The most extensive experiment in collective deliberation in Ireland’s recent history has begun to bear fruit. After years of planning, and over the course of months, the first phase of this project – which ultimately will stretch for five years – has come to a close. Tens of thousands of people from thousands of different localities came together to converse on topics that were meaningful to them and the results have been compiled into a cohesive single document.
The site for this huge endeavour in grassroots engagement?
The Catholic Church.
After surely more than a million hours of activity, the first “Synodal synthesis” has been published and it can be taken as a representative expression of the concerns of ordinary Irish Catholics.
The process, called a “synodal engagement” is ultimately a global initiative of Pope Francis, hearkening back to the very earliest days of the Christian church when decisions were made in deliberative fashion. Its overarching aim is “listening to God by listening to one another”. Contributions were sought from people in 26 dioceses and 29 other groups, chosen from the intersecting and overlapping groups that comprise the Catholic Church. Special care was taken to reach out to groups who are often excluded, including Travellers, members of the LGBTQI+ community, migrants, refugees, and victims of abuse within the church.
There has been a lot of analysis summarising what the synthesis document contains. There has been some contention about the document, with some interventions more thoughtful than others. Few will be surprised by the topline concerns of those surveyed: the legacy of church abuse as an “open wound” that will not heal; the role of women, and the condescention inherent in being granted a “special” role instead of an “equal” one; and a “clear, overwhelming call for the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in the Church”.
Even the most arch-conservative in the church must grant that these are profound questions of justice. You can nuance your response to sexual ethics, gender equality, or even the social context in which the abuse scandals unfolded, decide to hold to some firm traditional line, and recognise that the lived human reality obscured by these headline-grabbing topic are of the utmost seriousness. Whatever position the church ultimately arrives at, it can no longer credibly evade addressing these and the other themes consistently raised in the synod.
Noting What Was Not Said
Former President Mary McAleese described the document’s revelations as “explosive, life altering, dogma altering, church altering”. Yet its omissions are also unsettling. While there are many passionate sentences about matters of grave import, it is striking what is not said.
The gaps in the report are remarkable in the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The JCFJ exists to utilise the principles of the Catholic Social Teaching tradition to transform policy and social structures in the pursuit of justice. You do not need to subscribe to the Christian faith to engage with its recommendations, which are woven around universal ideas, including human dignity and solidarity. No faith belief is required to appreciate our arguments about how the housing and homelessness crisis arises from – in part – the State acting as a tenant or the steps required for a Just Transition . It’s not necessary to understand how these contemporary issues relate to how the ancient Israelites viewed property ownership or why Jesus constantly made reference to the natural world in his teaching.
In the JCFJ, we have notice that the demographic we would assume to be most inclined to engage with our thinking – Catholics – are sometimes hesitant. The synodal synthesis may go some way towards explaining why religious audiences have proven some of the hardest to reach. While the document identifies 15 major themes found in the many responses, social justice is not included. Concern for the environment is effectively absent. (These absences are noted in the document, along with the little interest expressed by synodal participants in working with other Christian traditions, with missional activity, or with sacramental practice.) It seems that when the church sits down to listen to each other, they do not speak or hear of a forceful concern to bring justice.
The synodal synthesis concludes with a wise and mature reflection on the state of the church within Irish society today. The authors posit that Ireland is moving “from a national identity overly dependent on Catholic culture, to one suspicious and often intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.” This is accurate, and understandable. The challenge of adapting to that shift is one in which the JCFJ can help.
But for those of us who are convinced that “the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement” of the Gospel, the response to the synthesis must prompt deep reflection. In the last parable recorded in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers that they will find him among the hungry and thirsty, those in prison and those in hospital, people who are haunted by loneliness or stripped of all their defences by injustice. That the synthesis document displays no passion to seek out God in these margins could lead us to despair. What’s the point of having a centre for faith and justice if the faithful don’t really care about justice?
Conclusion: Social Theology is More Important Than Ever
But another perspective is possible. The synodal synthesis gives us an indication of how the faithful think the church must change. Leaving aside the moral weight of the responses offered in the synthesis, it would run entirely against the spirit of the initiative to lament that honest participants sharing their opinion are giving the wrong answers! But the answers that were offered – focusing on moral matters that apply primarily to the individual challenge those of us convinced by the necessity of the social element of justice to communicate more clearly. Instead of reading the synthesis as an opportunity to rehearse the tired scripts of culture wars between “liberals” and “conservatives”, it is much wiser to listen carefully and self-critically. Whatever else social theology does, it must communicate clearly how the good things being reached for the in the synod cannot be grasped without also fighting on behalf of those left behind in our society.
The synodal process will continue to unfold over the coming years. The listening has not ceased. The discernment is not complete. The synthesis is fascinating for what it says about the church in Ireland today. It is even more fascinating with what it doesn’t say. And it demonstrates that there is a continuing, deep need to communicate that justice is integral to the gospel.