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Unearthing hidden gems of reform following the synod


Father Thomas Reese SJ is an American Jesuit priest, journalist and author. From 1998 to 2005 he was editor-in-chief of the American Jesuit magazine, America. He was, to say the least, a thorn in the side of official Church authorities both in Rome and in the United States. He orchestrated a movement that was very critical of the text of the Catholic Catechism in the early 1990s, and two of his books were both very revelatory and very critical of the inner workings of both the Vatican and the American Catholic Bishops’ Conference. 

In 2005, through pressure from the Vatican, he was forced to resign as editor of America. Subsequently he wrote primarily for the National Catholic Reporter. He was an analyst at the Religion News Service and a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington DC. As a journalist, Father Reese covered the recent Synod on Synodality. In an article for the Religion News Service, he identified ‘15 hidden gems in the Synod Report that could lead to major Church reforms.’

Some of these ‘hidden gems’ concerned the synodal process itself (participation of women and the laity, ‘spiritual conversations’, acknowledging differences), others related to clericalism (reforming priestly and diaconal formation, regularly reviewing priestly and episcopal ministry and the operations of the Roman Curia, addressing clerical sexual abuse more professionally, amending Canon Law and updating liturgical language), others again had more global significance (empowering women in the Church, alleviating poverty, combating racism and xenophobia, supporting migration and refugee programmes). While many reviewers have criticized the 41-page report as timid and disappointing, compromised by the need for consensus, Father Reese’s assessment was generally positive and encouraging, a somewhat unusual stance for as stern a critic of Vatican initiatives as Father Reese had hitherto shown himself to be. 

One of the specific points that Father Reese commended was expanding the possibility of offering communion to non-Catholics, especially to inter-church couples. Canon 844, paragraph one, states the current position of the Catholic Church in respect of administering the Eucharist and other sacraments to members of other Christian denominations: 


Catholic ministers may licitly administer the sacraments to Catholic members of the Christian faithful only and, likewise, the latter may licitly receive the sacraments only from Catholic ministers.


Despite advances in the ecumenical movement and many joint seminars and conferences, because differences in the fundamental Christian beliefs that triggered the Sixteenth Century Reformation have yet to be resolved (is Christ really present in the Eucharist, or is he present only symbolically?) the Catholic Church does not feel authorised to administer the Catholic Eucharist to non-Catholics. It would be papering over significant doctrinal cracks and not do justice to the sincerely held beliefs both of Catholics on the one hand and members of other Christian denominations on the other. There are, however, some exceptions for extraordinary circumstances. Paragraph four of the same canon 844 outlines these exceptions and lays down the conditions under which they may be invoked. It stipulates that it is only where there is danger of death ‘or other grave necessity’ that a Catholic priest may licitly minister the sacraments of Penance, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick to ‘other Christians who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and on their own ask for it, provided they manifest Catholic faith in the sacraments and are properly disposed.’ The Secretariat for Christian Unity (1 June 1972) indicated as examples of ‘other grave necessity’ situations of persons in prison or under persecution, or even persons who live at some distance from their own (separated) Church community.


'There are other small signs of a more relaxed, generous and welcoming attitude in the report.' 


The Secretariat also indicated that the list of examples was not exhaustive. Some commentators have expanded the category of ‘inability to approach a minister of their own community’ to include patients in a hospital or other enclosed institution who, while fulfilling the other conditions, do not have access to a chaplain of their own denomination and their own Communion service. If there is a Catholic chaplain who administers the Eucharist in such an institution, could appropriately disposed non-Catholics also have access?

I remember once suggesting at a Canon Law conference in Perth more than thirty years ago that this access to the Eucharist should also be extended to the non-Catholic spouse on the occasion of their wedding ceremony in a Catholic church. The Catholic Church prescribes that such a ‘mixed’ marriage normally take place in a Catholic church. This precludes the non-Catholic partner from both access to their own minister and their own Communion service, a serious religious privation granted the significance of the ceremony. None of the professional canon lawyers gainsaid my suggestion. They were less enthusiastic, however, when I further suggested that this exception be also extended to rightly disposed non-Catholic guests at the wedding ceremony.

The point, however, that the synod report and Father Reese raise specifically is that of interchurch couples, that is, mixed marriage partners who regularly attend Catholic Eucharists together. Technically, of course, the non-Catholic partner could attend their own Communion service in their own church and receive communion from their own minister, so ‘the inability to access one’s own minister’ clause is not strictly operative.  But, as in the case of the celebration of a mixed marriage, there is a particular discomfort/unease/ inhospitality about marriage partners attending Mass together but not being able to share access to the Eucharist together. Here, of course, attendance at the Catholic Eucharist is a matter of choice for the non-Catholic partner rather than of prescription, but it cannot but seem inhospitable not to permit the non-Catholic partner to approach the eucharistic table on a regular basis in such circumstances. And even more inhospitable when it is a matter their children’s Baptism, Confirmation or First Communion.  The category of ‘other grave necessity’ needs to be expanded to accommodate ecumenical hospitality.

There are other small signs of a more relaxed, generous and welcoming attitude in the report. For instance, instead of treating priests who have left the ministry as unmentionable, as virtual pariahs, in the consideration of ‘Deacons and Priests in the Synodal Church’ the last paragraph canvasses the possibility that these former priests might me re-inserted ‘in pastoral services that recognize their formation and experience.’ And even though many commentators have been disappointed that the status of divorced and remarried in the Church has only been addressed in passing in the section on ‘Towards A listening and Accompanying Church’, the inclusion of a reference to Chapter 8 of the Apostolic Exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia’ in a later section on ‘Structures of Participation’ licenses the 2024 session of the Synod to explore and integrate into its deliberations the more inclusive pastoral theology that Pope Francis articulates in respect of the divorced and remarried in that chapter of the Exhortation.




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: (Vatican media)

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Synod, Church, Reform, Eucharist



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Existing comments

It is appropriate that I remember, both at Oxford and at UWA, Bill as a 'brain'.

Attending a graduate research seminar of mine on the administration of Catholic schools, he limited himself in a very stormy debate to qualifying remarks that he 'knew of no teaching of the Catholic Church that so strenuously supported the view I proposed that Catholic schools were, first and foremost,' as I characteristically asserted, 'for the poor'.

That he did so, choosing his words with characteristic care, brought home to me time and time again as he preached at St Thomas More, the fundamental Jesuit in him, eschewing charisma for careful thought and a reading of all sides before permitting himself the luxury of an opinion.

Formed from the earliest of my days in the quintessentially Ignatian religious climate of Indian Catholicism, which still boasts the largest if not the most bountiful Jesuit province, I grew up well accustomed to the laypersons around me ruminating that 'SJ' stood in readily understandable terms for 'Sub Junthawallah', which is the Hindi for 'he who knows everything'.

While sometimes employed derisorily, it carried an assurance that the questions a Jesuit grappled with were usually addressed from all angles.

Michael Furtado | 14 December 2023  

Fr Bill Uren's thinking and the spirituality that informs it, like the theology of Pope Francis, display a pastoral orientation overlooked in your encomium, Michael.
Just how does a "fundamental Jesuit . . . [eschew] charisma for careful thought" when the Order's charismatic founder upholds the principle: "simultaneously contemplative in action" as a characteristic modus vivendi ?
It seems to me Jesuit discernment quintessentially manifests a practical dimension that extends beyond a merely speculative exercise of examining questions "from all angles"; and, unlike a purely rationalist credo, that it is conducted within the heuristic norms of the Church's faith: scripture, tradition, and magisterium - or, as St Ignatius put it: "cum ecclesia."

John RD | 18 December 2023  

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