Climate change and church inclusiveness top of papal agenda in Rome this week

Pope Francis hosting very significant synod to map move from hierarchical church to institution where laity and clergy work together

Climate change will be top of the agenda with Pope Francis on Wednesday when he publishes a second encyclical on the issue.

Laudate Deum, to be published on Wednesday on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, is expected to reinforce his call for urgent action to stop global warming in Laudato Si – his 2015 encyclical – in which he pleaded for action to ease the effects of global warming particularly on the developing world.

An encyclical, or papal document, is an extended letter to Roman Catholics. It is the highest level of teaching document a pope can issue and is intended to teach and guide the faithful.

The document’s publication will be one of two major events the pontiff will take part in this week which many see as one of the most significant in the 10 years of his papacy.


Also on Wednesday is the beginning of a Synod at the Vatican which continues until October 29th. The gathering is already being spoken of as probably the most significant event in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, almost 50 years ago.

This “Synod on Synodality” is expected to pave the way for a new type of Catholic Church where women will have a greater role along with LGBT+ people, the divorced and remarried, cohabiting couples, and single parents. It will be a church where “sinners” are welcome, where lay people matter more and bishops are less in governance.

Synodality has been described by Pope Francis himself as “a style, it is a walk together, and it is what the Lord expects from the church of the third millennium”.

For many Catholics, it means a move away from a hierarchical church to one where laity, clergy, and bishops work together to find a way forward. It expected to mean a return to the spirit of reform and openness ushered in through the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII, weakened by a dithering Pope Paul VI and the more hardline, traditional approach of Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis announced this synod in March 2020 and said that it would involve prior consultation with every interested Catholic worldwide. This has taken place in three phases: the diocesan phase, the continental phase and the synod itself.

The diocesan phase took place between October 2021 and spring 2022 with each of the 26 Catholic dioceses in Ireland consulting its laity and publishing findings on its website. Those findings, which took many by surprise, included that the great majority of practising Irish Catholics favoured ordination of women, marriage for priests who want it, greater acceptance of divorced and remarried people, cohabiting couples, LGBT+ people and much more involvement of laity in church decision-making.

These were discussed, as were independent submissions, during a national assembly of the church at Athlone in June 2022, in advance of a synthesis being sent to Rome in August last year as representative of the views of the Irish Catholic Church for consideration at the synod there this month and in October of next year.

The continental phase of this “synodal pathway” happened in Prague last February, where the European Synodal Assembly of the Catholic Church took place. The 14-member Irish delegation, led by Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin, “felt a strong sense of responsibility to represent faithfully what has been discerned from the listening that has been under way across all levels of the church in Ireland” in the diocesan consultations, he said.

Seven documents followed continental assemblies throughout the world and were sent to the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Synod for preparation of a working document. This Instrumentum Laboris was published last June.

It said: “The face of the church today bears the signs of serious crises of mistrust and lack of credibility. In many contexts, crises related to sexual abuse, and abuse of power, money and conscience have pushed the church to undertake a demanding examination of conscience so that ‘moved by the Holy Spirit’ the church ‘may never cease to renew herself’, in a journey of repentance and conversion that opens paths of reconciliation, healing and justice.”

It identified three main themes: “Growing in communion by welcoming everyone, excluding no one; recognising and valuing the contribution of every baptised person in view of mission; and identifying governance structures and dynamics through which to articulate participation and authority over time in a missionary synodal church.”

This month’s synod differs in other ways from previous synods of bishops in Rome in that participants will include – for the first time – 70 people who are not bishops, half of whom are women and all of whom will have voting rights. Altogether it will have 364 voting members out of more than 400 participants, which will include non-voting “facilitators” there to assist bishops.

Representing the Irish Catholic Church at the synod will be Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy and Bishop of Raphoe Alan McGuckian SJ. They will be accompanied by Rev Prof Éamonn Conway, acting as an “expert and facilitator”, and Loreto Sr Patricia Murray.

Fr Conway is a former head of theology and religious studies at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick and is currently professor of integral human development at the University of Notre Dame in Freemantle, Australia. He was appointed by Pope Benedict as theological adviser to the 2012 synod of bishops in Rome.

Sr Murray is executive secretary at the International Union of Superiors General in Rome and a member of and consultant to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education. In December 2021, she was presented with the presidential distinguished service award by the President, Michael D Higgins.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times