Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The First Synod: Procedure or reforms?


Any expectation – or, even, hope – that the Vatican Curia would engage positively and constructively with the agenda for the upcoming two sessions of the Synod on Synodality suffered a body blow in a recent response.

One of the reforms that, in preparation for the Synod, the recent regional and continental meetings had suggested was that the laity would have a voice in the deliberations leading up to the appointment of parish priests and diocesan bishops and archbishops. The actual appointments would ultimately remain with the respective authorities – bishops in the case of parish priests, and the Apostolic See in the case of bishops and archbishops.  In the preliminary stages, however, when candidates are canvassed and reviewed, the suggestion was that structures would be set in place to facilitate the engagement of the laity in these processes, not merely ex gratia but of right.

The German Church, subsequent to its Synodal Way sessions, was leading the way in this reform. There are currently two episcopal vacancies in Germany, in the dioceses of Osnabruck and Paderborn. In Osnabruck a panel of nine lay members had been added to a panel of nine clergy to draft a list of candidates for the vacant episcopal see. A similar process was projected for the diocese of Paderborn, both clergy and laity being involved in the preliminaries for the selection and appointment of a new bishop. In both cases this integration of clergy and laity in the selection process was a reform recommended by the Synodal Way.

Alas! The Vatican intervened, outlawing lay participation in episcopal elections. Yet another setback for synodality, and an indication not only of the ongoing tension between the Vatican Curia and the German Church, but also of the forces within the Vatican that will continue to keep a tight lid on real synodal reforms. What does synodality really amount to in practice if there is not a structure and a regulated process for the laity to have a voice in the selection of their clerical and episcopal leaders? Would such a panel as is projected in Osnabruck dramatically undermine hierarchical authority? It would at least in all probability limit the practice of ‘parachuting’ bishops and archbishops into unsuspecting dioceses or transferring bishops from one diocese to another and thus making a mockery of the supposed quasi-sacramental bond between a bishop and his diocese.

The intervention of the Vatican in the Paderborn archdiocese can be construed either as a return to curial authoritarianism on the one hand or as a concern for ecclesial universality in the reform process on the other. Genuine and lasting reforms must be able to be implemented in the whole Church, not just in progressive Western dioceses. Perhaps in some more traditional dioceses the laity will not be ready to assume this responsibility, or the process of canvassing, reviewing and selecting candidates for episcopal sees and parishes may be liable to be politicized or become the perquisite of an elite. Pope Francis on a number of occasions has criticized the lay membership of the German Synodal Way as an ‘elite’. He is concerned that ordinary lay Catholics, not a semi-clericalized lay elite, should have a say in a genuinely synodal Church.

Of course, the Vatican Curia as such will have no official standing in the upcoming Synod, although some of its officials will be present in virtue of their episcopal status. But the Synod is primarily a synod of bishops, to which recently Pope Francis has added 70 lay members (half of them women) with full voting rights – about one fifth of the full membership. However, as at the Second Vatican Council, one should not underestimate the influence of the Curia over the preparations for the Synod. There is a separate commission overseeing these preparations, but the resources and experience of the Curia will no doubt be called upon. Again, as at Vatican II, some strong voices may be needed to deliver the Synod and its processes from undue curial influence.


'[Pope Francis] seems to fear that the German Church is moving too fast and that their explicit reform agenda may endanger the whole theology of synodality.  Synodality is for him apparently, at least initially, a theology, a way of being Church, a procedure rather than a set of reforms.'


The attitude of Pope Francis will be vital. As I have already indicated, he has spoken critically of the synodal initiatives of the German Church and has lent his authority to the Vatican Curia in their attempts to moderate and even curtail the German Synodal Way.

He seems to fear that the German Church is moving too fast and that their explicit reform agenda may endanger the whole theology of synodality.  Synodality is for him apparently, at least initially, a theology, a way of being Church, a procedure rather than a set of reforms. This initial expectation of synodality may seem to ignore, and even to be at odds with, many of the explicit recommendations and suggested reforms that have emerged from the recent regional and continental meetings in preparation for the Synod.  But the Pope’s unwavering emphasis has been on the practice of discernment and on listening to the Holy Spirit rather than on specific reforms.  It is only when we are assured that we are listening to the Spirit that we should be confident in embarking on reforms. After the Amazon Synod, for instance, the Pope did not move to implement reforms like ordaining married men or women deacons, even though both recommendations were carried with substantial majorities.  He characterised these recommendations as resolutions of a parliament rather than listening to the Spirit.

Perhaps, then, at least at the initial session of the Synod in October 2023, it will be the procedure and process of synodality, ‘schooling the people of God to listen to the Spirit’, that will be the focus. Pope Francis sets the bar high – it will certainly not be merely a formality, not just a prayer or a scriptural meditation at the beginning before addressing the real agenda. The paradigm will be the meeting of the early Church related in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 15, where the members deliberated on the legitimacy of admitting pagan converts to the Christian community without requiring them to submit to circumcision and other Jewish ritual practices. The final decision was explicitly under the invocation of the Holy Spirit: ‘It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…’.

Synodality will certainly be clergy and laity listening to one another – that will be an advance – but, above all, it will be listening to the Spirit.  Only thus, to recall the distinction of the great Dominican theologian of the Second Vatican Council, Yves Congar, will we be able to distinguish ‘true’ from ‘false’ reform.




Bill Uren, SJ, AO, is a Scholar-in-residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne. A former Provincial Superior of the Australian and New Zealand Jesuits, he has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics in universities in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth and has served on the Australian Health Ethics Committee and many clinical and human research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research centres.

Main image: 'Synodaler Weg' Catholic reform movement congress concludes in Frankfurt. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Synod, Germany, Synodality, Curia



submit a comment

Existing comments

"Listening to the Spirit" necessarily involves, as Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized, a Christological grounding - a deficiency evident in proposals of the Amazonian and German Synods, the fruits of which thus far have not been ecclesial unity, but, instead, a divisiveness which suggests that the task of discerning "true" from "false" pneumatology, ecclesiology and pastoral practice cannot be authentically or effectively conducted under the influence of an Hegelian geist or exclusively secular spiritus mundi.

John RD | 19 May 2023  

Pope Francis has no regard for anyone unless they are consecrated. If the laity have any value to the current curia it is purely to fill the church's collection plates and leave the church their bequests.
The hypocrisy of an organisation that pays lip service to Art 2 of the UDHR yet denies equal rights to women, whitewashes and promotes for example Bishops Bransfield and Van Elst within their ranks, lifted sanctions on McCarrick, hasn't got any credibility with the great unwashed, unconsecrated laity they so obviously despise.

Francis Armstrong | 19 May 2023  

William of Ockham, on the other hand, might have preferred a relatively simple and, arguably, obvious explanation: that the Curia, traditionally, are opposed to any change that might disturb their comfort and power.

Ginger Meggs | 19 May 2023  

Hegelian thought is profoundly religious, not simply in terms of content, but also according to Hegel and his mindset being a result of God's creation. To tar Uren's argument with the accusation of it being Hegelian is an insufficient foundation at this juncture in our developing Christian entelechy, for dismissing it.

Both religion and philosophy have a common object and share the same content. Both are concerned with the inherent unity of all things. Uren is a philosopher and as such is entitled not to be drawn into primitive argument - the equivalent of mud-slinging - to obscure his point, which is about our relationship with God providing the means for understanding the fundamental relationships that we have with one another, viz. laity and hierarchy.

Most contemporary philosophers and theologians, Catholic or otherwise, contest the view that doctrine so stands apart as to empty itself of religious content. In that sense, Uren's essay highlights some critical issues in contemporary theology insofar as these apply to a theology of synodality.

Synodality, a dormant theology over many centuries and, perforce, a prerogative reserved for most of that time to the episcopate, is the centrepiece of contemporary pneumatology, which is Uren's broader focus.

Michael Furtado | 19 May 2023  
Show Responses

As ecclesial synodality is a theological matter, it seems only reasonable and proper to expect when "the Spirit" - increasingly un-identified in Synodal promotion as "Holy" - is claimed as synodality's transcendent source of inspiration, that the third member of the Trinity's relationship with the person of Christ, the cornerstone of the Church's sacramentality and historical visibility, be explicitly recognized; especially when philosophers make direct use of Scripture in presenting their point of view, given that recourse to sacred Scripture on doctrinal matters is a practice characteristically associated with the discipline of theology.

Appeals to "the Spirit" in the context of renewal and reform - if they are to avoid serious confusion and precedented gnostic distortions of Christian belief and teaching - require explicit connection with Christ, without whose revelation through his Apostolic dispensation we would have no knowledge of "the Spirit of truth" (Jn 14: 17; 16:13) sent to guide, animate and strengthen the Church in every age as she pursues her commission of making Christ known and loved in word and action.

It is this Apostolic tradition itself and the Christ-conferred authority of its episcopal magisterium's pronouncements' that are opposed by leading demands of both the Amazonian and German Synods to whose proceedings Fr Uren refers by way of illustration in his article.

Dissociation of "the Spirit" from Christ in Synodal discussion diminishes, if indeed it does not entirely disregard, the revealed nature and content of faith, its Christ-initiated means of transmission by shared but distinct ecclesial charisms, particularly the calling and appointment of The Twelve, and its practical implications for Church renewal and reform; as well as effectively voiding any intelligible "developing entelechy" of the truths of faith necessary for discerning real doctrinal continuity and possibility in accordance with the unique self-revelation of God in Christ, his teaching and his practice.

This is why Soren Kierkegaard, a profoundly religious and Christian thinker, and one far from alone in his critique, took exception to Hegel's globe-girdling system which he saw as having no room for the individual and subsuming the conception of the transcendent and absolute, or sovereignly divine - attributes of the Abrahamic religions' revealed understanding of God - under the contingencies of created, finite historical process; in short, as a secularizing metamorphosis of the divine not to be confused with the Christian doctrine of the incarnate self-revelation of God in the divinity and humanity of Christ.

John RD | 21 May 2023  

My knowledge of Kierkegaard is derived from Patrick Stokes of Latrobe, regarded among the foremost Kierkegaardian ethicists in Australia.

From Stokes I know that Kierkegaard, as with Hegel, maintains that the abstract is the unreal and that Kierkegaard is not fair to Hegel's system in making it the acme of abstraction.

Indeed, some aspects of Hegel's religious thought, especially his early theological writings and his view of subjective religion, are close to Kierkegaard's position.

I sought alternative clarification of this through reference to The University of Notre Dame's Philosophical Reviews' essay by Matthew Edgar who teaches at Fordham.

To paraphrase: Edgar states that Stewart provides a detailed historical argument which challenges the standard assumption that Kierkegaard’s position was developed in opposition to Hegel’s philosophy, and as such is antithetical to it.

In Hegel's 'Myths and Legends', Stewart criticized the ’either/or’ from the other direction, arguing that Hegel is not the arch-rationalist he is often taken to be.

Without denying the existence of a certain metalevel dispute between Hegel and Kierkegaard, Stewart argues that many of Kierkegaard’s central ideas, such as the theory of stages, are creatively, i.e. not uncritically, adopted from Hegel, and that the true target of Kierkegaard’s critique is not Hegel per se, but prominent Danish Hegelians of his time.

According to Stewart, ignorance of Kierkegaard’s intellectual milieu, coupled with a distorted and inadequate understanding of Hegel, has led English logical-positivists to adopt the overly simple 'either/or’ positions that John RD regularly brings to his argumentation.

To extrapolate from Kierkegaard's critique of Danish Hegelians to tar Uren's work requires an enormous leap of both faith and imagination. Uren is a philosopher AND a theologian, loyal as always to his exercise of Jesuit ministry and fundamentally committed to ethical integrity, which cannot be critiqued through appeal to extraneous considerations.

Michael Furtado | 24 May 2023  

In citing Yves Congar in the concluding paragraph of his article, the author himself recognizes the relevance of a dialectical 'either/or' - viz, basic categories of "true" and "false" - in the theological exercise of synodal discernment and reform.

However, I doubt Fr Uren would regard his own endorsement of dialectical categories as derivative from the "English logical positivist school" with which Michael Furtado seeks to identify my views. After all, both the Old and New Testaments exhibit the dialectical method in exhortations on dealing with good and evil; as does St Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, and Pope Francis in his frequent reflections on the discernment of spirits.

I consider Hegel relevant to the issue only because of his placing "Geist" at the centre of his system, and the influence of his thinking on German idealist philosophy to this day. Nor was it only Kierkegaard who regarded Hegel as an "arch-rationalist." Even more famously than Kierkegaard, Marx believed Hegel's characteristic abstraction required nothing less than revolutionizing; hence his insistence on turning Hegel's thinking on its head with a radical assertion of materialist "praxis."
Finally, the purport of my responses is not to "tar" Fr Uren's views on synodality, but rather to award Christ and his incarnation due place in theological reflection on ecclesial synodality, an expectation and emphasis I hardly consider "extraneous".

John RD | 25 May 2023  

As an explanation of how Pope Francis thinks and works, these words written by the Canadian priest and commentator, Fr Raymod de Souza, may illuminate matters:' It is more the case that he exercises authority in the manner of a Jesuit superior who, after hearing what he chooses to hear, decides on his own. Pope Francis initiated the Jesuit model immediately on election, convoking his own 'council of cardinals' who had privileged access to him, bypassing all the regular structures for consultation. He listened to them and then decided what to do.' Fr de Souza was talking here about the way the Pope exercises his papal authority. He was not discussing doctrinal matters, which are very much subject to the Magisterium. Some would say both are inextricably intertwined and if you weaken one you leave the way open to weakening the other. A prime example of this is the contemporary Anglican Communion, where the Archbishop of Canterbury merely has a primacy of respect and where the Communion is in effective schism over contending religious beliefs. The worldwide Catholic Church seems to be split between those who subscribe to traditional views and those more inclined to what is now termed Liberal Christianity and what was once known as Modernism. In practice the German and Austrian Churches appear to be Liberal Christian.

Edward Fido | 20 May 2023  

Similar Articles

A Church for everyone: In conversation with Phyllis Zagano

  • Michele Frankeni
  • 26 May 2023

In a discussion with Michele Frankeni, Catholic scholar Dr Phyllis Zagano explores the question of whether there is a need for increased recognition of women in the Catholic Church, particularly regarding their potential in the diaconate. She investigates both the historical evidence for ordained female deacons and the modern arguments for their re-introduction.


Behind the bold discussions of the German Synod

  • Susan Sullivan
  • 25 May 2023

In the final German Synodal Way assembly, the Church addressed difficult issues, openly discussing obligatory celibacy and blessing same-sex couples and divorced Catholics. The assembly pushed for Church teachings to adapt to individual congregations' realities, but how this approach will affect the global Church is unclear.