Brendan Hoban: A last chance to reform the Catholic Church

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.  

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  1. Nessan Vaughan says:

    Dr Nicola Brady has done a fine job as overall Chair – as I expected, given her fine record and her understanding of what synodality means in practice.

    I would like to draw attention to the following extract, which is a concern. I hope the issue of social justice is taken up elsewhere:

    3. ‘Notable Issues That Were Not Strongly Present from the Consultation: Social Justice: It was recognised that the Church has a life-giving vision for the world in its social teaching and that the Church has the potential to be a force for the common good in our society while acknowledging the impact of organisations such as the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and Trócaire. It is noteworthy that although Irish society is preoccupied with issues surrounding social justice, for example, homelessness, immigration, poverty, housing etc., the synodal conversations only occasionally drew out reflection and comment on these issues. When spoken of, there was a sense that the Church needed to re-orientate itself to the genuine hardships that people face and to be attentive to the social difficulties that exist in Northern Ireland as a result of the legacy of the troubles.’

  2. Sean Connell says:

    While I’m very impressed with the report it seams to me that it has been overly influenced by interest groups and seems to be lacking in any way of reviewing the church such as in the education of children so as they don’t walk away from the church as soon as they make their confirmation.

    Another thing which I see as an obstacle to young and old is having to tell your sins to a priest whereas it is not the priest who forgives us but God, the sacrament of confirmation, as Pope Francis has said on many occasions, is beautiful but what is the point if people don’t go?

    My suggestion would be that confession remains the same with one small change, that is, that instead of saying your sins out loud there be a pause where you tell your sins to God or if you wish tell them out loud.

    There are many other areas particularly in the Mass which need improvement and I think that there should have been addressed.
    By the way, there was no Parochial phase held in my diocese so I had no opportunity for to give my input…

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan, I am always uplifted when I read your accounts of synodality at home.

    I have shared this article tonight on the Scottish Laity Network FB page. My sharing of your previous articles were very well received — gratefully received — and have been a great source of hope. God knows we need a bit of hope over here. Those of you who read the letters page of the Tablet will know what I mean.

    I know I am repeating myself but “If we only had old Ireland over here”.

  4. Sean O’Conaill says:

    For what exactly is this ‘the last chance saloon’ – other than the Catholic clerical institution, which is not in fact ‘the church’?

    Is it sensible to suppose that just now in the midst of this turmoil the Trinity are necessarily depending upon Catholic clericalism to have a change of heart and to hurry up with the proposed reforms – without any plan B if that doesn’t happen?

    Arguably when Jesus said “I know mine and mine know me” he was speaking of not just one uniform community but a diaspora. Biblical scholars write of the different ‘schools’ from which each of the Gospels came, while the western monolith guided by Rome has been continuously fragmenting since the 16th century. ‘Schism! Horror!’ cry the defenders of the monolith – but was it not from the western schism that arose the open secular society in the US that exposed the cover-up of clerical abuse in the defended and corrupted monolith?

    Who now can argue, therefore that the future lies with any monolith, when diaspora Christians who obey the great commandments are already at one in that respect alone, and do not need a controlling authority to keep them doing that?

    Yes, Catholicism has centrally to do with the Eucharist, but that has essentially to do with sincerity and generosity in table fellowship and self-giving sacrifice – not the pallid, perfunctory and disconnected ritual that too often travels under that name.

    As we have often been reminded, in the event of there being no ordained priest to celebrate the Eucharist, a community can validly obey the injunction to ‘do this in memory of me’ by electing a member to lead the service – and that is the imminent situation.

    The Catholic clerical institution cannot therefore say to the Trinity ‘our monolith is indispensable’. John the Baptist’s insistence that God can raise children of Abraham from ‘these stones’ needs to be remembered by all inclined to say ‘without us, no church’.

  5. Jim Stack says:

    The most surprising thing in this article is that Fr Hoban seems genuinely surprised at the outcome. I was convinced all along that this outcome was inevitable, and that is why I did not personally engage with the synodal process. The Irish media for a long time have been setting the agenda for what the Catholic Church should concern itself with. As with the promotion of their abortion agenda before that, the media tapped into women’s sense of grievance at how they had been treated by a “patriarchal” society, and simultaneously suppressed or disparaged those with conservative Catholic views. “Far right” is the current catchphrase, for the most part, although misogynism, and secrecy, and power-hungry celibates clinging to power in the Church – these still also feature in media coverage. Accuracy or fairness are not even considered. All that matters is that opposition to the media view gets as little coverage as possible, and any coverage it does get is unfavourable. Any excuse will do.

    It is no coincidence that the items deemed most important, after the synodal process, were precisely the items that the media have been saying are important. Just as with the abortion referendum, when those opposing the proposals are branded by the media as right-wing loonies, the result of the synodal process was a foregone conclusion.

    No one appears to have noticed that we have had about 25000 abortions in this country since Repeal. Does the Catholic Church even see it as its business? Frank Duff showed us all 100 years ago how to help women in crisis pregnancies. So far, following his example has been left to voluntary organisations such as Gianna Care and Community Connect and Every Life Counts, who do sterling work but on very limited budgets. Surely the synodal process should have discussed the Church following Frank Duff’s model of support, on a much larger scale? But then the media would not have approved.

    In short, the synodal process was media-driven, it discussed what the media wanted, and the media got what they wanted out of it. The only surprise to me has been the rather nasty response of some of the victors, including ACP members. What, on earth, impelled them to write to the newspapers immediately afterwards, throwing the same old insults at the conservative wing of the Church?

  6. Paddy Ferry says:

    As I have already said in my comment @4 I am always uplifted, overjoyed in fact, when I read reports from Brendan and others of the very positive and hopeful response there has been to the Synod at home.
    So, I am surprised when my joy does not seem to be universally shared.

    We have all lived through the autocratic, brutal and bullying regime of Wojtyla/Ratzinger. Have we really all got such short memories?

    In last week’s Tablet in one of the leading articles the point is made that “Insistence that any criticism of the papacy was disloyalty to the Catholic faith, had, under John Paul II, a chilling effect on debate both among academics and laypeople alike”. ( You can say that again). “Pope Francis does not mind criticism. He opposes the idea that the pope of the day must have definitive answers to every question, and he has made space for his severest critics …”

    I mean, what a transformation of atmosphere and in the practice of authority in our Church. Thank God for Francis, an enlightened, tolerant and decent man, the kind of Pope I never thought I would see.

    Brendan tells us that:
    “… 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.” This would never have been without Francis.

    Tim Hazelwood described the document as ‘stunning and outstanding’.

    No more talk of “codology” from Mary.

    So, please let us rejoice — rejoice, rejoice and be so glad.

    God bless the Pope.

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