A Catholic church responsive to the human needs of our fellow citizens

Jun 2, 2024
Rome, Italy - April 7, 2013: The arrival of Pope Francis at St. John for the settlement

Analysing contemporary Catholicism requires a bit more knowledge than merely quoting a couple of reactionary Catholics – as does a recent New Statesman article.

Eighty-seven-year-old Pope Francis has recently been in trouble over LGBTQ+ issues. Late-last year he faced an outright revolt from African Catholics after approving the blessing of same sex couples and individuals.

Speaking on behalf of the continental hierarchy, Kinshasa archbishop, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, said: ‘The African bishops do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples, because … this … would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities.’ Approving such blessings ‘has caused a shockwave, it has sown misconceptions and unrest in the minds of many … and has aroused strong reactions.’

Many African countries, like Uganda, have severe laws against gay people, reflecting the erroneous notion that homosexuality only came to Africa with European colonisation.

Then, last week in a closed session of the Italian Bishops Conference, Francis said that there were too many “faggots” in Italian seminaries. He was forced to apologise.

This is an illustration of the difficulty of governing a world-wide, multicultural church. What makes Western progressives happy, horrifies Africans and vice versa. The complexity of Catholicism is often misunderstood as a recent article the New Statesman (May 21, 2024) illustrated.

Finn McRedmond in ‘The myth of progressive Catholicism’ assures us that Pope Francis election ‘was a symbolic victory for the liberal wing of a beleaguered church.’ I was in Rome for Francis’ election and Francis is not a ‘progressive’ in the Western sense. He’s focused on pastoral care, not theological purity like his predecessors. For him the church is a field hospital, not a dogmatic think tank.

He’s from Argentina, a country on the periphery of the West. In fact, he has much more sympathy with the developing world than he does with Gringo Westerners. And he’s an old-style Jesuit which means he listens to advice, but in the end makes up his own mind. He’s certainly not, as McRedmond says, ‘in lockstep with the [progressive] trajectory of the decade.’

She goes on to argue that ‘Francis and his allies will find that their revolution … was built on sand’ and that ‘a conservative takeover has been fomenting,’ which is a pretty simplified understanding of what’s been happening in Catholicism for the last decade. Her authorities for that view are Ross Douthat of the New York Times and former-editor of London’s Catholic Herald, Damian Thompson, and the so-called traditionalists ‘spiritual leader,’ Cardinal Raymond Burke.

She quotes these gentlemen as though they were objective observers. However, if I were looking for people who understood the papacy I wouldn’t go to Messrs. Douthat and Thompson who’ve been endlessly grinding anti-Francis axes. Their whole perspective is narrowly Western, capitalist and reactionary.

She then turns to Burke, quoting him as saying that ‘the pope has no power to change doctrine,’ adding her own view that you can’t ‘launder Catholicism of its inherent conservatism without entirely disrupting its nature’ and that ‘liberal Catholicism is a theologically inconsistent proposition.’

This is a complete misunderstanding of the theological meaning of tradition. Essentially, it’s saying the church cannot change; it must always remain the same, constantly returning to some idealised past age that suits the reactionary mindset.

I’d prefer the views of another cardinal to those of Burke, Saint John Henry Newman. Belief and doctrine, Newman says, are not rigid, they develop, evolve and change. The church, he says, ‘changes in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’ (Essay on the Development of Doctrine). For Newman tradition means embracing all of the best from the past, using it as a foundation to act in the present and to imagine and create the future.

Sure, McRedmond is right that Western Catholicism is in trouble, but her diagnosis of the malaise is wrong. A far more insightful analysis is offered by John Warhurst in Eureka Street (May 29, 2024). John has the distinct advantage of real experience in dealing with living Catholicism and actual church authorities.

His view is that the institutional church (i.e. bishops) in the West ‘treat [Catholic] reform groups with disdain.’ Warhurst says that what ‘the church needs now is not faithful engagement but disruption … [especially] … on the “woman’s equality” issue.’ In McRedmond’s rhetoric ‘reform groups’ means ‘progressives’.

Warhurst’s right. Faithful Western Catholics need to think about, imagine and model new ways of being Catholics, because the bishops’ inaction has signed the institutional church’s death warrant. As Newman says, we have to change to remain the same.

Beyond the developed West, things are different. But just as Australian Catholics trying to create a church that lives in and is responsive to the cultural and human needs of our fellow citizens, so Catholics in other cultures are trying to do something similar.

Catholics today live in the complexity of a world church and if there’s one thing Pope Francis understands, it’s this.

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