The Catholic Church is really two churches these days. The first is the hierarchy. The second is rank and file active Catholics together with their priests. This second group is the real church. Over the last 35 years, now, they have heard what the hierarchy was saying and simply have not agreed.
They thought that communal penance services worked and confession didn’t. They continued to use communal services despite John Paul II’s forbidding of them. They knew that the time had come to contemplate ordaining married men – and women too. Many knew that re-married divorcees were going to Holy Communion and even encouraged them if formally asked. Many were pleased when parishioners they knew to be gay were ready to take an active part in parish life. They were embarrassed by Cardinal Pell’s public refusal of Communion to gay Catholics. Many knew priests who were celebrating the marriages of divorcees.
Many rolled their eyes when they read rules for receiving Communion in parish newssheets. Most accepted contraception as normal and respected the consciences of those who used it.
Many thought that knee-jerk reaction to new ethical situations was bad policy. IVF resulted from new research and so called for new ethics.
Many priests were disappointed with action in the Church abroad. They agreed with theologians who had been censured or sidelined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the former inquisition. All these theologians were streets ahead of their long faced inquisitors. Roman power play at its worst.
They thought that Liberation Theology looked right in South America, and that Basic Christian Communities may well be the answer in a clergy-deprived world. They thought that you found better leadership in USA from the women religious than from the bishops pursuing them.
Something was wrong. All these people were facing a Church which was in decline precisely because it would not seek new answers to new questions. Our world out there was changing. It was secular and pluralistic. The Church was just one institution among many. Its old privilege was gone. In this new climate it had to make its mark on society from a standing start. It needed leadership which could see this challenge and recontextualize its message. All this defensiveness, all this pre-occupation with sexual rules, was creating a community which was exclusive rather than inclusive.
Many open-eyed pastors believed that simply thinking like Jesus and believing in Jesus – basic Christianity – had something to say to this pluralistic world. But a Church preoccupied with its old formulas, its rules forged in a past cultural context, its institutional structure and total clerical control looked insular and passé.
Then along came Pope Francis. Clericalism is a cancer, he said. Reality is more important than the idea, he said. Get real! Adapt! The Church has a message to proclaim; a way of love, mercy and forgiveness to live. Embrace the world. Try to understand it; heal its wounds, give comfort in its sorrows. Don’t go lecturing it while nobody is listening. You have lost the high moral ground. Clerical privilege is over. The Christian confessional state is finished. Tribal Catholic affiliation is waning. Any new evangelization must start from scratch. Pope Francis is right. An inward looking Church will fail in its mission. How can we look outward again?
First step is to think over Pope Francis’ dictum that the reality is more important than the idea. For too long we have been forced to take the roadblocks listed above seriously – even when we knew they were obstructing the gospel. Talk about inward looking! Doctrinal arguments mean nothing to your average Catholic. They see the selectivity of moral outrage as part of the culture wars. They believe that personal sexual morality is better adjudicated by a sincere conscience in touch with contemporary cultural values. If the bishops are meant to be a moral beacon they have lost their mojo. It is time for us to get back to the reality.
Secondly, most of us believe that the core message of Jesus is very relevant to today’s Western World. So, alert to our world today, let us re-evaluate the priorities of our own belief. Odds are that you will think we have been wasting psychological energy on the wrong issues.
Thirdly let’s get rid of clericalism in our seminaries as Pope Francis wishes. Clericalism is more alienating today than ever. Spending years in the clerical hothouse of the seminary is not a good preparation for a hands-on pastor today. A seminary producing clerical graduates is on the wrong track.
Fourthly, we need to give real authority to those lay leaders we spot in our parishes. Devolve real power so that it is more and more in lay hands. This need is heightened due to the short sighted policy of importing priests of an alien culture. Authorising the laity to lead, preach, teach and celebrate is the only answer. It will happen eventually– so better to be prepared.
Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic priest from Melbourne, who ‘writes a bit’.