Rite and Reason: Catholic church struggling to have a conversation with itself

Irish Catholics want equality for women and inclusion for the LGBTQI+ community, but minority voices are clinging to traditional ways

By Gerry O’Hanlon Mon Jun 13 2022 – 05:00 Irish Times


The chiming of a bell next Saturday evening at the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise will be significant. It calls together for silence and prayer a motley crew of well over 100 people, laity, religious, priests and bishops, all participants at a daylong national assembly of the Irish Catholic Church in Athlone. This assembly is itself the culmination of an unprecedented national consultation, in preparation for the Irish submission to the 2023 Universal Synod in Rome. Each diocese was asked to submit a 10-page synthesis of their own consultation process, and many of these are already posted on diocesan websites. In addition, there were more than two dozen submissions from various other groups and some individuals.

All this is part of the historic, global project of reform of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis with his vision of a “synodal church”, characterised by honest and open speech, as well as deep listening. This listening is with a view to change.

Some of the implications and tensions involved in the transition to this new ecclesial paradigm are evident in this first phase of the Irish consultation. People have been delighted to be asked their views, there is a sense of hope and energy, and many are calling for a continuation of this synodal way of proceeding. There is a call for real change. And yet, after years — centuries — of a different model of church, and real breaches of trust, it can seem almost too good to be true; there is a lot of scepticism, cynicism and apathy. Numbers were low, and the age demographic high.

The open wound of abuse, clerical and institutional, and its poor handling by leaders, inevitably hung over the process. There were strong statements from some survivors who engaged generously. It is clear that despite various efforts made at different levels, a reckoning still needs to be had. As Derek Scally discovered in his book on Irish Catholicism, there is a reluctance to have conversations, in the church and in wider society, around this topic. Within the church it may be that the abuse issue is a helpful lens through which to view many other issues: attitudes towards power, the absence of women in governance, clericalism, sexual teaching.

It is clear in the submissions that an overwhelming majority want equality for women in the church (in particular at decision-making levels and in terms of ordained ministry) and an inclusive approach to the LGBTQI+ community. This will inevitably raise questions around church teaching and its non-reception by the “sense of faith of the faithful”. The consensus (conspiratio) between pastors and faithful, highlighted by cardinal John Henry Newman as the mark of sound teaching, is lacking. There was similar disquiet around the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics; again, it is clear that much church discourse on sexuality and gender is unpersuasive.

All this is part of a deeper sense of a gap between faith and life, and between the institutional church and the ambient culture. And so there is much talk of more adequate adult faith formation; a liturgy with language that is less archaic and more inclusive; new ways to approach sacramental preparation; a co-responsible model of leadership that includes laity; the need to reconnect with young people; and the breakdown of the relationship between family, parish, school and wider society in our atomised and secularised culture.    

There is a minority voice which dissents from the overall consensus and insists on adherence to more traditional ways. This reminds us of the need to discern carefully the difference between simply following the prevailing culture in a superficial way, out of an almost desperate desire to be accepted, and being humble enough to realise that we get things wrong and (as Vatican II taught) we can learn from the world and culture about us.

Many of the submissions are self-critical in that they recognise not sufficient attention has been given to issues such as care of the Earth, the poor, inequality, homelessness, immigration, peace on our shared island. There is an acknowledgment of the limited inclusion in the process of people on the margins, as well as the inadequate treatment of relationships with other churches and people of other faiths. This can serve as a reminder that the Church has taken only the first step on a much longer journey. This journey will continue in the specifically Irish phase of the synodal pathway over the next few years.

The chiming of the bell at Clonmacnoise will be gentle and invitational, not triumphalist. Nonetheless, we dare to hope that this church, on the way to reform and renewal, might be of service to all Irish citizens, believers or not, in our common task of building up a better world for our children and grandchildren.

Fr Gerry O’Hanlon is a Jesuit priest, a theologian, and member of the Irish Catholic Church’s Synodal Pathway steering committee. He is author of The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis: A Synodal Catholic Church in Ireland?

Similar Posts


  1. Cyril North says:

    Rite and Reason: Catholic church struggling to have a conversation with itself

    It’s long past time for the church to recognize the right of equal treatment for women and LGBT persons. Get with reality, for goodness sake. Francis 1 is trying to stop catholicism from slipping back into the dark ages and he needs all the support he can get from church members.

  2. Alan McGill says:

    Rite and Reason: Catholic church struggling to have a conversation with itself

    With reference to the “traditional ways” noted in the subtitle, I would be unwilling to cede the term “traditional” to those who oppose inclusivity. The implication can be that the dourest version of 1950s Irish Catholicism defines tradition. Such a glorification of the preconciliar era loses sight of the dynamic nature of the tradition that in its earliest form was radically inclusive. Then again, terms such as “integralist” and “Jansenist” would mean little to many newspaper readers. The term “fundamentalist” might apply to some extent when exclusivist arguments are based on a literalistic misinterpretation of scripture.

    Alan McGill

    1. Sean O'Conaill says:

      Rite and Reason: Catholic church struggling to have a conversation with itself

      Absolutely right, Alan McGill. ‘Reactionary’ or ‘Retro’ is a far more accurate descriptor (than ‘traditional’) of the tendency to revert to the Catholicism of the 1950s as definitive and obedient to the Gospel. It stems from the Catholic chauvinism that went hand in hand with opposition to political democracy also – and from an inability to recognise the origins of western atheism and anti-clericalism in the Christendom alliance of church and state. Acton’s insight that power corrupts has not yet been thoroughly applied to the understanding of the history of the church, even though the clerical abuse revelations were the culmination of that long story.

      Even yet the prophet Samuel’s dialogue with God over the Israelite’s desire to have a king ‘like the other nations’ has not been absorbed – especially in relation to the Christian bishops’ tendency to overbuy into Constantine’s 312 ‘vision’ of the cross and the supposed legend ‘in hic signo vinces’. Those passages in the book of Samuel strongly suggest that always the Father allows us to learn from our mistakes – probably because that’s the only way we do ever learn. And Christendom was the worst of the church’s cul-de-sacs.

      In the strictest interpretation of tradition St Paul was entirely correct in identifying the ‘powers and principalities’ of this world as at odds with the Gospel’s ‘new creation’. Christendom after Constantine tempted Christian leaders into social and political ascent, creating the ruined church that Jesus asked Francis of Assisi to rebuild. That task is ongoing as we watch.

  3. Gerry O'Hanlon says:

    Rite and Reason: Catholic church struggling to have a conversation with itself

    Thanks Alan – I just note that the title and sub-title were chosen by someone in the Irish Times, not by this author!
    Gerry O’Hanlon

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.