Western People, 15.11.2022
I will never forget it as long as I live. It was July 1, 2018. I was sitting in the conference room of the Twin Trees Hotel in Ballina, in the company of 300-plus representative delegates – women and men, old and young – from the 22 parishes of Killala diocese, including the priests of the diocese and our bishop, John Fleming.
Let me set the scene. The occasion was a diocesan assembly gathered to decide on a long list of proposals/recommendations that had emerged from a confidential survey that asked seven open-ended questions about the future of the diocese. They could be summed up in two of the seven questions about the future of the Catholic church: What do we need to do now? What do we need to stop doing now?
In many ways it was a memorable, even historic occasion. Nothing quite like it ever happened before in our diocese – certainly not since the Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1111AD. The backdrop was the reform agenda sponsored by Pope Francis with, at its core, a ’synodal pathway’ moving us from a Church dominated and controlled by the ordained to a People’s Church, where baptism (not ordination) was the key qualification for rank and esteem.
The gathering in the Twin Trees represented a new and different model of Church and the work of the assembly on that July day was to vote on prioritizing proposals for the future of the diocese – with each person present having one vote each. The technology provided – private voting via handsets with the votes automatically computed and appearing on a screen – allowed the voting to proceed accurately and swiftly.
As the survey was open-ended, nothing was excluded, including global issues that were beyond the ambit of an individual diocese. What are regarded as hot button issues in the Catholic Church received huge support: should priests be allowed to marry? (85% for); should priests who have married be returned to active ministry? (81% for); should women be ordained as deacons? (80% for); should women be ordained as priests? (69% for).
It could be argued that those results were surprising but predictable – for different reasons. But it was the support of the final answer to the final question that stunned the gathering: should the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and those excluded from the Church be changed to reflect the inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, marital status or family status? (86% for).
A stunned silence followed as the assembly seemed to pause as if struggling to process what had just happened. For me, what that final figure represented was that in the process of dealing with change – a central feature of so many aspects of our lives in the world today – the ‘lay’ members of the Catholic Church in Ireland were out in front of everyone else.
There was already plenty of evidence to support this thesis, not least that the Marriage Equality referendum was carried in 2015, effectively because Catholics voted overwhelmingly for it. But our small gathering in the Twin Trees Hotel on that day provided stunning evidence that if the Catholic Church was prepared to change in order to respond to the many obvious challenges we faced, ‘lay’ Catholics were up for it.
The people in the pews – whatever about anyone else, bishops, priests or a tiny minority of traditionalists – had for long given the impression that ‘whatever Father said’ was fine by them. But behind it all, they had their own ideas and when they were given the anonymity of a confidential vote, their truth starkly stood its ground. The loyal, obedient, complying Irish Catholics rarely went so far as to walk out of or away from the Church in protest at the bullying of a priest – though progressively some are claiming their right to do that now – but no one can any longer presume that silence or bowed heads are evidence of acceptance or agreement. That ship has sailed.
The infantilism that contrived to mind-control Irish Catholics is breaking down. The weapons of fear and threat no longer have the same purchase. Adult Catholics are now taking responsibility for their own decision-making, including their own moral choices. The landscape has changed utterly.
During last week a letter to the Irish Times summed up the sea-change that has taken place in the Catholic Church. Garry O’Sullivan argued that the Church is trying to have it both ways regarding sexual morality – talking about a God of love but hanging on to traditional teaching – but, he continued, ’the game is up and the time has come for courage and a change in official teaching’. He argues that the choice is simple: change LGBTQ+ teaching or alienate remaining Catholics.
What’s surprising about that call for a change in church teaching is that Garry O’Sullivan, is the editor-in-chief of the Irish Catholic newspaper, so it’s an indication of how widespread now the expectation and acceptance of change in terms of church teaching is. Or, to paraphrase, Luke 23:31, in terms of the Irish Catholic perspective, ‘if it like this in the green, what will happen when it is dry’.
In a strange way, Fr Seán Sheehy’s recent exposition of Catholic teaching on LGBTQ+, has pointed up the present ambivalence in the position of the Catholic Church in having its teaching embedded in the Catechism while inferring that the teaching is problematic – ‘who am I to judge’, as Pope Francis says.
Fr Sheehy can be said to have hastened the day when the Catholic Church has to set its house in order. Once banging on about sin and hell closed down conversations. Now it’s a counter-productive exercise, convincing every sensible person that those who have to employ such histrionics are on the wrong side of history.