The Catholic Church considers its future

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Pope Francis (C) poses for a family photograph with the participants of the Synod of Bishops at the Paul VI Hall in Vatican on October 23, 2023.  (TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) poses for a family photograph with the participants of the Synod of Bishops at the Paul VI Hall in Vatican on October 23, 2023. (TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)

Hundreds of Catholics are in Rome for a major meeting about the future of the church. For the first time, women and laypeople are invited — and have a vote.

"This is an enormous shift, bottom-up, grassroots, trying to pay attention to what people are saying," Cathleen Kaveny says.

They’re considering women deacons, blessings for same-sex unions, and marriage for priests. But are big changes possible?

"There are too many people in the church that say, 'Oh, well, it takes centuries for these things to happen.' I'm sorry, we don't have centuries. We have to change. We have to move forward," Fr. Tom Reese says.

And what’s at stake?

"A civil war, a theological war and so on, where Catholics cannot share the same church," Massimo Faggioli says. "This is not good. The Catholic church is very fragile. It could break."

Today, On Point: The Catholic Church considers its future.


Cathleen Kaveny, Darald and Juliet Libby professor in Boston College’s Theology Department and Law School.

Fr. Don Bosco Onyalla, editor-in-chief of the Association for Catholic Information in Africa, a service of EWTN, or the Eternal Word Television Network. Priest.

Fr. Tom Reese, senior analyst at Religion News Service. Jesuit priest.

Also Featured

Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: At the Vatican, a month long gathering of Catholics is coming to a close. Called a synod, cardinals, bishops and priests from around the world have been discussing the future of the church, and for the first time ever, Pope Francis also invited laypeople, including women.


CHAKRABARTI: Pope Francis there speaking at the synod's opening ceremony, where he said the protagonist of the synod is the Holy Spirit, and encouraged everyone to confront their differences. Synod attendees are considering topics such as whether women should be allowed to be deacons, should the church bless LGBTQ+ unions, and whether Catholicism's millennium long prohibition of marriage for priests should come to an end.

On Saturday, the last day of the synod, the group will release an official report. Conversations from inside this month's gathering prior to that have been kept mostly under wraps. But attendees have been participating in tightly controlled media briefings. Here's Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki of Poland speaking yesterday.


CHAKRABARTI: Gądecki's saying that he was struck by how exchanges have been truly peaceful and that they didn't focus on differences. Here's Catherine Clifford, a theology professor at St. Paul University in Ottawa.

CATHERINE CLIFFORD: Humanity has need of our united witness. A credible witness to the possibility of healing and reconciliation. By walking together, sharing God's abundant love for all humanity and all creation, we are growing closer and learning to live again as one.

CHAKRABARTI: As the Catholic Church considers its own future, what is the significance of the synod, especially for a church with worldwide reach? Are the big changes that we talked about even possible?

What is at stake? That's what we're going to discuss today. And joining us now is Cathleen Kaveny. She's a professor of theology and law at Boston College, and she joins us in the On Point studio. Professor Kaveny, welcome to On Point.

CATHLEEN KAVENY: Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all just so that we all share the same sort of basis of knowledge, I was wondering if you might explain what a synod is, how often they take place?

KAVENY: Well, a synod is basically a meeting. That would be a good way to talk about it. Or a council is another word, the Latin word concilium and the Greek word synod mean more or less the same thing. The word church actually comes from ecclesia, which is another kind of assembly. So the big picture is that it's a gathering of the faithful, a gathering of people.

And bishops have been getting together in synods regularly. Some of them are global. Some of them are based in a continent. So this is one more meeting in a series of meetings that the church holds.

CHAKRABARTI: But I've been seeing that it's been described as, or as you were telling me before the show, its actual title is a synod on synodality.

KAVENY: That is really self-referential, isn't it? But I think the way you can think about what a synod on synodality is although the meetings of the church in the past have laid claim to a certain kind of universality and participation, it's really been limited in terms of who could attend and what kind of people could attend.

So what the Pope is trying to do with this and what the synod on synodality is trying to do is say, "Hey. We really need to get more people involved, not just bishops but also lay people, not just men, but also women, and not just people from Italy or maybe Europe, or if we're feeling generous, North America, but from all around the world."

And how do we get a Catholic church, the word Catholic means universal, together and actually talking to each other. That's why it's a synod on synodality.

CHAKRABARTI: It seems like it's rather significant that Francis has opened up the group of people that the synod would listen to so wide.

Is it Francis's way of saying, here's what I want to lead the church towards, but then also I'm wondering on the flip side, I always have to just question optics versus actual structural change.

KAVENY: Sure. No, those are both good questions. I don't think this is Pope Francis. It is idiosyncratic vision. I'm a little bored in Rome. Let's just bring in a few people. That's not what it is. What he's trying to do is to implement the Second Vatican Council, which was the most important gathering of the church in the 20th century, which set the blueprint in the mid '60s, early mid '60s for the way the church is organized.

And what the church said there was that the church is the people of God. Not just the bishops with a few people watching TV as extras, but all of the church matters. And the common priesthood, which is all of anybody who's been baptized, is as important and as essential a contributor to the church as the ordained priesthood or the ministerial priesthood.

So that was in the mid 1960s. Now, maybe 60 years later, he's saying let's take this seriously and get these voices into the conversation.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Before we talk about some of the very intense issues that were a part of the synod's discussion, I want to ask you about the potential backlash to the very fact of who is attending this synod under Pope Francis's invitation, because just a couple of days ago, in First Things, I was reading an article or opinion piece by Gerhard Cardinal Mueller and it's headlined, "The Church is Not a Democracy." And in it he writes that if the synod is to keep the Catholic faith as its guide, it must not become a meeting for post Christian ideologues and their anti-Catholic agenda.

Any attempt to transform the church founded by God into a worldly NGO will be thwarted by millions of Catholics.

KAVENY: Wow, that's pretty sharp language, isn't it? I don't think Pope Francis would agree with that description. I think that there was a lot of care that went into choosing who would come to the synod.

So each bishop's group nominated a group. People come from all the continents. Then there were an additional group of people who were nominated because of their participation in the bishops or in the synodal process. And then the Pope appointed even more representatives in order to have balance.

So the idea isn't an NGO. The idea is that this is what the church is, and the church needs to speak to one another.

CHAKRABARIT: Okay, so then does this kind of pushback from, I would say more conservative Catholics represent, perhaps, not the global nature of what Francis is trying to assemble at the Vatican or has been assembling at the Vatican, but rather the topics under discussion?

KAVENY: I think it represents both. So I think that if you look at the dubia, which means doubt, doubtful. A dubium is a question of kind of a skeptical question and dubia is the plural for that. It means that they're concerned about the synodal process because it looks like it's suggesting that lay people and the clergy should be participating on an equal level.

And some people are worried about that and it's suggesting that the authority of the magisterium is being challenged by this sort of democratic process. The Pope has stated that this is not a parliament, we're not all voting on doctrine, but he also recognizes that the Holy Spirit inspires the whole church, and it's important to listen to how the Holy Spirit is moving among all the people of God, and not just the clergy.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I'm just trying to understand, because obviously the Catholic Church worldwide is incredibly diverse in terms of the aspects of theology that various groups focus on more than others. The practice of even Mass. From place to place. I am curious about how more conservative Catholics view this particular synod.

And again, just quoting this piece in First Things. I'm seeing some objection that in contrast, quote, in contrast to previous synods, this particular one will not address the specific content of the faith. It's, he's pointing to, his concern that it's not necessarily the fundamentals of Catholicism which are being discussed, matters of doctrine, but perhaps more social issues.

KAVENY: I think it's two things. I think it is addressing a very fundamental aspect of the faith, what does it mean to be church? What does it mean to be part of the body of Christ? And if you look at the three big umbrella topics of the church, it's communion, how do we be together, participation, how do we make sure each member has its place, and mission.

How do we go out and bring the good news to everyone else? So it's hard for me to see a more fundamental question than what does it mean to be church in this globalized era? So I don't agree with him on that.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So from a political perspective, if I can put it that way, how important is it for Francis as a leader, given what the church is today in 2023, in that, looks like most of its growth is happening outside of Europe and North America.

And it's still roiling from the clergy sex abuse crisis as well. So how important is what's being discussed and who's discussing it at this synod for the political standing of the church worldwide?

KAVENY: I think it's extremely important for several reasons. First, Pope Francis is opposed to, and he's talked about this a lot, something called clericalism, which is a sense that people in the church, mainly, but it doesn't have to be only, the ordained priesthood, think that they are better, they are a cast apart, that their well-being matters more, that their insights matter more.

He doesn't deny the value and the importance of the ordained priesthood, but he says you also need the common priesthood common meaning, common to all, not as if it's not precious in order to understand what's going on. And I think he believes that if you had women, if you had lay men, if you had a broader sense of participation, the sex abuse crisis would have been addressed earlier and more decisively.

If you have parents, if you have aunts and uncles, if you have teachers all saying, "No, this is just ridiculous. This is evil. We have to stop." So that, I think, is part of it.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we're talking about the month-long meeting that has been going on at the Vatican called a synod, which is a discussion of the future of the Catholic Church. And this year, participants in the synod include laypeople and women. They were invited specifically by Pope Francis.

So quite a different synod than the Vatican. the church has seen before. I'm joined today by Cathleen Kaveny. She is a professor of theology and law at Boston College. And Professor Kaveny, before the break, you were talking about not only the church still trying to work its way through the aftermath of the clergy sex abuse crisis, but that its focus or much of its focus has to be outside of Europe and North America, given where the church's growth actually is now.

KAVENY: That's tremendously true. I think that the Church has always been ideally universal, but we haven't figured out how to be actually universal. Because we haven't really brought into our conversation and into our attention, the tremendous growth in other continents other than Europe and the U.S., particularly Africa.

And I think that's what Pope Francis is really concerned about, right? Not thinking of Catholicism as just your own small little parish, your own small little group. But what does it mean to truly try to understand people from elsewhere? This is something that could only really happen, if you think about it, in our current era, right?

People didn't know what the Pope even looked like, actually, until the 1860s, right? The communication was precarious across oceans. Some people would come to Rome and stay for months and then go back. Now we have the possibility of fast travel, instantaneous communication. We have the possibility of being a global church in a way that we never had before.

And I think the Pope is saying we've got to do it, because it's here now.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. So a global church, but does that necessarily mean there would be consensus over these very thorny issues that are being discussed in this synod? We'll get into them in detail in a minute, whether or not to allow blessings for LGBTQ people.

Whether or not to allow women to become deacons and, of course, the celibacy question and priests. But it's interesting. We got comment from so many listeners who are practicing Catholics and I just want to share one of them quickly with you. This is Joe from Worcester, Massachusetts. Hi, Joe. He calls us every day and leaves very thoughtful comments.

But he wanted to share this specific thought about the synod.

JOE: As a Catholic, I am not anxious over what this synod might or might not do. The church has the habit of weathering storms and emerging from them that much stronger. I am reminded of Jesus's guarantee that even the gates of hell will not prevail against his church.

CHAKRABARTI: I think there's a couple of ways to read what Joe's saying there. One is that perhaps change does not come to the church quickly, should we not expect any sort of revolutionary conclusions coming out of the synod. Or even if that change does happen, I think Joe's saying that the heart of the church itself isn't necessarily going to change.

KAVENY: I think that's right. I really love his faith in the promise of Jesus to the church. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. But that doesn't mean that the Church can't change and maintain and deepen its fundamental knowledge, its fundamental commitment to Jesus Christ.

And I think that's what the Synod is about. Some people really worry about change, and they say, "I need this structure in order to live or survive." And what Pope Francis is saying is, "What you need is a relationship with Jesus Christ. What you need is a relationship with the whole church."

You can swim if you can't walk sometimes, but you will continue your pilgrimage to the eternal city, to Jerusalem, the eternal Jerusalem, which is one of the images for life after death.

CHAKRABARTI: I will say, and we'll hear from them a little bit later, we did get several calls from listeners who are either practicing or former Catholics who had a very critical view of what they see the church as being now, and we'll hear from them in a minute, but we should talk about some of the things that are being discussed, because quite frankly, having all these three things together, they're not the only things being discussed at the synod, of course, but women as deacons, LGBTQ members of the church and celibacy of a priest, all at the same time seems a big deal to me.

So let's take them one by one.

KAVENY: Could I just start with a framing issue? I reread Pope Francis's response to the dubia and, a dubia is something that wants a yes or no answer. Can we do this or not do this? And what was most interesting to me about the way Pope Francis responded is basically saying, "I'm not going to give you a yes or no answer."

Trying to channel me into a narrow box is understanding theology in too rigid a way. What we need to do is have a broader conversation. So he is resisting, I think, a binary account of yes or no. Church, the church teaching stays, he wants to say, but it can get deeper, and it can modify itself. And there are examples in the past where it did that.

The most pressing is in the Declaration on Religious Liberty. The Second Vatican Council affirmed religious liberty for all people as what is due to people with dignity, as made in the image and likeness of God. They have to pursue their own call to worship. Before that, the church didn't believe that religious liberty for all people should be affirmed.

So the Church's teaching has changed, but you can argue it's really a deeper understanding of what it means to respect the dignity of all human people made in the image and likeness of God. So that's what Pope Francis is saying. We may change, but we're coming to a deeper understanding of what the Gospel calls us to do.

CHAKRABARTI: Help me understand that a little bit better, because, of course, my question's coming from someone outside of the church, but the first thought that popped into my mind was then it's just theater.

KAVENY: No, it's not just theater because what you're trying, it's focused on the person and the mission and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So before, say, if you take the religious liberty issue, what people said, we can't respect the religious liberty of everybody. Because that would mean that we were respecting religious traditions that we believe to be false. And we can't respect falsehood. What happened at the Second Vatican Council, and this is really key, is they said, that's the wrong question.

You're not asking whether you're respecting truthhood or falsehood. The more fundamental question is, are you respecting each individual's dignity as a searcher for the truth? That's the right question.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so then how does that process, though? Hypothesize with me, how would that process potentially lead to something like the elimination of the celibacy requirement for priests down the line?

Well, celibacy and same sex marriage are on different levels. So there were and there are married priests in the Catholic Church. It's a matter of discipline. So talking about eliminating the celibacy requirement is saying the discipline that we imposed 800, 900 years ago is no longer necessary for the life of the church in the West. But it's actually doing more harm than good.

So we can eliminate that. Same sex marriage is a harder teaching, much harder teaching to deal with, because the church has always taught that sexuality was something that was connected to the marriage between a man and a woman, and designed for a fruitful relationship. What is happening, I think, is that some people are saying, "Yes that's wonderful."

But we're now learning more about how human sexuality operates. And it turns out that it's not as simple as we thought it was. So we need to take into account what we know about human sexual development, about human sexuality, and try to think what life would look like for people who belong to Jesus in this context.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I guess the thing I struggle with is, as you just noted again, for a priestly, celibacy, that was an imposition created 900-ish years ago. It was a change made by the then pope. So couldn't ostensibly something as simple and similar happen now? Francis might write a letter that's full of his reasoning and thinking about church doctrine, but the conclusion is, "No celibacy requirement anymore."

KAVENY: Yeah, that would be much easier to do. That's like changing a regulation. There are already married priests. The Anglican Ordinariate, if you convert from Anglicanism and you have a wife.

CHAKRABARTI: That's a pretty big loophole.

KAVENY: So there are lots of loopholes in this. So that's easier.

The fundamental doctrinal question is, I think the conservatives say, what we have in terms of faith is a prohibition, and it's a propositional prohibition. Any same sex activity is always wrong. And they're saying, or women cannot be ordained. This is a much bigger deal than married priests in the Catholic Church.

And what they say is that has to hold true across all eras, but we funnel in different reasons. And so if one reason doesn't work, say, the inferiority of women, then we put in another reason. The capacity to image, the spousal relationship of Jesus to the church.

Other people have a different view of what church teaching is, and the reasons go along with the proposition. So if the reason I don't think women should be priests is because I think they're inferior, then I have to go back, and look at that and say now that we no longer think that women are inferior, maybe we need to reconsider whether women should be priests.

So ultimately, on the level of doctrine, is do you think the propositions hold in all context and swing free of the reasons? Or do you think a doctrine is supported by, and contextualized and can be revised in light of its of its reasoning.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. Let's hear a little bit more from some of our listeners on these sort of specific discussion points that we've been talking about.

This is Joseph, he's in Mount Pleasant, and he says he always wondered why women cannot be priests in the church. To him it feels antiquated, he does wish they would change it, but he's not so sure about whether priests should be able to marry.


JOSEPH: It's something I don't think aligns with a lot of the church's beliefs and teachings. Because when you become a priest, it's in essence like you are marrying the church itself. And I feel like something like also being able to marry someone else would conflict with that a lot. Even though if the church allowed priests to marry, I could actually see myself becoming a priest. But right now that's not my future.

CHAKRABARTI: That's listener Joseph. This is Dennis. He's a listener and has been a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for the last 39 years.


DENNIS: I don't think there's a need to discuss whether priests can be married because they were married for the first 1,100 years.

I think not only should they be married, but they should ordain women priests. If the argument is that they don't resemble Christ sufficiently, why are we baptizing them into the body of Christ? Sure, it's an unbroken tradition. Anything new is an unbroken tradition.

CHAKRABARTI: Fascinating. So that's Dennis Butka in the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

He's been there for almost 40 years. Professor Kaveny, hold on for a minute because we want to get the view of someone who's both in Rome and also someone who represents the Church's more broad worldwide reach. So Father Tom Reese joins us today. He's in Rome. He's Senior Analyst at Religion News Service and a Jesuit priest as well.

Father Reese, welcome to On Point.

TOM REESE: Good to be with you.

KAVENY: Hi, Tom.

REESE: Hi, Cathleen. We're old friends.

CHAKRABARTI: Also, with us today from Nairobi, Kenya, is Father Don Bosco Onyalla, and he's Editor in Chief of the Association for Catholic Information in Africa. Father Onyalla, welcome to On Point.

DON BOSCO ONYALLA: Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Father Onyalla, I'd actually like to start with you and get some thoughts from you on how you and the Church's African members even begin to think through the fact that some of these more, let's say, contentious issues are a matter of discussion in this synod.

ONYALLA: Thanks for having me again. Indeed, it surprises many people on this continent that these are key issues, the ones you highlight, the optional celibacy and the LGBTQ same sex unions and the ordination of women, because the continent of Africa has other issues that they consider more fundamental. And that these three are looked at as not so much issues to debate or are non-issues, I would say.

LESLIE KENDRICK So tell me more about that then. What are the issues that African Catholics would like to see being discussed?

ONYALLA: Yeah. So with this synod going on, it started, of course, at the level of the diocese at the grassroots in parishes and in associations within diocese, then at the conference level, then at the continental level. And the pastoral care of families within the African context were some of the emerging issues. For instance, within Africa, there is a practice of polygamy in a number of countries on the continent. And then there is a growing number of single mothers. So how does the church then reach out to these unique or not so usual families within the meaning of family within the church.

And church leaders highlighted these, and those who met for the synodal meetings on the continent, highlighted these as some of the pastoral issues, families that are within the polygamous unions. And the growing number of single mothers on the continent. The other common issue perhaps, that you've talked about in this program that emerged for the continent is clericalism.

And so that is, I would say, cutting across the continent, but I see also in other continents of the world.

CHAKRABARTI: So Father Onyalla, if I might ask, does this mean that it's possible that many African Catholics might look at what's been garnering a lot of attention in this synod as the continuing primacy of issues of concern in Europe and North America versus the issues of concern in Africa?

ONYALLA: I would say yes to that. And that they would be keen that the meeting also addresses what is at the heart of families in Africa, so that while attention is given to what seems to be issues in Europe and America, that what are issues in Africa are not forgotten.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Today we're talking about the meeting that's coming to a close at the Vatican about the future of the Catholic Church.

It contains my favorite new phrase, which is a synod on synodality, but they're grappling with some serious issues in the church. And we've got a lot of response from listeners who have things to say about it. This again is listener Joseph. He's in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. He says he's always been taught that marriage is between a man and a woman and should be driven by the need for procreation.

He feels like blessing same sex unions would be a sharp turn from that, and he would need more information from the church before deciding how he feels.

JOSEPH: Being Catholic to me means a lot of it is knowing and understanding and logically defining a lot of principles, what it means to be good and get into heaven.

And a big part of it also is mercy and forgiveness, which is why, and love also, which is why even though I might not necessarily support something like a same sex marriage, I still would have unconditional love for the people, and treat them on the same level as anyone else.

CHAKRABARTI: And here's listener Anthony, who's in Charlotte, North Carolina.

He says he's not surprised that the church would consider changing its position on some of these hot button issues. Because Anthony says the Catholic Church has always been a hypocritical institution.

ANTHONY: The Catholic Church is all about maintaining power, wealth, and mind control. It's what they've always done. It's been millennia. And why the Catholic Church is even allowed to exist in this country, after all of the atrocities that they've committed over the years? Child molestation and the sex scandals. I have absolutely no idea.

CHAKRABARTI: Father Reese, you're there in Rome right now. Can you tell me why you think the Church needs to consider some of these changes?

You heard Anthony saying it's part and parcel of how the Church operates. It's just a hypocritical action here, but you have a different view.

REESE: I think the thing you need to remember is that prior to this meeting in the Senate, the church had two years of consultation all over the world where the Pope asked people to come forward and share what their concerns were about the Catholic Church.

That's where the real agenda for this meeting came from. So there were lots of different concerns from different parts of the world. For example, the issues you've mentioned, of married clergy, of blessing of gay couples, women deacons. These mostly came from Europe, whereas from Africa and Asia, there's a great concern about refugees, about families that are broken up because someone has to leave the home to get a job and send money back to home.

They're worried about trafficking of women and children. And civil wars where people are dying. So there's different concerns that came up to Rome from people, from all over the world. And that's what the Pope tried to grapple with. Now, one of the concerns that he heard was the polarization that is evident in the church and in society as a whole.

And really, that's the key thing that he is concerned about. It's polarization.

CHAKRABARTI: Father Reese, can I just jump in here for a second and forgive me? My understanding from what Father Onyalla was telling us before the break and Father Onyalla, please feel free to correct me if you're wrong, but is that the concerns that Catholics in Africa had, some of which you just named, Father Reese, weren't getting equal attention in the synod as the issues from Europe and North America.

Is that true or is it just the way that it's been reported in Western media?

REESE: I think it's much more the latter. The Western media has been focused on a narrow view, a narrow number of issues, the issues that are of concern to their readers.

CHAKRABARTI: Well Father Onyalla, though, let me turn back, let me turn back to him for a second.

Father Onyalla, do you agree with that or disagree?

ONYALLA: I think the issue is the lack of understanding of the diversity of Africa. So why, for example, in migration and people, having broken families is an issue in some African countries, especially those of Northern Africa, and where there is conflict in other parts of Africa, where there is tranquility in Eastern Africa and West Africa.

What I highlighted would be more an issue. The family apostolate with polygamy, with single mothers. If people who have left one mother, can receive holy communion, this would be the pastoral issues.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so Father Reese, go ahead and respond to that, and then you were also going to say something else before I interrupted.

REESE: No he's quite right. To talk about Africa in general is like talking about Europe in general. You just can't do that, even talking about America in general. There is such variety, and that's what makes a synod like this so interesting, that all of these people with different views, different concerns come together, but the Pope's primary concern is, okay, how do we deal with these?

Do we act like a parliament where we come in and form coalitions and vote and whoever gets the majority wins? No. He wants us to come together as brothers and sisters to listen to one another. We have to do a lot more listening than we do talking. And then listen to what the Spirit is telling people.

And then, move together so that we take up, once again, the mission of Jesus, the mission to tell people about the love of God, about the gospel message of love of neighbor and of the earth. And these are the important things that the church should be involved with.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Professor Kaveny, I'm going to come back to you in just one second here, but Father Reese, I've got another question for you.

Specifically, given the fact that you're also a priest, as well, Father Reese, because some of the changes that we've been talking about, now that I hear you say that the other thing that Francis is very sensitive to are divisions, right? There are global divisions, political divisions within the church that especially may have an impact on whether or not, let's say, younger people choose to stay in the church.

Does that give you a sense of urgency that some of the changes that are under discussion in the synod actually should happen? And perhaps on a faster timescale than changes usually considered to happen in the church?

REESE: Yeah, I would love to see things move much faster in the church. But I think Pope Francis recognizes that we are such a diverse church.

We're over a billion members and we're in every country in the world, every culture. And we've seen how the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church has been disrupted and divided when people move forward a little too fast. I want to move a lot faster on these issues, but that means I have to listen to other people who have other concerns.

And frankly, that's hard for me. Cathleen, go ahead.

KAVENY: (LAUGHS) No, I think that's exactly right. Pope Francis is prioritizing the unity of a global church. And I understand how people want to move faster. And on many issues, I'd like to move faster, too. But I think what those of us who want to move faster need to say is, this isn't simply a question of progress, per se, it's a question of moving forward together as a pilgrim community.

And if you are on a pilgrimage, there are going to be people who can't see as well, who can't walk as well, who don't see things the same way you do. But the priority is keeping the group together. So how do you advance, how do you deepen but not leave anybody behind?

Father Onyalla, do you see that as a possibility that the church could advance on many of these issues as a unified world body?

ONYALLA: I see that as a challenge. And at the same time, as an opportunity. The diversity of the church, the global Catholicism with all these over a billion people.

And the diversity of the countries. And as we rightly put it, the issues are not the same. What is given weight in another continent is looked at as a non-issue in another. And perhaps that is the challenge that the synod in gathering Rome is having, and we are anticipating to see this synthesis document that is going to come out.

And I'm sure even putting it together could be a challenge. So it's more of a challenge and opportunity because then it's a long process. It started in the dioceses and then it would go on for another year until October next year. So it gives an opportunity to bring on board, to discuss and to converse, and perhaps there could be some consensus.

And if there are disagreements, there are also disagreements that are not tearing the church apart, but there is some meeting points.

CHAKRABARTI: Cathleen Kaveny, you wanted to talk about that?

KAVENY: I just wanted to say that I think the Pope is also saying to those of us who are in the developed world, who are wealthy countries, is to also say don't ignore people who are on the margins, particularly refugees and people who are impoverished. One of the points of these meetings is really to hear how other people are suffering.

The church is a field hospital. The church is meant to go out to the periphery. So that can include the existential periphery such as, LGBTQ people and women, but it also centrally includes the people who are suffering because of material lack and because of war.

And I think that's his message to the U. S. as much.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So it's interesting. I completely understand how this conversation has centered around theological and spiritual questions that Francis is thinking through, and the synod is thinking through now, as well. But I can't avoid.

When Father Reese talked about divisions, I can't avoid thinking about the political divisions that are experienced within the Catholic Church itself and then how that's spilling over into nations as a whole.

Here's an example. We spoke with Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with the Catholic Association, and she thinks, for example, the discussion around whether Catholic women should be able to be ordained is actually a bigger deal in the media than it is to Catholic women in the pews.

ASHLEY McGUIRE: I think Catholic women are a little tired of the cliche that women feel like, I don't know, somehow, we're not a part of the church because we're not priests. And I think, I'm part of a women's group that meets every week in the basement of a church. And that never comes up. What comes up are, things like pregnancy loss and the pain and suffering that people are experiencing from suicide and addiction.

And that's where the women in the church that I know are at when it comes to what are the questions and challenges and things that women want their voices heard on in the church. McGuire also told us that she says people should not expect fundamental changes to church doctrine to come out of the synod.

McGUIRE: In many ways, I converted because of the church's sort of counter cultural position. Really what drew me to the church was the steadiness of church teaching and that sort of immutable factor when it comes to truth. The Pope himself has even said that fundamental church teaching, even he can't change.

Nobody can change that, because the church was established by Jesus Christ and his teachings. And, we don't have the authority to change that.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Kaveny, let me quickly ask you. Is there the possibility that, you know, whether, even if it's years from now, if the Church makes some significant changes in the issues that we've been discussing, that it could actually, instead of providing unity, create deeper divisions between Catholics?

KAVENY: I think the Church has to change in a way that's organic to itself. So I don't think immediate change is going to work, although I think Ms. McGuire has a little bit too simplistic understanding of what it means to have continuity and change. The church has changed its mind on several issues.

Lending money at interest used to be an intrinsically evil act. You couldn't do it. Now the church invests along with everyone else. So I think a good knowledge of history and historical development is important. I think in the U. S., what the Pope is trying to overcome is the culture war mentality that was framed as the culture of life versus the culture of death under John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae, and that got politicized into the U.S.

So the culture of life became identified with the Republican Party and opposition to abortion. And a lot of conservative Catholics frame the culture of death as the Democratic Party. And I think the Pope wants to try to say, "Let's not frame things in a culture war framework." But that means it's incumbent on both liberals and conservatives not to say I'm going to write you out of the church because you don't agree with me on this issue.

This program aired on October 27, 2023.


Headshot of Claire Donnelly

Claire Donnelly Producer, On Point
Claire Donnelly is a producer at On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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