Catholic lay people face a very difficult task in attempting to influence the members of the 2015 Ordinary Synod of Bishops. Firstly, they will have a challenge in finding bishops to listen to them. Secondly, they will have a challenge in finding bishops ready to accept the risks associated with taking the Sensus Fidei Fidelium (or sense of faith of believers) seriously and then walking the road of Christ in solidarity with (syn-‘odos) their people.
From long and painful experience, many Catholics who have worked for significant reform in the Church have learnt that there have been only a few bishops in Australia who take the laity seriously, show themselves ready to engage in conversation and to listen to what is said and to make it their own. The situation may now be changing.
Pope Francis has challenged the Bishops to snap out of their collective amnesia and to liberate themselves from the years of blind obedience, supine compliance and micro-management imposed on them from 1978 to 2012.
It will take a very long time for most Bishops to recover a healthy sense of equilibrium, independence, self-possession and confidence in addressing the critical issues which confront them. They will need to cast off the legacy passed on by the Irish-born bishops who ruled the Australian Church like Lords from the 19th Century.
A major portion of the inheritance they received is what John Ralston Saul calls the structures of contempt. Some of the most damaging expressions of this contempt are a cultivated deafness to the voice and counsel of the laity. This attitude appears to be hard-wired into the thinking of some bishops who repeatedly resist calls for representative pastoral and consultative bodies.
Catholics are beginning to believe that most bishops are also fearful of the laity and terrified beyond belief at the prospect of admitting fundamental mistakes in the way they have exercised their teaching role and pastoral care. Many bishops may even be terrified of a profound personal conversion to Christ and his Gospel!
This is not said lightly. It would be reasonable to assume that a sizeable proportion in the episcopate, including some Cardinals and officials in the Roman Curia, indicate that they are functionally agnostic by the way they present in word and actions.
From the papacy of Leo XIII, the Vatican Curia have been seduced by the pretence of thinking that the Church is coextensive with them and that their clerical status entitles them automatically to a world of prestige, power and influence.
It is useful to keep in mind what Francis has recently warned the Curia against in the way of careerism, sycophantism and the primitive Will to Power. These lead eventually to a clerical mentality that dehumanises and trivialises people they are sworn to serve. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote extensively about the inherent dangers involved when Church leadership treats lightly or dismisses the laity and its role in the economy of ecclesial life.
A major challenge facing Church authorities right now is probably on the same scale as the 1968 crisis of trust and credibility. Paul VI’s Encyclical, Humanae Vitae, was rejected emphatically by the overwhelming majority of Catholic people, laity and clergy alike. Ever since, the Magisterium has either admitted inadequate teaching of the doctrine in the first place or the entire People of God has been in a state of invincible ignorance since 1968! This charade even surfaces in the pre-Synodal Lineamenta survey.
The brutal fact is that the faithful heard the message the first time and, in good conscience, rejected it. The Magisterium will have to deal with this and the 2015 Synod on the Family would be a very appropriate occasion
A far greater challenge for Church leadership is to acknowledge openly its appalling mishandling of the world wide clerical sexual abuse scandals. Perhaps the seeds of trust and credibility would be re-planted if the Pope and Synod Fathers collectively admitted that the culture of systemic cover-ups was and continues to be reflected in and protected by Canon Law. Integral to achieving a measure of restorative justice will be the acceptance of the fact that the crimes of clerical child rape were compounded by the fact that Church leaders allowed the dignity of innocent children to be sacrificed at the altar of clericalism.
The People of God rightly expect the same level of transparency and accountability from the Magisterium that they demand from secular governments, institutions and corporate bodies. A massive breakdown in people’s trust and confidence in pope and bishops simply intensifies a pre-existing atmosphere of cynicism, scepticism and outrage.
Catholic bishops have their work cut out developing their leadership skills if significant transformations in Church governance and pastoral vision are to occur. Catholics are not looking for mere cosmetic changes. They want doctrine to serve Christ and his Gospel of Compassion and not as either an end in itself or the punitive arm of Church Law.
Finally, if a healthy equilibrium is to be re-established in Catholic life, the forthcoming Synod needs to recommit the Church solemnly and unambiguously to the Magisterium of Vatican II. Pope Francis has signalled that he wants a return to ecclesial values and structures of collegiality and co-responsibility. These validate and support an ecclesiology which allows for mature, adult, fearless and open exercise of the Sensus Fidei Fidelium. However, first the bishops have to learn again the art of listening.
Pope Francis has said it better than anyone:
“The bishop must always foster this missionary communion in his diocesan Church, following the ideal of the first Christian communities, in which the believers were of one heart and one soul (cf. Acts 4:32). ……(he will) encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law, and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear. Yet the principal aim of these participatory processes should not be ecclesiastical organization but rather the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone.” Evangelii Gaudium, 31.
David Timbs has a professional background in New Testament literature, Interpretation and Biblical History. Now retired from teaching, he writes extensively in the areas of Church, theology and Scripture. He is also an active member of Melbourne-based Catholics for Renewal Inc,