03 October 2023, The Tablet

How synodality can be a corrective to the abuse of clerical power

by Charles R. Gibson

How synodality can be a corrective to the abuse of clerical power

St Peter’s Square in Rome last Sunday. In the 19th century, the duty of the laity became simply to “pay, pray and obey”.
Associated Press / Alamy

For the first seven centuries of the church’s existence, the governing structure was synodal. All the baptised took part in decisions regarding faith, morals and other major policies. This original synodal structure had fully disappeared by the time Pope Gregory VII made the church a monarchy during the late 11th century. For the next eight centuries, the pope, assisted by his Curia, whittled away the power of the bishops.

In 1869–1870, the man who became the longest-reigning pope, Pius IX, called a church council and manipulated it to make himself and his successors subject to no one. The Church formally became an absolute monarchy. The status of the non-ordained was defined by Pope Pius X in his 1906 Encyclical, Vehementer Nos, which made clear that the Church was an unequal society, where the one duty of the multitude “is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, follow the Pastors”. The duty of the laity became simply to “pay, pray and obey”.

Called by Pope John XXIII in 1962, the Second Vatican Council began to shift this imbalance by declaring all the “People of God” as equal because of their baptism. This was a reflection of St. Paul’s declaration: “All baptised in Christ, you have all clothed yourselves in Christ, and there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” 

Nevertheless, the way this equality was interpreted left the ordained with all the power and authority. Although the non-ordained could present their thoughts, suggestions and proposals, the ordained were under no obligations to heed their counsel. Furthermore, under the popes succeeding Paul VI, authority and power became even more centralised in the pope and the Curia.

In 2013 the cardinals elected the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to be the Bishop of Rome. Over two-thirds of the cardinal-electors thought that Bergoglio – who took the papal name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi – could end the corruption, bring the Curia under control, and make it be a support and in service of the universal church.

Early in his papacy Francis referred to the Curia as “the leprosy of the papacy”. Francis had never had an assignment in Rome, and he chafed under the domination of the Curia that had caused great damage to the church in Latin America. He was one of the principal leaders of the Latin American bishops (CELAM) gathered in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, who overcame the efforts of the Curia to bring the Latin American church even more under the domination of Rome.

Francis appointed nine cardinals from different parts of the world to assist him in the reform of the Curia and hired outside consultants with selected clerics to investigate curial behavior and make suggestions for reform. After nine years, Francis successfully eliminated large-scale corruption and restructured the Curia to be a service to the universal church rather than an autocratic centre of power and rule. He has proceeded to appoint heads of central government organisations, referred to as “dicasteries,” who are sympathetic to his vision of the church.

This vision is a synodal structure that includes ­­­­all the baptised “walking together,” prayerfully discerning where the Holy Spirit is leading the Jesus community. This means that everyone not only has an opportunity to contribute suggestions, but also has deliberative authority and power to interpret and formulate matters of faith, morals, and other policies. (Note, however, the pope still has the last word and remains “above the law” and any of Francis’s successors can scuttle his reforms.)

Francis’ vision is meeting widespread acceptance from reform groups such as Spirit Unbounded, but also furious resistance from a small but influential minority. The resistance is coming from some cardinals, bishops (mostly US bishops), and priests, especially younger priests. The resisters claim that synodality is a radical change in church doctrine. This position ignores the reality of church structure being originally synodal.

What autocratic leaders fail to recognise is that collaborative leadership results in greater creativity, harmony, productivity and unity than autocratic leadership. By its very nature, an absolute monarchy is immoral because it lacks full transparency and accountability and therefore acts with impunity. It can be demonstrated that the church’s governing structure exacerbated the clerical abuse scandal and its resulting cover-up.

The current governing structure of the Roman Catholic Church results in only a tiny percentage of ordained clergy defining doctrine for millions of the faithful. This is by nature an abuse of power, and it extends to such areas as reproductive morality, where professed celibates lay burdens on others that do not apply to themselves. Sadly, this form of governance seriously violates Jesus’s primary job requirement for a church leader: to be a servant of all. It is my hope that the Synod will renew the model of servant leadership that was alive in the early centuries of the church.


Charles Gibson, PhL, Phd, spent 11 years in the Jesuit Order and worked in economic development in Ecuador, Peru, and Honduras. He has been involved in church reform since leaving the Jesuits, and for the last four years has worked with Catholic Church Reform International (CCRI), a US organisation that supports Spirit Unbounded and authentic synodality. He will be a presenter at Spirit Unbounded’s “Human Rights in the Emerging Catholic Church” event this October. Charles is married and has two children and two granddaughters.

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