In most if not all areas of life, we’re witnessing the disintegration of a secure, unchanging world. As it was in the beginning is not how it is now and certainly not how it will be in the future. As Yeats suggested many moons ago: Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold.
The breaking up of our different worlds was already happening but sometimes we pretended not to notice. The tell-tale fissures were already evident but we conspired to camouflage them.
In terms of Catholicism it could be argued that the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict were Canute-like exercises, desperate attempts to turn back the prevailing tide. It ended in the nonsense of Catholics being told that there were some things they couldn’t talk about. Or even presumably, think about. Una duce, una voce.
Now there’s a pope in Rome, who keeps telling bishops, priests and people (most recently again in America) to debate, debate, debate. Talk to each other, listen to each other, is his constant mantra. And, last October, in the first stage of the Synod on the Family, Francis encouraged a sometimes contentious debate, unprecedented in a synod of bishops.
Not that everyone is listening, of course, not least the Hungarian, Cardinal Peter Erdo, who last week (as chairman of the second stage of the Synod on the Family) informed delegates that nothing was going to change. What Fianna Fáil used to call, in simpler times, ‘defending core values’. It takes time, sometimes a long time, to realise that there’s a new show in town, and that everyone can join in the chorus.
The plain, simple and difficult truth is that the Catholic Church is very divided. While not yet at the level of, say, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael shaping up to each other in the run-up to a general election, the divide in the Church is now obvious and taken for granted. So Cardinal Edo, instead of everyone instinctively accepting the parameters he sought outrageously to lay down, is simply regarded as a proponent of one side. Other voices will be there ‘to mark him’. Like the Canadian, Archbishop Durocher who wants women to be ordained as deacons.
A timely article on the Boston Globe’s Crux website records the reality of a divided Church – in America. Dwight Longenecker, a parish priest, asks the question: ‘Is Catholicism (in America) about to break into three (parts)?’
The article was inspired by a letter to the New York Times by theologian Daniel Maguire. It lays bare the very different ‘churches’ operating side-by-side in America, a society and a church of extremes, where recently Pope Francis had to pick his steps carefully and like a stray dog go a bit of the road with everyone.
Generally the same fragmentation has occurred in Ireland. But whereas Longenecker sees three strands in American Catholicism, I would identify four groups in Ireland operating in an uneasy alliance under the broad canvass of Catholicism: progressives; middle-of-the-road; traditionalists; and ultra-traditionalists.
- Progressives (or reformers) believe the Church should adapt to the modern age. They are unhappy with the New Missal, tend to exert more freedom in worship, experiment in alternative spiritualities and work towards making the Catholic faith relevant, practical and real. They are particularly interested in peace and justice issues, are enthusiastic about serving the needs of those on the margins of the Church – resonate with Francis’ emphasis on ‘the smell of the sheep’– and work for reform and institutional change. They live their lives accepting a clear distinction between what Catholic doctrines and moral precepts uphold as ideals and the ‘pastoral’ needs of the individual in a set of given circumstances. They are also interested in ecumenism and ecology.
- Middle-of-the-road Catholics are at ease with the principles of the Second Vatican Council, but would like them moderated a bit, would like ‘to reform the reform’. They would prefer the Mass before the New Missal, want the Church to relate to the modern world, to use modern media of communications, and to connect with the younger generation. They uphold traditional Catholic teaching in faith and morals, are generally pro-life but want to communicate and live the truths of their faith in a modern and relevant way.
- Traditionalists support Church teachings before the Second Vatican Council, are interested in the Catechism and support the New Missal and old-style devotions. They prefer churches with altar rails and statues in the sanctuary and Gregorian Chant. They are strongly pro-life, are in favour of celibacy for an all-male priesthood, pray for vocations to the enclosed religious life and adhere to traditional family structures.
- Ultra-traditionalists prefer the Mass in Latin, like women to wear mantillas on their heads in Church, kneel at every opportunity, want their priests to dress as priests, criticise religion programmes in schools as heretical, accept only the organ as a legitimate instrument in worship and have the support of a plethora of ‘Catholic’ newspapers that help to convince them that everyone is less Catholic than they are and that Satan is lurking everywhere.
In the Synod in Rome at present Pope Francis is trying to keep all sides going. And that’s what he has to do because, whatever camp we might place ourselves in, we’re all Catholics – albeit with different attitudes and perspectives – but all entitled to our place in the sun.
But not so, it would seem, in Ireland where our leaders champion traditional Catholics and allow themselves to be bullied by ultra-traditionalists. Which is why the Catholic Church in Ireland is a cold place for both ‘progressive’ and ‘middle-of-the-road’ Catholics.