What is a synodal church?


This is an edited version of a talk given by Irish theologian Gerry O’Hanlon to the Newman circle in Edinburgh about Pope Francis’ call for a synodal church.

It all starts with some kind of encounter, in faith, with Jesus Christ.  Remember Jesus and the rich young man: ‘Jesus looked at him steadily, and loved him’.

Love wants to shout out, to share the good news.  And so there is a certain logic of encounter: Jesus loves Peter, Mary Magdalene, whomsoever – he calls them to be with him – they follow and understand they have a mission, to announce the Good News which Jesus brings.

That Good News is contained above all in the Sermon on the Mount and Mt 25: to seek for justice and peace, to care for the poor and the earth, and to tell all that God is love, loves each of us.  And so, it has implications for our world, the church (the gathering of those who believe in Jesus) is called to be a ‘light for the world’ and each of us is called to play our role, according to our talents.

The mission has truth and ethical content, but it is not primarily doctrinal or ethical.  Rather, it is an encounter with a person, who promises salvation, liberation, fullness of life.


Any attempt by church to facilitate our encounter with Jesus and promote his mission has to be situated within the culture we find ourselves part of.  In what follows I have focussed mainly on the Irish experience: but you in Scotland will be able to note the parallels and differences.

Sociologist of religion Gladys Ganiel published a study in 2016 entitled Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland.  She defines a post-Catholic Ireland in terms of ‘a shift in consciousness in which the Catholic Church, as an institution, is no longer held in high esteem by most of the population and can no longer expect to exert a monopoly influence in social and political life’.

Among the reasons for this loss of prestige and moral authority are the scandals of clerical child sexual abuse, institutional abuse, how these were mishandled by authorities within the church, and the terrible pain and suffering of survivors and their families.  I would add, particularly among younger people, the non-reception of church teaching on sexuality and gender.  The perceived incompatibility between science and religion leaves them incredulous about claims to literal truth around stories like Adam and Eve.  Religion, in this context, can seem like fairy-tales.

Our context is deeply secular.  The notion that ‘God is missing but not missed’ has become increasingly common.  Sociologist Tom Inglis, in a 2014 survey, found that only two of the hundred people he interviewed in Ireland (a Muslim and an African-born Pentecostalist) said they were influenced by faith in their everyday decisions: for the rest, family, friends and sports were much more spontaneously present than any thought or mention of God.  Inglis concluded that ‘…the institutional Church and Catholic language, beliefs and rituals are no longer significant webs of meaning in daily life’.

We are all affected by this.  We are not outside our culture: we are part of it, influenced by it, and so can expect doubt, uncertainty and critical questioning to be part of our life of faith, and dialogue and witness, rather than simple precept or command) to be central to our missionary way of proceeding.

In terms of secularisation, we have moved from a situation where the institutional church was a major presence in terms of the ordering of society.  The Second Vatican Council, in principle, came to terms with this aspect of modernity, acknowledging the relative autonomy of the secular.  But it is one thing to accept something in principle, another to negotiate change on the ground.  The modern public space in a democratic pluralist society is no longer governed by ecclesiastical fiat – rather ideas and values are thrashed out and established through public debate and discussion by citizens, who, in principle, enjoy equal access to the common conversation that leads in time to common values.

The search for faith is conducted now not so much at the level of reason and argument, but rather on the cultural wavelength of feeling, desire and imagination, with attitudes and assumptions often unconsciously adopted and transmitted digitally through social media.  The idiom of story-telling is likely to communicate more eof ffectively than apologetics couched in abstract metaphysical propositions.  A deferential experience of authority has given way to the authority of experience.

What is valued today, according to theologian Michael Conway, is an alternative order which is more egalitarian.  There is enormous appreciation for the human person and authenticity, and a rejection of the previous silencing of marginalised voices in our culture (women, the LGBT community, children).  Equality and freedom, especially freedom of choice, are greatly valued.  Conway argues that what is required for the Church in this new, evolving cultural matrix is a less top-down command-and-obey type teaching and communication, and more open space interaction nourished by the gospel and common life which facilitates an adult taking of responsibility for our lives of faith.

There is a major disjunction between this contemporary culture and the institutional, hierarchical, patriarchal model of church which has prevailed despite some changes since Vatican II.

Faith transmission has become problematic.  Nuala O’Loan notes that teachers of children preparing for First Holy Communion and Confirmation ‘have been aware for quite a while that the wider cultural shift away from religion has made passing on the faith an extremely difficult task’ (Irish Catholic, Oct 19, 2017).

A further characteristic of our context is our part in a global narrative which encourages a narrow form of economic progress which is indifferent to other values.  The crisis in housing, homelessness and healthcare are glaring symptoms of this approach, as well as our failure to meet environmental targets.

This neo-liberal economic model, with its characteristic individualism and consumerism has colonised the socio-political and cultural spheres in a way that, despite great gains, has spawned inequality, disregard for the poor and the earth, a coarsening of public discourse and a cynicism around politics and elites.  The individual is strong, the common good weak; competition and instant gratification trump solidarity and restraint.  An interior life can be difficult to develop in the context a consumer culture which trivialises meaning, and a digital information overload which majors on sound bites.

What is required in all this is not a simple so-called counter-cultural hostile stance to the world and the culture that we find ourselves in.  This was not the option of God, of Jesus, of Vatican II when it spoke of church as ‘a light for the nations’.  God’s spirit and Word are already there before us, in nature and in history, and we need a cultural discernment to sort out the good that is in our world and which we need the humility to learn from, as well as countering that which is anti-human and anti-creation.  For this to happen, to provide a context in which we can encounter the graciousness of Jesus Christ and be resourced to fulfil his mission, we require the kind of church which is fit for purpose for our new cultural context, without being untrue to its own roots in revelation.

A synodal Catholic Church

Pope Francis is proposing a synodal model of Church, rooted in a faith encounter with Jesus Christ and committed to his mission, as the appropriate institutional response to our changed world.

Francis has directed the Church in an unambiguous way back to the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, with its focus on the Church as the People of God and characterised by collegiality and conciliarity.  He has expanded the notion of collegiality beyond that of episcopal participation by using the term ‘synodality’ to highlight the role of all the baptised in their participation in the three-fold ‘office’ of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet (teacher) and king (ruler).  This ‘synodal turn’ has the merit of retrieving ancient Christian truths (like collegiality itself and the ‘sense of the faithful’), as well as offering a more inclusive, participative and conversational space in which individuals and communities can negotiate their own identities with integrity today.

This ‘inverted pyramid’ model of Church, a revolutionary paradigm shift (for the Catholic Church, is more attuned to the spirit of the age.  It values decentralisation and subsidiarity, consultation and open debate, dialogue internally and with our culture, and a share for the faithful in church teaching and governance.  It also retains, through its notion of ‘communal discernment’, the ability to distinguish critically between mere fad and whispers of the Spirit that are authentic.  The image that draws together much of this is that of Jesus walking the byways of Palestine with his male and female disciples, particularly the scene of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Think of the centrality of listening and freedom: Jesus asks them what they were talking about, he makes as if to go, does not forces himself upon them, waits for an invitation, and disappears without giving instructions: a wonderful delicacy and sensitivity, respecting our humanity.

Francis wants a Church that is ‘entirely synodal’ at all levels.  This will respect the fundamental equality of all the baptised and be critical of clericalism in all its forms.  For bishops and priests this will require a certain humility.  Bishops and priests are still the main leaders and teachers within the community, but they are being asked to do so now in a shared, listening mode.  And lay people are being asked to step up to the mark, with an honesty and boldness that is rooted in love of God and respect for one another.

This new model of Church will offer spaces for the sharing of faith, doubts and searchings for truth among its members, with outreach to alienated and fellow searchers at a time of deep secularisation.  It will be conscious of the mission to announce and facilitate the coming of the Kingdom of God by its socio-economic, environmental critique and its privileging of the lens of the poor.  It will respect the disquiet among the Catholic faithful caused by certain neuralgic teachings, in particular on sexuality and gender, and be a catalyst for sound doctrinal development.  It will offer the promise of more accountable governance, with the involvement of laity, including, of course, women, thus providing a safer space to counteract the perennial threat of abuse.

It will, in short, be a ‘field-hospital’ to those who suffer and are troubled, and a more attractive icon to all of the Jesus Christ who captivated his disciples with his authority, mercy and tenderness, and his intimacy with the one he called Abba.  It will dare to propose nothing less than a call to holiness for all the baptised and to announce Good News to all the world.  For all this to happen, as well as a change in attitude and culture, there will also need to be appropriate institutional and structural change, so that councils and synods become a common feature of ecclesial life at all levels –parochial, diocesan, regional and universal.

One thinks of what Francis himself wrote: ‘I dream of a missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation’.

The key element here is that once you allow things to be named and discussed, not denied and viewed as taboo, then you are already on the way to change.


We are at the start of a journey, or, a new stage of our journey.  The crowd in Acts, after the preaching of Peter, asked ‘what are we to do?’ (Acts 2, 31).  Later, in a crisis which nearly tore apart the early church (about the place of the pagans/Gentiles) and pitted Paul against Peter, matters were settled at the Council of Jerusalem ‘ it seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit’ (15, 28).

We are in the same place as those early disciples.  We know the difficult place the Church occupies in Scotland today.  Will we survive by turning in on ourselves and becoming a ‘culturally irrelevant minority’, or can we ‘take out into the deep’, get into dialogue with the culture around us, the world with its many blessings and many problems?  Pope Francis is suggesting that to do so we need to reform our way of being, to be synodal.

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ is the author of The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis, Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2018 (available at www.messenger.ie)


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.