From the 1987 Synod to 2023: The gentrification of the Church?

Thanks to Dr Pat Jones from Durham University, I’ve now got a copy of the list of lay auditors at the 1987 Synod on “The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World” or the “Synod on the Laity” as it’s often informally known.

Pat was herself one of the 60 lay auditors (including non-ordained religious) at that Synod. Indeed, her photo with Pope John Paul II features on the cover of the official report (above).

At that Synod, “lay auditor” was the only capacity in which lay people were able to participate.

The list of them, however, makes very interesting reading and offers an important contrast with the forthcoming Synod on Synodality.

Here is a spreadsheet of the complete list together with the various associations, institutions and even religious congregations from which they were chosen:

As at Vatican II, religious brothers and sisters were classified as “lay” and were thus included in the list of lay auditors. There were six such religious, four women and two men.

That left 54 lay people living a lay life, both married and single.

At the 2023 Synod this number has increased to 75 (not including non-ordained religious), a nearly 40% increase. See this spreadsheet:

See also my previous posts:

Where are the international organisations?

‘Walking together’… without lay movements and associations?

Who were the lay auditors in 1987?

In every case except one (a person from Peru), the report lists the association, Church body, or professional capacity of each lay auditor.

Of these 54, eleven were chosen on the basis of their professional capacity, including two trade unionists (Romeo Maione, Canada and Luis Enrique Marius, Venezuela), a social sciences expert (Pedro Morande, Chile), a medical doctor (Silvester Kremery, Czechoslovakia), several catechists, etc.

Another fifteen were from various Church bodies, diocesan, national and international, including several from the old Pontifical Council for the Laity, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, etc.

Nine more came from a variety of local or national associations, including Italian Catholic Action, Germany’s (lay) Central Catholic Committee, the National Catholic Association of the USA, etc.

International associations and movements

Finally, there were eighteen who were from international associations. Two of these were founders, i.e. Kiko Arguello (Neo-catechumenal Way) and Chiara Lubich (Focolari).

Others “represented” (inverted commas to avoid arguments at this stage!) long-established international church movements or associations including Pax Romana-International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS-MIEC) (Etienne Bisimwa) and the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO) (Marie-Thérèse van Heteren-Hogenhuis).

Of particular importance was the presence of Geneviève Rivière, president of the Conference of International Catholic Organisations, a now sadly defunct umbrella body that itself grouped over 50 (over 70 counting associate members, invitees, etc.) associations, movements and organisations ranging from the Society of St Vincent de Paul to Caritas International, from the Legion of Mary to Pax Romana and the various Specialised Catholic Action movements.

Other lay auditors were chosen from movements that are in fact international but are actually listed as being from national affiliates, e.g. Australians Ron and Mavis Pirola (Marriage Encounter), Irishman Patrich Fay from the Legion of Mary.

In summary, a wide-ranging group that appears to have “represented” (there’s that word again!) the diversity of such associations and movements reasonably well. It is perhaps significant, however, that not one Specialised Catholic Action movement was represented as such – except via the ICO Conference. On the other hand, at least two of the experts and professionals (Romeo Maione and Pat Jones) had experience with those movements.

Compare and contrast with the Synod on Synodality

Now, here’s where things get interesting, as the table above illustrates!

As we’ve mentioned, there were six religious women and men present for the 1987 Synod. This has risen to ten for the 2023 Synod on Synodality, a two thirds increase from 1987.

Yet if we compare the presence of lay associations and movements, the opposite is the case.

In 1987, there were nine people from local and national associations present compared with three for the Synod on Synodality, a two-thirds drop!!!

And whereas in 1987 eighteen people from international associations and movements were present, in 2023 there is now only one person from such an association or movement (Focolari). A staggering drop of more than 90%!

If “synodality” means “walking together” as Pope Francis has emphasised on many occasions, how is the Church “walking together” with the literally tens (possibly hundreds) of millions of lay people who have organised themselves in Church associations, movements and the like?

On this evidence, it is difficult not to conclude that that these movements and associations, particularly international movements and associations, are being ignored or sidelined.

The professionalisation of the Church

What then is the explanation for this change over the 36 years from 1987 to 2023?

Perhaps another comparison is illuminating here.

In 1987, 27 of the 54 lay auditors were chosen from associations and movements ranging from local to international level – exactly 50%.

In 2023, only four out of 75 lay participants are from associations and movements, a mere 5.3%, another stunning 90% drop from 1987.

Put another way, in 1987 just under 50% of lay auditors were Church professionals and experts. In 2023, however, Church professionals and experts now completely dominate, numbering 71 or 95% of the lay participants who will attend the first session of the Synod on Synodality.

It’s genuinely a wonderful thing to see more lay people with higher qualifications devoting their professional lives to the work of the Church and thus having the opportunity to participate at the Synod.

But does this have to come at the cost of sidelining grassroots, often volunteer Church workers?

Is there even a consciousness in the Church of this massive change that has occurred over the last three or four decades?


Moreover, it’s notable that the experts in 1987 include two trade unionists, a category completely absent in 2023.

Is this not a sign that the professionalisation of the Church is also in effect leading to a gentrification of the Church?

I’m reminded of the beautiful phrase of the French Sillon leader, Henry du Roure, who in 1908 cautioned of the dangers facing the movement:

We need to ask each other and impose on ourselves not to organise the Sillon too well, not to tone down the Sillon, nor gentrify it. Let it remain something a little foolhardy, heroic if you like. It is better to be ground down by the movement than overfed by it. Better for our bodies to be harshly treated so that our souls remain pure.

In his original French, Henry du Roure’s warning is even stronger. Rather than “gentrification” the word he uses is “bourgeoisification.”

A warning that a Church that seeks to be synodal perhaps needs to heed today.

Stefan Gigacz