Between a rock and a hard place
That wise man, Fr Gabriel Daly, now in his 90s, in his latest book remarked that there was no way to reconcile the huge differences between those who wanted reform in the Church and those who didn’t. This perceptive remark has been borne out by subsequent events.
Almost daily, certainly weekly, there are reports from Rome of Pope Francis’ efforts to introduce much-needed reforms and the opposition of the Curia (the Church’s civil service), including bishops and cardinals, working up a head of steam against them.
While the big battle – and battle it is – is going on in Rome, there are more minor skirmishes taking place at national, diocesan and parish level, between those convinced of the need to introduce sweeping changes in the Church’s laws and practices and those holding on grimly to the past.
For the latter group church tradition is unchanging (and they quote chapter and verse to prove it) for the first group tradition develops and changes (and they quote chapter and verse to prove it).
The debate is becoming bitter. In a recent article in The Guardian, the celebrated writer on church matters, Andrew Brown, introduced a wide-ranging article entitles ‘The war against Francis’ with the words: ‘Pope Francis is one of the most hated men in the world today. Those who hate him most are not atheists, or Protestants, or Muslims, but some of his own followers.’ Brown quoted an English priest: ‘We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private. Whenever two priests meet, they talk about how awful Bergoglio (Francis) is.’
Another example is the letter written to Pope Francis by Fr Thomas Weinandy, a Capucian priest and former head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. He made a number of points, some general, others personal attacks on the pope. He disputed Francis’ letter opening up the possibility of people in irregular marriage situations receiving Communion, suggesting that the letter ‘demeaned the importance of Church doctrine’. He questioned Francis’ choice of newly appointed bishops, suggesting that some of them supported views contrary to church teaching. He suggested that instead of Francis promoting unity in the Church that his words and actions were doing the opposite. And, finally, he said that Francis resented criticism even though he gives the opposite impression.
Almost immediately, Weinandy’s predecessor disassociated himself from the criticisms and published a point-by-point rebuttal of the accusations made against Francis and pointed out that Weinandy ‘did not merely object to this or that thing Pope Francis has said or done; the whole tone of his letter, his choice of words, showed a lack of respect and humility that was appalling’.
One of the delicious ironies of the present time is watching the discomfort of those who had the inside track during the Benedict papacy and were appalled by even the mildest criticism of Benedict, and who are now throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Francis with no apparent concern for what they called ‘filial obedience to the pope’ – which they promoted with such fervour during the last papacy.
It is difficult to see how there can be any agreement between sides that are mutually and diametrically opposed to one another – sometimes to the point of bitterness – and every reforming effort by Francis is being fought tooth and nail, even reforms that are necessary for the very survival of the faith in parishes all over the world.
Take priests, for example. Everyone now accepts that there’s a huge crisis with priest numbers. And everyone accepts that something has to be done. It’s quite clear that Francis is open to the ordination of married men, possibly to making celibacy optional in the future and possibly to the ordination of women deacons.
Here are some figures that indicate the problem. Fr Martin Keveny from Killala diocese writes in the upcoming Vineyard, the Killala diocesan magazine, that in Brazil there are 18,000 priests and 147,000 Protestant ministers catering for over 200 million people. All we have to do is the maths. One diocese in the Amazonian basin that’s five times the size of Ireland has just 30 priests so receiving the Eucharist – a vital sustenance for faith – is impossible for most of the people in that diocese most of the time.
The bishop there, Edwin Krautler, has said that the priority for his diocese is to ordain married men but that he also hopes that women could be ordained to the diaconate because that most of the small communities struggling to keep the faith going are headed by women.
Requests for fundamental changes are already on Pope Francis’ desk and he’s made a decision that at a meeting in the Amazon basin area the ordination of married men will be on the agenda. The suggestion is that the Amazonian area will become a pilot area where married men will be ordained, a test-case for reform.
On the figures for Brazil (and for Ireland in the next decade or so) it’s a no-brainer. Reform in the priesthood for the Catholic Church is necessary if the faith is to survive, much less thrive.
But Francis is ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’. If he introduces the ordination of married men and the ordination of women deacons, he will have started a process of reform that will help solve the problem of a Eucharistic famine. By doing so he may cause a fragmentation of the Church, a schism as we call it, as those who are embedded in a centuries old tradition (priesthood confined to celibate priest) attempt to circle the wagons in an effort to avoid change.
As Gabriel Daly suggests there may be no way to reconcile what are directly conflicting expectations.