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A church quartered?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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  1. Joseph McMahon says:

    My own research indicates that there are 147 different strands in Catholicism. Add in the four interesting variations to be found in Mayo and you have 151. They all despise the new missal

  2. Martin Molloy says:

    As someone who fits into your Ultra-traditional category, the hierarchy are certainly not sympathetic towards nor bullied by us. They have refused to show leadership when needed and have been more outspoken when matters are not within their competence. eg They have supported Yes votes for European Treaties and yet they have consistently refused to state or insist that those who publicly support procured abortion or same-sex “marriage” should be refused Holy Communion. We are left asking, do they really believe in the Blessed Sacrament?
    The implication that only the progressives are interested in those on the margins, is downright insulting. St Francis, St Alphonsus, St Vincent de Paul , St Damien of Molokai etc… You can finish the list of those well known ultra-traditionalists.
    More importantly, we are concerned primarily with matters of Faith and not ritual. We believe that Christ founded only one Church i.e. the Catholic Church, outside of which nobody can be saved. We are to conform to Her teachings whether they are popular in our age or not. As for the rituals, dress etc. that you mentioned, we like these things which focus mainly on Christ rather than on the community. We are left wondering about those who question the Church’s teaching on ordination etc What does your belief rest on? and even do you believe in the Church at all?

  3. Prodigal Son says:

    Living in a world where all is disintegrating must be a morose experience. For a Catholic disintegration is not an option. “We know that in everything God works for good with those who [seek to] love him, who are called according to his purpose.”
    Consequently, Pope Benedict as a Catholic liberal spent life enjoying the survey of the breadth and depth of life’s theological, philosophical and scientific wonders. JP II spent days and weeks dialoguing with young people about Love and Responsibility. Note, Pope Francis advocates dialogue, not debate, among Catholics.
    Dwight Longenecker ends his article with the following: “the answer is for those with difficulties to work through them, for those with doubts to develop a curious and affirming attitude to Church teaching, and for those who dissent to pray for a change in their hearts and minds so they might come at last to the place where they can joyfully assent to the fullness of the Catholic faith.”
    The fullness in question is a number of things. There is the hundredfold in this life and life eternal afterwards. When the future is secure, the present is more enjoyable, less disintegrative. There is Truth which integrates. Whither disintegration?
    Assigning Catholics into discrete categories is an exercise in spiritual stereotyping and an ultra-waste of time. (None of the four comes in my size!) Is Pope Francis so insincere as to seek to keep all sides going? No. Read his final homily at Synod 2014. He consistently encourages people to focus on God, to bend their minds and wills to God’s. That’s both one’s place in the sun and the source of the unity we pray for twice at every Mass.

  4. The use of the term ‘traditional’ to denote e.g. an attachment to the Latin mass is frankly daft. If I affirm a primary attachment to the Great Commandment (which certainly wasn’t ‘Do this in Latin’) how am I not in the Church’s most important tradition? Surely the term ‘tradition’ is far too important to be defined in terms of cultural norms that were never prioritised by Jesus himself.
    As for ‘progressive’ are we not also told to ‘seek’ first of all the kingdom of God, clearly implying that we must all ‘progress’ in that regard.
    It follows necessarily that to be truly traditional we need to be progressive also. We need a completely different taxonomy of the variations in our preoccupations, remembering that we are ‘works in progress’ too.

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