The Catholic Church struggles to have a conversation with itself – The Irish Times
The chime of a bell next Saturday evening at the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise will be significant. He calls to silence and prayer a motley crew of more than 100 people, lay, religious, priests and bishops, all attending a one-day national assembly of the Irish Catholic Church in Athlone. This assembly is itself the culmination of an unprecedented national consultation, in preparation for Irish submission to the Universal Synod of 2023 in Rome. Each diocese was asked to submit a 10-page summary of its own consultation process, and many of these are already posted on diocesan websites. Additionally, there were over two dozen submissions from various other groups and a few individuals.
This is all part of Pope Francis’ historic and comprehensive Catholic Church reform project with his vision of a “Synodal Church”, characterized by honest and open talk, as well as deep listening. This listening is with a view to change.
Some of the implications and tensions involved in the transition to this new ecclesial paradigm are evident in this first phase of the Irish consultation. People were delighted to be interviewed, there is a sense of hope and energy, and many are calling for this synodal way of doing things to continue. There is a call for real change. And yet, after years – centuries – of a different church model and real breaches of trust, it may seem almost too good to be true; there is a lot of skepticism, cynicism and apathy. The numbers were low and the demographic age high.
The open wound of abuses, clerical and institutional, and their mismanagement by the leaders, inevitably weighed on the process. There were strong statements from some survivors who generously pledged. It is clear that despite the various efforts made at different levels, an assessment remains to be made. As Derek Scally discovered in his book on Irish Catholicism, there is a reluctance to have conversations, in the church and in society at large, around this topic. Within the church, the issue of abuse may be a useful lens through which to view many other issues: attitudes towards power, the absence of women in governance, clericalism, sex education.
It is clear from the submissions that an overwhelming majority wants equality for women in the Church (especially at decision-making levels and in terms of ordained ministry) and an inclusive approach to the LGBTQI+ community. This will inevitably raise questions around the teaching of the Church and its non-reception by the “sense of faith of the faithful”. Consensus (conspiracy) between pastors and faithful, underlined by Cardinal John Henry Newman as the mark of sound teaching, is lacking. There was a similar concern around the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics; again, it is clear that much of the church’s discourse on sexuality and gender is unconvincing.
It’s all part of a deeper sense of a gap between faith and life, and between the institutional church and the surrounding culture. This is why there is much talk of a more adequate formation in the faith of adults; a liturgy with less archaic and more inclusive language; new ways of approaching preparation for the sacraments; a model of co-responsible leadership that includes the laity; the need to reconnect with young people; and the breakdown of relationships between family, parish, school and society at large in our atomized and secularized culture.
There is a minority voice that opposes the general consensus and insists on adhering to more traditional methods. It reminds us of the need to carefully discern the difference between simply following the mainstream culture superficially, out of an almost desperate desire to be accepted, and being humble enough to realize that we are wrong and (as Vatican II taught) we can learn from the world and the culture around us.
Many submissions are self-critical in that they acknowledge that insufficient attention has been given to issues such as care of the Earth, the poor, inequality, homelessness, immigration, peace on our common island. There is recognition of the limited inclusion in the process of marginalized people, as well as the inadequate handling of relationships with other churches and people of other faiths. It can serve as a reminder that the Church has only taken the first step on a much longer journey. This journey will continue in the specifically Irish phase of the synodal journey over the next few years.
The chime of the bell at Clonmacnoise will be soft and inviting, not overbearing. Nevertheless, we dare to hope that this church, in the process of reform and renewal, can be of service to all Irish citizens, believers or not, in our common task of building a better world for our children and grandchildren.
Father Gerry O’Hanlon is a Jesuit priest, theologian and board member of the Synodal Pathway of the Irish Catholic Church. He is the author of The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis: A Synodal Catholic Church in Ireland?