The results of the recent Vatican summit on sexual abuse have been published; we await the document on Curial reorganization; and it is reported that the group studying the possibility of female deacons is deadlocked. Where stands the change agenda of the Catholic Church?
In his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis called for a root and branch reform of the Church. This reform, he argued, was necessary if the Church was to fulfil her mission of bringing Good News to the world based on her faith encounter with Jesus Christ. So far, so radical.
However, Francis made clear from the start that he did not believe in any quick-fix approaches to this reform: his ‘time is greater than space’ aphorism noted the superiority of processes that took time over short-term imposed solutions. This was the then – to Roman Catholic ears- strangely sounding ‘synodal’ approach, now commonly referenced, a radical paradigm shift from the practice of the previous millennium.
Patience and perseverance are not popular notions in a culture saturated by the consumerist drive to instant gratification which, in varying degrees, affects us all. In this context we are more attuned to the call of polemic: in particular we resonate with the notion of ‘speaking truth to power’ and, in a less healthy mode, we revel in an anger at injustice that threatens to become destructive and self and other-devouring. Our political leaders are often in the vanguard of this kind of narcissistic and negative anger.
Of course, polemic, anger and lamentation have an honorable place in the Christian lexicon. Without them, we would not have had the realization, under Benedict XVI, of how dysfunctional the church had become in these days, nor, in the Scriptural times that we contemplate post-Easter, would the Gentiles have come to enjoy access to the Good News. That access, telescoped in the scriptural accounts into a seemingly short time, was as full of conflict and ‘speaking truth to power’ as any of our modern issues, and its solution (admission to baptism but with certain ‘terms and conditions’) was subject over time to further development.
In a May 17, 2019 posting on the Association of Catholic Priests web-site in Ireland, Phyllis Zagano comments on the recent stalemate with regard to the ordination of women deacons by urging: ‘let the discussion continue!’ and going on to say: ‘…Polemics only go so far.’ This is an impressive response from someone with such a long track record of scholarly advocacy on behalf of admission of women to the diaconate.
Zagano’s response is warranted within the strategic, synodal approach to reform initiated by Francis. At the heart of his proposal is the development of a culture of open debate and discussion, with appropriate structures and institutions to allow this to happen, involving the faithful, women and men, in teaching and governance. This will lead in time to changes in law and even doctrine. In this new environment, as Michele Dillon (Postsecular Catholicism, Oxford University Press, 2018, p164) has pithily observed, “…the cat is out of the bag: once one authorises an effective listening to the ‘sense of the faith/faithful,’ then the integration of tradition, new realities and ideas is processual, a continuing dialogue, not achieved by simple fiat or decree. And so, any lost opportunity, such as the stalemate over ordination or limited progress on the position of gays within the Church is not lost forever; it can be recovered.”
Polemic, anger and lamentation will continue to have honorable roles within this evolving drama. One recalls St Augustine’s observation that hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage. Anger, rooted at its best in love, gives energy to tackle injustice, and it requires a courage that translates into purposeful patience and perseverance when it takes on the considerable task of the ‘long march through the institutions’ involved in church reform. We get the balance right when we submit our efforts at ‘holy impatience’ to discernment, individually and communally, under the guidance of the Spirit.
There is a crucial role for theology and critical thinking in all this, not least in exploring the notion that change is entirely compatible with respect for tradition, and that development is not simply a pastoral reality, but is also deeply doctrinal.
Francis has proposed a roadmap; it is our job to start and continue walking, conscious that from time to time we will go down cul-de-sacs, ‘make a mess,’ face seemingly insuperable obstacles. Can we keep our nerve, not lose faith?
Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.