On the road to Emmaus, according to Luke, there came a point when Jesus made as if to go on without the two disciples but they pressed him to stay with them (Lk 24: 28). The Church universal in these strange times is at such a cross-roads. The case of Ireland may be instructive.
Long known as the ‘island of saints and scholars,’ with high rates of religious observance and an enormous missionary outreach to both the developed and developing worlds, Ireland is now effectively entering a post-Catholic phase. Even if over 78 percent of the population in the Republic still identified as Catholic in the recent census, it is increasingly accepted that this is a ‘cultural Catholicism’ for so many that does not translate into active discipleship, while the fastest-growing demographic is younger people without faith adherence.
Since at least the 1980s, there has been an erosion of the traditional Catholicism that so imbued Irish personal and public life. This has been evidenced most clearly in public policy issues like contraception, divorce, homosexuality and same-sex marriage and, most spectacularly last year, abortion, where the State, supported by the majority of the people, has increasingly adopted positions at odds with that of the Catholic Church. There is a crisis of vocations to the priesthood, with the managerial device of parish ‘clustering’ introduced to ensure the availability of Sunday Eucharist for all. One gets a sense of demoralisation, even of defeatism.
The most obvious reason for this dramatic change of fortune is the scandal of child and institutional abuse by clerics and religious and its mishandling by church authorities. This is a familiar story elsewhere in the Church. The damage to victims, survivors and their wider families has been enormous and will take a long time to heal. The moral authority and prestige of the Church have taken a huge hit.
However, I would also point to other, and perhaps even deeper, sources of disenchantment with the Church. There is the clear non-reception of much church teaching on issues of sexuality and gender. This is particularly so among younger people who find, for example, the Church’s attitude toward homosexuality and gay relations, as well as its stance on women priests, at best of little interest and at worst unjust and immoral.
And, perhaps deeper still, there is a sense that in the dominant culture of Western Christianity (now increasingly making headway elsewhere in our globalized world) the individual person and his/her experience and story, authenticity, freedom, equality and the voices of minorities always trump the institutional voices of a patriarchal hierarchy with its focus on institutional cohesion and rule-keeping.
In this context, with secularism widening and deepening, the Catholic Church in Ireland is faced with a choice, articulated well by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. Given that we are likely to be a minority in the future, do we batten down the hatches, circle the wagons and become a ‘culturally irrelevant minority,’ or do we ‘cast out into the deep,’ in a spirit of dialogue and engagement with our world?
Readers will recognize in this choice facing Ireland the similar question facing the Church world-wide: given the end of ‘Christendom,’ and the futility of investing energy and resources in unwinnable political battles that only reinforce the idea of Christianity as a set of ethical precepts that the Church seeks to impose via the state, do we choose the so-called Benedict option of a future, ‘smaller, purer church,’ a critic on the side-lines? Or do we go for the so-called Francis option—a Church in conversation and dialogue with the world, redolent of the ‘smell of the sheep,’ a field-hospital because it itself is sick and is being treated, a church that wins adherents through attraction to the person of Jesus Christ, friend of the poor, icon of the infinite tenderness and mercy of God our Mother and Father?
This is the Church Pope Francis calls synodal, stating boldly that it is the kind of church that God expects of us in the third millennium. It will develop a culture of open discussion and debate, with appropriate structures and institutions to allow this to happen. It will involve lay people, women and men, in teaching and governance. It will not be afraid to change and will allow, as Newman knew so well, that ‘consulting the faithful’ results in a ‘development of doctrine’ that is not simply linear in nature but is also corrective.
There is increasing evidence in Ireland that our bishops are taking this Francis option seriously and may be on the cusp of decisive action in this respect. The laity who remain are clearly ready for action of this kind. This needs to happen more widely in other countries for the Francis revolution to be actualized, a millennial paradigm shift to a model of church that has deep biblical and traditional roots and is particularly well-placed to dialogue with (and critique, where necessary) our contemporary culture.
When the two disciples made their choice at their crossroads they went, through their encounter with the stranger, from downcast faces to burning hearts, from despondency to joy. We are at a similar crossroads today.
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.