It is a clear, mature and welcome report. And it’s about much more than gay rights or priestesses — although, as the media has widely noted, it’s about them too.
The report reflects the goodwill of many people, the fair intentions and good hopes of men and women who are facing dangerous and depressing times, but are compassionate and caring. When churches go wrong, society is damaged. These are individuals too.
The report is credited to Pope Francis, who initiated a consultative process known as “synodality.” This has resulted in Irish Catholics being involved in meetings and discussions which some feared might go nowhere.
That the process has resulted in an open report being published and sent to Rome by Irish bishops is a good start.
Although the report has a clunky title (Summary of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Phase of the Universal Synod 2021-2023), it is packed with simple and clear advice for the future on a range of topics including leadership, sexuality and relationships, clergy and the role of women.
Given that the Church’s teaching on so-called “artificial” methods of contraception has long seemed dead wrong to most Irish Catholics, it is not surprising that those who have been consulted call for a revision of the Church’s understanding of human sexuality in the light of recent scientific knowledge called for sociological research.
This is “along with an acknowledgment of the lived realities of LGBTQI+ and other couples” and single parents who have been treated so cruelly in the past.
Similarly, participants in the process said that church teaching could be more compassionate to women’s health, well-being and family formation, taking into account many circumstances, including financial ones. They suggested that the theology currently underpinning church teaching on sexuality is just one strand in a far richer tapestry.
The synodal process has also highlighted the serious weaknesses of adult education in Ireland. Lay Catholics have been badmouthed or ignored by their bishops for so long that it is hardly surprising.
The report speaks of a “dismantling of the institutions of Ireland’s Catholic superstructure in our towns and communities”. The closure of churches followed a sharp drop in attendance and the number of priests. Reasons for this are a complete or partial loss of trust. But this report also makes clear that “some find the liturgies of the church boring, monotonous, dull, and shallow; that they no longer speak to the lives of men”.
A sense of the sacred is lacking in many Irish Catholic churches, and not just on Sundays. It’s nothing to pretend, it’s not about entertainment, it’s about heartfelt and mature engagement. There is a jumble of words and too little quiet reflection.
This report states that the Eucharist is held in high esteem, “so much so that there is a desire that all should be able to receive, even those who are currently excluded”.
The fundamental shift needed for the Catholic Church to reassess its dogma on transubstantiation (defined against Protestantism in 1551) to achieve inclusion through a new understanding of “real presence” is so great that it is difficult is to see this happen soon.
And what about “accountability, transparency, participation, sharing, good governance” – all keywords used in the report to express hopes for the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland when it comes to leadership? Or the perceived need for church advisory councils to be balanced in their representation of the communities they are called to represent, “rather than being elitist or groups that just talk about doing”.
The report acknowledges that many women are leaving the Church because they are unwilling to be second-class members or to be fobbed off with patronizing concessions: “Several of the submissions called for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate and to the priesthood.”
Religion and spirituality can refresh the heart and give people a new perspective on material or political oppression. But the positive value of religion and spirituality is invisible to many today, not least because of abuses by those who claimed to speak on their behalf or the agendas of those who purported to represent their interests in public life.
In a welcome section, the report raises notable issues that were not strongly represented during the consultation, possibly due to the acknowledged “absence of certain individuals and groups in the process”.
These issues include the broader ecumenical and interfaith context, social justice and the environment. The report states: “Socioeconomic and cultural factors may have contributed to the silence and absence of individuals who could meaningfully comment on some of these issues. This indicates the Church’s difficulty in reaching out to all sectors of society. Is it possible that many people see these important issues as separate from their faith?”
The pressures of commercialization and consumerism, the rise of individualism, reduced time for family and community, and a secularist mindset reflected in the dominant media are all reflected in the contributions submitted during the consultation process.
These forces particularly affect youth and can lead to a neglect of religious or inner life due to the demands of modern day life and peer pressure – as well as any ignorance of the value of spirituality as found in various ancient beliefs and religions is understood traditions.
Some priests did not participate in the synodality process, feeling that it might hinder lay participation. But others may be old-fashioned in their attitude.
Ireland does not need another conservative influx into the Catholic hierarchy that would perpetuate a mindset in which bishops presided over the collapse of a religious institution which – despite its institutional flaws and abuses of power and people – has at times been a vehicle for the best hopes and longings of generations.
Can we be sure that the report will make a difference when it reaches the Vatican? Not when Pope Francis is about to retire and those who oppose him are undoing the good he has been trying to do.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/keeping-the-faith-in-a-changing-church-41925784.html Keeping the Faith in a Changing Church