Catholic Church is not a democracy so don’t expect radical change

Outcome of synod on synodality likely to disappoint many Irish participants seeking changes in doctrine

There is a real danger that the synod on synodality (only the Vatican could come up with a title such as that) is raising unrealisable hopes and therefore will cause grave hurt.

Everyone from Pope Francis to our own Irish bishops has stated that the listening exercises conducted in Ireland and right around the world are not some kind of consensus-finding.

For example, in the book Let Us Dream, co-authored with Austen Ivereigh, Pope Francis says: “What is under discussion at synodal gatherings are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. The synod is concerned mainly with how teaching can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our time.”

Similarly, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin said in July: “Synodality is sometimes misunderstood as a kind of parliamentary voting system where majority opinions might overturn long-standing Church tradition or core teaching.”


Sadly, that message has not been heard. Nonetheless, the church is not a democracy. If it were, Arius would have won. Arius, an intellectual, cultured man who lived during the fourth century, believed that Jesus had a unique status but was not divine — as Hilaire Belloc put it, Arius granted Jesus “all the divine attributes except divinity”.

If the extremely popular Arian beliefs had prevailed, no Christian, whether reformed, Catholic or orthodox, would today pray the Nicene creed: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God, born of the father before all ages.” The Christian churches would not be trinitarian.

The Nicene creed, promulgated in 325CE, was meant to be the final word on the Arian dispute. Instead, 50 years of controversy and theological warfare ensued until, eventually, the understanding of Jesus as God held sway.

Arianism is largely forgotten today but it was enormously influential and promoted by the intellectual elite of the day, including a number of bishops.

The controversies facing the church today are not as obviously theological as Arianism, centring instead on sexuality, the role of women and the nature of the priesthood. But they are theological in the sense that they revolve around clashing and ultimately incompatible visions of the church.

The degree of division in the church is not unprecedented but it is significant. Schism is openly being discussed in the international church

Many Irish Times readers have little sympathy with the church’s self-understanding as a sacred guardian of divine truth, albeit a flawed guardian which has failed spectacularly in varying ways in every century to live up to its own message. The church believes it could not have survived at all unless directly sustained by the grace of God.

Such a claim to the guardianship of sacred truths is seen as preposterous by many, a relic of prescientific times.

But if, as a thought experiment, you could enter into the church’s understanding of itself you could see how it can never be a majority-rule organisation.

If the church’s claims about the unchangeable nature of its core moral teachings are false, why should anyone believe its claims about the real presence of Christ in the eucharist? The church cannot be both a democracy and a guardian of sacred truth.

These views cannot be reconciled. The degree of division in the church is not unprecedented but it is significant. Schism is openly being discussed in the international church.

A schism has already happened in modern Anglicanism in 2009, when theologically traditional Anglicans broke from the Anglican communion to create the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

In the Catholic Church the pope, as a sign of unity, is charged with maintaining the integrity of the church. It is instructive to see how Pope Francis has responded, for example, to the German Catholic Church, which has long proposed even more radical change than the Irish church.

Pope Francis in a 2019 letter, to the shock of many German Catholics, urged them to “guard against the temptations of the father of lies and division, the master of separation who, prompting the search for an apparent good or response to a given situation, ends up fragmenting the body of the holy faithful people of God”.

There is more in the same vein and even stronger language, warning them against “the great sin of worldliness and of the anti-evangelical worldly spirit [where] there would be a good, well-organised and even ‘modernised’ church, but with no soul or gospel newness”.

This is a clear restatement of church teaching in the face of demand for radical change. Given that, was it wise or even kind to raise hopes of such change among gay people who want a new teaching on marriage, or women who believe that they have a call to the priesthood?

These people cared enough to participate in the synodal process. Raising hopes that must inevitably be dashed may result in them finally walking away from the church, which for many will be a devastating loss of a spiritual home, no matter the pain that home causes them.

The synod could still bear real fruit. The church in Ireland can and must do much more to welcome gay Catholics, to renew lay participation in the life of the church and, above all, to simply preach the gospel. But those waiting for the church to become something it is not will wait in vain.