Pontifex Minimus Blog: Presidential Reflections on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

Continuing on the theme of synods and synodality: the remaining two synods I attended as a Vatican Press Office-credentialed journalist and scholar were the 1987 Synod on the Vocation and Mission of Lay People in the Church and in the World and then the 1990 Synod on the Formation of Priests.

Both synods lacked the energy, focus, politics and frisson of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod but they did share—abundantly, in fact—in the structural failures of the 1985 synod: controlled agenda by head office, highly selective experts, restrictive press access, and frustrated bishops unable to get their point across in their brief interventions or oral presentations.

But they did have their moments.

The Canadian delegation, in particular, had prepared positions on matters of deep concern for Canadian Catholics—the role of women in the church, principal among them—but they garnered little traction. 

Archbishop Donat Chiasson of Moncton insisted that the ’87 Synod had been hijacked and that the Canadian delegation would take “Nothing” back to Canada’s 11 million Catholics except the conviction that “the Church is lived at home.”

In his compelling, indeed prophetic, presentation, “God’s Humanity: Male and Female,” Jean-Guy Hamelin, acting in his capacity as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, made it clear that the participation of women in the life of the church had been strongly addressed during his delegation’s preparatory consultations. He challenged the Synod Fathers to be more open to expanding women’s horizons in the church, identifying the clear contrast that exists between the functions women perform in society-at-large with those they exercise in the church highlighting the difficulty young people have with this discrepancy. The women’s movement in Canada, Hamelin insisted, appears to be an evolution toward “justice, dignity, and partnership.” But, because women are excluded from ordination, they are also excluded from the decision-making life of the church. Hamelin noted that “we cannot avoid underlining in this assembly that the reasoning used so far to explain the reservation of sacred orders to men has not seemed convincing, especially not to young people.”

It is interesting to note that at the 1971 Synod on the Priesthood Cardinal George B. Flahiff, the Archbishop of Winnipeg, a Basilian, a medievalist, and a Father of the Second Vatican Council, addressed the Synod Bishops with the argument that historical theses alone will not sustain the church’s position for the exclusion of women from ordained ministry in the church, that sociological arguments would support the ordination of women, and that, to the best of his knowledge, there was no compelling doctrinal reason for their exclusion. Powerful stuff.

The response of the Roman Magisterium to the sentiments advanced by Flahiff in the 1970s and Hamelin two decades later were Inter Insigniores (1977) and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994).

When I returned from the ’87 Synod St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto had arranged a series of public lectures on the role(s) of the laity, the conversations generated by the recent synod with new visions for going forward. I was one of the invited speakers and I remember two things from my talk: the large crowd gathered in Alumni Hall, very much reflecting the interest the laity had in, well, the laity, and the surprise presence in the front row of Cardinal Flahiff. I asked him why he would bother to attend and his response: wonder that I would ask. 

Of course, he would be there, he gently affirmed. The laity mattered; it was essential to learn from them. And being attentive is more than a courtesy; it is an institutional obligation.

As we prepare for the Synod on Synodality of 2023 we would be wise to recall Flahiff’s words. He seemed to understand implicitly, what Pope Francis has said explicitly, that synodality is walking together.


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