The Quiet Revolution

Cardinal Kasper has had some interesting things to say about what is going on in the Catholic Church under the papacy of Francis. In particular he commented that the 2016 Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of Love ‘doesn’t change anything of Church doctrine or canon law- but it changes everything’. Kasper is clearly excited by what is happening, but what does he mean by a statement like that?
And why are others so dismayed by what is going on? One thinks of the 45 scholars and clerics, including several bishops, who last summer signed a letter to the pope in which they identified nineteen different passages in The Joy of Love that appeared to conflict with Catholic teaching. In November, four cardinals sent Francis what is called a ‘dubium’, a formal query concerning current church teaching and discipline related to the same document, a direct challenge to the pope which has been repudiated by Cardinal Mueller, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
It seems to me that what is going on here is that Francis is proposing a paradigm shift in our model of church that, in effect, reverses the status quo of the past millennium and returns, with appropriate adjustments for our age, to a first millennium model. This is huge, a ‘quiet revolution’, which, strategically, has the potential to unlock many concrete issues of contention within the Church.
Francis has spelled out the meaning of this shift in his Oct 17, 2015 address during the Synod of Bishops to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod.
In this address he reminds us that synodality has biblical roots- a walking together, along the road of discipleship with Jesus, of laity, pastors, the Bishop of Rome. Synodality, he affirms, is a legacy of the Second Vatican Council and is the pathway ‘that God expects from the Church in the third millennium’. At its centre is the notion of the Church as the People of God, the baptised faithful with their infallible ‘supernatural sense of faith’ (LG, 12). This sensus fidei prevents any rigid separation between the teaching and learning Church, so that the baptised have a role in discerning ‘the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church’.
Francis goes on to spell out that this vision of synodality is something that must gain traction at all levels: local, intermediate and universal. In other words, it is not enough to have occasional formal Synods of Bishops in Rome. Rather, at parish and diocesan level, at Episcopal Conference level, and in that sharing of governance and teaching at Vatican level Francis wants a Church in which open debate, with appropriate institutional channels, leads to a discernment of teaching and practice appropriate for mission in our times.
The ramifications of this approach are enormous. In particular it would seem likely that many so-called neuralgic issues of current church polity (often to do with sexuality and gender) will, over time, be addressed by this synodal, discerning approach, in which due weight is given to the ‘sense of the faithful’. This is by no means a simple capitulation to the ‘spirit of the age’. His dream of a ‘poor church for the poor’, his excoriating critique of the dominant economic model and his care for ‘our common home’, his constant polemic against inequality all testify to the enduring counter-cultural aspect of the synodal church that he envisages.
So, what to do – I mean, what should Catholics in Ireland do? Concretely, it seems to me, we should be demanding of our bishops that – like the Bishop of Limerick has already done, impressively- they convoke diocesan synods, leading to a National Synod, with outreach to the alienated and disaffected, to young people, as well as the faithful in the pews. Groups like the Association of Catholic Priests and the Association of Catholics in Ireland have been calling for these developments for some time now.
As a step in that direction, why not ask for a very inclusive approach to the upcoming (August, 2018) World Meeting of Families, during which a papal visit is possible? We were all, in principle at least, consulted about the Synod of Bishops on the Family: why are we not being consulted equally generously about the upcoming event in Dublin?
Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J.

Similar Posts


  1. Donal Dorr says:

    Thanks very much, Gerry, for this helpful enlightening piece.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    You know I love to get behind an article that speaks about the inversion of the pyramid structure in the Church. It is an amazing time to be alive despite all that’s broken in the world. This pyramid flipping on itself was recognised by a small group of my colleagues in March of 2015 and we sat down and wrote a song about it called “stare down”. I changed my Facebook profile picture to signify the necessity for this to happen, somewhere if not anywhere in society. The fact that our Church was the first to respond doesn’t surprise us. Laudato si’ is a way forward but to start that journey, a white flag would have to be risen. Pope Francis understands mimetic desire and these two, bold steps prove that he knows the replacement procedure. It is not simply a “thought conversion” – there has to be a physical conversion also.
    That ancient model of hierarchical structure that has bled our planet almost completely dry of resources is a universal plight. It creates unfavourable conditions within our Church and certainly a seemingly unchangeable authority within our communities which are now globally connected. We have inherited the care for our common home and the plight of the poor. It is no longer viable for the top tier to combat these injustices on our behalf because they are an intricate part of the problem. We have looked to them for so long for direction and spiritual guidance. Pope Francis is the first among the elite to recognise this; the structure is incompatible with humanity. Our systems will continue to disrupt and damage our local, community inspired existences.
    What he translates for the Church in her approach to fostering ideas and development on a local, cultural basis is also his permission granted to those baptised who can lead a charge that expands the Church’s borders into a new evangelisation of Laudato si’. He is providing all Church resources to those who wish to encourage this new Gospel – for it is a new Gospel of “our” day and one to come.
    The Pope has put us all in a precarious position by killing clericalism with one move. That’s quite a chess game he’s got there. Chess is all about seeing ahead. Checkmate.

  3. Pat Rogers says:

    I totally agree with what you’re saying here Gerry, about the need for us all to be involved in helping build up the sense of family and fraternity in our church. And since our bishops seem rather passive about the need for change, I wonder if anybody else can help to persuade the papal nuncio to give a lead in promoting this dialogue process within our church in Ireland leading up to the 2018 papal visit to Ireland…?

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.