity of doctrine and practice historically personified in Christ and evidenced in the lives of the Church's reforming saints is the touchstone of renewal.

John RD | 12 July 2023  

Hear Hear !! Edward Fido.

John Frawley | 12 July 2023  

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