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A civil war in the Church?

Popes usually don’t officiate at weddings. But, a week or so ago, Pope Francis made an exception when he presided over the vows of 20 couples in St Peter’s in Rome. And when popes do unexpected things they tend to do them for a purpose – to make a particular point.
Several of the couples were cohabiting, or had children from previous relationships. One bride had an eight-year-old son from a previous relationship and he acted as ring-bearer and was given a seat of honour near his mother. Another had a grown-up daughter born out of wedlock and her new husband had already been married and had his marriage annulled.
The pope’s involvement is taken as a signal to those participating in the Synod on the Family about to open in Rome that the Church must be more realistic about marriage and more open to change in its pastoral practices. Pope Francis said that the ceremony in Rome was realistically representative of modern marriage and anyone conducting marriage ceremonies, in Ireland and elsewhere, would have to agree. To coin a phrase, we are where we are.
Effectively, through this ceremony, Pope Francis was announcing to the world that the Church intends to address marriage as it is rather than as some theoretical state of perfection and clearly his hope is that this will set the tone for the Synod on the Family.
Francis has a lot of support. Cardinal Walter Kasper has argued Francis’ position in more detail, focussing on the importance of mercy in dealing with those whose marriages are less than perfect and who struggle to keep relationships and families together. While some contend that church teaching is church teaching and can’t be changed, it’s increasingly clear that both church teaching and the ‘pastoral care’ of married couples need to be dealt with by the synod. At the very least the quality of mercy needs to be present if the family of the Church is to support marriages that are stressed or broken.
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp is firmly on Francis’ side too. He believes that a succession of church documents on family planning, sexuality, marriage and family life have been met ‘with increasing incomprehension and indifference by ordinary Catholics’, as a worrying gap has emerged between what the Church is saying and what Catholic couples are doing. His hope is that a start can be made with the synod in narrowing this gap and restoring the credibility of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family.
There are other messages too. A number of cardinals, including some of the heavy-hitters in the Vatican like Cardinal Muller, have combined to write a book to be launched just before the Synod defending the status quo. While they don’t criticise Pope Francis by name it is clear that, like many other appointees of Popes Benedict and John Paul II, they are unhappy with Francis raising these issues. And they are unhappy too with the re-emergence of the Vatican Two emphasis on the collegiality of the bishops with the pope and the promise that offers to our Church.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that at present we’re witnessing a civil war in the Catholic Church. And the first battle will be fought at the Synod on the Family from the 5-19 October. On the one side are those who, like Francis, recognise that the expected reforms emanating from the Second Vatican Council were deprived of oxygen during the last two pontificates, and that our Church needs a rediscovery of fundamental insights of that Council like collegiality, the rights of the baptised and not least the primacy of conscience. And on the other are those like Cardinal Raymond Burke who were more comfortable with the more authoritarian style of John Paul II and the focus on tradition that marked the approach of Benedict XVI – including a return to the Latin Mass and the Latinate form of the new Mass.
As usual when opinions differ, most opt for the luxury of sitting on the fence. Cardinal Vincent Nicolls of Westminster recently took Francis’ phrase of the need for priests and bishops to have ‘the smell of the sheep’ and applied it to theologians. They too, he said, need to ‘have the smell of the sheep’. Some theologians, like bishops and priests, are standing aside waiting to see what way the ‘civil war’ will go before they decide what way the wind is blowing.
The failure of the Catholic Church in Ireland to take the tide that Francis is offering to the Church is hugely disappointing. While it’s understandable that sailors who were told to stick close to land can get a bit queasy when they’re asked to head for the open seas, there comes a point when they are expected to become acclimatised to the change of course. Now that Francis is clearly pointing to a different approach, it’s time for bishops to become acclimatised to the new papal dispensation.
Yet they seem determined not to respond. The Synod on the Family is a focus of huge expectation – maybe too much expectation – when Francis has effectively appealed for a debate on the lived realities of marriage and family life.
As I understand it, Ireland will be represented at the synod in Rome by an archbishop and a nun. In a way no more needs to be said about the response of the Irish Church. While both may well be up to speed on the realities of marriage and family life in Ireland today, neither is married or has children so the signals are all wrong. Isn’t it inexpressibly sad for our Church that there was in Ireland no one the Irish bishops could find to trust who was married and had children?
Note: My book, Who will break the bread for us? is now available on Kindle.

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  1. Brendan Cafferty says:

    It is,if true extraordinary that Ireland will be represented only by a Bishop and a Nun.Surely there are many married folk not of the radical or extreme type but Church going good Catholics who might have been invited. The nature of the family as we knew it is changing rapidly,and while it is often good to hold the line to a certain extent, the church has to grapple with reality if it has any hope of surviving. The norms and traditions many of us grew up with are gone-for example young people have no no problem living together before marriage but are abhorrent of someone who drives a car while drunk or attempts to smoke in a crowded place. When I was growing up the opposite was the case! I heard of a politician in recent past who ended up in disgrace because of tax problems but was also in an irregular union which was largely unreported. It was said of that politician that thirty or forty years ago they would have been brought down by the irregular union but not the tax problems.Norms change and it is the duty of the church to grapple with that as far as possible. Many good young decent folk may be lost to church if they continue to feel excluded, and from my experience there are many who still cherish the church and its traditions especially the richness of its liturgy.
    I think that the ignoring by and large of Humane Vitae was the first breach in the dyke. Many, in fact most Catholics ignored it and still felt part of the system, therefore if you get away with one thing why not do the same in other spheres. It seems depressing that the Irish Bishops are sort of hiding in the upper room on this one. Pope Francis may not have many years left to change things, just imagine if the conservatives hold out to next conclave whenever that may be and give us another ice age papacy ?

  2. Noirin Lynch says:

    I DO think it is an exaggeration to say civil war, with respect.
    Surely the problem with an institutional hierarchy is its inability to cope with conflict and debate. To simply row in behind the Pope would be another form of blind obedience – it’d just be ‘our side’ winning that round! 😉
    What we need is to develop adults capable of robust pastoral and theological debate – not people who agree with us cause we’re right. Whether Cardinal or questioning teenager … the ability to debate, discuss, consider another’s point of view, and change ones mind – is crucial in developing an intelligent, learning church.
    So while Cardinal Pell and co annoy my head, I think they are perfectly entitled to their opinions, and we all have a lot to gain from engaging in debate – where some cannot enforce their will, but must listen and work collaboratively (…ish!).
    I think its great to see them arguing and I hope to hear of lots more of it – these themes SHOULD cause rows and debates and fellas bringing in theologians and speakers from all over the world to advise them … y;know, like they did at Vatican II 😉
    Lets not give the doom merchants ammo but calling debate, war. That only fosters the notion that the world is falling apart cause people don’t respect authority like they used to! Its not, we are just getting challenged about our comfort zones …
    We are an international institutionalised community of communities with a lot of passionately held views. I am more worried about us when we are not fighting. … Lets be stringent in challenging the assumptions and presumptions that blind us, while recognising that God has something to teach us through every person, even those we struggle to respect and love.

  3. I’m not sure is ‘civil-war’ the right term to use. Perhaps ‘reformation-continued’ or ‘Vatican 11-continued’ might be more appropriate.
    To make it relevant, re-interpretation of the Gospel message is crucial as we evolve and try to live our lives through rapid and mind boggling change.
    Reading Galatians 2 emphasizes the need for a strong and steady hand through times of change. Unlike Paul, whose strength of character and belief succeeded in the abolition of the most fundamental Jewish Law, Circumcision, there was nobody with the courage to stand up to the traditionalists who feared change in the years after Vatican 11.
    Will Pope Francis be like Pope Paul Vl when he is confronted with the minority position of ‘no change’? Or will he like Paul, who stood up to the traditionalists, James, Cephas and John, open wide the doors of the Church to all types of ‘Gentile sinners’?
    Christianity was founded on radical change, on radical re-interpretation of the Law.

  4. I am glad to see Brendan Cafferty prefaces his comment on Brendan Hoban’s article with the caveat, “if true”.
    The assertion, (also made by We are Church and quoted in The Tablet of 20 September – Laity attacks lack of representatives at synod, p. 33), that Sr. Margaret Muldoon, former General Leader of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux (of whom I am a member but am writing in a personal capacity), will “join Dr. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin as one of two Irish representatives at the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on ‘The Pastoral Challenges of the Family ‘to be held in Rome 5-19 October 2014” is totally untrue.
    Sr. Margaret was nominated by the IUSG (International Union of Superiors General) as their representative at the upcoming Synod.
    It is customary for a member of the IUSG to be invited to Synods. They represent thousands of religious women all over the world, women with broad experience of the problems facing church and society everywhere. Whatever the IUSG had in mind in choosing a member of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, it seems appropriate given our Institute’s charism of communion and our Founder’s aim to “gather into one family the scattered children of God”.
    Had Sr. Margaret been invited to attend the Synod as a ‘lay’ participant representing Ireland I have no doubt she would have declined the invitation as she has not lived or worked in Ireland for over 20 years.
    To say, as We are Church is quoted in The Tablet as saying, that the Irish Church operated a “secretive selection process” in choosing participants is unjust to both the Church and Sr. Margaret.
    May I say I strongly support the aims and work of the ACP, the ACI and We are Church.

  5. June McAllister says:

    Will someone please tell me what is going on in the RC Church? I constantly hear people saying that it is a top-down model with the Pope at the top. Yet it seems that what he requests isn’t adhered to – I mean, how many of us had access to the questionnaire on ‘Family Life’? The Pope wanted all our views. What is a group of cardinals doing publically working against him? Why are cardinals constantly making public their disagreements? Why are our theologians and thinkers being told they have nothing to offer so ‘be quiet’. Why does the CDF behave so rudely towards, for example, Tony Flannery? Are good manners not part of respect for each of God’s people? Are we all going crazy? What on earth is an elderly celibate bachelor and an elderly celibate spinster doing going to Rome to debate the internal happenings of married and family life? It doesn’t matter how nice they are, how knowledgeable they are or anything else – Ireland has plenty of married people with families. Why do we submit to this craziness? Is this the fruit of 2000 years of Christianity? I am reminded of the fairy story we all read as children – ‘The Emperor’s clothes’.Surely common sense is also a gift of the Spirit?

  6. Brendan Butler says:

    Sister Sile Mc Gowan hfb claims that Sr Margaret Muldoon was nominated by the IUSG as their represenative to the Synod .
    However if anyone cares to check the Vatican Press office’s press release on participants to the Synod you will find the Auditors listed by country and organisations they represent.
    The press release names ‘ Sister Margaret Muldoon ex superior general of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeos , Ireland.’
    Sr Margaret is only described as the ex superior general of the Sisters of Bordeos and she is most definitely not described as a representative of IUSG but most significantly her description ends with that important word ‘IRELAND’ Why is IRELAND mentioned and not the IUSG.
    Indeed all the other participants as Auditors have their representative country mentioned just as Sr Margaret had.
    So for SR. Sile to state that the We are Church’s statement is ‘untrue’ needs to be retracted.
    Further Sr. Sile states We are Church’s criticism of the
    ‘secretive process of selection was operated by the Irish Church is totally inaccurate . We stated very clearly it was operated by the Vatican and not the Irish Church. We still stand over our belief that the secretive process by which not only Sr Margaret but all Auditors were chosen is outrageous and and insult to not only Irish married family members but to all of the People of God.
    I have been in correspondence with Sr. Margaret on this issue and she accepted that that what We are Church was stating was not to impugn her personal integrity nor that of her Order but was a reaction to the Vatican’s secretive selection process whereby no Irish married family Catholic person would be present at the Synod to represent the many challenges facing Irish families in the present Irish social, political ,economic and religious context. Indeed we have no problem with the IUSG having a representative at the Synod but what is totally unacceptable is the lack of an Irish married family person at the Synod.

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    The only hope for the Synod is that at least a debate surfaces and that we learn that the divisions of opinion among ordinary catholics reach all the way to the top. Of course at previous synods there were one or two prelates such as Hume, Worlock, Quinn to voice the misgivings of the faithful, but let’s hope there will be more this time round. This is not civil war but civil debate.

  8. Síle McGowan says:

    Brendan Butler righty states that the Vatican press release simply mentions ‘Sr. Margaret Muldoon, Ireland’ giving the impression she was representing Ireland. I was aware of that and surprised more details were not given as in some cases. This, I understand, is the cause of the misunderstanding around her nomination. If I gave the impression I believed We are Church was knowingly propagating incorrect information I do sincerely apologise.

  9. Eddie Finnegan says:

    It would be interesting to know how far the Synod’s 23 Lay Auditors, and especially the seven married couples among them, really have “the smell of the sheep”. Or if so, would that be just the smell of the obedient sheep (“oves obauditores”), the 99 who hang around the sheepfold for fear of going slightly astray. Certainly the Wisconsin couple seem to be an all-American Catholic safe-two-pair-of-hands. But I’m intrigued by the New Orleans couple, Steve & Claudia Schulz, who have been running ‘Catholic Engaged Encounter’ for years, yet, when they got their invitation from Cardinal Baldisseri, they replied “Thanks but no thanks – we have a prior engagement”.

  10. I know of a Sile McGowan at Holy Hill Hermitages…Thank you for your clarification above….In regards to a “civil war”…it is more appropriate, in my estimation to refer to it as “spiritual warfare”. I know that is a strange term for some, and maybe even ridiculous…but, we would be very naïve to think that the enemy as Jesus calls “it” was not working to create chaos in the Church, and particularly at the Vatican!

  11. Brendan Butler says:

    On behalf of WE are Church Ireland I do accept Sr. Sile’s gracious apology . It seems the Vatican were trying to set people against people when it named Sr Margaret Muldoon as the Irish represenative Auditor rather than the nomineee of the IUSG . Will the vatican please clarify the status of Sister Margaret ; She has been placed in a most invidious position by the Vatican .

  12. Cornelius martin says:

    Prayer to the Holy Family for the Synod (Irish Bishops Conference)
    Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
    in you we contemplate
    the splendour of true love,
    to you we turn with trust.
    Holy Family of Nazareth,
    grant that our families too
    may be places of communion and prayer,
    authentic schools of the Gospel
    and small domestic Churches.
    Holy Family of Nazareth,
    may families never again
    experience violence, rejection and division:
    may all who have been hurt or scandalized
    find ready comfort and healing.
    Holy Family of Nazareth,
    may the approaching Synod of Bishops
    make us once more mindful
    of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
    and its beauty in God’s plan.
    Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
    graciously hear our prayer!

  13. Soline Humbert says:

    In the middle of a piece on the Synod by Dawn Cherie Araujo, Global Sisters Report, 3 October 2014, Sr MARGARET MULDOON herself explains her position. She is the sole woman religious invited to the synod. Synod rules allow the Union of Superiors General, the umbrella group representing the leadership of men’s religious congregations from around the world, to send three delegates. but its femaIe counterpart the international Union of Superiors General, is not mentioned on the Vatican list….
    “Conspicuously underrepresented in this discussion, however, are women. Only 25 women were invited to be part of the synod (that’s less than 10 percent of synod participants), and only one vowed religious woman. Although a handful of married couples were invited – a move largely applauded by those concerned that a bevy of celibate men would determine the state of the Catholic family –the overall lack of women bodes ill for a meeting many are hoping will do more good than the commission that preceded the publication of Humanae Vitae.
    That includes Sr. Margaret Muldoon, the sole woman religious who will be at the synod.
    In an email to the Global Sisters Report, Muldoon, the Superior General of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, said when she found out she was the only woman religious invited, she almost decided not to go.
    “I was totally taken aback and questioned the value of going,” she wrote. “On reflection, I came to accept that one is better than none!” At the synod, Muldoon would like her presence to help propagate a more nuanced understanding of the family –one that Catholic sisters have long cultivated through their work with families on the margins of societies.
    Muldoon wrote that she hopes the synod will be able to undertake a broadening of the church’s definition of family, one that includes the diverse families that are actually trying to live their lives within the church. Furthermore, she hopes the synod will be able face the fact that “truth can’t be put into doctrines and dogmas that are clear cut, that separate the good and the bad,” adding that no one, not even the church, is in a position to issue immutable directives for the family in any case.
    “Can we admit that we are at an early stage of understanding the good news of Jesus Christ and the way of being human that he offered and invited us to?” she said, which is not to say that Catholic sisters aren’t aware of the very real struggles of Catholic families. On the contrary, women religious working with young people and in family ministries are keenly aware of their pastoral challenges.
    And, yet, the inclusion of more Christians is exactly what Sr. Margaret Muldoon would like to see come out of the synod. All Christians should be allowed to participate in the church’s mission, she wrote to GSR, because God sent his son because he loved the entire world. For that reason alone, she added, the church should be more understanding of the Catholic family in all its iterations.
    “I hope we are prepared to really listen to the reality of people and to enter into dialogue rather than telling them what to do, be, think,” she wrote.

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