We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

Important changes can happen if thinking Catholics express their real concerns

Pope Francis has unleashed a synodal process of consultations in the Catholic Church. It offers opportunities for effective change. It may also prove a failure. Over recent months, I have heard many sceptical voices. “By providing guiding documents the curia is steering discussions away from the real issues.” “It will all just amount to talk.” “Nothing will really change.”

I do not agree. Important changes can happen if thinking Catholics take the trouble to express their real concerns.

When I wrote my latest book, Ten Commandments for Church Reform, I did not know that the synodal process was going to happen. But now I see how it could help as it highlights the areas in which the church needs urgent change.

Let me explain. The subtitle states: "Memoirs of a Catholic Priest". Yes, the book is story, narration. I depict the unfolding of my life, my experiences as a Catholic from early youth, then my studies in Rome, my decades of ministry in India, my term as vicar general of the Mill Hill Missionaries, my worldwide apostolate. I also document faults in our present church.

Critical theologians have over the past decades been silenced or sacked from their teaching posts at Catholic institutions, and banned from papal commissions. . .

“Wait,” I hear someone say, “if it’s just story it may be quite entertaining, but it has no theological value”. Not so. In the past, we were told that theology means reflection on two sources: scripture and tradition. Not enough. Another essential component is real life, the world in which we live.

Vatican II declared: "The seed which is the word of God sprouts from the good ground [of each local culture] and draws from thence its moisture, which it transforms and assimilates into itself, and finally bears much fruit. . ." The council also taught that new insights of our own time demand theological investigation. In other words: from the soil of our own contemporary world Christian faith will suck up new values that call for fresh theological appraisal.

When I was working in Hyderabad, India, a primary school teacher got in touch with me. She had just recovered from delivering a stillborn baby. Because she had almost died in the process and a repeat event “would put her life at risk”, the surgeon advised her to have a tubal ligation to which she agreed.

She already had given birth to three children. "I mentioned it to Fr Alfred Fernandez, my parish priest," she told me. "He shouted: 'Woman what have you done? You'll go to hell.' He then quoted Humanae Vitae at me." A few months later the Vatican elevated Fr Fernandez to be a bishop. . .

The incident shows up more than just a lack of pastoral empathy. It illustrates underlying structural problems. Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968, with its prohibition of all artificial interference in the marriage act against the advice of the vast majority – 68 of 72 members – of a papal commission of experts.

The vast majority of priests are deeply motivated and provide a laudable service. But the system by which the church is governed croaks in its joints

A serious mistake. Scripture tells us that prophets and teachers function in the Christian community next to its leaders. In spite of this, critical theologians have over the past decades been silenced or sacked from their teaching posts at Catholic institutions, and banned from papal commissions. . .

That insensitive Fr Fernandez I mentioned before was chosen to be a bishop, probably because he was archconservative. On one occasion, I heard him preach that the Second Vatican Council had betrayed Jesus Christ.

It exposes the issue of the election of bishops. In the early church, the priests and faithful of a diocesan community would elect their own bishop. Over the course of centuries, gradually the curia took over. We see the result.

Bishops appointed by our recent Popes John Paul II and Benedict XIV have mostly been traditional yes-men rather than caring shepherds. We need to return to a more democratic process of electing bishops.

Understand me well. Jesus gave authority to the apostles and their successors. But he did not impose the top-down dictatorial structure the church inherited from the Roman Empire and the feudal Middle Ages. Jesus chose only men to be the patriarchs of his new Israel. In doing so he did not exclude women from holy orders for all times to come.

The Catholic faith sustains millions upon millions in all corners of the world. The vast majority of priests are deeply motivated and provide a laudable service. But the system by which the church is governed croaks in its joints. It is riddled with outdated beliefs and practices. It is not beyond remedy, but repair calls for drastic, tough action.

John Wijngaards is founder of the UK-based Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research