The Catholic Church, worldwide is in a state of flux at the moment. For those of us in the reform movement, who believe that the Church urgently needs to change, the pontificates of both John Paul and Benedict were a dark winter. Now, with Francis, there are signs of a spring growth again. But the new shoots are fragile, and like a lettuce plant newly introduced to the garden, a sharp late April or early May frost could kill them off.
The reforms we are looking for are mostly to do with structure and governance. We believe that the excessive centralisation of power and decision making has been very damaging to the Church, so we are calling for decentralisation, – a lessening of the power and control of the Vatican, and giving greater authority to the regions. We hope that the problems of ministry – the fact that only male celibates can be priests, and that for any position of real influence a person needs to be ordained, – will be honestly and openly discussed and resolved. The four day conference of the network of reform movements, which we had in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Limerick last week, convinced me even more that the marginalisation of women in the Church is a massive sore that has to be healed before any real progress can me made. And from a personal point of view I wish to see systems put in place that provide justice for all within the Church, without which any preaching by Church people about justice in the world sound hollow, even hypocritical.
The remainder of this year will tell us a lot about the possibility of real change happening. I think that it is safe to say that Pope Francis wants the type of changes I outlined above, but the opposition to him from some Bishops (and some lay groups) is strong, both inside the Vatican and around the world. The final stage of the Synod on the Family will takes place next October, will tell a great deal. We know that the first part gave promise of new approaches and attitudes, and then pulled back. If the final document at the end of the Synod does not signal a real change in attitude and practice towards, for instance, people in second relationships and gay people, but reinforces instead the negative message of exclusion and condemnation, we will be back in the winter of discontent, and I will greatly fear for the future of the Church. Francis is attempting to change the focus from rigid implementation of doctrine to a more person-centred approach that listens to the reality of peoples lives, and tries to support and encourage them to follow the Gospel as best they can.
The Church in Ireland is to a fair degree still experiencing the winter. With declining church attendance, priests ageing and dying, and not being replaced, the future looks bleak enough. Our leadership, with one or two possible exceptions, don’t appear to have really heard the message of Francis, and are not in any effective way echoing it to their people. It is not as if they are actively excluding people who are in second relationships, or our gay sisters and brothers who want to take an active part in the local church, but it would be very refreshing if we had a local diocesan pastoral letter which states that such people are welcome at the Eucharist. When Francis named himself as the Bishop of Rome there was an implication that other Bishops had authority within their own dioceses and need not look to Rome for direction on everything. In our Catholic Faith Rome should be a focus of unity, not the centre of all government. A further problem with our Irish Bishops is their failure to create clear blue water between themselves and the more extreme conservative groups. This has been very damaging in our social debates and the current debate on Marriage Equality is yet another sad example. The message once again, as it has been for generations when anything to do with sex is up for debate, is a firm ‘NO’. To people of a gay orientation, to their parents, grandparents and families, this stance of the Church is often heard as a further layer of condemnation following on from “disordered state’ and ‘intrinsic evil’. The real danger here is that if the referendum is defeated the usual suspects will line up to blame the Church and a further wedge will be driven between it and the young people of Ireland.
In the meantime, now that I am forbidden to minister as a priest, I have found a voice in the reform movement, and I still believe that the Catholic faith has a rich vein of wisdom for people who are open and willing to listen.