Synodal virtues: Valuing a sense of ‘agency’

sense of agency

One of the most dis-spiriting things in life is when we have no sense of ‘agency.’

The notion of ‘Agency’ is one that originated in sociology but it refers to something that most adults have felt at one time or another.

Agency is the sense that I can do something about a problem, that I can make a difference, that I have some control over the situation in which I find myself.

Agency is the exact opposite of feeling like a bit of wood floating on the sea, buffeted by waves, and drawn along by the currents. We so like to feel we have a rudder, a steering wheel, a chance to decide what will happen.

We rarely feel we have any sense of ‘agency.’

We only become aware of it when we do not have it: when we have a sense of a lack of agency.

This can be quite frightening.

It is the feeling that there is nothing I can do to change the situation that is bearing down on me.

It is the loneliness of realising that no one will listen to me.

The problems just go round in circles and are ignored.

Nobody cares!

Opting out

We see this sense of ‘I have no agency’ in societies, social networks, clubs, businesses … and also in churches.

A sense of a lack of agency can be quite dangerous, both to us as individuals and to society, because we can feel that we are irrelevant.

People who sense a lack of agency usually just opt-out.

sense of agency

A metaphor of lack of agency.  We dislike situations where we have a sense that can make a difference. We describe them with phrases such as being ‘in a vice’ or ‘being ground down.’

But opting out of the church is not simply ‘lapsing’ – that is seeing the world from the clerical perspective.

Opting out often means giving up on our individual mission and calling – it means no longer seeing and acting in union with Christ as part of our lives.

We so like to feel we have a rudder, a steering wheel, a chance to decide what will happen.

Acknowledging the problem

One of the rarely noticed difficulties felt by many Catholics is the sense that they have no agency when it comes to matters related to the church.

They often feel that if they try to make their views heard, they are simply ignored.

It might be to point out to a bishop that the presbyter appointed is unsuited to the situation – and the reply: you are lucky to have one! It might relate to larger issues, but again they have a sense that no matter what ‘they’ think or say, it will make no difference.

The sense ‘it will make no difference’ is the experience of ‘loss of agency.’

It leads directly to indifference and then to a gradual unannounced departure.

But, many bishops reply, I have never heard such a complaint!

The reason is simple: those who have a sense of loss of agency do not waste their breath any longer in telling those who will not listen that they are not being listened to!

Anyone who feels that they have no agency, already feels passed over. They believe they are already excluded!

Curiously, we have recently had a demonstration that this is a problem in the Roman Catholic Church from no less a voice than that of Pope Francis when he told women religious not to be silent in servitude.

Francis is acknowledging that many sisters acutely feel a loss of agency and that they need to make their voices heard.

But the problem remains: we can make our voices audible, but we cannot make them heard.

We have, moreover, a backlog of problems that need to be aired in each church, but many of the voices have given up.

We may speak of evangelisation and speaking the good news, but what of those who have heard it and have departed – because those who are to lead the evangelisers could not be bothered to listen?

Agency and belonging

The coming synod is being looked to with hope from groups of Catholics around the world that it will give them a chance to make their concerns heard.

We could reframe this hope thus: they are looking to the synod as a moment when they will have a sense of agency.

One of the challenges facing a synodal church will be to give the baptised a sense of agency as Catholics.

With a sense of agency goes a sense of belonging – I am a real part of something ‘bigger than me.’

Agency is a key to adult faith as a member of the Body of Christ.

This manifests itself in a sense that ‘I am wanted here’ – not because someone wants to recruit me or convert me or get me to consume something – but because I am listened to and seen as having insight.


Many in the Catholic Church do not worry that people do not have a sense of agency or that they might feel ‘second class members.’

To them, this is not an important matter!

A metaphor of agency.  We like the sense that we have choices and can exercise our choices. Even simple choices (shoes or sandals – which to ware?) involve our sense of agency – but we only notice it when it is absent!

But to those who think that a sense of agency does not matter, please note what you probably already know: that if you want to exclude someone, the best way to do it is just to keep passing over them!

This is a nasty little trick that many who are involved in running organisations have learned and practice: it is the simplest means of dealing who someone who is seen as ‘awkward’.

But turn that logic around.

Anyone who feels that they have no agency, already feels passed over. They believe they are already excluded!

Vocation and the sense of agency

But the vocation of each Christian is to act as a light among the nations, and this requires every other Christian to enhance each other’s sense of agency as a member of the People of God. If a sense of agency is diminished – or extinguished causing them ‘to opt out’ – then that constitutes a failure of the Church in its ministry.

Empowering a sense of agency, enhancing a sense of agency, must be part of any agenda to create a synodal church.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches.

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