Will Pope Francis' Church respond to new dynamic?

Pope Francis has called a Synod to consider family issues
Pope Francis has called a Synod to consider family issues

HOW great is the gap between the official teaching of the Catholic Church, especially in the sphere of sexuality, and the actual practice and behaviour of Catholics? Thanks to an initiative by Pope Francis, we are about to find out.

The pope has ordered a global survey of Catholics and a detailed questionnaire has been prepared. The survey will serve as a prelude to an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, to be held in Rome in Sept 2014 to discuss matters regarding the family. This will be followed by the main Synod of Bishops, to be held in 2015, from which guidelines and recommendations will emanate.

The initiative has been widely welcomed. In an editorial entitled ‘A Truly Catholic Consultation’, the English Catholic weekly The Tablet said that “no longer refusing to heed what ordinary lay Catholics have to say about such issues as divorce and contraception be a defining mark of the Church”. The consultation, it says, amounts to admitting that this is no longer a sustainable way to run the Church.

“Most remarkable about the consultation regarding sex, marriage, and family life, in which the Catholic Church has asked Catholics throughout the world to take part, is its brave implication that things have to change,” wrote The Tablet.

That will be the litmus test. The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, has already sounded a warning. He told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that the survey findings won’t necessarily result in changes in Church policy — which invites the polite response: What, then, is the point of the consultation?

The portents, it must be said, are not great. Even after 45 years, the lessons of the Humanae Vitae controversy have not been learned. Throughout his long pontificate, John Paul II reiterated its teaching, beginning in Limerick at the end of his visit to Ireland in 1979. His successor, Benedict XVI, did the same. Neither pope seemed to accept that there is no turning the clock back.

There is no denying that the Church has been discredited as an authority on sexual morality since the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in July 1968 — an encyclical in which he reaffirmed the prohibition on contraception. It was to prove a watershed moment in the history of the modern papacy.

In making that decision, the pope had rejected the majority recommendation from his own birth control commission that the Church’s position should be liberalised. Instead, he backed a minority report urging support for the status quo. The story of the commission is brilliantly told by Robert Kaiser of Time magazine in his book, The Encyclical That Never Was.

At the time, writing for the Irish Press, I predicted that Humanae Vitae would cause the deepest divisions in the Church since the Reformation. Subsequent events were to prove me right. And while not a single bishop in charge of a diocese expressed public disagreement with any aspect of the encyclical, it was different with some priests and theologians.

In the US, a group of more than 50 theologians signed a letter published in many newspapers expressing dismay at the document, and here in Ireland Fr James Good, who was teaching in UCC at the time, publicly dissented from the document.

The reality — and it is one that Church has yet to come to terms with — is that the controversy over Humanae Vitae left in its wake a very different kind of Church. This, according to Leslie Woodcock Tentler, professor of history at the Catholic University of America, is a Church “where individual conscience was widely believed to trump institutional authority and the claims of tradition”.

As Kaiser wrote in his book: “In and through what came to be known as ‘the birth control debate’, many Catholics — possibly an 85% majority — found out in matters of their own marital morals, the pope wasn’t in charge. They were”.

In a book on dechristianisation published earlier this year, Hugh McLeod, emeritus professor of church history at the University of Birmingham, said Humanae Vitae “caused many lay Catholics to lose confidence in the pope and bishops”. That confidence has not been restored, and the process of restoration has been impeded by the shocking spate of clerical sex abuse scandals.

The problem for the Church has been highlighted by Prof Tentler: “The moral autonomy achieved by the laity in the realm of contraception soon extended to a much wider range of issues.” In support of this, she cites four successive polls, done in the US in 1987, 1992, 1999, and 2005, which show the dominant trend in lay thinking on issues of sexual morality.

“A national sample of Catholic respondents was asked identical questions in each poll about five disputed aspects of Catholic moral teaching: Contraception, non-marital sex, remarriage after divorce, homosexuality, and the advocacy of free choice with regard to abortion.

“Who held the ultimate authority in such matters, respondents were asked — the hierarchy, the individual, or should decisions be arrived at by means of collaboration between the two? In each of the polls, the respondents were most apt to say that the individual should decide.”

The days when the laity could be counted on to model a submissive Catholicism are gone. We have seen this new dynamic in Ireland in changing attitudes to contraception, divorce, abortion and, I suspect, the promised referendum on same-sex marriage will show this also.

How much of this will be picked up by the Church’s worldwide survey in advance of the Synod of Bishops remains to be seen. There has been some criticism of the complexity of the questionnaire.

It is a 38-item questionnaire, and by Dec 20, each diocese has to feed responses to it back to Rome.

According to Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, the questionnaire is “wide-ranging, but not scientific”. Nevertheless, a picture will emerge from it that is likely to show a yawning gap between what the Church teaches and how individual Catholics behave, based on their own sense of moral autonomy.

The real test will be how Rome responds to the survey findings. It would have made no pastoral sense to hold a Synod on the family, and then exclude the laity from the consultative process. But the key question is — will their views be heeded? The clock cannot be turned back. Any attempt to do so will just exacerbate the feeling many Catholics have of being excluded from the Church.

* To take part in the consultation, visit http://exa.mn/synod

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