Some time ago – not too long in time, though it feels like centuries – the priests of Killala diocese struggled with a huge issue. Altar girls. Women had become astronauts, pilots, bus-drivers, prime ministers and presidents as well as priests in other Christian denominations. This twentieth-century phenomenon was taking over the world and had even infected the minds of small female persons, as we saw this perilous campaign gaining momentum.
As good priests, ‘faithful to the traditions of the church’ (as theologians usually say when they want nothing to change), we agreed that our first point of departure should be a query to an expert in canon (Church) law. Bishop Tommy Finnegan contacted an acknowledged authority who sent on what he hoped would be a helpful response to this insidious development, a response that was heavy on strategy but light on common sense. Bishop Tommy read the statement to the assembled clergy. It was greeted by a stunned silence until one priest suggested that if we put that in a parish bulletin, the assembled congregation would laugh even more at us – Fr Ted being the most popular television viewing at the time. The bishop folded the page and put it in his back pocket. It was the last we heard about it.
The sky didn’t fall in on the Catholic Church when young girls took to wondering out loud why serving Mass was only for boys or when word spread that in a particular parish girls could serve as well as boys. Or when they made their way inside the altar rails. And so it was.
I thought of all the angst there was in arriving at that change of direction when I read about Pope Francis discussing the possibility of ordaining women as deacons. He was travelling back from one of his overseas trips and, as is the custom, he answered some questions from journalists. Two years ago Francis had set up a commission to investigate this question. The members had come up with different positions and, Francis said, so the issue needs further study, though he didn’t say who would do this or when it might be done. It was an example, he said, of ‘joyful variety’.
It may also be an example of not facing what’s going to happen anyway if we don’t want our Church to disappear without trace, apart from a small coterie of Catholics intent on making their way back to sixteenth century via the Council of Trent. Because make no mistake about it, this is an issue that will make or break our Church.
It’s a decision that the Church seems intent on avoiding, and with so many women holding grimly to the door-posts of the Church by their finger-nails, not making a decision to ordain married deacons many believe is the equivalent of waving women goodbye.
Despite the fact that the Holy Spirit guided the Church to converse with the world – to listen to ‘the signs of the times – and that the vision of the Second Vatican Council was overwhelmingly voted through by 90% of the bishops of the world, the two last pontificates (John Paul II’s and (Benedict XVI’s) pointed us in the opposite direction.
Even though the dogs in the street know that unless religion can engage with the culture of the day it contributes to its own decline, there are compelling and sometimes spectacular instances of how this is happening to the Catholic Church.
Two examples suffice. One is that a core truth of our time, the centrality of the democratic impulse, is not just side-lined but a refusal to engage with it is presented as an indicator of (yes, you guessed it ) ‘being true to the tradition’. Another is that retaining a culture of misogyny is not just a self-inflicted wound but a refusal to live in the real world.
This is not about changing direction depending on which way the wind is blowing. It’s about respecting the experience of our people who have come to own significant truths about life and who need to find resonances of those truths in their search for God. It’s what theologians call the sensus fidelium (the sense of the baptised people), a confirmation by the people of a truth about God and the things of God.
Pope Francis and others are worried that the Church will fragment into those we inaccurately call ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ – and that a schism will result. Better they say that we muddle along as we are than that we part at the great crossroads that’s coming into view. But what’s different now is that the old ways, devised and controlled by the former leadership of our Church, are no longer acceptable to growing numbers of Catholics in the pews and unless there are strong indicators that the Church is prepared to take them on board the present dribble from the Church will become a tsunami, led probably by women.
The key question Francis faces is not whether the Church can afford to ordain women deacons but whether we can afford not to do it.
When John Paul II was the pope in Rome, he proclaimed what was effectively an edict that no one could discuss the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. Not just that we couldn’t offer an opinion on it. We couldn’t discuss it. And the full force of the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) descended on anyone who might be tempted even to question the wisdom of John Paul’s permanent moratorium.
Now that the CDF has been relegated by Pope Francis from the top of the Premiership to the bottom of the Vauxall Conference, and its former prefects are rapidly losing their diminishing reputations we know we live in a new era – and we have Francis and others to thank for that.
But there is a long road still to travel and we need to get on with it. Like we did in days of yore with the vexed subject of altar girls.