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Embodying Church Reform: A Tale of Two Documents

Imagine a sower going out to sow …’

In this case the seed is the theological vision and rhetoric of a synodal church, sown by Pope Francis. The crop will be the translation of this vision into a changed ecclesial culture and law, embodied in the nuts and bolts of the structures and institutions of parish and diocesan life, as well as of the universal church. The harvest is fruit of our encounter with Jesus Christ and the missionary impulse this generates to serve our world (bruised by COVID-19 and facing so many other challenges), bringing it the good news of God’s mercy and love.

There have been two striking documents recently published, evidence of this attempt to translate vision into concrete reality. The first focuses on the parish, as Brian Stiltner has often done on this site (05/21/2020). It emanates from the Vatican’s Congregation of the Clergy. The first half of the document is a worthy reiteration of the vision of Francis, combined with a genuinely fresh analysis of the changed contours of parish in our digital age, from something primarily local in a geographical sense to the transformation of time and space that virtual reality implies. Tellingly, however, absent from the account of the vision is mention of synodality itself, the evil of clericalism, and, albeit many references to the church as the People of God, omission of the centrality through baptism of the share of the faithful in the three-fold office of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet and king.

These absences are felt in the application, mainly through the lens of current Canon Law, of the broad vision to parish life. While there are many good proposals (including lay leadership of parishes), the general trend is to highlight the essential difference between ordained priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful, and to give clear priority to the former. In this sense the trenchant recent critiques of Catherine Clifford (08/20/20) and Tina Beattie (07/23/2020) on this site are justified: the document reveals a ‘priest-centered paradigm of church (Clifford) and is ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’ (Beattie), in that, for all its good intentions and indeed creative innovations, the predominant impression conveyed is one that is disappointingly deficient when it comes to lay, and particularly female, co-responsibility. This gives too much fodder to the still dominant clericalism of our church – not to mention to the ‘hierarchicalism’ that James Keenan has analyzed as the distinctively unaccountable form of episcopal clericalism.

A different, contrasting document comes from Australia. ‘The Light from the Southern Cross’ emanates from a committee of the Australian Bishops Conference and has to do with the translation of the vision of Francis into diocesan and parish life under the rubric of governance. The document highlights certain gospel and Catholic social teaching values and principles that must be integrated in this translation. These include subsidiarity, stewardship, synodality, dialogue reflection, co-responsibility and discernment. In addition, the document notes that we must take seriously '... the expectations of contemporary culture in terms of transparency, accountability, inclusion, participation and diversity’ (5.1.2). It notes that till now the authority of both bishops and priests has been excessively personalized and unaccountable.

There follow 86 concrete recommendations including: that these general principles be reflected at every level of diocesan and parish life; that the process of ad limina episcopal visits to Rome be made more transparent; that all the People of God, including, of course, lay people, have a say in the process for appointing bishops; that women be given real leadership and decision-making powers, including the selection and formation of seminarians, as well as the placement of priests in parishes; that lay people, and especially women, participate in the proceedings of the Conference of Bishops in Australia; that lay advisers, including, of course, women, attend councils of priests’ and consultors’ meetings; that each diocese  be obliged to have a diocesan pastoral council with lay members; that within five years of the Plenary Council (scheduled for 2020-21, but postponed because of COVID-19) each diocese should have a synod, and every 10 years after that; that all parishioners have at least an annual opportunity to share their ideas in a transparent synodal process within the parish; and that all parishioners should have a say when there is any question of the reorganization of parish boundaries/clusters. You get the drift!

What is perhaps surprising about the Australian document is that, within the same restrictions of Canon Law (with some minor modifications) and a fairly conservative approach to church teaching (no explicit challenge, for example, to the ban of female ordination), this document manages so well to capture the spirit of Pope Francis in the letter of its text. It’s as if because they wanted to be inclusive, they found a way.

Of course, it is true that the Vatican Document, although not of high authoritative standing, was formally approved by Pope Francis, whereas the Australian document has yet to be discerned by the Australian Bishops. But as Pope Francis has often insisted ‘… the great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but from the periphery’ (Spadaro conversation with Pope Francis on religious life, La Civilta Cattolica I, 2014). I have already suggested on this site that most progress has been made around the cultural realization of church reform – an enhanced public space to dialogue and debate openly. It now seems to me that the more tedious but so necessary reform of structures and institutions is also under way.

‘… others fell on rich soil and produced their crops, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty. Listen, anyone who has ears’ (Mt 13: 9).

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.


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Brian Stiltner

Great job, Gerry! Without your post, these two documents would have escaped my--and many others'--attention. The Australian plan sounds very promising; let's hope the bishops discern it positively. A lot is possible if leaders and laity try. As you sum it up, "It’s as if because they wanted to be inclusive, they found a way."

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