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Puzzles, paradoxes and problems

The when and how of Church reforms have many guessing

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • International
  • October 29, 2013
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Pope Francis has nominated all the hot button issues that get Catholic tongues wagging: a pastoral response to divorced and remarried Catholics, homosexuality, the place of women in the Church, the excessively centralized nature of management in the Church, liturgical adaptation to pastoral circumstances, wealth and triumphalism as the too frequent face of the Church to the world, and others too.

He has also begun a process for addressing at least one of them by convening an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 2014 on how to address what is probably the issue that sees most adults part company with the Catholic community in the Western world: divorce and remarriage.

Considering themselves unacceptable to the Church because they failed in what is the biggest risk they can take in their lives, the divorced and remarried often see the Church’s attitude as one that punishes the victims of this failure.

But the convening of this extraordinary synod is only the tip of an iceberg that he has indicated he wants addressed as pope. As Bishop of Rome, what the cardinals want him to accomplish is now clear: reform of the Vatican and the creation of a pattern of Church governance that is both decentralized and participatory.

The current pope’s ambitions to open up discussion in the Church go some way to addressing the comments made last October by one of three surviving theological advisors at Vatican II, made on the 50th anniversary of its opening in 1962. Fr Ladislas Orsy, together with Pope Benedict and the controversial Swiss theologian Hans Kung, are the three remaining “periti” from Vatican II who attended its sessions as theological supports to bishops from different dioceses.

Orsy was interviewed on the subject of what remains to be done after Vatican II and the first thing he nominated was the need to remedy Vatican II’s biggest shortcoming. Long on excellent ideas, the council was short on frameworks and structures for implementing them. And what frameworks and structures it did create were quickly dismantled or neutralized by the Vatican Curia.

This has meant, as has been pointed out in reports after the first meeting of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis on reform of the Vatican and its processes, that the Synod of Bishops that meets every three years is a fig leaf of consultation where speeches are choreographed by the Vatican and the Curia is left to write up what was agreed by the participating bishops, much to their disbelief when the document actually appears.

Under the new pope’s reforms, head office may be updated in line with the council that concluded half a century ago. But the challenge that lies ahead in addressing the other hot button topics won’t be resolved as speedily. There are inherent problems for a Church still anchored in the processes of a monarchical and aristocratic age for its governance.

To their credit, Vatican offices have already begun consultation with high level lay organizations concerned with the role of women in the Church and suggestions about including women in significant and decisive roles in the administration of the Vatican are advancing. This will allow the Vatican to catch up with what is common practice in many parts of the Church where women lead many of its major services in health, welfare and education.

But when it comes to addressing and resolving contentious issues, the structures for their consideration in a fair and informed way simply don’t exist. The sad truth is that the Catholic Church’s governance has so isolated itself from the world that it has simply missed many of the main developments in what can be called “best practice” in leadership and governance.

Synods won’t do that. They are made up exclusively of bishops who are all, by and large, elderly men. That is hardly a helpful way to tap the wisdom of the Church or hear the voices that need to be heard on the wide array of issues in the Church needing to be addressed.

What alternatives exist? It took the peoples of Europe, North and South America hundreds of years to develop structures and a process of participatory government that work and provide a release valve for tensions that can plunge populations into turmoil. Countries and societies in many parts of Africa and Asia are only slowly learning what they need to know for their peoples to survive and thrive as nations and communities.

In the Church, the models of parliamentary democracy or representative government now common in many parts of the world do not fit with the complexity and uniqueness of the Church community. An institution of divine origin cannot be reduced to having the democratic mean decide its destiny.

It would be crass and a formula for disaster to assume that democracy, as such, is all the Church needs.

All the same, the Church is the people of God and Pope Francis has said for many years that the sense of faith of the people is the sure rock of authentic belief. If that is to be accepted, something other than top down direction, discipline and censure of miscreants who question the wisdom declared by authority will have to be found.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear with this Pontificate – the Church is in for a shake up. And how it happens and what results are as much in the hands of the Holy Spirit as anyone’s.

Fr Michael Kelly is the executive director of ucanews.com

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