One consequence of writing for the Catholic Herald on the Synodal process is that it seems to make some people excitably angry.

When Socrates urged on his listeners the important aphorism “know thyself”, the early Greeks had to attempt the process without the advantage of Twitter.

I have had an advantage that earlier generations lacked by discovering the seriousness of the defects in my character, my limitations as a person and my inadequacies as a believing Catholic; and all thanks to Twitter, and the enthusiastic ministrations of a group of people who are deeply committed to the Synodal process.

Led by the Pope’s biographer, Austin Ivereigh, they have been unstinting in their critique of my limitations. Their expertise on the Synodal process is only matched by their insight into my flaws. My one and comforting consolation is that they are very nearly as rude about Monsignor Nazir-Ali who fortunately is held in high regard everywhere outside this small but vocal and committed group.

A small taste of their wit and wisdom includes:

 “What appalling arrogance from Gavin Ashenden: (Ann Farr)

 “I’ve always been wary about conversions from Anglicanism, with their only motive dissension from their earlier church; why doesn’t he return to the Anglican fold- they may not want him back (and they’re probably right): (George’s Cheung)

Another refugee from Canterbury telling Rome what to do” (Bill Gugliemi)

“Indeed! Comments such as his also betray a complete lack of understanding, theologically and historically, about how synods and councils work in the Catholic Church:” William Ditewig, supporting Austin Ivereigh’s wariness about my personal conversion to the Catholic Church.

“It’s remarkable how little catechised Dr Ashenden appears to be – how ironic.” Austin Ivereigh.

But this gives the present reader an advantage. Fully warned about the deficiencies of the author, one is in a better position to examine the arguments. It is of course a very different process to examine the arguments of a case rather than the immoralities and character defects of someone proposing it. You may feel the two are not connected, but for those who only see the character flaws and not the merits of the argument, this column is able, thanks to Twitter, Austin Ivereigh and his fellow-travelers, to present both.

There are two issues that engage the Church’s interest over the Synod on Synodality: one is the outcome and the other the process.  Mr Ivereigh has been much engaged in helping progress the outcome, since he was involved in redacting the synthesis of all the contributions we offered in this country. He was also prominent in producing the dramatic and progressive document called “The Working Document for the Continental Stage”.  He is therefore much invested in both the outcome and the integrity of the process, if there is one.

In fact, the “Working Document for the Continental Stage” offers the alert reader a privileged insight into the intended outcome. But since we have not arrived there yet, more important perhaps is the legitimacy of the process. Indeed, raising questions as to the legitimacy of the process is what has brought Mr Ivereigh and his supporters so close to apoplexy.

What are the issues? They appear to be: what does “consultation’” mean?

And what is the sensus fidelium?

Before any theoretical and theological examination, one pragmatic issue demands a certain amount of attention. Just in case a democratic model of consultation should prove justified in principle, does it have any purchase on our allegiance if it reflects the views of only about 1 per cent of baptised Catholics?

It is probably with that anxiety in mind that Pope Francis has extended the period of consultation for one extra year to 2024 just in case the rather restrictive figure of 1 per cent can be improved on. That no one has offered a suggestion of exactly what percentage of improved traction needs to be achieved in order to be persuasive tells us everything we need to know.

Firstly, there is the assertion that what was intended to be a theological concept of “consultation” has been misunderstood. 

What Synodality proposes is a replacement of supernatural discernment by a pseudo-democratic process.


It ought to be a matter that can be agreed on that vox populi is not the same as vox fidei.

And this is immediately where conceiving a consultation in the quasi-Marxist categories of the excluded, marginalized and alienated causes some difficulty. Because however attractive Marxist categories of sociological exclusion are to the progressives, they run the risk of changing the category of those encountered from vox fidei to vox populi

The Synodal process is very much attached to sociological categories urging the consultation of those who have given up on the faith or who have no faith. Pastorally this will no doubt be therapeutically affirming for the marginalised whose views are sought, but it does involve a change of categories. The Synodal path can no longer claim to be tapping into the vox fidei and the sensus fidelium at this point. 

Even if we felt that this did not constitute a fatal flaw in the process, there is then the matter of what Lumen Gentium actually means.

In defense of Synodality, Mr Ivereigh insists that the documents of the Second Vatican Council legitimate the Synodal process. Specifically, he refers to a well-known passage in Lumen Gentium 12 claiming that it mandates the Synodal consultation. 

But despite his optimism, his reading of the text does not carry everyone with him.

It is not at all clear that Lumen Gentium mandates a theological census in the way that synodality sets about it. Lumen Gentium is doing something far more profound than that. 

It is directing the attention of the Church to the gifts of the Holy Spirit as they are distributed amongst the people of God. The claim that the people of God cannot err is constrained by two qualifications. The first is that this is exercised within the constraints of “supernatural discernment”, while at the same time insisting that the proof that they do not err is that they “adhere unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints”(113). And there is a further qualification which is that the exercise of pneumatic giftedness or authenticity is not to be taken at face value. It is noted instead that “judgment as to their genuinity (sic) and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church…test all things and hold fast to that which is good(116)”.

Once again, a careful reading of the text demonstrates that sensus populum’ is not the same thing as sensus fidelium.

And that of course is the heart of the conservative objection to the proposed and planned innovations of the synodal process. 

In case this was not clear enough, the document ‘Sensus Fidei in the life of the Church’, authored by the International Theological Commission 2014 (pp89-91), comments:

“The first and most fundamental disposition is active anticipation in the life of the Church. Formal membership of the Church is not enough….it presumes an acceptance of the Church’s teaching of faith and morals, a willingness to follow the commands of God, and courage to correct one’s brothers and sisters…the subjects of the sensus fidei are members of the Church who participate in the life of the Church.”

Given that the Synodal process is mandated to consult in particular those who have turned their backs on the Church, and those who do not believe at all, the constituency being consulted fails the test that ‘Sensus Fidei’ lays down.

A further constraint on the claims made for the pneumatic authenticity of the synodal process is what one makes of those who repudiate Catholic teaching on faith and morals, and agitate for it to be changed?

Anyone calling for the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood, or the validation of same-sex attraction, or a modification of the Church’s teaching on contraception, or the Communion for the divorced, does not by virtue of the secular presuppositions preferred adhere to the teaching of the Church. So they do not qualify as contributors to the sensus fidei. Even Pope Francis has warned the German church that its enthusiasm for these values in the uncompromising intensity they express it runs the risk of simply turning the German Catholic Church into a German Protestant one. And as Pope Francis perceptively observed, that is not necessarily to our advantage.


Mr Ivereigh has suggested to those who look to him for guidance that those who have doubts about the process of consultation itself should themselves consult St John Henry Newman on the matter. Problematically, St John Henry Newman sides with the conservative position. “Consult” does have the meaning that the progressives are requiring it to bear. 

“This being considered, it was, I conceive, quite allowable for a writer, who was not teaching or treating theology, but, as it were, conversing, to say, as in the passage in question, “In the preparation of a dogmatic definition, the faithful are consulted.” 

Doubtless their advice, their opinion, their judgment on the question of definition is not asked; but the matter of fact, viz. their belief, is sought for, as a testimony to that apostolical tradition, on which alone any doctrine whatsoever can be defined. In like manner, we may “consult” the liturgies or the rites of the Church” .

One can only be grateful to Mr Ivereigh for drawing the attention of those wondering about the authenticity of the synodal process to the adverse critique of St John Henry Newman.


The progressives are upset by any suggestion that those consulted are insufficiently catechised. But since the present spat has to do with the issue of whether those marginalised people both on the edge of the faith, and beyond it, – the intended constituency we are told, – are indeed catechised, we might ask what St John Henry Newman’s views on that are. He writes:

“For I argue that, unless they (the laity) had been catechised, as St. Hilary says, in the orthodox faith from the time of their baptism, they never could have had that horror, which they show, of the heterodox Arian doctrine. Their voice, then, is the voice of tradition; {214}”

Once more, this is the opposite of the values and assumptions of those promoting  Synodality.

The progressives make much of the power of the sensus fidei that they believe they are accessing it by means of the consultation. So what does this claim in the catechism mean:

“The whole body of the faithful. . . cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 92)

We ought to take note ourselves that what the catechism refers to is the “supernatural” appreciation of faith. This is not an aspect of faith that usually commends itself to the more politically attuned liberal mindset. It may even be that lacking either familiarity or sympathy with the supernatural, they may be struggling to digest its implications. But it suggests a pneumatic rather than a political frame of reference.

In a papal audience in 2010, Pope Benedict offered us a commentary on what he understands by the sensus fidei:

To what must be the considerable disappointment of the supporters of synodality, it does not, he insists, include any sense of a democratic vote.

“Thus faith both in the Immaculate Conception and in the bodily Assumption of the Virgin was already present in the People of God, while theology had not yet found the key to interpreting it in the totality of the doctrine of the faith. The People of God therefore precede theologians and this is all thanks to that supernatural sensus fidei, namely, that capacity infused by the Holy Spirit that qualifies us to embrace the reality of the faith with humility of heart and mind. In this sense, the People of God is the teacher that goes first”and must then be more deeply examined and intellectually accepted by theology.

Essentially this means that at times the People of God, both lay and ordained, could have a better sense of the faith” than theologians, and articulate a belief that is part of the Gospel message.

However, its important to note that this is not a democratic vote, where the Church polls the faithful and sees what teachings to hold onto and which to discard.

It is a complex discernment process where the bishops, in consultation with the faithful, arrive at the same conclusion together.”

So if a flawed democratic consultation (with 1 per cent of the baptised, including heretics and atheists) produces the expected outcome that the faith and morals of the Catholic Church should be amended on matters like contraception, abortion, the relation of women to the priesthood and same-sex attracted people, should it be accorded any legitimacy?


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