The laity has spoken and the Church must learn
24 September 2015
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have published an extraordinarily candid piece of criticism, accusing the Church of being bigoted, misogynistic, controlling, judgemental, outdated and Pharisaical. These are all words taken from a summary of responses to a consultation conducted by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in preparation for the forthcoming international synod of bishops in Rome next month, on the subject of marriage and family life.
Yet there is no cynicism among these accusations. Rather, the laity who commented are revealed as warm, generous, open-hearted and still committed to their faith. What they were criticising was the “official” Church, however defined – the disapproving judgemental hierarchical Church as portrayed in the media and as described by its enemies and those it has hurt. And as many of them point out, this is not based on the Church as it presently is under Pope Francis, but on how it is perceived to have acted over generations.
The consultation produced a rich seam of spiritual insight and reflection. It pleads for things to change, especially regarding those who are estranged from the Church over issues of sexual ethics. A constant refrain was that the next generation of Catholics will be permanently alienated unless there is change that makes the Church a warmer home for women, for gay people, and for the divorced and remarried.
They want a Church that engages with married life and its messy difficulties realistically and humanely, not one offering idealistic textbook answers.
As Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said at a press conference where the summary was unveiled, the depth of faith the respondents disclosed was humbling and moving. It even moved him to say that “this family witness to the Church is very very important, more than what the Church can teach the family”.
By “the Church” he meant, indicating the clerical platform party at the press conference, “in the sense of us lot”. Indeed, one respondent is quoted as saying: “It would seem that right now the Church may well have more to learn from marriage and family life than to teach.” It is the sensus fidelium at work.
Hence a recurrent theme was the divide between the clerical hierarchy and the laity. Putting an official stamp of recognition on that, as Cardinal Nichols did, could well be a watershed moment in the life of the Church. It establishes that the real experts on family life are those actually living it, not celibate theologians, canon lawyers and bishops.
This could have enormous consequences in issues ranging from contraception and homosexuality to married priests and even female priests. While an overwhelming number wanted the lifting of the ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Holy Communion, they equally wanted the Church to promote marriage as a lifelong vocation.
If the bishops needed evidence that the laity put a high value on marriage, they have it. They also have evidence, however, that their stewardship of this priceless institution has been found seriously wanting. That is the challenge