At times I have to pinch myself to be alert to what’s going on right now in the Catholic Church and to fathom the depth of it.
Throughout history, we have seen change come abruptly. It happened in Europe and Japan after WWII.
And in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down when democracies emerged where only tyrannical regimes prevailed.
But in the Catholic Church change comes in a different way.
It doesn’t come by a revolution that sweeps away the old regime and old ways of doing things. Change does not come in the same way as in representative democracies where a new party gains power with a new agenda and new policies.
The closest thing to change in the Catholic Church is the Japanese process of governance in politics and business.
Nothing is decided until everyone involved has been consulted and a stage has been reached where everyone accepts that a change is needed, even if they don’t all agree on the particulars.
The deal is done before the decision is announced, of course. But those who don’t accept the change are not fired because jobs are for life in Japan. They are just ‘redeployed’.
Right now in the Catholic Church, a series of changes is unfolding whose significance will be seen perhaps only years from now and in retrospect. But it had better happen faster than it has in the past because, with contemporary mobility and communications, the speed of change poses challenges to the Church that prefers a languid pace.
Today, if issues are not understood and addressed in any organization including the Church, the lethargy could well induce a terminal illness.
A number of neuralgic points or hot button issues have divided Catholics for decades. These are just three: sexual ethics; centralism in administration and decision-making; and clericalism (which has exacerbated clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up).
Nonetheless, there is an enduring failure to see and name the real elephant in the room – the virtual end of the male celibate clergy, except in the developing world where overstretched priests are being quarried to supply for the deficit of clergy in Europe, the United States and Australia.
The inability to see and do something about that elephant is the source of many of the blockages currently impeding the Church in its mission. At heart, it is the failure to address the terms of ministry needed in the Church today.
One of the distractions from seeing the elephant that blinds the Catholic Church is that its hallmark is “continuity”. That’s historical nonsense, as a casual look at the record shows.
Just take something that affects every Mass-going Catholic today – our understanding of Scripture.
A hundred years ago approaches to the interpretation of sacred texts that we take for granted now triggered harassment from the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition (as it was known till it became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1960s) for many and excommunication for others.
What Pope St Pius X dismissed and condemned in the harshest terms in the first decade of the 20th Century received fulsome endorsement from Pope Pius XII in 1944. And in that acknowledgement, Pope Pius XII was following a well-tried path for change in the Church that was described by the New Zealand-born Redemptorist moral theologian and canon lawyer, Humphrey O’Leary.
O’Leary was not completely tongue-in-cheek when he observed that change in the Church’s understanding and practice goes through five phases.
It begins when a doctrine or practice is condemned as always wrong – even to the point of being ‘intrinsically evil’ – and is absolutely forbidden.
The next phase sees ‘exceptions’ being made in defined circumstances. Then the exceptions become so commonplace that the official position is one of neutrality: Catholics can make up their own minds in good conscience.
The fourth phase is the suggestion that, among the options, one is preferred or encouraged. Finally, what had been proscribed becomes what all must do and comply with.
The approach to the interpretation of Scripture is a case in point. But there are an unlimited number of instances of this in the history of the Church.
Back to today and the prospects for history-making change.
The Synod Assembly on the Family that concluded last October addresses what is perhaps the most broadly alienating issue across the Church – the standing of the divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and their exclusion from the sacraments.
That issue is already at Stage 2 in O’Leary’s process. The Synod agreed that, though formally against the law, Holy Communion can be given to them under certain circumstances.
That Synod’s flexibility is also the tip of the iceberg for consideration of women’s views in Church conduct. It came to that point after Pope Francis encouraged the Synod to listen to the voices of the Holy Spirit and to the men and women of our time.
And if that continues, the current silence of Church officials on sexual morality will see voices other than male celibates legislating what can and cannot be done.
The next question is ministry.
It is now reported to be the subject of the next Synod. If relaxing mandatory celibacy for clerics is seriously considered it would open up a host of other questions beyond who gets to be ordained. It would have to articulate how office in the service of the Church is recognized and also how gender permissions/restrictions apply and why.
As these issues press for attention, it is not only the relevance of Catholicism that is at stake. It is also its credibility.
When episcopal leadership is shown to be so threadbare as to hide criminal behavior for fear of “scandal”, it is appropriate to ask exactly just what parallel universe Catholic leadership inhabits.
Breaking out of the parallel universe won’t happen overnight. But the writing is clearly on the wall that an absolutely typical Catholic process of change is well and truly underway.
And it will be explained in the usual way: “As the Church has always taught…”
This article was first published in Global Pulse on 15 December 2015.
The Japanese call it’nemawashi’..John Menadue