Interview: If the synod is done right, it will strengthen bishops’ authority
The Synod on Synodality could spark major changes to the Catholic Church’s structure and hierarchy: One of the synod’s goals is to implement the vision of the church laid out at the Second Vatican Council and to ask what structural changes might be necessary to make that vision a reality.
Synod member Dr. Catherine Clifford, a professor of systematic and historical theology at the University of St. Paul in Ottawa, Canada, joined Colleen Dulle in Rome for an interview on the “Inside the Vatican” podcast just before the end of the synod. The two discuss how the synod is implementing Vatican II’s ecclesiology, what changes are needed, especially to seminary formation, to implement this ecclesiology and what Catholics can expect over the next 11 months.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation here:
Colleen Dulle: The heart of this synod meeting was the small group discussions, and each one dealt with a particular question from the working document. Are you leaving the synod as a convert or believer in this methodology?
Catherine Clifford: It would be difficult to take part in anything this intensive and not be changed by it. The process itself is, in a sense, a laboratory to help us all learn to listen. One of the things that emerged from the global consultation process that preceded the general assembly was that we didn’t know how to listen very well to each other. We didn’t know how to listen carefully and deeply and allow ourselves to be changed by what we hear.
The process was the practice of spiritual conversation where we alternated between listening to each person around the table. No one has more time than anyone else. There’s no interrupting, there’s no reacting, there’s no judgment. It’s surfacing the lived reality and experience from our different contexts and then taking moments of prayer and silence to let this descend [on us] and to listen more deeply. The process itself has been a learning process, and we want to bring this experience back to the local churches.
It’s been a big cultural change for the bishops in the room, at least for some of them. There have been some concerns raised about this not being a Synod of Bishops because there are laypeople involved. What would you say to bishops who are concerned that this methodology has supplanted the authority of the Synod of Bishops?
I don’t think this takes away anything from the authority of the bishops. If it’s done rightly, it should strengthen the authority of the bishops.
For me, this echoes the anxiety that surrounded debates at the Second Vatican Council, when the council fathers wanted to introduce the idea that the bishops belong to a college and that they are, together with the bishop of Rome, members of the same college. They are heads of local churches who also share in the care and governance of the global Catholic Church. And there [were] many people who feared that this would take away from the authority of the bishop of Rome. In fact, the opposite is true; when they act together in concert, the witness of the church and [thus] its teaching can be much stronger and richer.
I don’t think this [synod] takes away anything from the authority of the bishops. If it’s done rightly, it should strengthen the authority of the bishops.
The synod itself is not an ecumenical council; it’s a consultative body. So we’re not taking away from the decision-making authority that still belongs to the bishops, but the decisions that they make will have greater authority when the people have been heard and properly consulted. It’s introducing a more transparent form of church governance.
On Oct. 25, reporters were given a copy of the intervention made by the pope [in the synod hall]. We weren’t given any context, but it was clear from the text that the pope was really passionate about upholding the courage of all of the faithful, especially women, in the face of what he called “institutionalized clericalism,” which he said “enslaves the holy people of God.” He also talked about this idea from the Second Vatican Council of the people of God being “infallible in belief.” Could explain that to us in an easy-to-understand way?
It is another idea that is recovered in the teaching of Vatican II, especially in its constitution on the church, when we say that the baptized participate in the three offices of Christ, who is priest, prophet and king. The prophetic office is the call to receive, witness and proclaim the word of God. St. Augustine talked about the fact that all the baptized faithful—from the bishop down to the last of the faithful—“cannot err in their belief” because they’ve been given, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit in baptism, an innate capacity to recognize and discern the truth of the Gospel. They don’t have to be able to expound [upon] it in complex theological terms, but they recognize the truth at the core of our faith: the fact that our salvation comes from Christ, that God is a loving God who desires for all of us to be saved and to be made whole and healed and for us to live together as one in the world.
Why do bishops need to listen to the baptized? Because they have this capacity for discernment. When you want to know what the faith of the church is and what the bishops and the pope teach, it’s not their ideas and their opinions, but it’s the faith of the whole church. You have to listen to the whole church and trust in their capacity for discernment.
In many of the press briefings during this month, journalists have asked about particular issues of concern that were raised around the world and were articulated in the working document, in particular the inclusion of L.G.B.T. people in the church, the possibility of blessing same-sex relationships and the ordination of women to the diaconate, even to the priesthood. All the synod members who responded to these questions said that the synod is not about tackling particular issues but about becoming a synodal church. Sometimes it came off as dismissive of those issues [as if] saying that only the media cares about them or that they’re only relevant to the church in North America. As a synod member from North America, what’s your sense of how the synod publicly framed those issues?
All of those issues were raised, and all of them were discussed. I don’t think there’s a consensus on any single one of those issues.
We must know that there are issues of great concern to large numbers of people in the church. The questions are open questions. We see sometimes the tensions of diversity are drawn along cultural lines: We’re no different than any other Christian world communion in that regard. But I would say especially [on] the women’s question—and not all women are asking to be ordained—there are issues of the just treatment of women in the church, issues of women who are being abused sexually or economically, being asked to work on a volunteer basis or without a just salary. There’s a host of issues that surfaced on every continent. Among the priority issues was the need for greater respect, recognition and integration of women’s participation and women’s gifts at every level of the church.
The question of women’s diaconal ministry is on the table. I don’t think we’ve fully restored the permanent office of deacon in the church in the last 60 years [as Vatican II called for]. We’ve made some experiments, especially in the West, North America, and Europe, but in other continents, there are very few married deacons. The question of married clergy is also a live question. The Eastern Catholics are sharing with us their 2,000-year-old tradition of having very capable, reliable, married men in ministry. These are open conversations. They’re not easy conversations, but it’s important that they’re not being shut down prematurely. There’s a variety of perspectives, and maybe the solutions to these questions will not be universal.
We’ve been told that these issues may be addressed more concretely after everyone learns how to discuss things. This first meeting has been framed as a sort of synodal boot camp. Do you think that people are better able now to answer those questions than they were on Oct. 1? And will they be more prepared or equipped to answer those questions 11 months from now?
Some people’s positions are very entrenched, and I’m not sure that the methodology that we’ve been using allows us to go behind divergences and identify common ground. That’s another step. We’ve surfaced our divergent positions, and the way forward on these questions, if it takes a truly synodal form, will be much more important in building consensus than in having a small committee of men in Roman collars decide these things in a Roman office behind a closed door.
Some people’s positions are very entrenched, and I’m not sure that the methodology that we’ve been using allows us to go behind divergences and identify common ground.
The driving force [for these changes] has to be the request of the bishops. They’re looking at the situation and the need for ministers in their local churches, and they’re saying, “We have this group of people here that we would like to ordain for service in the church or we’d like to have more permanent forms even of lay ecclesial ministers that need to be better integrated stably into the local church.” There’s an openness to more creativity and more local initiative. That approach would have more chance of succeeding than looking for universal solutions.
The question of formation has come up a lot in the synod’s discussions: formation of young priests, of bishops and also of laypeople in how to be a more synodal church. I’m curious about what you think is important in terms of formation for candidates for the priesthood. There’s been much discussion of clericalism and how we need to move past it, and that’s left some clergy feeling like they don’t really know what their role is in the synodal church.
The first issue is the whole model of seminary formation: It’s still rooted in the 16th century, and it [uses] a monastic paradigm to form men who will be secular priests living in urban centers. We send them away for six years of isolation and expect them to come back and work collaboratively with laymen and very competent women. We also have separated, not in every context but in many contexts, seminary education and other forms of theological and pastoral formation for laypeople who will be assuming pastoral and administrative roles in the church. So first of all, these people need to get together. They need to experience their formative years together, and they also need to learn the people skills necessary to be collaborative leaders.
The other issue [is a] theological issue. This has been raised in a number of reports on the crisis of sexual abuse. It is regularly observed that there’s a certain false sacralization of the priest.
It’s supported by what I consider to be an unbalanced theology of priesthood that focuses more on the priest’s sacramental role but doesn’t have a strong sense of the priest’s call to serve a community. The theology of priesthood that we see in the Scriptures and the early Christian church focuses first on Christ and Christ’s priesthood: Christ is our only high priest. And then [it focuses] on the priestly people of God and the ordained ministers in the church, presbyters and deacons and bishops, especially, [who] are called to be at the service of the unfolding of the baptismal priesthood in the world. That kind of correction is very needed
When Pope Francis consulted the bishops about priorities for discussion at future synods [at the beginning of his pontificate], they said, “We need to talk about synodality, but we would also like to talk about priesthood.” So I think that there’s a recognition of a need for some renewal in this regard as well.
What would you say to someone who had been hoping for more concrete outcomes from this meeting? How should they keep hope in this synod?
Well, stay tuned! Hopefully, when these bishops go home and talk to their brothers in the episcopal conferences and to their clergy, we will begin to see a stronger commitment to this listening culture, this synodal culture.
I think the first thing we should expect to see is a whole lot of work and reflection on the structures and practices of church governance. That’s important. Remember how shocked people were, first of all, to be invited to share their perspectives and then to be heard! That in itself is quite an indictment of how far we have to go. That needs to be a regular experience. If that begins to happen, then we have the space and the processes to face these other issues.
Those kinds of changes don’t happen overnight. I would invite people to be patient, but to be frank and to speak to their leaders, speak to their pastors, speak to their bishops. The only way forward is together.