Brendan Hoban: The Catholic Church can change if necessary

Western People 30.8.22

Pope Francis’ reforms have received significant, it might even be said overwhelming, support in the reports on the recent listening process carried out in Irish dioceses. The national committee, synthesising the reports, discovered an extraordinary alignment of issues that Catholics feel now need to be addressed, from the language we use at Mass to the ordination of women.

That national synthesised report has now being sent to Rome and the word is that its priorities reflect other national reports from around Europe.

The general message is crystal clear. If Catholics are given an opportunity to have their say, they have very specific ideas on what changes they feel are necessary in the Catholic Church and they are very clear and very consistent in articulating them.

It’s clear too that the overwhelmingly positive response to Pope Francis’ reforms (and the new way of being Church that he calls ‘a synodal pathway’) has brought a great wave of hope into Catholicism.

Inevitably, not everyone is happy. Inevitably too, it appears that opposition to Pope Francis and his synodal Church is increasing.

Breda O’Brien, a patron of the conservative pressure group, the Iona Institute, in her Saturday column in the Irish Times on August 20, predictably attempts to undermine Francis’ reforms, especially the creation of a People’s Church, a central objective of Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, (Vatican Two).

O’Brien sets up a series of ‘straw men’ and proceeds to knock them down one by one. The Church is not a democracy, she writes. (Who is seriously saying that it is?) Synodality is not a version of a parliamentary voting system where doctrine is changed through consensus-finding. (Who has ever seriously suggested that?) Schism is being openly discussed. (Isn’t that just fear-mongering?) Raising hopes that will be dashed could lead to people, who participated in the synodal pathway, walking away from the Church. (Crocodile tears?)

Let’s be clear. Synodality is about creating a platform that respects and allows a voice to all the members of the Church – all the baptised, not just the ordained. It’s about listening to all voices and allowing God’s Spirit to point a way for us. That requires conservative Catholics (who believe they are right) listening to liberal Catholics. And liberal Catholics (who believe they are right) listening to conservative Catholics. And all listening to God’s Spirit.

Since Vatican Two, (1962-5), despite the documents of that council being overwhelmingly voted through by the highest teaching authority in the Church – the bishops of the world gathered in general council – efforts to neutralise them and restore aspects of the pre-Vatican Two Church were evident in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis, responding to the many challenges the Church is facing, has re-launched the Vatican Two reforms. Conservative forces, after a long ascendency, believed that their writ would run and rule forever and seemed to presume that Vatican Two reforms were thereby superfluous.

Now that they have reappeared, an effective campaign – shameful in its disloyalty and its presumption that ‘their Church’ is the only possible Church – is now undermining and opposing Pope Francis and synodality.

We see it too in the spate of letters beginning to appear from ‘very, very faithful Catholics’ who want to close down the reforms because they’d like nothing to change.

The truth is that the Church is always changing, always in need of reform – ecclesia semper reformanda ­– and doctrine continues to develop, despite those who say (against all the evidence of church history) that Church teaching never, ever changes. (It has and it will.)

Two examples. For centuries, usury (or interest on loans) was regarded as a sin. (Usury is a term sometimes equated with extortionate interest but it’s clear that it means any form of interest.) In 1830, in a pastoral letter to the priests of Killala diocese, Bishop Peter Waldron advised his clergy to expose ‘the odious practice of usury’. But later in the nineteenth century in a series of decisions, the Catholic Church abandoned its teaching on usury.  

A more recent example of a change in church teaching was the announcement four years ago in August 2018 that the Catholic Church had formally changed its teaching on capital punishment, deeming it ‘inadmissible in all cases’ and underpinning a newly consistent Catholic pro-life policy of every human life being sacred.

There are multiple other examples. So it’s clear that Catholic teaching does change and has changed. So people can’t say that, for example, the Church’s teaching on the ordination of women can’t change. We don’t know that, and we can’t say that. And the present dearth of male celibate vocations may bring this particular issue forward sooner than people expect because, without priests there’s no Mass and without Mass there’s no Church.

I’m not saying that the Church’s teaching in relation to ‘hot button issues’ – the ordination of women, married priests, LGBT+ teaching ­– will be changed at the synod in Rome next year but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be, despite the infallible presentation of a version of the Tridentine Church by a conservative minority clearly out of sync with the priorities of Irish Catholics as evidenced in the report sent to Rome.

Becoming a synodal Church means that we’re all in this together and no group, conservative or liberal, can dictate to God’s Spirit what he (or she) can or cannot do.

Once, only ordained men could hold positions of real authority in the Catholic Church. In a change, effective from June 5 last, Pope Francis ruled that any baptised Catholic, women or men, can have roles of government or responsibility in the Church.

When the Catholic Church needs to change it can change quickly.  

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One Comment

  1. Sean Macken says:

    One theme in the synod submissions has been lack of community within the church. Community has in fact been alienated from church in Ireland, located totally instead in local sports and social clubs, perhaps deemed unnecessary for church. There are building blocks of community that could be installed within the church, without the necessity of doctrine changes. Examples can be found, good practice in the churches in other countries and in other Christian traditions, if one cares to look.

    One might look at the Malabar Catholic church, now growing in Ireland, an ancient church believed to have been founded by St Thomas, with its own traditions and in communion with Rome.
    An example from my travels: On a recent walking holiday in Austria, while sightseeing, my colleague (not a practising Catholic) remarked with approval, when we visited the local Catholic church (Mutters, Innsbruck), that memorial cards for the deceased within the past year, with pictures, had been placed on a board at the back of the church. Not just enabling church members to remember their neighbours and friends, but expressing community. Not just in this particular church, but in other village churches also, and in roadside shrines, I haven’t seen this in Ireland. A lead from the parish priest required?

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