In recent days, we have again seen how an authoritarian Vatican responds to those who question the assertions it regards as absolute truths.
We have seen how it neutralises those who belive that institutions, even the Catholic Church, must evolve if they are to remain relevant in a quickly changing world.
Redemptorist Fr Tony Flannery has been silenced and censured for expressing views at variance with those endorsed as orthodox by Rome’s ruling executive.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — charged with policing Catholic teaching and doctrine as well censuring theological challenge — has intervened to stop Fr Flannery writing on various subjects — contraception, priests’ vow of celibacy and the ordination of women to the priesthood. It has also suggested that he quit the Association of Catholic Priests which he helped establish in 2009 to represent priests and promote Vatican II reforms.
A turbulent priest may have been silenced but has the debate? Unlikely.
Rebuking Fr Flannery may prove a pyrrhic victory. The findings of a survey commissioned by the association represent a far greater challenge to Rome than one dissenting voice. They show that Rome faces a turbulent and disenchanted congregation too. The findings show that great numbers of people regard the disciplines and exclusions of Rome as irrelevant. The great majority, almost an absolute majority, of the 1,000 people surveyed supported positions completely at odds with those regarded by Rome as unalterable truths.
Pope Benedict’s insistence that Catholic priests should not marry was rejected by 87%. This change must have been influenced by the complete disconnect and frightening incomprehension on sexuality — and frustrated, poisoned sexuality — shown by many senior churchmen as myriad clerical child sexual abuse scandals were uncovered over the last two decades. It is not surprising too that the survey found that the Church’s teachings on sexuality have “no relevance” to 75% of Catholics or their families.
The gap between the flock and the shepherd seems unbridgeable on this issue and how long these polar opposites can share one church is an open question.
One question imagined closed by Rome was the ordination of women to the priesthood. Not so, said nearly three-in-four — 72% — of those surveyed. That such a majority contradicts a tenet as clear, and, for centuries, as unchallengeable as this gender veto must have implications for the future of Catholicism. It must, at the very least, eventually force people to ask how long they can remain members of a church that so vehemently opposes something they believe in.
None of the findings, however, trump the adage — if you want to be in a club you must at least obey the rules. The census details released recently show that 84% of us describe ourselves as Catholic. It must be imagined though that that definition, and the commitment it represents, has changed dramatically.
Today many of us are baptism-wedding-and-funeral Catholics and falling church attendance figures, especially in some urban areas, confirm that.
The survey suggests that Catholic leaders face a difficult choice — reflect how its members live and their beliefs or sacrifice those members in defence of truths it believes absolute and unchangeable. It is not the first time the curia has had to look to the future and seen what appears an unavoidable fork in the road.
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