Church in Ireland must learn a few home truths

A national synod that had the freedom to explore the many difficult issues it faces could help to renew the Catholic Church here, writes TP O’Mahony

In his book The Runaway Church, Peter Hebblethwaite recalled a crucial intervention at the 1971 Synod of Bishops in Rome during a discussion on the ordination of married men to the priesthood. The synod had been summoned to examine the crisis in the priesthood.

That was 45 years ago — the crisis is much greater and more urgent and more far-flung today. Indeed, in a small but significant way, the controversy in which St Patrick’s College, Maynooth — the national seminary — is presently mired is both an offshoot of that crisis and also indicative of far deeper problems.

A compelling case for change had been made at the 1971 synod by Bishop Anthony Galvin, speaking on behalf of the bishops of Singapore-Malaysia. He concluded with this comment: “We are of the opinion that the ordination to the priesthood of mature married men will provide for the future in a history that cannot be denied its inexorable laws”.

The chief counter-argument was that the ordination of married men would constitute the thin edge of the wedge. The influential Cardinal Hoffner of Cologne claimed that “any exception from the norm of celibacy would have an explosive effect, so that celibacy would disappear in a short time”.

Cardinal Hoffner’s views prevailed. The vote on a proposition stating that “the ordination of married men is not admitted even in particular cases” was decisive.

Hebblethwaite noted that the ordination of women was barely discussed and would have been even “more firmly blocked” if put to a vote. The big stumbling block, of course, with ordaining married men was the 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Coelibatus from Pope Paul VI, which reaffirmed the importance of priestly celibacy.

As for the ordination of women, that has been declared a “closed question” by Pope John Paul II. And this was reiterated by Pope Francis in 2013.

“The reservation of the priesthood to males… is not a question open to discussion,” he wrote.

The point has been made that he could not have done anything else without delegitimising his predecessors. Be that as it may, the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood is more alive than ever.

And this is a reality that must be faced, despite the fact that the recent decision by Pope Francis to establish a commission to examine the possibility of women deacons has already drawn warnings from conservatives that this could represent the “thin edge of the wedge”.

The Maynooth controversy is both less than what has been made of it, and also more — less in the sense that there is nothing startlingly new about a gay culture in a seminary, and more in the sense that it is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise, a malaise affecting not just the Church in Ireland but the universal Church.

Since the Council of Trent in the 16th century decreed that every diocese should have a seminary, there has never been a time when seminaries, to a greater or lesser degree, didn’t spawn a “gay culture”.

The difference is that, in today’s digital age, with the growth of social media, it is far more difficult to disguise this culture or sub-culture, or to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Because of his concerns, Archbishop Martin is planning to move Dublin seminarians from Maynooth to the Irish College in Rome. Is the scene going to be significantly different there? In recent times, we’re hearing plenty of talk about a homosexual subculture within the Vatican itself. Moving people geographically isn’t going to change the nature of human sexuality.

As for the Church’s understanding of that sexuality, sooner or later it must recognise that human sexuality manifests itself in a multiplicity of forms. The predominant model may be the heterosexual one, but it is by no means the only one. The recent plea (made in the context of the Maynooth controversy) by the leader of Seanad Éireann, for the Church to open itself up to the possibility of having gay priests, is a plea that will be echoed here and abroad.

Senator Jerry Buttimer, who studied for five years in Maynooth, said that as, “a person of faith, I pray and yearn that my Church and its leaders would move to be more progressive, open and transparent around the teaching on sexuality”.

As for the Church’s stance on women priests, it is now widely acknowledged that there are no theological barriers to the ordination of women; other Christian denominations, drawing on the same scriptural sources, have recognised this. Within the Catholic Church, the objection to women priests is based entirely on tradition, a tradition interpreted by men and for men.

The symbolism of the Last Supper (captured in classical form by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century in his famous fresco) is important in this tradition.

The all-male gathering is supposed to tell us something about the “maleness” of priesthood. No women were present. Could that have really been the case?

Is it credible that Jesus would have excluded both his mother and Mary Magdalene (the other women to whom he was very close and the first to learn of the Risen Christ on that first Easter Sunday) from what was, in effect, a farewell meal?

In her book The Elephant in the Church, Mary T Malone, who taught for many years in Toronto’s St Augustine’s Seminary, and is now home in Ireland, highlighted the fact that Christian feminists today are doing theology in a new way, and were recasting male- inspired doctrines in female form.

“Even though the Roman Catholic Church has never admitted this, it is an entirely legitimate task the women set themselves,” she wrote.

The fact that the Church has never desired to know about this ‘new theology’, or even considered it possible, is an enormous loss for the Church, she says.

“As the Church now struggles with ‘falling numbers’ and whole generations of alienated women and men, it might be well to begin to notice that half the membership is female and that their theology is legitimate, and furthermore, is part of a continuous legitimate tradition from the very foundations of Christianity.”

Seen against this background, the Maynooth controversy is akin to a storm in an ecclesiastical teacup. And it is also a distraction. Yes, there are questions about the suitability of seminaries as places for the preparation of young men for the priesthood in the 21st century. But for a Church in crisis — and who can doubt that this is the state in which the Irish Church finds itself at the present time — much bigger questions need to be addressed.

There has been talk of the need for a national synod to formulate a new pastoral blueprint for the future. Such a synod, under the two previous popes, would have been a sterile exercise.

Now at least a new climate exists under Pope Francis. And having encouraged the participants at the recent World Synod on the Family in Rome to speak their minds, he could hardly do anything less for the participants at a national synod in Ireland.

High on the list of priorities for any such synod should be the rediscovery of the social gospel, at the core of which would be a commitment to the poor and the marginalised, and the promotion of social justice.

It might yet provide a pathway to redemption for the troubled Irish Church. And Pope Francis, in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), published in November 2013, has already provided a template.

“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than her self-preservation,” he wrote.

And he followed with this: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

As for local initiatives, Pope Francis, having warned against “excessive centralisation”, went on to say: “It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralisation’.”

Given this kind of papal encouragement, the time is surely propitious for the summoning of a national synod representative of the whole Irish Church.

But such a synod, if it is to explore the underlying problems besetting Irish Catholicism, must have a home-generated agenda — not one that bears the fingerprints of bureaucrats in the Vatican.


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