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Will the bishops find the courage to let go of their privileges and allow life to flourish?

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The following open letter to Pope Francis in response to the Synthesis Report of the XVI General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops 2023 was submitted late last year. Signatories are at the bottom.

November 21, 2023
To Pope Francis,
Apostolic Palace,
00120 Vatican City

A response to the Synthesis Report of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

We welcome the Synthesis Report of the XVI ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. It affords us a lucid insight into the thinking of our current bishops. We acknowledge the bishops’ recognition that the laity have an important part to play in discernment.

The minutes of an apparently unresolved quarrel

On close reading, the Bishops’ Report is not one document, but two. It is not so much a synthesis as the minutes of an apparently unresolved quarrel.

Not the first document of a new synodal age

One voice is filled with hope, with renewal and the fresh air of a Spirit unbounded, rejoicing in the emerging lay church[1]. The other belongs to bishops who have yet to find the courage to let go of their privileges[2]. By the end we understand that this is not the first document of a new synodal age. It is the record of an Episcopal Conference in which prophetic voices won no significant concessions from the powerful and wealthy forces of conservatism.

This document will disappoint and wound the many faithful

This document will disappoint and wound the many faithful, from all quarters of the Catholic world, who had called in their submissions for progress, among many other pressing issues, on women’s ordination, on teaching on LGBTIQ issues, on the celibate priesthood, on reproductive rights or on measures to end the many forms of clerical abuse.

For a church to be synodal the bishops will need to accept a new model of authentic co-responsibility with the laity 

Underlying these was a question that goes to the heart of them all. For a church to be synodal the bishops will need to accept a new model of authentic co-responsibility with the laity. The hopeful voices in the synthesis claim that all Christians ‘should be listened to carefully, regardless of their tradition, as the Synod Assembly did in its discernment process.’ (7b) But, the experience of many millions of faithful parishioners throughout the world has been that, in the months leading up to this assembly, their bishops did not listen to them carefully. Indeed, many did not listen to them at all. To claim therefore that this flawed process validates the bishops’ conservative conclusions because it was already synodal is unhelpful.

The synthesis in fact establishes no co-responsible institutions

The synthesis in fact establishes no co-responsible institutions. While, during the Assembly, the Holy Father denounced the ‘scourge’ and the ‘scandal’ of clericalism, which, he declared, inflicts ‘scorn, mistreatment and marginalization’ on the laity, the bishops ended their Assembly by recommending only an extended period of episcopal committees and inquiries.[3] It becomes clear that they are not yet ready to let go, either of clericalism or of control.

Progress lies with the faithful people of God

The synthesis tells us that progress in the Church, along the lines Pope Francis has set out, does not lie with these men. For the present it lies with the faithful people of God, discovering the consensus fidelium in their emerging communities, and living, as the synthesis itself recognises, in ‘the closeness of the day-to-day, around the Word of God and the Eucharist.’ (18e) It lies also with those presbyters ready to join in faithful partnership with the laity on a common path to renewal.


Sr Joan Chittister OSB, Author, Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, USA

Dr Mary McAleese, President of Ireland 1997-2011, Ireland

Mrs Cherie Blair CBE, KC, UK

James Carroll, Author, USA

Marie Collins, Former member Pontifical Commission for Protection of Minors, Ireland

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, UK

Dr Luca Badini Confalonieri, Executive Director, Wijngaards Institute of Catholic Research, UK

Miriam Duignan, Wijngaards Institute of Catholic Research, UK

Jamie Manson, President, Catholics for Choice, USA

Penelope Middelboe, Co-founder R&B, Co-founder Spirit Unbounded, UK

Dr Kochurani Abraham, Theologian, Kerala, India

Adv. Flavia Agnes, Women’s rights lawyer, Mumbai, India

Professor Peter Albion, Professor Emeritus, University of Queensland, Australia

Dr Sr. Metti Amirtham SCC, Director, Lumen Institute Centre for Theological & Spiritual Formation of Women Religious, India

Christiane Bascou, President, Les Résaux du Parvis, France

Rev Kathleen Bellefeuille-Rice, Assoc of Roman Catholic Women Priests, USA

Sr Maria Bongiorno IBVM, Australia

Teresa Brierley, Director, Pastoral Ministries, Catholic Dioceses of Maitland-Newcastle,

Pat Brown, Executive, CWO, UK

Fr Shaun Budden, Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth, UK

Robert Burnett, Leader, Scottish Laity Network, UK

Sr Alma Cabassi, Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacret Heart, Australia

Christine Carolan, National Executive Officer, Australian Catholic Religious against trafficking

Sr. Cyrilla Chakalakal FSMA, Superior General of Franciscan Sisters of St Mary of the Angels, India

Bishop Mary Collingwood, Bishop,Assoc of Roman Catholic Women Priests, USA

Maggie Conway, Co-founder Spirit Unbounded, UK

Cathy Corbitt, Catholic Women’s Council, Australia

Elias Crim, Founder and Publisher, Solidarity Hall, USA

Dr Stephen Cunneen JP, Ireland

Marcia D’Cunha, Indian Christian Women’s Movement ICWM, India

Helen Desforges, CAFOD, UK

Brian Devlin, Author of Cardinal Sin – challenging power abuse in the Catholic Church, Scotland

Rev Roy Donovan, Caherconlish & Inch St. Laurence, Ireland

Rós Ní Dubháin, Council at Freshfields, Bruckhaus and Deringer, UK

Caroline, Viscountess Falkland, fine artist, Spain

Eibhlis Farrell, Former Head of Dept Dundalk Institute of Technology, Ireland

Eleanor Flynn, Co-chair ACCCR, AUS

Gail Grossman Freyne, WWITCH, Australia

Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, Theologian, Maharashtra, India

Adv. Sr. Julie George SSpS, Lawyer, Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit, Maharashtra, India

Claus Geißendörfer, Spirit Unbounded, UK

Fr John M. Glynn OL, Founder of WeCare for vulnerable street children, Papua New Guinea

Dr Hille Haker, Chair, Catholic Moral Theology, Loyola University, Chicago, USA

Ursula Halligan, Journalist, former political editor TV3, Ireland

Dr Berise Heasly, Philosophy of Children: Heasly Thinking Skills System, Australia

Dr Martha Heizer, Vice Chair, We Are Church International, Austria

Professor Peter Hempenstall, University of Queensland, Australia

Lioba Hochstrat, We are Church Germany, Germany

Dr Mary E. Hunt, Co-Director, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, USA

Bishop Andrea Johnson, Bishop, Assoc of Roman Catholic Women Priests, USA

Dr Ally Kateusz, Research Associate, Wijngaards Institute of Catholic Research, UK

Gabrielle Kelly OP, former principal, interfaith Archdiocesan Commission, Australia

Dr John O’Loughlin Kennedy, Author of The Curia is the Pope and Why it Cannot Listen, Ireland

Stephanie Klass, Co-Chair Colorado Call to Action, USA

Dr Paola Lazzarini, Founder, Donne per la Chiesa, Italy

Dr Michael Leahy, Catholics for Renewal, former priest, Australia

Kevin Liston, Co-chair ACCCR, Australia

Anthony Lopes, retired Barrister, Australia

Rev Dr Bernárd Lynch, Author and LGBTQIA campaigner, UK

Raquel Mallavibarrena Martínez de Castro, Redes Cristianas, Somos Iglesia, Spain

Catherine W. Maresca, Founder & Director, Center for Children and Theology, USA

Pauline Marriott, Director of Mission, St Aloysius Catholic College, Australia

Rev James T Marsh, Assoc of Roman Catholic Women Priests, USA

Dr Angela McCarthy, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Theology, University of Notre Dame, Australia

Dr Tracy McEwan, Co-Author, Report on the International Survey of Catholic Women, Australia

Professor Mick McManus, Emeritus Professor of Biological and Chemical Sciences, University of Queensland, Australia

Dr Kathleen McPhillips, Co-Author, Report on the International Survey of Catholic Women, Australia

Bishop Dr Bridget Mary Meehan, Assoc of Roman Catholic Women Priests, USA

Margaret Mary Moore, Director, Theology & Life Institute, USA

Marissa Noriega, Professor and feminist theologian University of Seville, Spain & Member of the Network of  Network of Theologians, Pastors, Activists, and Christian Leaders (TEPALI), Mexico

María-Pilar Aquino, Professor Emerita, University of San Diego, USA/México

Sr Colleen O’Dwyer RSJ, Disability social educator, Australia

Professor Fr Joe O’Leary, Department of English, Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan

Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, Emeritus Professor of Historical Theology, University of Nottingham, UK

Raynah Braganza Passanha, Theologian, Chair of Pune Diocese Commission for Women, India

Sr. Santana Pereira, FMA, Theologian, Salesian Sisters Mumbai, India

Pamela Perry, co-founder Root & Branch, UK

Sr. Rita Puthenkalam SCN, Theologian, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, India

Rene Reid, Director and Co-founder CCRI, USA

Fr Derek Reeve, Co-founder A Call to Action, UK

Frances Robertson, Principal, St Patrick’s Parish School, NSW, Australia

Dr Jon Rosebank, Author, historian, UK

Virginia Saldanha, Chair, Catholic Women’s Council, India, India

Katharine Salmon, CWO, IHC, UK

Phillis Sheppard, Assoc of Roman Catholic Women Priests, USA

Dr Anne-Marie Swan, Psychotherapist, Australia

Dr Mary Tinney, Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea, Australia

Sr Moya Unthank RSJ, Sister of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Australia

Sr. Nancy Vaz FDCC, Former Provincial Bombay Province, India

Marie Venner, Board Member, Maryknoll Affiliates, USA

Sean Ward, Secular Franciscans in Great Britain, UK

Christian Weisner, leader, We are Church Germany

Pam Wood OP, Dominican, counsellor, Australia

Currently over 300 other names have signed this letter. Names on application.

[1] The first voice rejoices in the equality of all the baptised and their co-responsibility in the governance of the church, even in matters of doctrine. ‘Laymen and laywomen, those in consecrated life, and ordained ministers have equal dignity.’ (8b) ‘All believers possess an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, the sensus fidei…. Synodal processes enhance this gift, allowing the existence of that consensus of the faithful (consensus fidelium) to be confirmed. This process provides a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the Apostolic faith.’ (3c) These bishops point with excitement to the emerging lay church of small communities. It is, they say, a ‘charismatic sign.’ ‘Synodality grows when each member is involved in processes and decision-making for the mission of the Church…. We are encouraged by many small Christian communities in the emerging Churches, who live the closeness of the day-to-day, around the Word of God and the Eucharist.’ (18e) Lay associations, ecclesial movements and new communities are a precious sign of the maturation of the co-responsibility of all the baptized.’ (10c)

[2] The counter voice has no time for a new model. It concedes that ‘we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Each is the bearer of a dignity derived from Baptism.’ But it adds, damningly, ‘and each is called to differentiated co-responsibility.’ (1a) The qualifier betrays the intention: lay and ordained can never be truly co-responsible.  There follows the chilling observation that ‘pastoral practice at the parish, diocesan and, recently, even universal levels, increasingly entrusts lay people with tasks and ministries within the Church itself.’ (8j) For all their talk of synodality, these bishops do not consider the laity to be ‘within the church itself.’  Instead, the laity will have to be, as they put it ‘inserted into the missionary dynamism of the synodal Church’ (8l). To these men, synodality cannot be permitted to ‘jeopardise the hierarchical nature of the Church.’ (1g) ‘The presence of members other than bishops as witnesses to the synodal journey was appreciated. However, the question remains open about the effect of their presence as full members on the episcopal character of the Assembly.’ (20e) It is only ‘possible to think of successive steps (an ecclesial Assembly followed by an Episcopal Assembly).’ (20f) A synodal process in which the bishops retain the power of decision is, of course, not a synodal process at all.

[3] Cindy Wooden, ‘Listen to, trust the lay faithful, pope tells synod members’, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic News Service, 25 October 2023.

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