Have we the luxury of time to wait on decisions?
In August 1968, I spent some time in Dublin in the National Library researching history. One evening in taking the 48A bus to Ballinteer where I was staying with my late brother, Seamus, his wife Ann and their children, I saw a headline on the Evening Press – “The Pope says ‘No’”.
It was in reference to a papal letter, Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI, confirming that artificial contraception would remain against Catholic teaching. What was newsworthy about it was that it was expected that the Pope would say the opposite.
At the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, the issue of family planning had been taken off the agenda and was given to a special commission to consider and to advise Pope Paul. The Commission’s report advised a change in church teaching and Pope Paul was expected to issue a letter in accordance with that advice. However, as Humanae Vitae showed, the pope did an unexpected u-turn in reaffirming traditional Catholic teaching.
It was one of those moments when it seemed as if time stood still for many Catholics. On the crest of the Vatican Two years, when it seemed as if the Catholic church was finally dragging itself into the twentieth century, it seemed for a while that everything was possible. Humanae Vitae had the effect for many of slamming that particular door shut.
Last week was in a sense a Humanae Vitae moment, in the sense that huge expectations have been shattered and the sound of a door being slammed reverberated through the Catholic Church.
This wasn’t what was expected. A few years ago when Bishop Edwin Krautler chatted to his friend Pope Francis he explained the big problem facing the Church in the Amazon region where he had worked all his life. They had so few priests that some Catholic could only attend Mass a few times a year. Francis suggested that Krautler bring his concerns to him through the Brazilian bishops.
Krautler and the Brazilian bishops followed that advice and eventually the Amazon Synod held late last year discussed the issue and the bishops voted by 80% to recommend to Francis (i) that married men should be ordained and (ii) that the issue of women deacons should be revisited.
It seemed that all the Ts has been crossed and the general expectation was that Francis would confirm the decisions of the synod. But last week, his letter failed to mention either (i) or (ii) above. Common sense and understandable expectation conspired to present the Church with another Humanae Vitae moment.
1968 is a long time ago. Much has changed. People are more reluctant to give the Church the benefit of the doubt – for multiple reasons – or to accept that doors can be slammed, indefinitely.
1968 saw the beginning of a walk-away from the Catholic Church as Catholics began to despair of their Church ever finding its way of making peace with the world. For other reasons, that has continued and multiplied, in the process leaving many Catholics wringing their hands in exasperation.
However, there is one crucial difference between 1968 and now. Humana Vitae closed a door that many didn’t expect ever to see to opened so, as adults, they began to take responsibility for their own decisions.
The door Francis seemed to slam last week will be opened because there is no workable alternative. No priests, no Mass, no Church. And even though ‘loyal’ churchmen will trot out the same solutions to the vocations famine over and over again, no one really is pretending that anyone, anymore, can pretend they offer a solution.
Francis suggested that we should pray more for vocations. That’s not possible. We’ve been mithering God with our prayers for more vocations for ages but we’re not listening to the pregnant silence from above.
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh has suggested that Irish priests and religious might volunteer for service in the Amazon region. Enough said about that creative suggestion the better. Titanics and deckchairs come to mind.
The only straw in the wind is the suggestion that Francis is still ‘discerning’ and that, in time, he will suddenly announce what everyone was expecting him to announce last week. There are, it has to be said, good reasons for this as Francis, a Jesuit, has a particularly Jesuitical way of processing decision-making.
The big question is: can we wait?
There’s a problem about waiting. Even horses who are brought to the water and not allowed to drink get cheesed off with constant diversions.
The answer is that for some people, and progressively more, the waiting is over. Parents with children – teenage and adult – understand why time is important. Our leaders seem to be in denial about the impact such catastrophic delays are having on the confidence and the membership of our Church.
Francis has been damaged by this delay. Talk rather than action. PR rather than substance. Is it too much to expect, that old age eventually makes decision-making too difficult? Why bother anymore?
It is important for us to name the disappointment, the frustration, the sadness, the upset, the anger that are part of the fall-out from last week’s letter. If 80% of the bishops, representing the bishops of the world, agree a position, can it possibly be delayed and delayed, recognising the damage that will do?
Is there a limit to the amount of discerning that needs to be done when something so obvious and so necessary are staring us in the face? There are other more difficult and more complex issues to be faced, but not this one.
Francis needs to bite this bullet. Soon.