Which way for the church?

Mary Cullen

There is deep disagreement within the Catholic Church over its future direction.  Its institutional failure has been laid bare by the widespread cover up of child abuse, while empty churches and dwindling vocations to the ordained priesthood across much of Europe reflect a loss of credibility.  There is even open hostility within the church to the papacy of Pope Francis.  How can we move forward?

It used to be said about the peace process in Northern Ireland that for every solution there was a problem.  One group’s breakthrough was another’s stumbling block.  One of the reasons why the peace process worked was that it brought everyone to the table.  Without community involvement, peace would not have taken root.  The Women’s Coalition, for example, which helped shape the Good Friday agreement, was formed when an initial request from women to be involved was rejected on the grounds that they had nothing to contribute to constitutional issues.  So they formed a coalition and stood for election under the slogan ‘wave goodbye to dinosaurs’ and won themselves a place at the multi-party negotiating table.

Mark Hederman, former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick, suggests that we would all do well to recognise the dinosaur nature of our institutions, including the church.  It has enabled them to survive the vicissitudes of history.  The trick is to learn how to live with them, without doing serious damage to ourselves.

A growing number of lay people, women and men, are claiming their place at the table of the church in the belief that they have something to contribute.  Pope Francis agrees, stressing the importance of the sensus fidei– the innate wisdom of all the baptised – and the need for more lay people in governance.  Both are necessary for the health of the church.  In his address to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops in 2015, Francis made clear that he wants synodality – a process of mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn – introduced at all levels of the church.  Even, he says, when it seems ‘wearisome’ (easier to tell people what to do?) it must be valued as an opportunity for listening and sharing.

Another lesson from the peace process is to know your history.  As Mgr Roderick Strange pointed out in a recent talk to Newman Association members in London, the church’s definition of papal infallibility in 1870 ushered in an era unlike any other in its history.  From 1870 to 1960, the church defined itself in contrast to the rapidly changing and insecure world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a ‘fortress’ and a ‘perfect society’ which was secure, exclusive and unchanging.  For those born at the time, this exceptional period seemed the norm.  But it was a church which had become paralysed and static.  The bishops of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) voted for change.

As the Jesuit historian John O’Malley suggests, Vatican II was a ‘language event’ in which two different visions of Catholicism were at stake.  He summed them up in a series of paired words: ‘from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to service, from withdrawn to integrated….’[1]  Those critical of Pope Francis today are looking for the security of command, definition and threat, while those who respond to his invitation to create a synodal church are seeking dialogue and integration.

One of the Council’s greatest insights was the acknowledgement that while the church has much to teach the world, it also has much to learn.  The church finds its identity and purpose by being immersed in the service of and dialogue with the world.  We have to get out from behind the fortress walls.  Gaudium et Spes spells out what the church receives from the world, which includes ‘riches hidden in various cultures’ which open up ‘new avenues to truth’ (44).  There is a recognition here of the prior presence of God among the people whom the church seeks to evangelise.

As the church finds itself in numerical decline in an increasingly secular society, there is much talk of finding new ways to preach the gospel.  Pope John Paul II spoke of a ‘new evangelisation’ and of the need for inculturation of the Gospel which enriches the church as well as the receiving culture.  But he defined inculturation as a top down rather than a mutual process.  Pope Francis strikes a different note.  He speaks of ‘missionary discipleship’ and urges Christians to enter into a deeper and more profound solidarity with the world.  This is a church which learns from the poor because ‘they have much to teach us….  We need to let ourselves be evangelised by them’.  (Evangelic Gaudium 198).  While some continue to hark back to the perfect society and emphasise what the church has to teach the world, Francis stresses the need for humility and openness to learning from others.

Many good things are happening.  As Open House has highlighted, lay people are increasingly taking responsibility for the development of the church in the diocese of Galloway.  The Newman circles of Glasgow and Edinburgh continue to promote lively discussion and greater understanding within the church.  Lay people across the country are taking courses to equip them for ministry. There are many parishes which have opted for the dialogue and invitational style of Vatican II.

On the first Saturday in June, Open House would like to invite people from all over Scotland to take part in a day conference in Glasgow about the future of the church in the 21s tcentury.  We will have the opportunity to hear from Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick about the way his diocese is embracing the idea of a synodal church.  What is the thinking behind it?  What does it look like in practice?  And how is it going?

We will hear from communities in Scotland about the way they are responding to change.

And we will share ideas about the way ahead.

Booking for the conference will be available from April.  In the meantime, keep the date and tell your friends – we want as many people as possible to come to the table.

We look forward to seeing you on 1st June.

Dr Mary Cullen is the editor of Open House.  Her PhD thesis was on the development of a new ecclesial relationship between ordained and lay people in the Scottish Catholic Church.



[1]John W O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II.  Harvard University Press 2008 p 307.

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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    Like Mary I was intrigued by Fr. O’Malley’s explanation in “What happened at Vatican II” of how the Council was also a “language event” and how the previous model of longitudinal language –top down — changed to a new horizontal model.

    Thank you for mentioning our Newman Association event with Fr. Gerry O’Hanlon SJ last Tuesday night. We had a great night, and we had a full house to hear an excellent speaker.

  2. Anne Patricia Matin says:

    I believe the real problem was a combination of institutional secrecy, cover up, denial and it failed to be picked up and grew because of a lack of transparency within administration processes. This left our Church open to manipulation by people with their own hidden agendas and they managed this by excuses justifying their need to keep matters quiet and under control to ‘protect’ the Church and therefore did not respond to complaints, nor cooperate with experts who could have helped. It was compounded by the failure to recognise the suffering inflicted on abused, vulnerable and at risk groups. Instead it protected perpetrators and indeed, became an attraction, which encouraged recruitment, retention and promotion, of the very people responsible for the failures. A clear pass was created and thrived in this environment, that eventually brought the Church to crises point. To move forward these institutional failures must be addressed through a comprehensive, measurable action (outcome focused) plan.

  3. Darlene Starrs says:

    Which way for the Church? Yes, it is the urgent question of the day. It’s the question I beseech the Lord with most every day. It’s hard to believe, we are still asking the question, given Vatican II. I repeat, assuming Vatican II was God’s idea, it surely was not intended to be a patch job….Of course we are told in the scriptures what happens when you apply a patch to an old cloth….I applaud anyone who is willing to try to step into the Vision of God, and discern what may be the direction for the Church. I think we were given at least some clues from Vatican II, like the importance of the leadership of the laity, and in particular what has come from that, is the necessity for the leadership of women. Everyone being included in a synodal process is vital, but, that is going to take even greater leadership from the lay people. We’ve been trying and so I truly pray with God’s intervention, lay people will be heard and given the respect they need. The Institutional Church is a long, long, way from being what God intended, and so I send you my blessings to Scotland for your conference, and I will, from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, be looking for new hope and new vision.

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