Pope Francis is leading a huge, quiet revolution in the church
Francis wants a church where debate leads to a discernment of teaching and practice
Pope Francis: proposing a paradigm shift in our model of church that reverses the status quo of the past millennium and returns, with appropriate adjustments for our age, to a first millennium model.
Cardinal Kasper has had some interesting things to say about what is going on in the Catholic Church under the papacy of Francis. In particular he commented that the 2016 Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of Love “doesn’t change anything of church doctrine or canon law– but it changes everything”.
Kasper is clearly excited by what is happening, but what does he mean by a statement like that?
And why are others so dismayed by what is going on? One thinks of the 45 scholars and clerics, including several bishops, who last summer signed a letter to the pope in which they identified 19 different passages in The Joy of Love that appeared to conflict with Catholic teaching.
In November, four cardinals sent Francis what is called a “dubium”, a formal query concerning current church teaching and discipline related to the same document, a direct challenge to the pope which has been repudiated by Cardinal Mueller, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
It seems to me that what is going on here is that Francis is proposing a paradigm shift in our model of church that, in effect, reverses the status quo of the past millennium and returns, with appropriate adjustments for our age, to a first millennium model.
This is huge, a “quiet revolution”, which, strategically, has the potential to unlock many concrete issues of contention within the church.
Francis has spelled out the meaning of this shift in his October 17th, 2015, address during the Synod of Bishops to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the institution of the synod.
In this address, he reminds us that synodality has biblical roots – a walking together, along the road of discipleship with Jesus, of laity, pastors, the Bishop of Rome. Synodality, he affirms, is a legacy of the Second Vatican Council and is the pathway “that God expects from the church in the third millennium”.
At its centre is the notion of the church as the people of God, the baptised faithful with their infallible “supernatural sense of faith” (LG, 12). This sensus fidei prevents any rigid separation between the teaching and learning church, so that the baptised have a role in discerning “the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the church”.
Francis goes on to spell out that this vision of synodality is something that must gain traction at all levels: local, intermediate and universal. In other words, it is not enough to have occasional formal synods of bishops in Rome.
Rather, at parish and diocesan level, at Episcopal Conference level, and in that sharing of governance and teaching at Vatican level, Francis wants a church in which open debate, with appropriate institutional channels, leads to a discernment of teaching and practice appropriate for mission in our times.
The ramifications of this approach are enormous. In particular it would seem likely that many so-called neuralgic issues of current church polity (often to do with sexuality and gender) will, over time, be addressed by this synodal, discerning approach, in which due weight is given to the “sense of the faithful”.
Polemic against inequality
This is by no means a simple capitulation to the “spirit of the age”. His dream of a “poor church for the poor”, his excoriating critique of the dominant economic model and his care for “our common home”, his constant polemic against inequality, all testify to the enduring counter-cultural aspect of the synodal church that he envisages.
So, what to do – what should Catholics in Ireland do? Concretely, it seems to me, we should be demanding of our bishops that – like the Bishop of Limerick – they convoke diocesan synods, leading to a national synod, with outreach to the alienated and disaffected, to young people, as well as the faithful in the pews.
Groups such as the Association of Catholic Priests and the Association of Catholics in Ireland have been calling for these developments for some time now.
As a step in that direction, why not ask for a very inclusive approach to the upcoming (August 2018) World Meeting of Families, during which a papal visit is possible?
We were all, in principle at least, consulted about the Synod of Bishops on the Family: why are we not being consulted equally generously about the upcoming event in Dublin?
Fr Gerry O’Hanlon, former provincial of the Jesuits in Ireland, is a theologian and author of books such as Theology in the Public Square and A New Vision for the Catholic Church. He is social theologian with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice