A last chance to reform the Catholic Church
Western People 23.8.2022
‘O ye of little faith’, Matthew Chapter 6, verse 30.
It isn’t often that I start this column with a quotation from scripture. But I feel compelled to do so today as the papers (as I write) are full of the National Synthesis (NS) document sent to Rome on August 15th.
For those unclear about what this document represents, it is the Irish Catholic Bishops’ report on a synthesis of 26 reports – one from each of the 26 Irish dioceses – on a listening process undertaken among Catholics since last October. This offered an opportunity to Catholic parishioners all over Ireland to have their say on the Catholic Church as they saw it – in essence what we’re doing that we should not be doing and what we should be doing and we’re not. A committee appointed by the bishops summarised the 26 diocesan reports (which showed a significant and compelling focus and alignment on the same key issues) presented it to the bishops, who sent it to Rome.
Some said that the listening process, like other ‘consultations’ in the past, would be a sham. (It wasn’t). Some said that the bishops wouldn’t publish the report of the mainly lay organising committee. (They did). Some said that the bishops (and priests) would conspire to present a false picture of the Catholic Church in Ireland. (They didn’t). And some said that what arrived in Rome would have the bishops’ finger-prints all over it. (It hasn’t.)
How do we know? Because from the beginning to the end of this stage of the process – from the first listening exercises to the publication of the final document – everything about it was open and transparent.
In the space of less than a year, the perspective in terms of Irish Catholicism has changed completely. Before this, reports to Rome were often dull, uninspiring, resistant to change, reflective of our view of ourselves as loyal, obedient servants of the Holy See. Bishops, almost invariably, said what Rome expected them to say. However, in the NS document, Irish Catholics are telling Rome that radical changes need to be made: among them major changes in the Church’s attitude to women, up to and including ordination to the priesthood; to the attitude to LGBTQ+ people; to the divorced, remarried and other marginalised groups; to the removal of the mandatory celibacy rule for priests – and Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, in a covering letter, called for fresh models of responsibility and leadership in the Irish Church.
Who can possibly believe that this is actually happening? That change in the Catholic Church is now being contemplated on a scale that appeared off the radar just a year ago? That Mary McAleese who, just months ago, was accusing the Catholic Church of being patriarchal, homophobic and misogynistic welcomed the NS report as ‘explosive, life-altering, dogma-altering and church-altering’ and the report itself accepted the perception of the Church ‘as patriarchal and, by some, as misogynistic’.
Tim Hazelwood of the Association of Catholic Priests’ (ACP) leadership team described the document as ‘stunning and outstanding’. And other comments from disparate Catholic reform groups carry the same positive vibes, though so far there has been no reaction from organisations committed to retaining the status quo.
But why the quotation at the top of this piece: ‘O ye of little faith!’
Well, the truth is that many, very many people who longed for reform in the Catholic Church had imagined that the moment had passed, that the Vatican Two vision of a People’s Church would never now be realised.
I confess that I have at times found myself in that category. Many had hoped (sometimes against their own, painful experience) that this was more than the other cosmetic exercises over the years, that this time the Catholic Church was serious. But whenever there was even the mildest prospect of reform, I was happy to place my faith and hope in it.
This could well be the time when real progress will be made along the road to reform. Talk, of course, is cheap and weasel words even cheaper. But, this time, there’s a gathering sense that change is not an option. It’s expected, even presumed – and it’s the only game in town. And even though we have a long road to travel, it’s amazing how much can happen (as we can see) in such a short time.
Pope Francis, like John XXIII before him, who seemed like a care-taker pope has brought the prospect of reform back into the centre of the church. After placing a focus on synodality as ‘God’s way forward’ for the global Church, he will have been well pleased by progress towards a synodal pathway in the Irish Church, not least by NS document from the Irish Church.
Others, who have carried a flame for church reform over long and difficult winters of their discontent, will also feel validated in their faith. None more so than the ACP who said recently that what we are witnessing is ‘a watershed moment in the Irish Catholic Church’s repositioning itself for a difficult future’. Having worked for ‘the full implementation of the vision and teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the status and active participation of all the baptised and the task of establishing a Church where all believers will be treated as equal’ we look forward in hope and in confidence to playing our full part in realising and implementing what we believe, with Pope Francis and what our bishops have confirmed by their support, is God’s plan for our Church into the future. We await, in hope and with confidence, next year’s Synod in Rome and a year or two on the Ireland’s national synod.
This time, we need to get things right. From the vantage point of the last chance saloon, contemplating the alternative is unimaginable.