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Synodality: 'Why did you doubt?'


In the immediate aftermath of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus went off to the mountains to pray. The apostles embarked on a boat to cross to the other side of the lake of Galilee. The sea was rough, and the night was windy. The going was tough. In the early hours of the morning Jesus approaches the apostles’ boat walking on the water. The apostles are terrified, mistaking Jesus for a ghost. Jesus reassures them: ‘Courage, it is I. Do not be afraid.’ It is Peter, inevitably, who responds: ‘Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you over the water.’ One word from Jesus: ‘Come.’ Peter gets out of the boat and walks towards Jesus over the water. Then, ‘seeing the strength of the wind’, he doubts – and immediately begins to sink. ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus stretches out his hand and draws him up: ‘Man of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 

I must confess that in the lead-up to the first session in October 2023 of the Synod on Synodality, I more than a little resembled Peter. Embarking on synodal waters, initially I was apprehensive. Would anything substantial come of this Pope Francis’ initiative? But then, as we went through the stages of synodal consultation – parish, diocesan, national and continental – confidence grew, I walked on water.  Then, however, doubts. Would the working document for the first session (Instrumentum Laboris: IL) be drowned in Roman caution and curial control? Would the focus be exclusively on the process of synodality, and would the voices of renewal and reform that resonated through the various stages of synodal consultation be relegated to the second session in October 2024: the place of women in the Church, reforming and sharing governance, authority and responsibility, reaching out to the alienated, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the divorced and remarried, the LGBTIQ+, investigating priestly celibacy and seminary training, addressing clericalism and hierarchicalism?

Like Peter, I doubted. Was it sinking time?

But then, on June 20, came the text of Instumentum Laboris. It was like Jesus stretching out his hand to rescue Peter, the Holy Spirit reaching out to the people of God.


'The Instrumentum Laboris is, then, a surprisingly refreshing and engaging document. It does reflect what has been going on in parishes, dioceses and conferences over the past three years.' 


To be sure, the first half of the 60 page document is devoted to elucidating what is expected of the synodal interchange and encounter: the preliminaries of prayer and reflection in preparation for the Synod; humble listening to one another and the Holy Spirit; freedom and fearlessness (parrhesia) in expressing one’s views; listening once again; only then dialogue and interchange; accepting and respecting difference, discerning under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; reaching consensus.

All this certainly needed to be spelt out – it is the modus operandi of the synodal process. But the working document, IL, does not stop there. The next thirty pages are devoted to addressing the abovementioned priorities that have emerged from the various levels of consultation that Church members have engaged in since 2021. But these are presented as questions for consideration not as a text to be edited. Under the overarching themes of community, mission, and participation all the neuralgic concerns that have emerged with surprising unanimity from the national and continental consultations are proposed and dissected. There is even a suggestion that Canon Law may need to be amended to reflect the effect of synodality invading the traditional territory of the hierarchy and clericalism.  

Now, one should not expect that all these issues will be resolved at the first session of the Synod. But the fact that they are explicitly on the agenda of the Instrumentum Laboris is a step in the right direction. Whatever tentative and preliminary conclusions may be arrived at, they will need to be taken away and discerned over the twelve months leading up to the second session. This was the pattern at the Second Vatican Council. It led to significant reorientations (think ecumenism and religious liberty) and even reforms (think the liturgy).

The Instrumentum Laboris is, then, a surprisingly refreshing and engaging document. It does reflect what has been going on in parishes, dioceses and conferences over the past three years. There are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, no beliefs or practices that are excluded a priori from the agenda. It is the ‘open tent’, the image of the Church that emerged in the continental stage of the consultation. It may well set the stage for a succession of synods: ‘Women in the Church’, for instance.

We are walking on water again!




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: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, c. 1907 (Wiki Commons)

Topic tags: Bill Uren, Synod, Synodality



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Existing comments

Doubt, uncertainty, indecision, scepticism: all signs of a true believer. Thanks for the biblical analogy, Fr Bill. I will now be brave enough to read Instrumentum Laboris.

Pam | 29 June 2023  

Bill Uren, I am concerned that people in church circles continue to use that acronym LGBTIQ+, when many of us are striving to free ourselves from it.

I wonder if you know that there are many lesbian, gay and bisexual people (LGB) who strongly object to the use of that acronym, which misrepresents us by implying that we are at one with those who believe in gender ideology. We experience the use of the acronym as forced teaming.

LGB people accept the reality of biological sex which is binary and immutable. TQ people believe in gender ideology. These two views are incompatible.

To my knowledge those represented by "I", that is, people born with disorders of sexual development, do not see the acronym as having any relevance for them at all.

As a lesbian I am offended by the acronym LGBTIQ+ and see myself excluded by it. If you wish to reach out to the LGB community, it would be helpful if you would acknowledge us as a separate group, quite distinct from the gender ideology movement.

A statement of the LGB position is available on the LGB Alliance Australian website. https://www.lgballiance.org.au

Janet | 29 June 2023  

An excellent and helpful review of the doc, thanks Bill. As you infer, there is further to go regarding the equality of women in the Church which the doc pretty much limits to possible ordination to the diaconate. I hope and pray that the Synod will grasp this nettle without the need for a further synod. True equality of women and gender balance in decision making is essential to the the proper and effective governance of any human institution, a reality now long accepted by the secular world.

Peter Johnstone | 29 June 2023  
Show Responses

There will never be full theoretical equality of men and women in the Church. From the beginning, God made men and women different with different functions. Why is this simple fact so hard to accept?

Marita (female) | 04 July 2023  

I remember, Marita, being told by a God-fearing white man, in the segregated South of the USA, back in the 1960s, that God never meant Blacks and Whites to be equal, otherwise he would have made us all the same colour. I suppose that he too wondered why I found that simple fact hard to accept.

Ginger Meggs | 07 July 2023  

I wonder how many who might support a ‘Women in the Church’ synod, are currently advocating for women's hard-won rights that are everywhere being erased by the transgender movement?
Pope Francis has clearly condemned the transgender movement: "God created the world in a certain way...and we are doing the exact opposite" and "We are experiencing a moment of the annihilation of man as the image of God."
I wonder how many are supporting the gender-critical feminist Holly Lawford-Smith, the target of transgender activists, who needs to be escorted by security guards to her office at Melbourne University, and who fears that the University's new LGBTQIA+ Inclusion Action Plan is a ploy "to get rid of my course or me."
How many?

Ross Howard | 01 July 2023  
Show Responses

Yes, Ross Howard, the aim of the transgender movement is to erase women's rights, indeed to erase the class of women altogether, to name them as "non-men". You might almost imagine that the gender ideologues have consulted the church fathers!

In Australian laws and documents, the influence of gender ideology is apparent. The word "sex" is disappearing. For example, in the federal government's The Australian Communications Legislation Amendment (Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023's defnition of "harm", the word "sex" does not appear. "Gender" appears instead, and we know that gender has come to mean an identity that an individual claims. Sex is not named as important.

Other legislation has made it illegal in some states for people to hold single-sex events. For example, in Tasmania, if a group of women (female people) or men (male people) want to advertise an event as single-sex they must seek permission to do so. Exemptions are sometimes given for Christian women's groups, but not for lesbians (who are required to include men who claim to be women in their meetings).

Recently in Sydney, nine women who have been censored for their views spoke at Parliament House. At the beginning of the gathering a small group of trans rights activists stood up and screamed insults. Their aim was to prevent the women speaking. This sort of thing happens whenever women want to speak about their rights. The aim of the TRAs is to stop women speaking at all.


Janet | 04 July 2023  

I have no idea how many, Ross: do you ? But what's the point that you're making? Even if there are only a few women advocating as you would like to see, how does that negate or undermine those who argue for and support an equal role for women in the Church ?

Ginger Meggs | 08 July 2023  

Because to allege that women are badly treated in the Catholic Church while ignoring or condoning the destruction of their most fundamental rights in the broader society, is incomprehensible.
Transgenderism is no minor issue. As Pope Francis said, it is the inversion of God's plan, "the annihilation of man as the image of God." The dignity of womanhood is being trashed in numerous ways including forcing them to share changing rooms with "women" displaying beards and penises. Yet disagree with the "elites" and you are branded a heretic, and the new Inquisition will censor you on social media or cause you to lose your job.
This is reminiscent of how the "elites" got everything wrong during Covid. World-renowned epidemiologist Jay Bhattacharya (who was censored and placed on a government Counter-Disinformation list) stated that governments and their agencies were "the biggest source of disinformation" going. Yet the seemingly ever-vocal human rights brigade, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, were totally silent about government disinformation, police thuggery, and the worst trashing of civil liberties in centuries.
Bishop Fulton Sheen said: "The refusal to take sides on great moral issue is itself a decision. It is a silent acquiescence to evil."

Ross Howard | 12 July 2023  

I think sometimes you need to be a former Anglican cleric, such as the commentator Gavin Ashenden, to see the pitfalls ahead of the Synodal Way. Jesus preached to everyone, including the rich and powerful. In his time, he was probably the most famous religious figure in Roman occupied Palestine. His was compassionate, not necessarily collaborative leadership. So many people have ridiculous, not to say patently unchristian causes, based on popular opinion they wish to bring to the table. Traditional Christian sexual morality, hard as it is to practice today in the post-pill pornography saturated morality of these times, has been the bedrock of our society. Abolish it and several other pillars and you will have the whole roof fall in on you. Our society is seriously damaged. We need to restore it. Where indeed, will the Synodal Way lead? That seems increasingly unclear.

Edward Fido | 17 July 2023  

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