Has Archbishop Martin lost his courage?

Those of you who are acquainted with my views, as expressed in this blog, and also with the ACP website, will know that we came away from the Synodal Gathering in Athlone some weeks ago with a real sense of hope and expectation that significant change is afoot in our Church. From first becoming aware of Pope Francis’ idea of a Synodal process, I regarded it as something that could bring about a very new and different style of being Church.The Athlone meeting was for me an indication that this new Church was emerging. We heard the reports from all the discussions and discernment around the country, and the voice of the people was clear and strong. They called for change, not just on the margins but in very significant aspects of Church life and structures.

The bishops were there, and in so far as one could judge, they seemed to be in tune with what we were hearing. I was particularly impressed by the final words from Archbishop Martin, where he assured us that the final report of the Irish Synodal process, which would be ready in August, would have the full support of the Bishops Conference, without any alterations, and in order to be completely transparent, it would be published as it was being sent to Rome.

A week or two later, in a homily at a Mass, Archbishop Martin addressed Synodality, and seemed to many of us to be back-tracking. The sentence that stood out for me from that homily was the following: “Synodality should not diminish the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops.”

Maybe if he had defined what he meant by ‘diminish’ we might have a clearer idea of what he was saying, but in the absence of that, the sentence was troubling. For centuries the ‘teaching authority’ in the Church, also called the ‘Magisterium’, was made up exclusively of the Pope with the Curia, and the bishops. All authority was exercised by this body. The ‘People of God’, the phrase used by Vatican II, had no say at all. I thought the whole point of ‘Synodality’ was to give a voice to the people, in other words a share in decision making. For a body that exercised authority without any reference to ‘the people’ to now have to share that authority, to listen to the Spirit speaking through the people, is a big change. Could that be called ‘diminished authority’? At the very least it is diffused, broader in its scope, with a great deal more listening, and probably a degree less certainty in its final resolutions.

Which brings me to the question of doctrine. Certainly at the Athlone meeting there was call for changes in various doctrines, and it would seem that similar enough calls are coming from the process in other countries. 

Can doctrines change? The question was put to Pope Francis during his usual press conference on the plane as he returned from Canada. It was asked in the context of certain Catholic sexual teaching. His answer, as reported by Christopher Lamb, went as follows:

Francis noted that there are plenty of areas of church teaching that have changed over time, saying that “a church that does not develop its thinking in an ecclesial way is a church that goes backward. That is the problem of many today who claim to be traditionalists. They are not traditionalists, they are backwardists. Tradition is the root of inspiration in order to go forward in the church.”

Of course doctrines have changed, and will continue to change. Even take the central teachings of our faith, around the existence and nature of God, the identity of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the promise of eternal life. All of these teachings are dealing with mysteries outside our comprehension. We cannot define them once and for all. In order to reach into the mysteries we need to use images, metaphors, and language that is expansive rather than reductive. So there should be nothing at all the matter with new generations using different ways of reaching into these mysteries. As regards moral questions, particularly dealing with human relations, intimacy and sexuality, it makes total sense to rethink and redefine these teachings as we learn and understand more about human nature, our world, and the way we interact with each other. I totally agree with Pope Francis, when he says that a church that does not develop its thinking in a ecclesial way is a church that goes backwards.

Is Archbishop Martin trying to put a halter on the process? Is he under pressure, and, if so, from where? 

I very much hope not. This is a time of enormous significance for our Church. If he does not grasp the nettle and move forward with the people it will be a great tragedy. If he tries to retain the old authority structures, and confine the voice of the people to a purely advisory role, the people will quickly see through it and will lose any interest in the process. They will see it as a whitewashing exercise, and the drift from the Church will continue and accelerate. 

My hope and prayer is that this opportunity will be grasped, not lost.