The church I long to see


Church fathers (unfortunately, there are no mothers) are currently participating in the second session of the Synod on the Family in the Vatican.
Battle lines are clearly drawn, as conservative members resist any attempt to relax church laws on issues such as whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed receive Holy Communion and whether the church should adopt a more tolerant approach to those in gay relationships.
Of course, this synod is concerned only with issues to do with the family, but one would hope that it is a precursor to a universal synod or council that would consider all the issues facing the church in the 21st century. Notwithstanding the boost that Pope Francis has given the church since his election two and a half years ago, it is clear that the institution itself remains not fit for purpose.
This is my vision of church, my hope for it:

  • I believe in a church inspired by the teachings of the second Vatican Council, and not the old style, neo-triumphalist model of church that some now want to restore.
  • I believe in a humble church – that is acutely conscious of its faults and weaknesses, that engages in a common quest for truth in dialogue with people of all religions and none, and that doesn’t see secularism as an enemy against which it must stand as the perfect society in opposition.
  • I believe in a Spirit-filled church – that recognises that the Holy Spirit speaks through all the people of God by virtue of our common baptism and not only through the magisterium or the Roman curia.
  • I believe in a welcoming church – that in its language and actions treats all-comers with sensitivity and compassion, irrespective of background, or circumstance or sexual orientation.
  • I believe in an inclusive church – that uses the gifts and talents of all to build up its life and ministry, and that recognises that any organisation without women at its centre is dysfunctional and lacks credibility.
  • I believe in a listening church – that doesn’t insist it has all the answers, especially to the complicated moral and ethical questions of today, but that is prepared to learn from the world of science and biology and the social sciences so as to better respond to the signs of the times.
  • I believe in an open church – where theological discussion is encouraged, and the free exchange of ideas is regarded by those in authority not as a threat, or as disobedience, or as being “confusing to the faithful,” but as a sign of a vibrant community of faith in which the Spirit freely moves.
  • I believe in a partnership church – that recognises the priesthood of all the baptised and that renounces clericalism as a deadly disease that damages the work of building up the people of God.
  • I believe in a transparent church – that eschews secrecy, that treats its members with respect, and that never operates through bullying, or silencings.
  • I believe in a servant church – in which every member of whatever rank is at the service of others, never abusing their authority or treating others arrogantly, or having a fixation with status or office or titles or dress.
  • I believe in a marginal church – that upholds all people’s dignity at every stage of life, that identifies especially with the poor, and feels most at home alongside the voiceless, the alienated, the powerless, the hurt and the abused.

This is the kind of church I believe in; a model of church that in many ways through so many people already exists. We just need those at the top of the ladder to introduce the changes that will help make every aspect of it real.

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  1. Peter Shore says:

    Just regarding the first two paragraphs … the Synod has no power to change Catholic doctrine. Neither does any individual, whether conservative or liberal, not even the Pope. It’s important to distinguish between those things which are doctrines, and those which are merely disciplines (and might therefore be “relaxed”).

  2. Michael C. says:

    “the Synod has no power to change Catholic doctrine. Neither does any individual, whether conservative or liberal, not even the Pope”
    Maybe, maybe not .. but doctrine has changed in the past and no doubt will continue to do so into the future.

  3. A truly inspiring list and one with which I agree totally.
    Holy Scripture contains the development of doctrine so it is difficult to see why that evolutionary process is not continuing today, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Would anyone today think it morally sinful for anyone, including banks or Building Societies, to lend mortgages at a (reasonable) rate of interest, or insist on a miscarried unbaptised fetus/baby being buried in an unblessed grave and being forever denied Heaven/the presence of God, a mother being ‘churched’ (made ritually clean)after giving birth before returning to the sacraments etc. etc. Many theologians today are seeking a new understanding and way of expressing the doctrines of Original Sin and Substitutionary Atonement of Christ”s death on the cross etc. etc.

  4. Peter Shore says:

    Again, the development of doctrine is different from making wholesale changes to it. Doctrine can’t change because Christ is God’s final revelation to humanity. Of the examples given — ‘churching’ was never about ritual uncleanliness even if it resembled an older Jewish ritual which did. This was pointed out by the Pope as far back as the sixth century. There has never been a doctrine about what happens to the unbaptised when they die (there still isn’t). Regarding the charging of interest, we only have to look at the parable of the talents (Matt 25:27) to see the master saying that money should have been put on deposit to earn interest.
    These sorts of examples often come up when it is suggested that doctrines might change, for instance, regarding marriage. When you consider that the relationship between Christ and the Church is described in scripture as a marriage, this is fairly obviously impossible. Adulterous second marriages and homosexual relationships can’t be defined to be ok under a “relaxation” of rules.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    The indissolubility of marriage is an ideal that has many exceptions: the “me epi porneia” clause used twice in Matthew, and the Pauline and Petrine principles:
    That a Gospel text countenances “usury” has no direct bearing on the Church’s long struggle to adjust its teaching to banking practice. I don’t know if this text was invoked in the discussions leading to the change in church teaching on this point. (Note that there are other texts in Matthean parables that countenance torture and slavery. We must beware of proof-texting and fundamentalist heremeneutics.)
    In some cases doctrinal development is so counter-intuitive that even popes are taken off-guard, as in the case of monotheletism.
    There is plenty more evidence of substantial change in the varying claims made by the Church about the Church’s authority over the State (e.g. Unam Sanctam).
    The teaching of Vatican II on Judaism and religious freedom contradicts previous papal utterances on these issues and even, at least on the surface, the Council of Florence. The hermeneutical flexibility needed to reconcile Florence and Vatican II offers good hope that similar flexibility can be shown in handling such issues as gay marriage.

  6. I am pleased Fr.Joe has replied to Peter Shore as I was of the opinion that doctrine has indeed changed over the centuries. Or, perhaps, I don’t fully understand what actually constitutes church ” doctrine”. Perhaps some competent person could elaborate.

  7. Peter Shore says:

    My understanding of doctrine would be that it is the moral teaching of the Church, which cannot be different from the content of Scripture or Traditional practice. This article elaborates: “http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/can-the-church-change-its-doctrines”

  8. Christianity calls us all to be disciples of the Lord.
    Discipleship which lasts and is effective starts with an experience of being unconditionally, eternally and compassionately loved by God, in spite of one’s many failings and weaknesses – the Prodigal son’s experience of unearned and undeserved love. One then responds freely and generously to loving the Father in return. Finally one becomes aware of the need to share God’s unconditional love with others, because that brings about the true happiness of the Kingdom of God, the desire of the Father.
    During the last two stages one becomes gradually aware of the importance of membership of Christ’s Church and the divine support of its sacraments, Sacred Scripture, liturgies and fellowship. One also wants to get to know more about the God whose love one has experienced and the Church which is called to reveal His unconditional and compassionate love to the world. Here catechesis, dogmatic and moral theology, spirituality, liturgy and a study of Sacred Scripture have important roles to play, but roles of secondary importance to first experiencing and then sharing God’s unconditional, compassionate love with others.
    I think Gerard Maloney’s vision for the Catholic Church is more likely to mediate that experience of God’s love and hence form disciples of unconditional, compassionate love to the world than those starting from dogma, no matter how ‘right’ the dogmas may be.
    A home starting with an emphasis on strict observance of rules and agreement with parental beliefs about various issues, and hoping to arrive by those means at a deeply loving family, where all are respected and valued and given room to grow and to learn from their mistakes, has put the cart before the horse. Loving adults come mostly from growing up in loving homes!
    It is a pity we have reduced the discussion on Gerard Maloney’s rich vision of Church to a discussion on dogma.

  9. Michael C. says:

    Aidan, A wonderfully expressed comment.
    Always we see in the Gospel the reaching out in mercy to forgive before ever the sinner has a chance to express sorrow; the mercy of Jesus invites the sorrow and even then does the Father ever seek chapter and verse from the prodigal, much less an expression of penance? No, the mercy is freely given. Unconditional.
    I dislike when there is an attempt to reduce God’s mercy and almost everything else in Church to the fulfilling of prescribed requirements so that we can, in the awful (heretical?) language of the new “translation’ of the missal, ‘Merit’ eternal life.
    We never can, it is freely given by a loving merciful God.
    One thing I am profoundly grateful for with Pope Francis is that the legalistic aggressive, bullish, and at times militaristic, language of some U.S. bishops seems to have been quietened. Long may it last.
    Sadly, as with Gerard Moloney’s delightful vision, there are always those who try to hijack and steer the discussion into narrow legalistic channels.

  10. Peter Shore says:

    I entirely agree that discipleship is an experiential thing. “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).But also: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10). A mature process of discipleship eventually has to come to terms with personal sinfulness, otherwise we would conclude that Christ died for nothing. This is not an obsessive preoccupation, but a pragmatic recognition of our fallen nature. Part of the great gift of the Church we have been given is the sacrament of reconcilation. Our Lord’s plan included this assurance of the restoration of divine grace. The Church’s mission, then, involves a gentle but insistent call to repentance.
    Exercising this mission is a matter of compassion, not legalism. When Gerard Maloney chooses to preface his article by saying that “conservative members resist any attempt to relax church laws”, and using a metaphor of battle, I fear that he is in danger of throwing the baby out with the legalistic bath water. Not to put too fine a point on it — are we really talking about defining some sins out of existence and abandoning the call to repentance? Among his subsequent eleven points, I see no reference to the centrality of the call to repentance from the very beginning of Christ’s own mission which the Church has inherited (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17).

  11. I would respectfully suggest that it is not ‘discipleship’ that is the redeeming experience; it is God’s unconditional love for us, even while we are sinners.
    God’s love cannot be seen as ‘unconditional’ and then have conditions attached to it.
    It is clear in Jesus’ beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son that the son had to first become aware of his sinfulness and aware that he would be accepted by his father on returning home, even if only conditionally. He then makes the journey home and has the life-changing experience of his father’s unconditional love. I think it is inherent in the parable that the father would have gone on loving his prodigal son unconditionally even if the son hadn’t seen the error of his sinful ways and refused to return home. So the father’s love was not dependent or conditional on the son’s admittance of his sinfulness or on his coming home to say ‘sorry’ to his dad.
    The parable is not only a fantastic lesson on unconditional love but also on freedom and respect. Without freedom and respect for oneself and others mature love will not grow. True freedom respects oneself and the rights of others: parents to set reasonable boundaries for their young children, Bishops to have responsible authority within the Church etc. In the parable the father facilitated his son’s freedom to leave home by giving him his half of the property that would, by Jewish law, only become his right on the death of the father. No coercion, no blackmail, just total generosity, respect and unconditional love of father for son.
    That level of love, respect and freedom frightens us. We think it will lead to chaos. Perhaps it is also frightening because we know how hard it is to put into practice in our own lives. Many parents try their best to carry the cross of unconditionally loving an erring child and respecting his/her need for responsible freedom. In that process they have taken up the cross of Jesus the Christ, whose suffering and death showed us the price of God’s unconditional love for all humanity and all creation. Unconditional love is a heavy cross to carry.
    A home practicing unconditional love, responsible freedom and mutual respect is the type of home Gerard Moloney wants our Catholic Church to be; a home where the prodigal son and prodigal daughter – all of us – are welcomed back, transformed by the Father’s unconditional love and invited to respond as disciples of the Father’s love for all of His creation. What a vision!

  12. Call to repentance : It’s not a practical proposition for a person, divorced and remarried with several children to abandon his second wife and children.

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