Discernment, dithering or disaster? Has the church the luxury of time to wait on decisions? 

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.  


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  1. JAMES MC HUGH says:

    Brendan, many thanks, again, for your reasoned cri de coeur.
    Am I alone in drawing hope/light from Pádraig Mc Carthy’s closing remarks in his contribution on Francis letter :
    “Yes, I am convinced that the ordination of married men and of women must be addressed – the mission of the Church requires it. If he did so at this juncture, that would absorb the attention, and the wider disastrous situation would be sidelined.
    It seems likely then that, within that context, he will make a later statement on the issue of ordination of married men in the Amazon area.
    As Kyril Rocha (#9) says, Francis knows how to abide his time. Perhaps one of our Jesuit confreres would know if there is something Jesuitical, in the very best sense, about how Francis is addressing this.

  2. John Mangan says:

    Pope Francis is a courageous, inspiring, and, through discernment, reforming Pope. I consider that we should at least try to understand why he has decided against sanctioning the ordination of married men and a female diaconate in Amazonia. A very clear analysis of these reasons and of his responses overall to the main issues dealt with by October’s synod is given by Austen Ivereigh in the Tablet dated 22 February. A somewhat contrary view is given by Tina Beattie in the same issue which is also very much worth reading. The following quotations from Austen Ivereighs article are in my opinion worth highlighting: ‘Querida Amazonia does not close off the possibility in the future (of ordaining married priests for that region) and even points a way to it: Francis notes the need for inculturated liturgy and the synod’s call for an Amazonian rite, which – he does not need to spell out – could enable a married clergy without undermining Latin – rite celibacy’. Many in the Western Church may, for understandable reasons,have hoped that in sanctioning married priests in that region he thus would have undermined Latin-rite celibacy. However, he has had to decide on that issue and has discerned that this is not the time to do it. Austen Ivereigh comments that ” this is a Pope who takes seriously government of the Church by discernment”. Pope Francis also ‘points to the way Catholic communities are run by lay people,60 per cent of them women’in Amazonia.’He also notes ” how in some countries of the Amazon basin,more missionaries go to Europe or the United States than remain to assist their own Vicariates in the Amazon region.”‘ May be this type of strong lay involvement provides the most secure basis for the Church’s future.

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #2. “Pope Francis also ‘points to the way Catholic communities are run by lay people, 60 per cent of them women’, in Amazonia.’”

    Remembering that the ACI exploratory study of ‘lay involvement’ in Ireland points strongly to a widespread deficit in this respect, has the ACP considered conducting a survey of its own members, and their readiness to delegate any degree of initiative to lay people at parish level?

    Recently the South American theologian José María Castillo strongly argued that the opposition of Vatican clericalism to the proposed ordination of married men in Amazonia represents a refusal to honour Lumen Gentium 37, echoing the ACI position on this.


    However, so far the ACP has failed to state a position on Lumen Gentium 37. Is this because there is still resistance, even on the part of more ‘progressive’ Irish clergy, to the delegation of initiative to Irish lay people at parish level?

    In the absence of an emphatic ‘No’ on this, does the prioritisation of the priestly manpower crisis by the ACP prove that the cause of ‘lay empowerment’ in Ireland would necessarily benefit from an end to that crisis at this juncture?

    Why, so late in the day, should there be any doubt about this – when, by a simple decision of the ACP leadership, the Association’s position could be put beyond all doubt?

  4. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    I have no personal experience of Amazonia. Brendan writes about the document of Pope Francis about Querida (Beloved) Amazonia: “huge expectations have been shattered and the sound of a door being slammed reverberated through the Catholic Church.”
    What if the sound is not of a door being slammed, but rather the sound of deep excavation in progress in preparation for the foundations of a far more solid structure?
    The reflections of Francis convey a impression of him seeing Amazonia as a “Locus Theologicus” within which the Christian community needs to grow organically, rather than be modelled on European or other experience? Think of Enda McDonagh’s 1990 book, “Faith and the Hungry Grass: A Mayo Book of Theology”, and its 1994 follower, “Survival Or Salvation?: A Second Mayo Book of Theology.” Theology rooted. St Patrick’s writings show a theology worked out in the very specific location of Ireland. Jesuits Michele Ruggieri (1543–1607) and Mattel Ricci did the same in China until Rome intervened. Because of creation, and deepened in the incarnation, every part of this universe is a Locus Theologicus, whether developed or not.
    This Locus Theologicus of Amazonia understanding of what Francis wants to do is suggested by Carmen Nanko-Fernández in her theological response, “Querido Francisco”, a letter addressed to Francis, which I found helpful. It’s at https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/theology-en-la-plaza/querido-francisco. She is professor of Hispanic theology and ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is also author of a book with the delightful name “Theologizing en Espanglish”! From her insider (far more than mine) perspective, she re-focuses us away from what we may think Francis should have said to what he is actually doing. It’s not a dissertation on priestly celibacy or ordination of women, but a foundation for a theology and a church which grows from the lived experience of the people of Amazonia. This is far more radical.
    In relation to that question, she writes about the Fourth Dream of which Francis wrote: “This sueño is more provocative than it seems. With respect to women deacons and married priests, you leave the window open, though your concern for avoiding new patterns of clericalism should be heeded. In part, I suggest this power malformation feeds off of a privileging of personal or individual calls to ordained vocations. The focus in Amazonia shifts the source of ministerial calls to the needs of particular communities, communities who have raised up leaders 60% of whom are women. You do not qualify your urging for prayers for priestly vocations with the words celibate or male, an interesting omission, though you still struggle with the temptation to frame ministry within in terms that essentialize gender. You have gifted us with rich new metaphors for the doing of ministry and theology, images like “field hospital,” “the smell of the sheep,” “the smell of the street.” Reliance on dated metaphors like the church as bride of Christ takes on a literalism that can prove counterproductive, limiting our openness to the Spirit who will blow as she will.”
    Referring to the final document of the Synod, she writes: “You sense new directions in Amazonia that present opportunities for ‘the Church to be open to the Spirit’s boldness, to trust in, and concretely to permit, the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay’ (#94).” This (I hope) avoids the trap of transplanting the kind of church organisation we are used to, and at the same time avoids the danger of exporting clericalism through clericalising the church as it is being lived in Amazonia.
    Brendan writes: “The door Francis seemed to slam last week will be opened because there is no workable alternative.” But perhaps there is a workable alternative, beyond what our limited experience would indicate is possible. An alternative which has deep implications for the kind of renewed church we need in Ireland and around the world. An alternative well worth praying and waiting for.
    Francis has bitten the bullet. But it’s a bullet we didn’t recognise, until we look at what he actually says.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    I wonder did anyone really read Querida Amazonia. Francis clarified the Pachamama controversy, but the rabid polemicists did not stay to hear his answer. Leading comparative theologian Francis X. Clooney, spiritual descendant of his Jesuit models Matteo Ricci, Robert de Nobili, and Ippolito Desideri pipes up on the subject: https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/francisclooney/blog/pope-amazon-and-pachamama?fbclid=IwAR042rDpp_JwCHOkXpLsXDzk1i4pRpmWHlPsFLLrySTaA_PwPYzztGX4HFw

    “The pregnant silence from above” — another memorable Brendan Hoban phrase. And there is also “the joyful noise unto the Lord” of our sister churches who have solved the problem of ministry.

  6. Kyril Rocha says:

    Perhaps in presenting “officially” that Synod’s Document Pope Francis already approved it albeit in a veiled way.
    In opportune time, when some Amazonian bishops will ask formally canonical dispensation to ordain married deacons as presbyters, Pope will grant their petition. We will see .

  7. Des Gilroy says:

    As a great admirer of Brendan Hoban, I am very disappointed by his interpretation and condemnation of the Pope Francis letter Querida Amazonia. Key to Brendan’s response appears to be his underlying belief, as he puts it so clearly “No priests, no Mass, no Church”. No priests, so no Church? What about the rest of us lay people- do we not also constitute the Church? So surprising that Brendan does not recognise that the Church is essentially the people of God. They may not have priests in so many parts of the Amazon region but, irrespective of that, the Church survives there because the Spirit is very much alive with the people.

    And what door did Francis slam in his response to the Final Document of the Synod?. On the very first page he, in his own words, “officially presents the Final Document which sets forth the conclusions of the Synod, which profited from the participation of many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia the problems and issues of the Amazon region”.

    Note, the subtle way he sidelines the Roman Curia.

    He then very strongly advocates that “the pastors, consecrated men and women and lay faithful of the Amazon region strive to apply it, and may it inspire in some way every person of good will”. How can anyone conclude this is saying “No” to the recommendations of the Synod?

    With regard to Francis’s attitude to the women of the Amazon, who he credits largely with the survival of the Church in that region, it is quite obvious that he is concerned that ordination to the present form of priesthood would, as he puts it, “ lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.”. Would our Church benefit from more clericalism? A lot of food for thought there for all to ponder.

    We are only at half-time in this game. Let us have more trust in the Captain and see what the second half brings along. Brendan, it’s not like Mayo to throw in the towel at this stage, so maybe they just need a good team talk to raise their spirits.

  8. John A. Waters says:

    I think Fr. Hoban is unnecessarily concerned. A shortage of priests and
    the consequences falls into the non essential area. The most important
    and essential element in need of nurture, is faith and belief in God.
    It is a long time since I heard a preacher who could impart his faith
    to us in a strong convincing manner.( The late Fr. Peyton comes to mind. )
    In the absence of priests, laymen and women of strong faith would organise
    and lead the faithful in regular prayer meetings which would please the
    Lord our God.

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