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The Ethical Dimension of the Synodality Process

Over the last year I have been both following (and participating in) the synodal process that is leading towards the Synod on Synodality. Having examined many of the reports from Africa and other parts of the world, and having talked to people who have been involved in it from various places including Germany, I am struck by how at least two understandings of synodality seem to be emerging – what I broadly describe as Structural Reform and Pastoral Renewal[1]. The first sees synodality as a process seeking a change in how the Church is run; the latter is less concerned with structural change than with renewing and improving existing practices. Although the former roughly corresponds with churches in the North, and the latter with the Global South, the distinction on the ground is more complex. There are many theologians in the latter (myself included) who identify more with North, believing that renewal is only possible under the condition of structural change.  In addition, some of the things that the South seeks – notably a more inculturated form of Catholicism – can only realistically happen with devolution of some aspects of authority from the ‘centre’ (Rome) to the ‘peripheries’[2].

If my hypothesis is correct – that there are a number of ecclesiological assumptions in operation, whether this was the intention of the synodal process or not – we are faced with not only an institutional but an ethical challenge: how to build up a dialogue that can accommodate very different expectations and ultimately prevent a schism between the North and South.

But am I correct? Let me suggest through this rough graph of impressions how the two positions I propose appear.





‘Model’ of Synodality Structural Reform: seeking change (to varying degrees) of how Catholic Church is governed; voice and influence of laity and theologians; institutional changes (e.g. LGBTI rights; divorced and remarried; married clergy; women clergy); devolution of power


Pastoral Renewal: improvement of ministries; addressing cultural issues (e.g. polygamy; inculturation of liturgy; cultural reappropriation of basic tenets of Catholicism); addressing socio-economic issues; problems of interfaith (e.g. religious persecution).


Attitude to Church Sense of betrayal over abuse issue; mistrust of hierarchy and clergy; frustration among theologically educated laity over not having a significant voice.


Unease about abuse but less central issue; basic trust of hierarchy and clergy; laity less theologically educated.


Attitude to Democracy Basic confidence in democracy and social institutions; church governance seen as an anachronism


Ambivalence or mistrust of democracy (rooted in desire for it to work); social institutions are dysfunctional to nonexistent, church provides an alternative in many instances (e.g. education, health care); church governance seems better than state or less dysfunctional; cultural beliefs accept hierarchy and often patriarchy, hence church governance less anachronistic.


Level of Secularisation High to medium high Low to medium[3]


As I noted, this is a crude analysis, but I think it makes my claim – that we are dealing with at least two distinct understandings of synodality – at least plausible.

What then of ethics? This introduces many different dimensions too complex to address here. But let me suggest a few key elements that a possible ethics of synodality must address.

The first, perhaps most important, is an ethics of dialogue. How do two or more different understandings of synodality speak to each other – without resorting to verbal violence, accusations of heresy or mutual excommunications, leading to a virtual or real schism? My suggestion is that we start by acknowledging that though we belong to the same Church, the Church we experience exists in different lifeworlds (to give a nod to Jürgen Habermas) and that our lived experience of church is different yet equally valid, an experience that reflects different realities that the universal Church tries to incorporate into its practice. The challenge, in effect a call to generosity and imagination, is to see how one reality may have at least something to say to another, if not now then sometime in the future. In addition, this invites those in dialogue to imagine how one position may not necessarily be contradicting a deeply held position or value, but rather offering a different perspective that might – if not now but in the future – contribute to questions not presently on the horizon.

A second dimension to the ethics of synodality is an openness to history, and to the fact that history itself is by no means a clear, linear and ‘factual’ progression. We need to critically explore the way in which we understand the history of the western catholic church, which suggests that the model of church governance we take for granted today may not be model that has always, or even predominantly, existed.

A third, but by no means last, element is an ethics that focuses on key virtues, the most important being prudence. Prudence, the art of judging wisely, should help us to discern how to discern what is most important. There is an unfortunate tendency to assume that every doctrine, every moral teaching, of the church is of equal importance, without which the whole edifice of the Church will fall. This is patently untrue. The challenge is to judge what actually is important. Dare I suggest that a genuinely open synodal process might help us in this regard.

There are, of course, many other dimensions to the problem I have raised – but these are subjects for books, not an opinion piece. Let me conclude by suggesting that a forum such as ours should embrace and expand upon these questions. As a voice from the World Church, we may have a contribution to make to the renewal of the Church.

[1] . There is a third key group, what I call the Rejectionists, those who reject the whole process as an attempt to undermine the Church. Though they extend from the Vatican to parishes, there number is unknown. Similarly, how far they might influence the Synod is unclear.

[2] . This is based on the current assumption that Rome/Europe is the centre. If one were to look at demographics, the centre would be elsewhere – Sao Paulo, Kinshasa or Nairobi perhaps?

[3] . But note some distinctions in the Global South, like Uruguay, South Africa or Argentina.