A year ago, it would have been unthinkable that a document like the National Synthesis calling for such radical change in the Catholic Church would have been sent from Ireland to Rome.
Few among even the more earnest Irish Catholics would have anticipated such an event.
That said, the great unspoken reality among a majority of Irish Catholics, for more years than they care to be reminded, was that they held such strong views on the inferior position of women in the church, on its harsh language towards LGBTI+ people, its “draconian” stance on the divorced and remarried, on single parents, its insistence on the archaic mandatory celibacy rule, the boring sermons and liturgies, its utter disconnect with young people.
The problem was “the bishops” – it was widely believed they would never allow such views percolate to Rome. That would not do at all. The impression it might give! The suggestion that a revolting Irish laity had wrested control from the bishops? OMG, as the (absent) young people might say, this was “not the look” you want for Rome.
As recently as last month that fear surfaced again of what the bishops might do to temper the 26 diocesan reports calling for change, as well as most of the other 29 submissions. Those same old familiar never-to-be-forgotten feelings surfaced again when Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin warned that discussion around the National Synthesis should “not diminish the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops, but rather affirm and enhance it”.
Shock, horror. It seemed the very many thousands of practising Catholics, mostly over 60, who had taken part in consultations leading to the synthesis – ranging from 13,000 in Dublin to about 5,000 in Limerick and about 300 in Achonry, one of the smallest dioceses on the island – were headed for frustration once again.
Some concluded that the “heartening” atmosphere at the national assembly of the Irish Catholic Church in Athlone last June, including the bishops, was to be betrayed.
Not so. The National Synthesis document remains remarkably true to the mood of that national assembly and its origins in the diocesan reports and other submissions. That this has happened illustrates the greatly diminished authority of church authorities, due to their handling of clerical child sex abuse, but also the arrival at the episcopal table of younger colleagues with no baggage and a refreshing honesty.
Credit, and it is the accurate word, must also go to those articulate women who have trenchantly argued the case for equality for their gender in the church down the years as well as speaking forcefully on behalf of marginalised groups such as LGBTI+ people; women such as former president Mary McAleese, Ursula Halligan of We Are Church Ireland and long-time advocate for women’s ordination Soline Humbert, among others.
Nor should the contribution of the Association of Catholic Priests over the past 10 years be underestimated, particularly of co-founders Fr Brendan Hoban and Fr Tony Flannery, who is himself now 10 years out of public ministry in the church because he called for the changes subsequently repeated in the National Synthesis document.
His continuous exile to limbo is itself a scandal and smacks now of mere, petty revenge. It is an ongoing and grave injustice and he should be reinstated to full ministry.
It is to be hoped that Ireland’s National Synthesis document contributes to the significant change necessary and which most people of goodwill believe essential to emerge from the Synod of Bishops in Rome next year, and for which it was prepared as part of worldwide consultation with Catholics.
Regardless, this is a moment which marks a major milestone in the history of the Catholic Church on this island as well as being hugely significant as part of its preparations for the Assembly of Assemblies it plans for Ireland from 2026 onwards.