Allowing hope, inspiring trust, binding wounds weave relationships


Dear Pope Francis,

‘The purpose of the Synod, and therefore of this consultation, is not to produce documents, but to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another, create a bright resourcefulness that will enlightened minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands’ – Pope Francis

Thank you for the invitation to be involved with preparations for the forthcoming Synod of Bishops.

It has come at a critical time in the history of the planet and of the Church. We believe our Church needs a paradigm shift in its structures and approach to mission if it is to unleash the fullness of the Gospel message to our threatened planet.

Our current tamed tired Church is often a hindrance to proper evangelisation.

As members of a longstanding Catholic Worker community, like you, we take as our starting point the mandate from God given to Jesus, recorded in Luke 4/18-19.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and give new sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and announce the Lord’s year of mercy.’

In so doing, sadly it seems we part company to a large degree with many for whom the Catholic tradition is wedded to the promotion of the Constantinian Church in the 4th century with all the compromises that went with that and subsequent developments.

Context – a planet under siege

If we accept, as do most scientists and world religions including the Catholic Church, that everything is interconnected, that the whole of life forms a cloak of woven fabric with each part dependent on the other, that one strand unravelling can undo all the others, then we need to make these connections ourselves every day in every way.

The August 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report (IPCCR) and the subsequent COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow have issued massive wake-up calls for the human community highlighting the damage we are continuing to do to the planet.

Their warnings were stark, graphic, urgent.

They came from the best sources – the IPCC Report reflecting the combined work over decades by more than 200 scientists from 60 countries, and COP26 bringing together the world’s political leaders and the frontline groundwork of tens of thousands of climate activists and experts. They all agree we are living on a rapidly deteriorating planet.

The People of God – a vision undermined

For many centuries, the Church has taught that its teaching authority was built on Scripture and Tradition. Yet the Church generally has failed to disseminate our up-to-date scholarship in these matters leading to them becoming largely irrelevant to modern minds.

The Decree on the Church agreed to at Vatican II was a transformational document, filled with challenges and alive with expectation.

Along with other documents on ecumenism, the Church in the Modern World, the Laity, Liturgy, Religious freedom and Revelation, a new vision of Church emerged from the Council.

Had it been implemented, it could have charted the Church on a road to a sustainable meaningful future in tune with the rapidly changing times and flowing from the initial mandate in Luke Ch 4 to Jesus and the practice of the early Church itself.

Alas, the clerical powerbrokers decided to undermine this Vatican II model in subsequent years, minimising its implementation, resulting in the broken model we have today.

Clericalism, condemned so often as one of the major sins of our time, re-asserted its powerful voice.

With bureaucratic power centralised at the Roman centre, control by clergy has become almost absolute in some countries. Canon Law has become the guiding ‘bible’ of the Church, not the original guides: the Holy Spirit, sacred scripture and a dynamic Tradition.

The fallout has been dramatic.

Nearly sixty years after the Council, the ignorance of the vast majority of Catholics of an in-depth understanding of scripture is appalling.

We have failed to liberate them with the very Word that the early Church gave us as a vital tool. And the teachings on social justice, which form a substantial section of ‘the love of neighbour’ Tradition, have always been marginalised. They have proven to be too challenging.

As the saintly and prophetic Cardinal Carlo Martini said in his final interview (NCR, 2013), ‘The Church is 200 years behind the times. Why doesn’t it stir? Are we afraid? Is it fear rather than courage?

“In any event, faith is the foundation of the Church: faith, trust, courage.

“Only love defeats exhaustion. God is love.

“The Church is tired, in the Europe of well-being and in America. Our culture has become old, our churches and religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous. Do these things, however, express what we are today?

“Well-being weighs on us.

“We find ourselves like the rich young man who went away sad when Jesus called him to be a disciple. Theologian Karl Rahner often used the image of the embers hidden under the ash. I see in the Church today so much ash under the embers that often I’m hit with a sense of impotence. How can we liberate the members from the ash, to reinvigorate the fires of love?”

A timid, ineffectual Church

Catholicism has become largely irrelevant within the modern consumer culture.

This is partly because we have not presented our message in ways that are transformative and have too often placed our emphasis on complicity with the culture.

For too long, we have developed a corporate model of Church, rather than a sacramental model of community, with participation and spiritual growth at its centre.

For example, money, control and appearance have grabbed centre stage instead of our care for the earth and the poor, witnessing to social justice, promoting community development and providing prophetic leadership.

We have failed since Vatican II to make the three-pronged approach necessary to an adult understanding of faith and commitment, where the teachings of Scripture and the Church’s social teachings, (love of neighbour), sit alongside the dogmatic truths.

The result is we have produced generations of Catholics inadequately grounded in the basics necessary for a life commitment to a Church built on Scripture and Tradition and capable of supporting its members and reaching out to the wider world.

Instead, many clergy have found it easier to foster a Church of supplementary devotional practices which in many dioceses take priority over the real food that truly nourishes.

They fail to see that the Word becomes flesh only when it is not left as newsprint!

Church buildings have been used to protect medieval theology as if the divine presence wasn’t manifest everywhere. And leadership has been left in the hands of celibate clergy too often with little understanding of family pressures and of the mature relationships needed to develop and expand Christian communities.

We have often talked about community without allowing people the tools and theology to develop it.

We have also become badly wounded by the sexual abuse scandals which have surfaced in recent decades and which, in some countries, have almost gutted the Church to a point beyond repair eg Ireland, Chile.

Too often, we have failed to tackle the issue of abuse of power that clericalism portrays and simply tried to reshuffle the card pack to adjust and hope the problems might disappear.

They won’t.

We haven’t addressed the core problems associated with the abuse of power and underdeveloped sexuality. We still have structures in place and follow teachings that led to these scandals occurring in the first place.

To a considerable extent, we have also lost our sense of sin and redemptive grace to the point where our moral teachings are no longer meaningful to the average Catholic. We have always been clear about personal sexual ethics but failed miserably to recognise more prevalent and damaging sin in its structural forms.

We have virtually ignored the teachings of successive popes going back more than a century who have condemned unfettered capitalism, environmental degradation, war, the arms race, economic exploitation, racism and gender inequality as being unworthy of God’s people. And we have failed to teach the non-violence and radical nature of Jesus and his teaching and highlight the presence of grace everywhere.

Placing social justice at the heart of the nature of God as Vatican II did has proved too challenging for most.

Women in the Church

Go to any parish in the world and the main force holding it together will be its women members.

How ironic – considering how badly the official church structures have treated women over the centuries.

Gospel accounts confirm that, besides the male apostles and disciples, Jesus was also accompanied (against the cultural norms of the time) by a group of women who alone remained as witnesses to his crucifixion when the men fled. In addition, they were the first to experience and proclaim the Risen Christ, even when they were doubted by the men.

One could even argue that they fulfilled the criteria for apostleship far better than the chosen Twelve!

They clearly played a leading part in the early Church.

Yet, in subsequent centuries, their role has been discounted in the official tradition that has historically affirmed the authority of an all-male sacramental and governance leadership.

Even in the face of a hugely influential modern women’s movement, we have continued a patriarchal power structure to limit women’s full recognition and participation.

In the wider world, such male structures are maintained now only by groupings like the Taliban and Isis and in countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran.

How dare we claim as they do that this discrimination somehow has divine authority?

While cultural arguments about the roles of men and women may have held sway in earlier centuries, this clearly is no longer the case.

Yet we continue to deny women full participation in sacramental and governance roles in the church. In so doing, we are continuing to treat women as second-class members.

This is sinful.

Among many things, for the past 50 years, the Church has been tone-deaf in the matter of inclusive language about which we still have insulting debates.

Our credibility has been shot to pieces by self-inflicted wounds.

The miracle is that any women at all have stayed with the Church!


But stay many have because they, like many men including a strong minority of priests, have found within the tradition, despite its shortcomings, a road to holiness in a message of life and hope for our times.

Many Christians in their discipleship journeys still find and commit to the transformative message Jesus brought.

They meet the Risen Christ in their daily lives and seek to find in a hopefully nourishing community a source of grace, support and transforming love.

They recognise how essential belonging to a collective ecclesial community is for the development and sustenance of their faith.

Their response to the question of St Peter, ‘to whom do we go?’ is the same as his to Jesus – ‘you have the words of eternal life’.

They stay and they persevere.

Ministries should not be controlled by gender.

Both women and men, through their baptism, qualify for such roles.

Other Christian Churches – including both Protestant and Anglican – have already pioneered the way forward and opened their ministries to all.

The Catholic Church is called to humbly acknowledge these ground-breaking prophetic journeys others have undertaken, learn from them and implement similar appropriate changes.


Just as the tectonic plates of the earth shift from time to time and bring about realignment, so do the Catholic Church’s structural plates need a paradigm shift at this time.

Our planet is in crisis.

So is our Church.

Our Catholic tradition of Church continues to ignore many signs of the times and the desperate need for change.

For the first time in centuries, as pope, you have created a Kairos moment of opportunity to change before it is too late. We dare not squander it.

Thank you and blessing on your ministry in abundance.

  • Catholic Worker Community, Suzanne Aubert House, Christchurch, New Zealand.
  • First published in the Catholic Worker Community Journal. Republished with permission.
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