Brendan Hoban: Church should not fear its sleeping giant                    

Western People  6.2.2024

John Henry Newman (1801-90) was a famous Anglican clergyman who converted to Catholicism in 1845, was made a cardinal in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII and was canonised a saint in 2019. At a time when a sometimes bitter and competitive spirit was evident in those who converted (in both directions) Newman became something of a hero for Catholicism, though his path to Rome didn’t always run smoothly.

For example in 1859, Newman wrote an article, Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, which was described by one writer as ‘an act of political suicide from which Newman’s career in the (Catholic) Church was never fully to recover’. The then Pope Pius IX was annoyed; the bishop of Newport (Wales) formally denounced Newman for heresy and Monsignor Talbot, the then agent of the English bishops in Rome, called him ‘the most dangerous man in England’.

When two hundred laymen wrote to the Catholic Duke of Norfolk defending Newman, Talbot warned, ‘If a check is not placed on the laity of England, they will be the rulers of the Catholic Church instead of the Holy See (Rome) and the episcopate (the bishops)’.

Dismissing the province of the laity as ‘to hunt, to shoot, to understand’, Talbot concluded that ‘to meddle with ecclesiastical affairs they (the laity) have no right at all’. When Bishop William Bernard Ullathorne of Birmingham snidely asked, ‘Who are the laity?’, Newman replied, ‘The Church would look foolish without them’.

Almost exactly one hundred years later, the Catholic bishops of the world were leaving Rome after concluding the Second Vatican Council, for which the phrase ‘A People’s Church’ had become a popular summary of its conclusions. So Newman must have allowed himself a quiet smile that the legacy of ‘the most dangerous man in England’ had been so comprehensively validated.

However, Newman had to wait another half a century to allow himself a second smile when Pope Francis proclaimed that he intended to implement the reforms instigated by Vatican Two. Yet, what happened post-Vatican Two in terms of accepting the rightful role of lay people could be summed up in the redolent phrase – ‘very little if anything at all’– an Irishism that indicates less was happening than was being said was happening.

In the sixty or so years after the Great Council, the Catholic Church was under the extended unsympathetic leadership of the John Paul II/Benedict XVI years. Thus, we discovered the great Irish dancing definition of change (two steps forward and one step back) which soon mutated into its lethal reversal (one step forward and two steps back) to such an extent that, as a Church, we were for a time in danger of reversing into the nineteenth century.

The result was a showdown with what was perceived though never named as ‘the lay threat’. In the words of  the late, great theologian, Seán Fagan, the laity became ‘a sleeping giant whose function was mainly to pray, pay and obey’. But the dream, both out of conviction and from need, still lives and a complex of circumstances – from Pope Francis naming unacceptable toxicities like clericalism, misogyny and homophobia to the laity reclaiming their baptismal jurisdiction – the sleeping giant is awakening to what may be a new dawn.

But a more active and determined laity – many of whom are now more theologically proficient and less prepared than heretofore to be dismissed in the manner of Monsignor Talbot above – though fewer than before, are still prepared in significant numbers to exercise their baptismal right and duty to share in the Church’s mission. For some, the lay promise offers what seems like the last great hope for spreading the gospel message of Jesus in the world.

Unfortunately too that represents if not a threat at least an irritant to the clerical world. An aged clergy – average age above 70 and climbing steadily – and a progressively weary cohort, though recognising in theory the promise of lay ministry, rightly recognise too the personal challenges facing them, as energy is depleted, work expands as priest numbers decline and issues become more complex as the last great threshold of life hovers in the near distance.

Little wonder that in such circumstances reactions from priests to the rich possibilities for service by a committed laity are less positive than might be expected. Little wonder too that as clergy we become more defensive rather than more relieved or more grateful for the willing and capable hands at the plough. There is even a sense in which we can imagine we are facilitating the necessary change and are open to the possibilities on offer in the transfer from ‘the last priests in Ireland’ to a lay-driven Church.

We are, I suspect, most of us if not all of us to some degree, unaware of our inability to relinquish control and decision-making. It is the result not of individual bloody-mindedness but of absolute immersion in a clerical culture in which we became embedded and which grew organically into a presumption of entitlement, precedent and personal dispensation.

A famous example of that afflicting blindness was a retiring bishop who, in an effort to shape his own legacy, sent his priests a resumé of a long list of his achievements during his extended episcopate.

He concluded, with a grand flourish, that his diocese would have no difficulty introducing synodality as he had already implemented it.

A question for all of us who see motes in the eyes of others but never the beams in our own. (Matthew 7, verses 3-5). 

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  1. Jim Stack says:

    Fr Hoban has been writing along these lines for many years now, and it always makes me uneasy, although he writes well and is obviously sincere.

    When he speaks out for more involvement by the laity, I think he means only the more liberal laity. I never have the impression that he wants to hear from the more traditional lay people in the Church, the ones Pope Francis sometimes publicly criticises, calling them repressed, for example; the people who support the Church through thick and thin, with their prayers and their time and their financial contributions, despite being barely acknowledged most of the time.

    “Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” has a fine ring to it, but seems in this context to mean that, after consultation with the liberal laity, the Church’s teachings and traditions are to be watered down, in ways that are simply incompatible with the Gospels. That is why a lot of us, laity and priests, are reluctant to see this change take place; it has little or nothing to do with holding on to power.

  2. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    I found myself smiling wryly at Jim’s response to Brendan’s article. I had to smile, because I had reacted to Brendan’s article with quite a similar reaction, but from the opposite side completely. Depending on the priest who’s “in charge”, where Jim says “I never have the impression that he wants to hear from the more traditional lay people in the Church, the ones Pope Francis sometimes publicly criticises, calling them repressed, for example; the people who support the Church through thick and thin, with their prayers and their time and their financial contributions, despite being barely acknowledged most of the time”, I could say “I never have the impression that he wants to hear from the more liberal lay people in the Church; people who support the Church through thick and thin, with their prayers and their time and their financial contributions, despite being barely acknowledged most of the time”.

    Jim, I truly respect your honesty and integrity. You genuinely believe that listening to “liberal” laity will lead to the Church’s teachings and traditions being watered down, in ways that are simply incompatible with the Gospels. Can I ask you in all humility, can you conceive of the idea that the human race is in a constant state of development, that, in fact, it is a basic human drive to constantly learn and discover new things and, by doing so, understand ourselves better? And with that understanding, behaviours and beliefs that were previously held as true, have to be discarded and new behaviours and beliefs taken up. We can laugh now (or cry) at some of the things our forebears believed, and the ways they behaved as a result of those beliefs – the flat earth, the inferiority of certain races, sickness being a punishment from God, and many, many more examples I could cite.

    And, if you can accept the above, can you then open the door a crack to allow the possibility that some of the beliefs, teachings and traditions which served the church (or some elements of the church) to this point need to be re-examined in the light of new understanding? This does not mean that the core truths are “watered down in ways that are simply incompatible with the Gospels”. As I see it, it is simply the normal trajectory of our species, living in the way our loving God designed us to live, responding to that God-given curiosity and constantly growing. That includes studying God’s Word in the light of new developments and constantly being open to seeing and understanding it anew. The alternative is that we have already reached the pinnacle of understanding the human condition – we need not continue to learn and discover. We now know the mind of God.

    Even as I write this, I know you don’t accept any of it, Jim (or I imagine so). It has always been the case that growth and development is resisted by those who, in whatever way, are well served by the status quo. That is not a criticism of such people – just an observation. I know those who believe as Jim does are genuine and sincere in those beliefs. But I dare to say that there was a time when honest and sincere people believed that the sun moved around the earth, and that some races were inferior to others, etc. Nothing would convince them otherwise. They must have found it very threatening that claims to the contrary were being made, and have done all in their power to resist such claims. They didn’t have the benefit of hindsight that we have from here.
    So, I guess there’s nothing new in where we find ourselves now.

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan, another wonderful piece. I have taken the liberty of sharing it with the Scottish Laity Network, all of whom, I am sure, will greatly appreciate and concur with your sentiments.

    And, equally wonderful, Jo, your comment @2. Thank you both.
    You have both enriched my life tonight.

  4. Jim Stack says:

    Replying to Jo O’Sullivan @ 2.
    I appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking response to my comment. I will do my best to reply with equal courtesy and fairness, in due course. I need a bit of time to think about the points you have made here.

  5. Jim Stack says:

    Hi Jo
    You make three main points, I think, which I will summarise and then address individually.

    1. Liberals also can feel ignored and rejected within the Church;
    2. Human thinking and knowledge are always developing, and rigid adherence to a set of beliefs from the past is therefore untenable. In fact, God made us to ask questions, to grow and develop;
    3. Resistance to change has always come from those who are well-served by the status quo.

    I must confess that it never struck me that liberal Catholics might have the same difficulties, with some conservative priests, that traditional Catholics have with some liberal priests. My concern, however, is with what has been happening in our mainstream media and how this is affecting people’s attitudes and behaviour. What you practically never see, in our mainstream media, is traditional priests given space to attack liberals, whereas liberal priests are often given the opportunity to join the relentless media campaign against traditional Catholicism. Fr Hoban has a weekly column in the Western People, and he regularly has a go at traditional Catholicism in that column. Do we not get enough of that relentless negativity from the lay newspaper columnists? And the people who read this stuff, year in, year out, most of whom have abandoned the Church, are somehow to be consulted about Church doctrine, but the traditional Catholics who try to remain faithful are to be ignored? That is what motivated my original comment.

    I actually agree for the most part with your second point, but as there will inevitably be disagreements, and power conflicts, discussion of changes to Church teaching must surely always be subject to Church authority. It cannot be a free-for-all. And there are core teachings that should remain untouched.

    I can speak only for myself in reply to your third point. While I am extremely grateful to be a Catholic, there are things about being Catholic that I struggle with. I still, at the age of 77, find Confession hard, for example, but I am also acutely aware of my need for it. Liberalisation, in some respects, might actually suit me on a personal level. But I have this deep conviction that most of the Church’s existing teachings and practices are in accordance with the Gospels and that is why I am opposed to changing them.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    I was Brendan Hoban’s “immediate” in Maynooth and have read many books and articles written by him. I have never noticed him “having a go” at “traditional Catholicism” but rather I see him as a deeply traditional Catholic who is telling it as it is, as he scans Irish society and Irish religion today. What, indeed, could be more traditionally Catholic than an article on St John Henry Newman? I do not see “relentless negativity” but more a constant effort to get the church to wake up and address its huge problems with pastoral wisdom. His judgement is sound and steady, and his concern for his people always palpable. I recall how the Hebrew Prophets were often accused of relentless negativity as the bad news rolled in for Israel and Judah, but that turned out to be an instance of blaming the messenger. Brendan has “hung in there” with indefatigable communicative enthusiasm for 50 years and has touched many in a salutary way by his gospel-centered reflections.

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    Jo: “the human race is in a constant state of development…. it is a basic human drive to constantly learn and discover new things and, by doing so, understand ourselves better…. Behaviours and beliefs that were previously held as true, have to be discarded and new behaviours and beliefs taken up.”

    This is true. Long ago we talked of “anthropology” using some stable schemas such as Thomism, but the study of humankind has become much more concrete and dynamic now. We think of our mysterious species as a recent phenomenon in macro-history, we measure its epochal changes with wonder, we think of ourselves not as instantiating eternal patterns but as involved in a vast experiment or thrilling tale, with stunning developments both for good and bad, making tomorrow more unpredictable than ever — with the chance of great developments and of great tragedies. Just a few years ago translating was a back-breaking time-consuming task; now a whole book is rendered well into another language at the flick of finger. Instant two-way communication with any part of the world is an everyday matter. Revolutions upon revolutions are changing what it means to be a living human being. A church that remains 200 years behind the times will become an esoteric period piece; what once was bedrock transforming subtly into simulacrum, a postmodern entertainment like biblical fundamentalism or the MAGA cult. We need spiritual guides through the maelstrom of change, and Pope Francis is a good one.

  8. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    Thank you, Jim, for your very fair and reasoned response to me. I really appreciate your honesty and willingness to take the time to answer everything I said. I feel I understand your position better now. I can empathise with your feelings that traditional Catholicism is being attacked relentlessly in the media. (Actually, I consider myself fairly traditional in that I try to live the life Christ wants us to live, so I dislike the labels of “traditional” and “liberal”. But, in the absence of finding alternative words, let’s say you are traditional and I am liberal). I find the sneering attitudes that sometimes comes across in the media very painful too. It hurts me that so many people have fallen away from Catholicism. I worry about my family members, that they will not have anything of depth to lean into in life and that they are losing a sense of being part of, and being loved by something greater than themselves. But I see it, not as them having abandoned the church, but that they have been so deeply hurt and betrayed by revelations that I needn’t go into, that they are lashing out in anger at that betrayal. It’s a very normal human instinct to want to hurt someone who has hurt you, and the deeper the hurt, the deeper the lashing out. In a strange way, I am heartened to see anger against Catholicism – it means people still care. So when you worry that people who have abandoned the church should be consulted about church doctrine, I would say the church has a duty to consult them, to find out why they have walked away, rather than dismiss them out of hand. My bigger worry is that people will find it all irrelevant, and when (if), that point is reached, the media will stop reporting on Catholic matters. The general population won’t care, and will have absolutely no interest in being consulted about church teaching.

    I am, however, sorry to hear that you feel traditional Catholics are ignored.
    Where you say “Changes to Church teaching must always be subject to Church authority”, you are correct. I have no argument with that. Where we differ is that I see the need for “Church authority” to broaden out. As I see it exists currently, the teaching authority of the church consists of men who are so deeply immersed in the rarified atmosphere of celibate “maleness” that they cannot possibly understand ALL of life, and form teachings that can guide all. I don’t doubt for a minute that they sincerely follow their consciences and believe they are acting on the Word of God, but they simply cannot see the whole picture. The only way for anyone or any body of people to get a more complete picture is to listen deeply to the “other”, and then come to decisions. I feel that all the liberal stances I take are with a view to having church authorities which are inclusive enough to see and understand the bigger picture.

    Jim, you say that liberalisation might actually suit you on a personal level, but because you have this deep conviction that most of the Church’s existing teachings and practices are in accordance with the Gospels, you are opposed to changing them. Can I confess that it would suit me better, personally, not to believe that there have to be big changes – I wouldn’t face the disapproval of those in my parish who have a “Who does she think she is, criticising the church and disrespecting the priests?” attitude, and I wouldn’t have the anger of some priests who see me as a trouble-maker. Part of me would love to go back into my box and stop agitating within my parish community. But, I’m afraid there’s this annoying niggle inside me, telling me I have to speak up.
    Maybe we’re more alike than we think!

  9. Jim Stack says:

    Reply to Joe @6
    You know Fr Hoban personally, and I do not, and I must therefore conclude that I was wrong, and I apologise for what I said about him. It was an unfortunate choice of words on my part. I should have just said that his published articles never seem to acknowledge traditional Catholics, and left it at that.

    The “relentless negativity” I referred to was in relation to the mainstream media, and I stand over that. And I am still disapponted when priests with newspaper columns fail to counteract this negativity by sometimes writing more positively about the Church. There are wonderful people in the Irish Catholic Church, quietly praying and doing good, but that is not how they are portrayed in the media.

  10. Jim Stack says:

    Reply to Jo@8
    I had quietly decided to withdraw from this discussion at this point, but I feel I have to reply to, and thank you for your very gracious comment @8.

    It seems we do share a lot in common, in our concern for the Church, and in fearing for the younger generations. It seems we both also have, on occasion, had to deal with hurtful comments from others. I am aware that I, too, have sometimes caused hurt to others, including on this site, but I never did it deliberately.

    You are, of course, correct that people who have been damaged by the Church must be listened to, and lessons learned. My concern is more with the broad mass of the people whose ideas and beliefs seem to me to be more and more formed by the mainstream media. I think it is utterly predictable, therefore, how most people will react on most issues concerning the Church, and that is why I do not have any enthusiasm for more involvement by the laity.

    I think I will leave it there, or I will be repeating myself.

    Thank you and God bless.

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    (rewritten piece on Fiducia supplicans): The clergy have taken responsibility for matrimony not only in sacramental celebration of weddings, including preparation for marriage, but also in for the canon law aspect, ensuring that couples were validly married; in many countries married in church counted as valid in the State’s eyes as well. When Pope Francis deplores ‘clericalism’ one of the things he means is a bureaucratic concern with order and regularity that is harshly unsympathetic with people in irregular situations—single mothers, divorcees, priests awaiting laicization, shunning them rather than accompanying them. The various conundrums that can arise, especially in countries where divorce is easily available, require a response. The Pope draws on the category of blessing to bridge the gap between those whose marital lives are in order and those who live with messy situations. Blessings are not sacraments but ‘among the most widespread and evolving sacramentals’ (FS, 8). ‘Pope Francis proposed a description of this kind of blessing that is offered to all without requiring anything’ (FS, 27).

    The short document does not develop a rich, sophisticated theological concept comparable with Augustine on Grace or Luther on Justification by faith. Blessing is invoked for a practical purpose, to close the gap between love and law, between boldly welcoming all and continuing to police moral and legal behaviours. The distinction between objective and subjective morality (whereby something objectively immoral could be ‘diminished in guilt, inculpable, or subjectively defensible,’ as Paul VI put it), which allowed condemnation of artificial birth control in principle and pastoral accommodation of it in practice, might be seen as a similar practical solution that avoids facing an issue with honesty, in open discussion. In the present case the most remarkable tension, or contradiction, is between the rejection of blessings of same-sex couples, characterized as sinful, only a few years ago and the encouragement of such blessings in the new document. The most striking and innovating feature of FS is that it addresses a kind word to gays and lesbians, something the Vatican has not done officially since it began to address same-sex questions explicitly in 1975 (‘Persona humana), and most ambitiously in a treatise on ‘the problem of homosexuality’ in 1986. Gays and lesbians appeared on the Vatican radar screen only as a problem for the CDF’s sense of order, and there was no sign of dialogue with the people concerned or of pastoral accompaniment of them in their path in life.

    On a flight back from Africa last year, Francis told reporters: ‘People with homosexual tendencies are children of God. God loves them. God is walking with them. To condemn someone like this is a sin. To criminalize someone for homosexual tendencies is an injustice’ (Wall Street Journal, 5 February, 2023). Such an utterance says almost nothing, but it stresses the idea of accompaniment, and this is also the central thrust of FS and of the Pope’s pastoral policy in general. FS is the first time this policy has got an official articulation, minimal as it is; the danger is that it may be seen as solving the issue for now, instead of engaging in the human dialogue and theological rethinking that is required. Still talking like ‘someone like this’ (an embarrassed locution), the papal language does not yet really amount to listening or dialogue, since there is no forum for such dialogue in the Church (not even in the recent Synod).

    Gay couples have been blessed by common sense pastors, and would be regarded by many of the clergy with admiration and envy. They have wrongfooted Vatican teaching by the unexpected success of their relationships and their impact on society. But there is a group whose need is greater and that FS does not mention, namely the T in LGBT, suffering from what the doctors call ‘gender dysphoria.’ Cardinal Fernández rather shockingly promised conservative critics unhappy with FS that they will be happier with a forthcoming document condemning ‘gender ideology’ and surrogacy. This kind of horse-trading and scapegoating is inappropriate in dealing with real human beings and their suffering. I have a friend who is biologically female but identifies as a man and has had his name legally changed to match that gender identity. The problems and sufferings he has had to face are crushingly severe. Here too the church has a duty of accompaniment and dialogue, not pontification and condemnation.

    A few years ago our former Irish President Mary McAleese, an outspoken Catholic woman, as well as Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, a brave activist in Uganda on behalf of heavily oppressed gays and lesbians, were disinvited by a Dublin-born cardinal from a women’s meeting supposed to be held in the Vatican. Here is ‘clericalism’ again, and the refusal of dialogue.
    Pope Francis has put compassion centre stage in his reading of the Gospel. In fact, that is perhaps the central feature of the character of Jesus, his quick response to those in distress and his speed in coming to their assistance, as a healer. Is that the trait we think of when we think of him? A regular orderly life, a bit of prayer, an offering of our work for the glory of God, is not that our Christian ideal? But the Gospel makes other demands: generosity, compassion, self-giving, sacrifice. We easily miss our neighbour’s distress, though it is all around us if we care to look for it. We choose the street where we will not meet someone asking us for money, stepping to the other side. There is striking line in that real and almost unbearable play, King Lear, but one line leaps out of it for me: ‘Expose yourself to feel what wretches feel.’ When Pope Francis talks of accompaniment and dialogue he is calling us to that kind of compassionate tenderness. His heart is in the right place, and he has done quite a lot to disentangle the Gospel from the bureaucratic knows that threaten to stifle it. He has called on the whole Church to join him in this, through the synodal process, so as to become a welcoming, empathetic church, shaking off hypocrisy. In striking gospel joy and God’s unbounded love he encourages a more progressive and positive vision of human nature and its unexplored potential.

  12. Peadar O'Callaghan says:

    I just thought the following (2) excerpts from the homily of Pope Benedict XVI at the beatification of John H Newman (Birmingham, Sunday, 19 September 2010) in which he quotes from Newman’s works might be worth reflection. I hope no one is offended.
    “ … what better goal could teachers of religion set themselves than Blessed John Henry’s famous appeal for an intelligent, well-instructed laity: ‘I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it’ (The Present Position of Catholics in England, ix, 390).”
    “While it is John Henry Newman’s intellectual legacy that has understandably received most attention in the vast literature devoted to his life and work, I prefer on this occasion to conclude with a brief reflection on his life as a priest, a pastor of souls. The warmth and humanity underlying his appreciation of the pastoral ministry is beautifully expressed in another of his famous sermons: ‘Had Angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you’ (Men, not Angels: the Priests of the Gospel, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 3).”

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