Offering hope in dark times

December 21, 2020 in coronavirus, Featured News, News

‘Reform in the Catholic Church’ is the theme of Dr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ’s latest article. The former Irish Jesuit Provincial and theologian says he is addressing his words to anyone interested in Catholic Church reform, but primarily to Jesuits and laity, and to religious who are part of the wider Jesuit family. “I hope you will find them of interest in these dark days of Covid-19 when we are all in need of signs of hope,” he adds.

Some of the ideas in his article below have already been presented in two articles in The Furrow (June and October 2020), but he has taken into account developments since then, including the publication of the papal Encyclical Fratelli Tutti (October 2020).

So he outlines the reform vision of Pope Francis, progress in its implementation, its relevance for controversies surrounding Fratelli Tutti, and its reception in Ireland. He does this, he says without avoiding difficult questions but nonetheless “in a spirit of offering hope in times that are often dark”.

An Update on Catholic Church Reform

During the first year of his pontificate, in his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel – 2013), Pope Francis made clear his desire for Church reform. This reform was required not simply to correct the egregious fault-lines delineated so clearly in the run-up to his election by the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse and criminal financial activity. Rather, principally, it was to enhance the missionary call of the Church in today’s world to give a witness of hope stemming from its encounter with Jesus Christ, the merciful face of God. Francis wanted a ‘poor church for the poor’, with an ability ‘to heal wounds and warm the hearts of the faithful’, close to people, ‘a field hospital after battle’, ‘a light that attracts but does not threaten’.

To be fit for purpose, then, Francis believed that a paradigm shift of our model of Church was required. His vision was of the People of God, configured like an ‘inverted pyramid’. This meant a radically de-clericalised culture in which hierarchy was clearly in service of the baptismal calling of the faithful to share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly roles of Jesus Christ – faithful called, in other words, to be holy and to have a share in teaching and governing. We had inherited a Church which was still in thrall to the imbalance brought about by the incomplete First Vatican Council – what was known as the ultra-montane tendency to focus all attention on the centre, on Rome, on the papacy and the papal court. Historian John W. O’Malley has characterised this ‘papalisation’ of the Catholic Church as its principal distinguishing feature in the second millennium. The imbalance that accompanied it had been partly corrected by the emphasis in Vatican II on episcopal collegiality, but the effective primacy of the centre had been reasserted during the pontificates of John-Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Francis not only unambiguously reaffirmed his support for Vatican II, he imagined an original synthesis of elements of Vatican II not hitherto articulated at official levels. That is to say, not only did he affirm the need for a collegial church in which papal primacy was shared with episcopal communion, he also drew out what was implicit in Vatican II around the Church as the People of God, the ‘sense of the faithful’ (sensus fidelium), and the baptised laity having a share in the three-fold roles of Jesus Christ and so in the teaching and governing offices of the Church. This required, in his view, what he called ‘an entirely synodal church’, and it was this ‘synodal church’ which he believes God wants in this third millennium. This will be a church capable of dialogue both internally and externally, as our culture expects, facilitated by a robust freedom of speech. It will involve a ‘sound decentralisation’, in which the peripheries of all ranks will become agents and not just objects of governance. It will be led by the path of trusting discernment in the Holy Spirit to establish structures and institutions of governance and magisterium through which all the faithful, at all levels of the church, will find a voice. Francis was well aware from the start that the implementation of this vision would be much more difficult that its articulation: it would be ‘wearisome’, but its fruits would be abundant. So much for the vision. What has happened in reality?

Implementation -Progress Report
There were early achievements – think of the Council of Cardinals; the two-year Synod of Bishops on the Family with its extensive consultation, its plain speaking and the resultant easing of the discipline surrounding the admission of divorced and remarried people to eucharistic sharing; there were the incremental improvements around clerical child sexual abuse and financial propriety, both works still in progress but with significant achievements. Then, later, there were several important Synods of Bishops in Rome, with a legal basis for future Synods supplied in Episcopalis Communio (2018), which introduced mandatory consultation of all the church before such synods. There is a reform of the Roman Curia in advanced stage of preparation. Above all, there is an opening up of discussion and debate, a sense of newness and possibility, prompted not least by the words and symbolic gestures of Francis himself.

It also became apparent that there was significant opposition to what Francis was proposing, sometimes from specious motives due to sheer self and group interest and bias, but also from more sincere and traditional voices within the Church who were afraid that foundations believed to be immutable were being rendered insecure. More recently there has been an apparent flexing of muscle by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, evidenced not least here in Ireland by severe conditions proposed to Redemptorist Tony Flannery before any return to ministry could be allowed. On the more liberal side, there was impatience with the rate of progress, not least by many women who believed that despite his profession of desire to afford them greater visibility and decision-making powers, Francis simply ‘didn’t get them’. This seemed evident in his many, clearly well-intentioned but, to feminist ears, gauche utterances about the nature of women. The inclusive language controversy around his most recent Encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’ will not have helped in this respect – at best it is a distraction, at worst a significant stumbling block to reception of the Encyclical.

The issue around progress has crystallised in more recent times around this question: granted Francis has succeeded in changing the culture of the church significantly (more open debate, a real option for the poor and for our common home), has he been able to effect the kind of structural. legal and institutional change which will ensure that the reform can continue when his pontificate is over?

A recent article (September 5, 2020) by someone close to Francis, fellow Jesuit and editor of La Civilta Cattolica, Antonio Spadaro, can serve as a spring-board towards answering this question.

Spadaro – Francis’ Government: What is the driving force of this pontificate?
Spadaro’s central point will be familiar to those in the Ignatian tradition: Francis, he maintains, understands reform as a spiritual conversion, but without any opposition between spiritual and pastoral/structural conversion. So, while giving primacy to a discernment of God’s will in concrete times and places, opposing any simple ‘ideology of change’, Francis believes that this discernment itself ‘…is the systematic structure of reform, which takes the shape of an institutional order’. And so, true to his oft-repeated maxim that ‘time is greater than space’, Francis wants to create the ‘structural conditions for real and open dialogue’, rather than ‘pre-packaged and strategically studied’ solutions.

And, extremely significantly, in a personal note to Spadaro, Francis refers to what happened at the Synod on the Amazon around the issues of married priests and female deacons: ‘There was a discussion… a rich discussion… a well-founded discussion, but no discernment, which is something different from arriving at a good and justified consensus or a relative majority’. He went on to write: ‘We must understand that the Synod is more than a parliament; and in this specific case it could not escape this dynamic. On this subject it has been a rich, productive and even necessary parliament; but no more than that. For me this was decisive in the final discernment, when I thought about how to shape the exhortation’. Francis’ note concludes as follows: ‘I like to think that, in a certain sense, the Synod is not finished. This time of welcoming the whole process that we have lived through challenges us to continue to walk together and to put this experience into practice’. We may already be, in other words, in a period where developments in other local churches – think of the same debates going on in very lively fashion at present in Germany and Australia-may lead to that Ignatian confirmation which is the final phase of discerning a decision.

It seems that Francis was conscious that, unlike what happened during the Synod on the Family around the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics, there was very little movement during the Amazon Synod on the two most controversial issues. He seems to have been wary of the influence of media pressure and a referendum-like majority which, no matter how well based on sound argument, was in danger of staying at the level of a dispute rather than a real discernment. And so, while acknowledging the richness and indeed necessity of this ‘parliamentary’ phase, Francis remained unconvinced that it was now time to act in the manner proposed by the majority.

While this evaluation of the discernment process will be familiar to members of the Ignatian family, it does prompt some further reflection and questions.

Reflection and Questions
Discernment is sometimes written and spoken about as if it were only possible in a quite controlled and homogenous environment, as is imagined in the case of a religious community, which discerns rather than ‘debates’ the issue in question. I contrast this purist notion with the kind of ‘noisy discernment’ more evocative of what ecclesiologist Richard Gaillardetz says occurs at Ecumenical Councils:

At an ecumenical council, saints and sinners, the learned and the ignorant, gather together. They share their faith, voice their concerns, argue, gossip, forge alliances and compromises, enter into political intrigue, rise above the intrigue to discern the movements of the Spirit (my emphasis), worry about the great tradition in which their identity is rooted, seek to understand the demands of the present moments and hope for a better future’. (America, 13 February, 2012).

My own experience as delegate at the Jesuit 34th General Congregation in 1995 was similar to what Gaillardetz describes: untidy, to the point of near chaos at times, imperfect, argumentative, amusing, and running through it a discernible desire to listen to the promptings of the Spirit.

So, it is reassuring to hear Pope Francis say that what occurred at the Amazon Synod, even if it could not ultimately escape the dynamic of a parliamentary debate, was a rich and necessary discussion on the way to the discernment that is still ongoing. I suspect that since the matters at hand affect the whole church, Francis will be keen to listen carefully to proceedings in the German ‘binding synodal process’ and the Plenary Council of the Australian Church on the same topics before coming to a final decision.

However, while this is understandable from a Pope who is clearly very much at home with the art of discernment, what does it say about the post-Francis future and our ability as Church to tackle difficult decisions when the necessary skills in discernment may not be present in the Pontiff?

It seems to me that this is where the structural/institutional bit – which John O’Malley has identified as the missing piece in the implementation of Vatican II – comes into place. We need effective ways of tapping into and then communicating the sense of the faithful (sensus fidei fidelium) to our theologians and pastors so that church teaching and governance is truly collaborative, as the synodal model demands. This may well require – as the recent ARCIC III document Walking Together on the Way (2018) outlines – a more deliberative and not just consultative role for Synods and Conferences of Bishops, and for lay participants. More robust structures and institutions of synodality at all levels of Church life will facilitate the process of discernment and leave it less likely to depend so much on one person.

There is a delicate balance to be struck here. The Christian tradition has accorded an authoritative role to Bishops (and the Pope), which ARCIC III does not deny, for all its encouragement of lay participation in the process. The rhetoric around the perverse incentives of a decadent clericalism and the increased awareness of the lay vocation do not spare us the hard graft of striking an appropriate balance in truly listening to the ‘sense of the faithful’ and yet allowing proper authority to make final decisions.

There is a sense of urgency around the need to develop such structures, even if we can have no expectation of a perfect system. This urgency is seen not least in the fact that people in their droves are leaving the church, while contentious issues which have been debated for decades and are significant obstacles to church membership, have not yet been resolved. The document emanating from a committee of the Australian Catholic Church (The Light from the Southern Cross) is an example of a worthy attempt to strike this balance in the area of church governance.

One such contentious issue, as mentioned earlier, is the role of women within the Church. I have noted the obstacle to the reception of the wonderful vision of Fratelli Tutti represented by the controversy around inclusive language. It is also the case that, despite the many important areas of female oppression identified and lamented by the Encyclical, all of the 288 endnotes refer to male authors only and there is not a single mention by name of a woman in the text itself except for Mary, the mother of Jesus. These things matter. We Jesuits understood that when we adopted Decree 14 (Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society) in GC 34 (1995). There we spoke of the ‘systematic discrimination against women…embedded within the economic, social, political, religious and even linguistic structures of society’ (n 3-my emphasis).

We accepted that we as Jesuits ‘…have often contributed to a form of clericalism which has reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction’ (n 9), and we committed ourselves to addressing this situation, including by ‘the use of appropriately inclusive language in speech and official documents’ (13.7) and being part of the move to clarify questions still to be resolved around Church teaching and practice so as to advance the ‘underlying issues of justice’ (n 14). Until this issue is resolved well-meaning sentiments like those expressed in n 23 of the Encyclical can ring hollow: ‘…the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story’ – is this not exactly what critics accuse the Church of doing and what Francis himself elsewhere has often admitted is true of the Church? A truly synodal church will allow the level of dissatisfaction around the issue of women in the church characteristic of the ‘sense of the faithful’ to be more faithfully represented in current Church teaching and practice. It will lead, then, to the reform in this area which is a requirement of a more efficacious missionary outreach.

The web copy of the homily given by Archbishop Eamon Martin for the Episcopal Ordination Mass of Fr Martin Hayes, now Bishop of Kilmore Diocese, notes under the heading Synodal Process: ‘The Irish Bishops’ Conference is committed to the ground-up synodal process for new evangelisation and for revitalising the church in Ireland’ (Sept 20, 2020). Indeed, Archbishop Eamon Martin’s remarks in September had already been flagged in the statement of the Episcopal Conference after their 2020 Summer meeting where it is said ‘…Bishops welcome the announcement by Pope Francis in March that the theme (of the October 2022 Synod of Bishops) will be: For a synodal Church: communion, participation, and mission’. They went on to reflect on the timeliness of this synod and …how in recent years in Ireland many bishops have organized assemblies, gatherings and deep-listening processes in their dioceses to help encourage a more synodal, missionary Church throughout the island – a Church which fosters greater “communion, participation and mission” for the benefit of all’.

These are welcome statements. The pity is that they are not communicated with the conviction and passion which would evoke a real sense that change is in the air. Instead, it’s almost as if the Conference doesn’t want to be held to account on this, so that it’s a fair guess to suppose that most Irish Catholics remains unaware that the Conference has taken such a radical stance and is, apparently, four-square behind the reform movement initiated by Pope Francis. Instead, a kind of bland and timid approach is, sadly, emblematic of the vacuum of corporate leadership in the Irish Catholic Church for a long time, such that many people no longer look to Irish Episcopal Conference pronouncements with much interest. Nonetheless, knowing the great work done by many bishops in many dioceses, I would still be hopeful that the welcome rhetoric may yet be matched by real energy, commitment, and implementation.

Final word
Pope Francis has excelled at illustrating the relevance of the gospel message to our troubled world. And he has opened up discussion within the church itself about the reform required to facilitate this missionary flowering of our encounter with Jesus Christ. In doing so there has been an uneven response, but the commitment of Germany, Australia, the Amazon, as well as the more hesitant steps of our own bishops, encourages the belief that the dynamic of reform is now embedded. It would be wonderful if there was significant movement along these lines in the Catholic Church in the United States.

We are still struggling with the structural and institutional shape of this reform. In this context the choice of synodality as topic for the 2022 Synod of Bishops is wise. On the basis of the dynamic released by Francis and now experienced in different ways by the ‘peripheries’ in different parts of the world, we can then hopefully tease out some better balances of the vital forces of primacy and episcopal collegiality, and bishops and laity as we move along the way towards a more synodal church. There is urgency to this important task: for many, especially women and young people, the Church is no longer attractive and no longer has the power or credibility to offer that message of hope which our troubled world so clearly needs.

Gerry O’Hanlon, SJ

O’Hanlon, Church Reform, The Furrow, 71, June 2020, 323-332
O’Hanlon, The Light from the Southern Cross, The Furrow, 71, October 2020, 519-526