Synodality Virtues: a Culture of Non-Deference

Jan 22, 2022 | 5 comments

In the kingdom of God no one is more, or less, important than anyone else.

For Thomas O’Loughlin a synodal Church can be brought to life only if the culture of deference is put to rest.

One of the major cultural shifts in Western society in the 20th century has been the decline – in many places, the disappearance – of the culture of deference.

Many reasons have been advanced for this shift in how people relate in society, but all are agreed that it has occurred.

What is a culture of deference?

Deference can be seen in the notion that one would greet another, not as an equal in status and dignity, but as someone who is deemed superior to oneself. Deference assumes someone inherently deserves respect. It assumes that you acknowledge the other’s authority, superiority, or worth as radically different to your own.

In those countries that are still monarchies, there is still an in-built system of deference. This deference is based on just who the person is: people are not born equal – and so one must bow, curtsy or salute that person whose status is greater than yours. British coinage still asserts, in Latin, that the monarch is not only worthy of deference, but has been placed there by God. 2019.

‘ELIZABETH II . D[ei] . G[ratia] . REG[ina] . F[idei] . D[efensor] 2019, Elizabeth II is Queen by God’s grace [and] Defender of the Faith’

More widely, there was the deference that went with positions of authority. People offered respect to police and army officers. (In some countries there was and still is a cult of honoring the army.) They offered deference to the civic officials, to medical experts, to teachers, and – of course – to the clergy.

The basic idea is that certain people were somehow “more” than the rest and should be given the first word. They should be heard with respect (i.e. not contradicted), and given the last word, as well.

The new situation

Anyone who has been in hospital or a classroom recently knows that the culture of deference is dead. People do not want to be “spoken down to”. They want to be informed and allowed to make their own decisions. The age of the professor-is-god is over!

Moreover, those who used to be on a pedestal have been shown to be no different – and sometimes much worse – than the rest of us.

There was even the deference that came from money. We have all seen just how quickly a concierge or a receptionist in a hotel would respond to the needs of VIPs – and we find it insulting.

In the developed world, the age of automatic deference is over. And when we see people who imagine they merit such deference we react with a deep sense that we are all equal as humans and should just be treated with equal care and respect.

The Church situation

Deference has been feature of Christian life at least since the time of the Synod of Elvira (306 AD) when Christian ministers began to claim the special privileges that Roman culture granted to the pagan priesthoods (sacerdotia), such as the flamines and the pontifices.(Note that this occurred before Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 311 AD.)

Indeed, very soon these titles were adopted by Christian ministers. They called themselves sacerdotes (and justified this by an unfounded appeal to the Old Testament) and pontifices.

We still call the book of ceremonies used by bishops the “Pontifical” and refer to the Bishop of Rome as the “Supreme Pontiff”.

Along with the titles went the uniforms — the heel-length gown (vesta talaris) that (usually called a soutane or cassock in English) is still used by those ministers who like being clerics.

The use of purple – look at the trimming on the soutanes of monsignori and bishops – and the use of the title “reverend” (literally: O revered one) also comes from this ancient imperial culture of deference.

Bishops’ purple attire is a legacy from the highly stratified society of the late Roman Empire. It was a culture built upon deference whereby the ‘lowers’ gave homage to their ‘betters’ and their ‘betters’ acted as their patrons.

More importantly than the kit, is the attitude that being the subject of deference brings. It assumes that the revered one can speak first, is not challenged as to what he says, and then has the last word.

In a culture of deference, what Father says, goes!

However, we see ourselves, not as subjects, but as brothers and sisters in baptism who are on a common pilgrimage of faith. All of us need to recall that no one likes to be patronized or “spoken down to”.

Who speaks

Just imagine going into any group of adults (or even a schoolroom for that matter) and then speaking for 5-10 minutes. What else would happen? There would, at the very least, be questions! Only an idiot would not make room for a “time for questions” into the plan for this communications slot.

Others would probably want to share their experience of what the speaker had been talking about. At the very least, into a 10-minute slot, a speaker would build in some time for reactions and comments.

If the communicator has had any training – or natural skill in talking to people – the whole event would take the form of a dialogue. It would be more like a class than a lecture. It would be done – at the very least – with some Q&A-style dialogue. The style would be informal. For instance, it might pick up on the common jokes of the group on that day. And, unless one wants to intimidate a group when giving them a “dressing down”, it would be done at the same level as them. Moreover, it would not be done from any throne or lectern.

Now think of the way that most homilies are given. The culture of deference still exists for most of those – be they bishops, presbyters, or deacons – who preach at our celebrations of the Eucharist. Pulpits are places of power and belong to cultures of deference. The pulpit is the image of ‘being spoken down to.’

Few pulpits remain in our buildings, but we still use the metaphor. More importantly, we still think in terms of one-speaking / others listening. The pulpit mentality is still central to most Catholic liturgies.

If you want proof that it no longer works, then stand at the back and watch the assembly and how they are moving their heads. How many are actually listening? How many are engaged? How many are looking at their iPhones?

A complex problem

The Church is out of sync on the subject of deference. That which most clergy take for granted is given them. But it is resented and becomes just a token. People have moved away.

Bishops are often glad to get presbyters from developing countries where deference is still part of the culture. But these men in not realizing that deference is no longer part of our culture are often pushing people away from the gospel. This is a matter that needs cultural education.

We have a variety of ministries in the Church. We have to learn anew how to respect these differences without appealing to the modes of deference.

We are seeking to become a synodal Church, but the assumption of every synod is that all who meet at “the cross-roads” (the synodos) do so on a level-playing field. If we try to become synodal while ignoring that many of the laity involved no longer live in a world of deference, then the process will lead to resentment, frustration, and rejection.

Hope or Trap?

We need to make a virtue of living in a post-deference society. If you miss that – for instance people deferring to you or greeting you by kissing your ring – then that is sad!

If we go into the synodal process without this virtue of post-deferential relationships with others, this process (on which many are pinning their hopes for the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church) will lead to the alienation of many of the very Christians we need for our renewal.

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 Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).

This article is republished here with the kind permission of La Croix International  


  1. Cornelius Bray

    Deference of course is central to Christianity and consequently to Catholicism. Remember Abraham answering, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. (Gen 22:8) It continues say up to John the Baptist – “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30). Nobody emphasised deference to the extent that Christ did. “And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn 8:29). This deference reached a climax in Luke 22:42 – “not my will, but thine, be done.”

    Christ intended this deference to continue in the Church. ““All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt: 28).

    Without this deference the unity in the Church is sundered, the notion of truth dissolves. By the year 1600 there were perhaps 600 different denominations within the reformed churches. That figure has splintered to over 30,000 today.
    Christ requires the sacramentally ordained to become instruments teaching deference to Him. In a way the present Pope’s reference to the “field hospital” reinforces this. After the “patient’s” needs have been the diagnosed the curative gifts bestowed to the Church are offered. Christ outlined an appropriate demeanour for the ministry in question.

    Thomas O’Loughlin’s article seems to confuse the demeanour with the responsibility to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).

    The deference is required is that in Matthew 10:40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” This is not deference to a personality. It is not about the cult of the individual.

    All summed up by St Peter: “Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1Peter 5)

    Where does Scripture advise one to be deferent only to oneself?

    • soconaill

      I fear that you are confusing loving respect and due obedience with deference, Neil, forgetting the possibility of undue deference – which can be granted mistakenly if the party expecting it is abusive of power – as any cleric or ecclesiastic can be.

      Take the case that obviously occurred in relation to the Irish 20th C. residential institutions for young people indicted in the Ryan report in 2009, as recorded in the executive summary:

      “3. The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools. The Reformatory and Industrial Schools Section of the Department was accorded a low status within the Department and generally saw itself as facilitating the Congregations and the Resident Managers.”

      [Article 3 from the conclusion to the Executive Summary of the Ryan Report, published 20th May, 2009. The ‘Congregations’ referred to in No. 3 were the Catholic Religious Orders that ran these institutions. They were legally answerable to the Irish Department of Education, but as No. 3 makes clear, there was a deadly problem of lay deference to the religious orders in that same department.]

      For me, deference has to be qualified as due deference to be anything other than the opposite of the relationship that God required of Jesus, which was essentially one of freely loving collaboration rather than submission. Moreover, Jesus surely offered that same relationship to us by calling us friends, rather than servants. (John 15:15) He also explicitly warned his closest disciples against ‘lording it over anyone’, and showed how Christian authority was to be exercised in washing the feet of the apostles rather than ordering them about.

      You seem completely to overlook the reality that the deference so often required of lay people in the church by clergy was the deference required of a social inferior, not that of a loving friend, sister or brother. That the clerical church could have been, and actually was, often contaminated by such attitudes of overlordship by the external unjust world, instead of being imbued always by the spirit of the Gospel relationships, seems to be completely absent from your grasp of history. I seriously wonder why.

      Finally, as Pope Francis observes, the unity of the church cannot be maintained by anything other than the power of the Holy Spirit to engage us in a relationship of strict loving equality rather than one of superiority/inferiority. Pope Francis understands the difference between the pyramids of the world and the principle of hierarchy in the church, which is one of service, not a chain-of-command structure – and that is what we must seek to build.

  2. Kevin Walters

    To Peter “feed my flock”

    As a Church, we will always need central direction (leadership) and I envisage that leadership to be both Male and Female in the sense of a visible living manifestation of a commitment to the faith, giving hope to all those who encounter them, in effect true discipleship reflecting the teachings of Jesus Christ amongst us. Some would say that this is too much to ask of anyone and yes, of course, no one expects to see a perfect man/woman (Shepherd) but my hope has always been to see honest leadership. Failings and flaws are acceptable in all of us but dishonesty is not, as it is in denying the reality of our hearts that our consciences are stifled. Whereas true humility (Open/sincere acknowledgment of personal failings) should always be met in a similar manner to “The Angela’s rejoicing in heaven” by those who encounter it.

    All that is needed to restore the credibility of Church is for His followers to openly serve (Bear witness to) the Truth as His Way of Truth (Confrontation) with the reality of ourselves and each other before our Father in heaven cannot fail, as it will induce humility in all our hearts, creating a place for the Holy Spirit to dwell within (Amongst) us.

    Leading to Confirmed Discipleship (Male and Female) which for me is the way forward for the Church in our present-day: As to-day for many it is easier to accept the status quo as we the ‘laity’ have been led for generations as The Eucharist is the center of Christian worship and by implication, the priest is our ‘Focal Point’, as he is given a special charisma via ordination.

    Quote from another source “It’s not that we don’t believe in God it’s just that the church and priests are irrelevant to us.”

    Many Priests refer to the Priesthood as our Profession I find this term disheartening, as their vocation is to reflect honesty and Truth before mankind, credibility has to be restored but to do this many will have to recapture what they thought you were originally buying into by confronting the hypocrisy that is manifest in the controlling power of Clericalism by embracing Spiritual Poverty (as the godly are aware of their poverty) by wearing His garment of Humility and reclaim their integrity before God and the flock no matter how dysfunctional that flock (Cultural Catholics) may appear to be, as many do not know that they are waiting to be fed by the Truth and led onto His Way of humility one of spiritual enlightenment.

    “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”

    Thankfully in our present time God Himself has interceded in giving us the reality of ourselves in a wondrous way that cannot be misunderstood in a broken image of Divine Mercy that challenges the arrogance of all our hearts before Him and needs to be embraced vigorously ensuring a shift of culture within the Church while at the same time permitting Her to right many past wrongs and heal many divisions and abuses of power.

    Quote “We are in denial about vocations – not facing reality – we are part of a dying system.”

    My vision below for the leadership of the Church if followed would solve the problem of vocations as it would draw in all men and women who are prepared to Shepperd and serve in Spiritual Poverty (Full obedience to the Truth) rather than the intellectualized self-serving image of Clericalism that is now part of a dying system.

    If I were a Sheppard what would I do?
    In trust a bowl and towel I would bring to you
    A Bondsman to the one above
    To All this must be truly understood
    In poverty (Spiritual) we only serve love
    Water with grace to clean your heart feet and face
    As I wash your feet the Master’s heart I will seek
    Your heart to mine will surly speak
    No one can divide if in the light of the Spirit/Truth we reside
    Our opinions are no longer truly our own
    The Word of God (Will) is all we own
    To Bishop on his throne, we will take our towel and bowl
    As we wash his feet his heart we will seek
    No one hides from where Christ truly resides
    With tongue and flame give us unity again in humility with our Shepherds (Male and female) and each other

    Please consider continuing this theme via the link

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. Neil Bray

    Sean, my contribution is about due deference to God – “to observe ALL THAT I HAVE COMANDED YOU” – is demanded of all Catholics. Alternatively one can look at “if you love me keep my commandments” (Jn 14-15).

    Those commandments conclude “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . This is the great and first commandment. (items 1,2 and 3 of the decalogue) And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39) This applies as your comment would suggest to all Catholics, laity and the sacramentally ordained.

    It does not relieve the successors of the apostles or those sent by them, the clergy, from preaching “the word” [urgently] in season and out of season.” Nor does it relieve the laity of the responsibility of observing Matthew 22:37-39. Nor does it in any way dilute the authority of the sacramentally ordained in their ministry of promoting evangelisation. This is a prerequisite for the “movement of the Spirit.”

    Indeed, unless the Pope is to contradict himself, synodality, the notion of the field hospital and the requirement for accompaniment of Amoris Laetitia have to interact together. Synodality raises the necessity for the field hospital which needs accompaniment, in the mode understood in Amoris Laetitia for its services to work.

    I repeat the directives of St Peter which I quote again ” “Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1Peter 5).

    This summarises the necessary context of love within which the clergy summon the courage in the context of modern culture, to, in a spirit of love for the salvation of the faithful, exercise their necessary responsibility of love to preach “the word” [urgently] in season and out of season.”

    The depressing historical problem you refer to demonstrates an instance or instances where religious authorities and personnel of different hues imbibed certain cultural values from the ambient social milieu. The latter included State Department personnel whose attitudes were not solely of subservience to clergy but were also influenced by easy evasion of adequate funding.
    Does the Pope’s expressed attitude to the German synodal pathway not suggest that he sees the process of that latter as being infiltrated negatively by the spirit of the Zeitgeist?

    • soconaill

      The complete Oxford English Dictionary (the OED) covers ‘deference’ as follows furthest below. As it is clear that Tom O’Loughlin was using the word in sense 2 – i.e. as a habit or requirement of submission to the supposed superiority of another – and this sense is accepted by the foremost dictionary of the English language – it is a mistake to insist that deference can mean ONLY what Neil Bray thinks it means – which seems to be sense 3.

      As a word is definitely needed for what sense 2 describes, and no other seems to be available, it cannot be sustainable to argue as Neil does, that ‘deference’ cannot be used to describe that – especially in defiance of what the OED makes plain.

      Every Catholic will have had experiences of an expectation of deference from themselves, in sense 2, on the part of some clergy – an expectation that can no longer be satisfied automatically if the equality of dignity of all in the church is to be sustained. Lumen Gentium Article 37 makes that plain also. So does the principle of the primacy of conscience.

      <<< (From the OED – the definitive dictionary of English?)>>>

      Deference, noun

      1. The action of offering or proffering; tendering, bestowing, yielding. Obsolete. rare.
      1660 tr. M. Amyraut Treat. conc. Relig. I. iii. 35 Our deference of all honor and glory to that which we venerate.
      (Hide quotations)

      Thesaurus »

      2. Submission to the acknowledged superior claims, skill, judgement, or other qualities, of another. Often in to pay, show, yield deference.
      1702 Clarendon’s Hist. Rebellion I. I. 19 He correspond with Him with that deference he had used to do, but had the courage to dispute His commands.
      1706 R. ESTCOURT Fair Example III. i Now, Sir, you shall stay and see what a Deference they pay to my Skill and Authority.
      1711 J. ADDISON Spectator No. 62. ¶7 With all the Deference that is due to the Judgment of so great a Man.
      1798 J. FERRIAR Illustr. Sterne 196 Much of this evil has certainly proceeded from undue deference to authorities.
      1830 I. D’ISRAELI Comm. Life Charles I III. vii. 148 Charles often yielded a strange deference to minds inferior to his own.
      1833 H. COLERIDGE Biographia Borealis 6 That voice of authority to which he would have paid most willing deference.
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      Thesaurus »

      3. Courteous regard such as is rendered to a superior, or to one to whom respect is due; the manifestation of a disposition to yield to the claims or wishes of another. Const. to, †for.
      a1660 H. HAMMOND Wks. (1684) II. I. 137 (R.) Why was not John who was a virgin chosen, or preferred before the rest?..his answer is, because Peter was the Elder, the deference being given to his age.
      1662 J. DAVIES tr. A. Olearius Voy. & Trav. Ambassadors 80 Nor have they any more complyance one for another, than they have deference for strangers: for instead of being civil one to another [etc.].
      1678 Lively Orac. v. §15. 296 I shall consider to which God himself appears in Scripture to give the deference.
      1712 R. STEELE Spectator No. 497. ⁋2 He was conducted from room to room, with great deference, to the minister.
      1754 EARL OF CHATHAM Lett. to Nephew (1804) iv. 20 Their age and learning..entitle them to all deference.
      a1854 H. REED Lect. Eng. Hist. (1855) iii. 411 That indescribable and instinctive deference to the feelings of others, which constitutes the gentlemanly spirit.
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      Thesaurus »

      4. in deference to: in respectful acknowledgement of the authority of, out of practical respect or regard to.
      1863 H. COX Inst. Eng. Govt. I. x. 249 The resignation of a Prime Minister in deference to the will of the House of Commons.
      1867 S. SMILES Huguenots Eng. & Ireland ix. 228 In deference to public opinion, he granted some relief to the exiles from his privy purse.
      1879 M. ARNOLD Irish Catholicism in Mixed Ess. 101 It is in deference to the opinion..of such a class that we shape our policy.


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ACI’s Campaign for Lumen Gentium 37

The Promise of Synodality

What we have experienced of synodality so far gives ACI real hope that a longstanding structural injustice in the church may at last be acknowledged and overcome.

As all Irish bishops well know, the 'co-responsibility' they urge lay people to share - as numbers and energies of clergy decline - has been sabotaged time and again by canonical rules that deny representational authority and continuity to parish pastoral councils.  ACI's 2019 call for the immediate honouring of Lumen Gentium Article 37 becomes more urgent by the day and is supported by the following documents - also presented to the ICBC in October 2019.

The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church
It was Catholic parents and victims of clerical abuse who taught Catholic Bishops to prioritise the safeguarding of children in the church

Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God
It was for challenging religious hypocrisy and injustice that Jesus was accused and crucified. He is therefore a model for the common priesthood of the laity and for the challenging of injustice - in society and within the church.

A Suggested Strategy for the Recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church
Recovery of the church depends upon acknowledgment of the indispensable role of the common priesthood of the lay people of God and the explicit abandonment by bishops and clergy of paternalism and clericalism - the expectation of deference from lay people rather than honesty and integrity.

For the full story of ACI's campaign for the honouring of Article 37 of Lumen Gentium, click here.


"Come Holy Spirit, Renew Your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen."

Saint Pope John XXIII, 1962 - In preparation for Vatican Council II, 1962-65.

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