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 All discourse on the CTSA blog, whether in blog postings or in comments posted by CTSA members, must abide by the standards of professional conduct and constructive criticism expressed in the "CTSA Statement on Professional Behavior" approved by the Board of Directors on June 7, 2018.  The CTSA Blog Committee reserves the right to edit or delete any language proposed for posting or posted on the CTSA blog website.  All postings by CTSA members must be germane to the blog discussion.  Comments submitted as alternate blog discussions will be removed, as will spam, links to websites, petitions, and advertising.

Lisa Fullam
2019 - 2022 

Mary Doak
2018 - 2021

Stephen Okey, Chair
2018 - 2020

*Mary Jane Ponyik,
   ex officio

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  • 10/29/2018 12:25 PM | Anonymous

    Author:  Annie Selak, Ph.D. Candidate, Boston College

    As bishops gather together in Rome to discuss “Young people, faith and vocational discernment” at the synod, US news has circled around another topic: who gets a vote at the synod. Notably, non-ordained men are given a vote at this synod, a custom that began in 2015 when Brother Hervé Janson voted in his capacity as a representative of the Union of Superiors General. Women are excluded from voting rights. This division according to gender lines has drawn criticism and protests. Critics of the protestors respond that synods are gatherings of the bishops. As such, they serve a unique function in the life of the church and do not include all. Superiors General of the Dominicans, Jesuits and Coventual Franciscans stated in a press conference that women religious should have voting rights at the synod. These moments raise questions about how conversations happen in the church and who gets a seat— and a vote— at the table.

    What a synod is— and is not

    In thinking about how conversations happen in the church, it is helpful to examine tradition surrounding synods. Synods trace their origins back to the early church. Regional gatherings of bishops discussed and resolved concerns and problems related to doctrinal, liturgical, and disciplinary issues. These gatherings came to be known as synods, deriving from the Greek phrase for the point where multiple roads converge. The first documented synod addressed the Montanist Heresy in 175 AD, and by the 3rd century synods became common occurrences in the life of the church.

    While the current structure of the synod of bishops has its roots in the early church, it was established relatively recently. Pope Paul VI established the synod of bishops on September 15, 1965, the day after the opening of the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council. The establishment of the synod of bishops was surprising, for it created an intermittent body with no decision-making faculties, a far cry from what had been discussed throughout, and even before, the Council. With the proliferation of social media and attention to the actions of Pope Francis, recent synods have garnered increased attention in the life of the church. The 2014- 2015 synod on the family was regularly covered by international news outlets, moving synods from a topic that interested only theologians and church insiders to the literal front pages of newspapers.

    The synod is a consultative body, advising the pope who issues an apostolic exhortation. It is the apostolic exhortation, not the synod itself, which enjoys teaching authority. The key question for our analysis is how we understand “consultative.” It should not be dismissed, as if to imply it has no meaning since the final document is not authoritative. A dismissive view of consultative bodies operates out of an understanding of power and authority that emphasizes the formal power structures at the expense of upholding the importance of the Holy Spirit working through the church. At its best, the synod as a consultative body should be representative of the global church and highlight the diverse experience contained within the church.

    In thinking of the synod as a consultative body and representative of the church, it is tempting to equate it with democratic experiences. Ecclesiologist Richard Gaillardetz wrote, “One often hears the slogan, ‘the church is not a democracy,’ yet almost never does one hear its necessary ecclesiological correlate, ‘neither is the church a monarchy or an oligarchy.’”(1)  The same sentiment can be applied to the synod of bishops: though the synod is not the parliament of the church, it is also not an oligarchy. As a distinct form of leadership in the church, it is necessary that the synod function as a gathering of bishops while also fostering a relationship between the synod and the people of God. We should not attach American notions of governing to the synod, seeking to create a democracy where every constituent is represented by a vote. At the same time, we can improve structures in order to create an environment where discussions at the synod reflect the diversity in the life of the church.

    Structuring conversations

    Embedded into the foundation of the synod of bishops is the expectation that it would evolve over time.(2)   If the goal of a synod is to bring together the leaders of the church in order to speak to a contemporary concern or pressing issue, then the format of how these conversations happen is a crucial component. The structure of conversation can impact the outcome.

    The interaction with observers and experts is a crucial aspect of the synod. At the current synod, the bishops are joined by 49 observers and 23 experts. 34 of the observers are between the ages of 18-29. The experts and observers can participate in working groups and help form the final document issued by the synod. While experts and observers are included in conversation, they do not receive voting rights. So far, reports reveal that the presence of observers has positively impacted the assembly. Cardinal Napier of Durban, South Africa remarked in a press conference, “The presence of young people has given the Synod an element of reality.”

    Yet the presence and impact of observers and experts is variable. Tone and structures of conversation have the potential to make them important conversation partners or relegate them to the sidelines. It is important that formal structures, such as remarks to the assembly, are organized to highlight the diversity of experience in the global church. Informal conversation is equally as important. Just as many of the important conversations at Vatican II occurred at the coffee bars “Bar Jonah” and “Bar Abbas,” the informal conversations are crucial components of dialogue.

    Further, there is also room for development in the role of observers and experts beyond their remarks to the synodal assembly and informal conversation. Imagine if observers issued an observers’ report at the conclusion of the synod. This would allow for a response from a distinct point of view, and would also deepen the bishops’ own experience. An observers’ report would also be of great service to the pope in creating and issuing the apostolic exhortation. It would serve to amplify and perhaps critique the bishops’ recommendations, in turn, provide a broader view of the topic in service to the pope.

    A vision for the church

    Examining the role of the synod in the life of the church raises important ecclesiological issues. It looks to the role of bishops and how connected or removed they are from the laity in their diocese. It asks how the sensus fidei functions in the life of the church and how church teaching is lived out. Undergirding all of this is a basic yet central ecclesiological question: who is the church? The current synod brings these important, if overwhelming, questions to the forefront of our discourse. Addressing conversations in the church is informed by and has implications for who is counted as church. It is crucial that we grapple with these questions, and in the process of doing so, live into the reality and mystery of being church.


    1. Richard Gaillardetz, “Ecclesiological Perspectives on Church Reform,” in Church Ethics and Its Organizational Context, ed. Jean Bartunek, Mary Ann Hinsdale, and James Keenan (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 67.

    2. Apostolica sollicitudo, in outlining the governing laws, begins by stating, “This Synod, which, like all human institutions, can be improved upon with the passing of time.” Apostolica sollicitudo, Introduction.

  • 09/19/2018 4:54 AM | Anonymous

    Author: Anselma Dolcich-Ashley, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Glynn Family Honors Program, University of Notre Dame.

    I remember Patrick McSorley the most. Even after reading so many grim reports and heart-rending narratives for my doctoral research on the sexual abuse crisis, the news of his tragic death unsettled me mightily.  He was one of the first of the Boston survivors to speak out about being sexually molested by a priest.  He also protested angrily at revelations of the practice of transferring priest-abusers to other parishes. Even more, McSorley befriended other survivors and sought to be a “voice of the victims”(2). These recognized that by his example, McSorley “gave so many others the courage to come forward and to persevere.”(3)

    If the “pilgrim church” survives this crisis, it will be because Patrick McSorley and others like him, in the “church in heaven,” intercede for us at the mercy seat of God.

    On the surface, the Sixth Commandment appears simple: “you shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).  Conventionally understood, this commandment reinforces sexual fidelity, such as to one’s spouse in marriage or to a life of celibacy.  This understanding certainly was in play when the Catholic sexual abuse crisis in the US exploded into awareness in 2002.  As a result, however, the crisis became narrowly defined as a “delict against the Sixth”(4) , so the remedy became quick removal of “problem priests.”  Then, as now, bishops were summoned to Rome to meet with the Pope and devise solutions. To their credit, bishops also began to meet with and listen to survivors and their advocates, and most implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young Persons, calling for lay-majority review boards in each diocese, as well as a National Review Board. Fortunately, since 2000 the number of new allegations has fallen dramatically (as compared with, for example, allegations dating from the 1970s). Yet even with reforms in place and a reduction in new allegations involving minors, the sense of crisis has, in some ways, intensified. Why?

    Contributions to a solution can come from diverse fields such as ecclesiology, moral theology, and even political philosophy and jurisprudence. However, the energy and orientation of any solution must always be grounded in remembering the Patrick McSorleys left along the side of the road (Luke 10: 30-33).

    While recognizing the Sixth’s prohibition of the act of adultery narrowly construed, Thomas Aquinas also saw the Sixth, and its companion precepts of the Decalogue, as precepts of natural law and of the cardinal virtue of justice.(5)   To be sure, the Sixth prohibits adultery.   However, we should follow Aquinas’ insight that the harms manifested in adultery - or any action violating sexual vows and boundaries (for example, sexual harassment, or transferring pedophiles to other parishes which amounts to formal cooperation in the evil) - naturally ramify beyond the individual agents and their individual actions.  Yet Canon Law’s emphasis keeps the focus on individual violators rather than the direct victims and the damage done to the broader community.

    The Sixth as a fundamental precept of justice governs relationships, mindsets, group interactions, institutions: in short, any structures making it possible for humans to live together in community.  From this perspective, the sexual abuse crisis reveals a deeper crisis of community. Why didn’t the Patrick McSorleys of the crisis count more in the bishops’ calculus on how to respond? Why does it take the force of civil law to make the bishops reveal what happened?  Recent revelations, such as the Pennsylvania grand jury report, have opened these wounds again, because this broader dimension of the Sixth is beginning to shape the debates over what to do.  One irony of our present situation is that civil society and so-called secular legal structures, utilized by Catholics who are also Americans, understand better this deeper meaning of the Sixth; both the civil structures and involved American Catholics are effectively calling the church to attend to its own moral commitments.

    This perspective can help us understand why further apologies on the part of church hierarchy are not sufficient for this new stage of the crisis.  Apologies certainly indicated progress in contrast to the routine pre-2002 discounting of allegations and rebuffing of victims. However, today they ring hollow because they are unaccompanied by deep structural changes demanded by the Sixth. Examples could include anything from selection of seminary candidates, to involvement of laity and religious at all levels of ministry, to actively recognizing and working against the structural mindset of clericalism. Apologies as expressions of sympathy fail, because they displace the hard work of reforming structures and reorienting mindsets. It is no surprise, then, that yet more apologies engender anger rather than forgiveness on the part of survivors and other concerned Catholics.

    Once we understand what the Sixth Commandment entails, then we must turn to defining the church, so we can apply the Sixth more broadly understood there. The great ecclesiologist Avery Dulles made a good start in his well-known Models of the Church,(6)  but we should remember that these descriptors are models (analogues), not definitions. Thus, “sacrament,” “servant,” and “institution” all describe something inherent about the church but presume, rather than provide, a fundamental definition. Only in the expanded edition did Dulles specify this definition: the church is a community of disciples.(7)   A community, I might add, of human disciples, thus prone to sin in all the ways that humans are.  Moreover, understanding this community of disciples as “church” does not immunize it from structural sin.

    As a human community, the church requires some kind of governance to keep order and prevent harm. This governance also needs to enable the community to flourish, and this aspect involves the broader dimension of the Sixth.  For the Catholic Church, the focal point in this order is the bishop who holds the fullness of the triple munera of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. But what are bishops, fundamentally? Michael Buckley approaches this question by identifying the episcopacy fundamentally as a relation.(8)  However, it is a relation with dual telos: unity of the college of bishops (including the Bishop of Rome), and the vitality of faith among the people of the bishop’s own diocese. Insofar as the Sixth demands structural justice, however, we can see where conceptions of governance are going awry. The crisis is still being handled ‘at the top,’ in discussions and decisions among bishops, cardinals, and Pope - closed to “the other faithful,” who from their perspective experience bishops’ telos of unity among fellow bishops absorbing energy and attention at the expense of the other telos.  Meanwhile, the vitality of faith is taking a beating, with “the other faithful” getting angry, protesting, gathering in talking sessions, and  - not waiting for the bishops to act - asking civil authorities to open investigations.  And who remembers Patrick McSorley and other survivors? In short, the laity are pressing to restore a better balance of the teloi of the episcopal relation, and in so doing are moving the church itself toward a better observance of the Sixth Commandment.

    It may have been his age – 29 – that upset me so much. At his death he was not much older than my own son at the time. Unlike my son, McSorley had suffered from torture by a priest, and almost two decades of post-traumatic stress. One night he may have overdone the medications that helped him manage, and did not wake up the next day. Let us never forget.

    1. Lumen gentium, no. 32.
    2. Belluck, Pam. “A Prominent Accuser in Boston Abuse Scandal Is Found Dead,” The New York Times, February 24, 2004.   (Retrieved 9/16/2018)
    3. MacQuarrie, Brian. “Vocal Critic of Abuse by Clergy Found Dead.” The Boston Globe, February 24, 2004. (Retrieved 9/16/2018)
    4. Cf., Canon 1395, Code of Canon Law.
    5. Porter, Jean. (2005). Nature as reason : A Thomistic theory of the natural law. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
    6. Dulles, Avery. (1987). Models of the church (Expanded ed.). Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books.
    7. Cf., Komonchak, Joseph. (2008). Who are the church? (Père Marquette lecture in theology ; 2008). Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.
    8. Buckley, M. (1998). Papal primacy and the episcopate : Towards a relational understanding. New York: Crossroad Pub.

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