The opaque incoherence of a church in crisis
In the early part of the 20th century, fewer than 10 per cent of the nations of the world were democracies. Today that figure is closer to 65 per cent. The pace of change has been as relentless as it has been incredible with much of it impossible to predict. The church has been challenged by both the changes and the speed at which life is being transformed. Those who live in the world’s growing number of democracies have considerable freedom of expression in the civil sphere but highly restricted freedom of expression in the religious sphere.
Reconciling both spheres can be difficult; the same discussion may be perceived in one sphere as acceptable freedom of expression and unacceptable disrespect for the teaching magisterium in the other.
Church teaching on clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, gay marriage and the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments is not necessarily an expression of the views of Catholics generally, as opinion polls in Ireland have shown. Church teaching on birth control is so widely ignored that some canonical commentators question whether it can be said to have been “received” and therefore validated by the faithful.
The heterocentricity of Catholic teaching, and indeed the teaching of other faiths, is now being looked at critically in the light of the deadly consequences of homophobic bullying, with research, mainly in the US, showing a tragic link between male youth suicide and homosexuality. The future impact on Catholic schools is a question already being pondered.
Could church teaching on homosexuality be the new psychological child-abuse issue of the coming decade? The church, which is still in the process of adapting to the Vatican council after 50 years, exists in a world that has shown an amazing capacity to adapt much more rapidly to things infinitely more complex than collegiality.
MUCH OF THEVatican II discussion of governance, collegiality and the People of God occurred as the world was merely on the cusp of these changes. The educated laity was then an elite, not the mass phenomenon it is today. Communications media and technologies lacked the immediacy and huge global reach they currently have. The role of women in society was considerably more circumscribed than it is now.
Today’s world of increasingly democratic and inclusive secular structures makes solitary centralised authorities look like an ebb tide.
For those who hoped for greater cogovernance of the universal church between the pope and the College of Bishops, it has been a journey of disappointment since the council.
As the bishops dispersed throughout the world after the council, the conciliar momentum behind episcopal collegiality also dispersed, never to be regained. By default an excluded and largely trained-to-be and expected-to-be passive laity also contributed little. Those who hoped for a more open engagement, and who now see the local and universal church as more dithering than decisive in the face of very public problems, are faced with a logjam that, constitutionally, only the pope can release.