Pope’s reform agenda struck by headwinds

A new book on Pope Francis argues that, given the various crises which face the Catholic Church, what’s needed is a new blueprint, especially here in Ireland, says TP O’Mahony.

Pope’s reform agenda struck by headwinds

A new book on Pope Francis argues that, given the various crises which face the Catholic Church, what’s needed is a new blueprint, especially here in Ireland, says TP O’Mahony.

A leading theologian has urged the Irish bishops to announce the convocation of a national assembly or synod to consider the future of Catholicism in Ireland, citing Pope Francis’s advocacy of synodal governance for the Church in keeping with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

In a book entitled The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis, Gerry O’Hanlon, says the Pope is trying to reposition the Catholic Church in the modern world and is doing so “in response to many serious challenges”. And the Pope is proposing a synodal model for the Church as a key element in any such response to these challenges.

The latter include “the scandal of child sexual abuse, suspected financial and other improprieties within the Vatican itself, the ongoing contested reception of the Second Vatican Council, the many economic and social injustices experienced by the marginalised worldwide, the role of women in the Church, disputes about teaching on sexual morality, the shortage of priests in many parts of the world, to name but some of the many difficult issues”.

The author is quick to acknowledge that Ireland has not escaped this sense of crisis.

“There has been a huge loss of moral authority due to the mishandling of the clerical child sexual abuse scandal,” writes Fr O’Hanlon. “In addition, for various reasons, the Church found itself ill-prepared to face the growing challenges of secularisation, modernity and post-modernity.”

What is required, says Fr O’Hanlon, is a new blueprint for the Church.

He writes: “Francis has identified the institutional and cultural shape of the reform he envisages: the Church for the third millennium must be synodal, collegial, an ‘inverted pyramid’ in which the people of God are primary and the hierarchy in all its forms are there to serve the people in whom the Holy Spirit is present. Francis believes that this kind of model of Church is more suitable for our age, while being rooted in scripture and tradition.”

Fr O’Hanlon, a former Provincial of the Irish Jesuits, quotes a passage from a book by English theologian Nicholas Lash: “The centralised control from which we suffer, and which has contributed so greatly to the present crisis of authority, was built up in less than 100 years. It could be put into reverse in less than 10.”

And this is the very process that Pope Francis has committed himself to from the moment of his election in 2013.

“This crucial focus on a synodal way of being Church has been spoken about by Francis himself as not just an era of change, but ‘a change of era’,” says Fr O’Hanlon. “It is a paradigm shift, a fundamental change which goes beyond even important adjustments to the existing model of Church. We are speaking here of a revolution, in the sense of a radical change to an existing structure.

“Of course there is no guarantee that Francis will be successful in what he is trying to achieve. There is much opposition, and a great deal of apathy. He is in the ironic position of having the appearance to the world of a celebrity-monarch trying to abolish monarchy and celebrity. He is, instead, trying to encourage a more adult, participatory institutional model, with a leadership of service.”

The synodal model that Francis is championing has its roots in the concept of collegiality, one of the most important insights of Vatican II. However, this did not find favour with Pope John Paul II or his successor, Benedict XVI, both of whom reverted to an autocratic, top-down, highly centralised exercise of authority which resulted in a gradual abandonment of the notion of the Church as the ‘People of God’.

However, Pope Francis has made it clear that he wishes to re-establish the centrality of the ‘People of God’ concept, at the core of which would be synodality as the proper form of governance.

In an address for the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops in 2015, the Pope said: “It is precisely on this way of synodality where we find the pathway that God expects from the Church of the third millennium.”

But, as Fr O’Hanlon emphasises, there is much opposition to any shift to a synodal Church. Such a shift, the author says, would necessarily involve, among other things, “a more inclusive role for lay men and women in Church teaching and governance. As is normal, given the scale of the revolution he is proposing and the human propensity to prefer even a dubious stability and certainty to what is perceived as an unfamiliar and risky change, there is considerable opposition that intensifies as progress in implementation of change becomes evident.

“It is hardly conceivable that Francis’ project can be successful without being accepted and implemented by the rest of the Church . . . . We in Ireland have particular reason to respond with serious consideration to the project of Francis. Faith does not simply disappear overnight, and there are continuing signs of spiritual vitality in our country. But the institutional presence needed to support this faith in the longer run can no longer be taken for granted.

“The moral authority of the Catholic Church has been severely damaged and there is a clear crisis of priestly vocations, the inroads of secularisation have deepened, and there is a loss of meaning in our society due not least to the pre-eminence of an economic model that threatens to dominate the whole of life.”

The question now, says Fr O’Hanlon, is how are Catholics in Ireland doing in response to the project of Francis?

“In speaking of an ‘entirely synodal church’ it is clear that Pope Francis wants all the faithful to have a say in Church governance, in what touches their lives,” writes O’Hanlon. “There are legitimate hopes and fears around this project of a more inclusive Church at the level of governance.

“A strong centralised leadership, with expectations of command and control, and an obedient clergy and laity, had the merit of maintaining unity, even at the expense of what many experiences as a stifling uniformity.”

But, says the author, the prevailing culture in 2018 “is no longer sympathetic to such a model of authority”.

The sub-title of the book is ‘A Synodal Catholic Church in Ireland?’, but is the Catholic Church in Ireland prepared to engage with the reforming vision of the Pope?

“A clear indicator that this was happening would be an announcement by the Irish Episcopal Conference that a synodal Church is the Church of the future, and, in that context, the convocation of a national assembly or synod in the near future as the first in a series of regular assemblies,” he writes.

“This is the kind of bold signal that would give people hope, would galvanise their participation, and would be an opportunity to engage with young people in particular, many of whom are indifferent now to an institution that accords them no voice.

“The Catholic Church in Ireland, in response to the promptings of the Spirit articulated by the call of Francis, can seize this opportunity...”

But Fr O’Hanlon is also mindful that, in seeking to bring about a more collegial form of universal government in the Church, there is a wider context: “This more participative form of universal government requires more collegial structures in Rome itself, the more frequent use of synods at all levels, and may even, in the medium term, require the convocation of an ecumenical council to address the major issues that face the Church, not least to resolve the residual ambiguity surrounding the primatial and collegial aspects of the papacy.”

The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis, by Gerry O’Hanlon, is published by Messenger Publications at €12.95

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