A bishop told me once that bishops don’t disagree publicly with one another.
It wasn’t just that dog doesn’t eat dog – to coin a phrase, And it wasn’t
that bishops didn’t disagree with each other. It was that people would feel
scandalised if there was any suggestion of a disagreement, must less a row
between bishops. O tempora, O mores, as Horace used to say.
That practice was rarely if ever abandoned. A bishop could utter the most
unbelievable nonsense but his colleagues would just smile. As Archbishop
John Charles McQuaid said at Dublin Airport on his return from the Second
Vatican Council in Rome, nothing could be allowed to disturb the
tranquillity of the lives of Irish Catholics. And nothing was.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be? Well, not quite.
Suddenly, thanks to what commentators are calling ‘the Francis effect’,
agreeing to disagree, even very publicly, is now taken for granted. And even
cardinals are at it.
Recently there was a cardinal spat between Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga and
Cardinal-to-be Gerhard Muller : the first is the chairman of the group of
eight cardinals chosen as advisors by the Pope; the second is the Prefect of
the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF).
The background to the disagreement was a previous spat between Muller and
Pope Francis. The pope had given a very strong signal that divorcees who had
remarried civilly might receive Communion. Francis seemed to suggest that,
despite what appeared as hard and fast rules, there was room to bring the
mercy of God into the debate.
Muller disagreed arguing, a bit doubtfully, that there was no room for the
mercy of God in the debate. Nonetheless Francis went ahead organising a
Synod of Bishops in Rome later in the year at which it is expected that this
and other issues will be discussed.
Maradiaga was asked to comment on Muller’s apparent dismissal of Pope
Francis (and God’s mercy). Here’s what he said: ‘He’s (Muller’s) is a German
. . . so in his mentality there’s only truth and falsehood. But I say, my
brother, the world isn’t like this and you should be a bit more flexible
when you hear other voices. That means not just listening but then saying
no’. Maradiaga went on to say that he was sure Archbishop Muller ‘will
arrive at understanding other positions too’ even if at the moment he’s
listening ‘only to his group of advisors’.
What we’re seeing is not just a spat among cardinals but a battle for the
soul of the Church, a battle being fought out in an ongoing struggle between
Benedict XVI’s Church and Francis I’s Church, between a black and white view
of Catholic reality (take it or leave it) and an acceptance of the
complexity of human experience (try to understand weakness and failure),
between a focus on theological truth and an acceptance of the importance of
pastoral care. The Church, Francis said, is not for a Catholic elite but a
field hospital where the wounded find healing and care.
We can expect a series of spats like that of Muller versus Maradiaga. And
the battles will be around the core-issues that have emerged in the Church
since the election of Francis.
Like the role of the Curia, which many in the Church believe has lost the
run of itself and is no longer fit-for-purpose. Already it is clear that
Francis intends to slim it down considerably and to limit its over-arching
powers and it’s clear too that significant figures in the Curia, including
Muller, are not prepared to concede an inch.
Like the role of national bishops conferences, which are key agencies for
decision-making at national level, a development which the Curia has
consistently opposed, arguing that they have no status in church law.
Like broadening decision-making processes at world, national, diocesan and
parish level so that issues pertaining to parish can be resolved at parish
level; issues pertaining to diocese can be resolved at diocesan level; and
issues pertaining to the national scene can be sorted at national level. In
effect, it’s about applying the principle of subsidiarity to the Catholic
Church, a principle which the Catholic Church often recommends for other
institutions but is reluctant to implement itself.
Or more simply, implementing the reforms proposed in the Second Vatican
Council, fifty years on. To paraphrase Seamus Mallon, it’s really Vatican
II for slow learners.
That’s no easy task. Moving the Church in a different direction, learning a
different kind of language, will take time and commitment. And part of that
is recognising that opinions will differ and that disagreements are just
part of the currency of debate.
We believed (some more than others) that after the pontificates of John Paul
II and Benedict XVI that the Catholic Church had been placed on an
unchanging track for centuries. However, the God of Surprises had other
ideas when he decided that we needed a fresh wind blowing though the Church
and that Francis would deliver it.
He has and inevitably, as with Pope John XXIII, not everyone can accept the
message. So inevitably there will be conversation, debate, discussion,
disagreement, a bit of frustration even anger thrown in now and again. In
other words, the way institutions and families find their way forward. And
the Catholic Church, as a faith family, is no different.
A first step is to welcome the discussion and to accept that there are
different views, different perspectives and that inevitably confrontation
will ensue. A second step would be to stop pretending that cardinals,
bishops, priests, religious sisters never disagree (or should never be seen
The spat between Cardinals Muller and Maradiaga is just part of a new debate
between differing and sometimes conflicting perspectives: the first a
theologian operating out of a theological perspective; the second, a
pastoral bishop who (as Francis would say) knows the importance of being
‘close to the sheep’.
Let the debate begin.