‘The Catholic Church has at most 10 years to adapt’

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Supporting values that the majority of people have rejected makes us irrelevant

The Catholic Church, as well as everyone else, must understand that the world was hit by a cultural tsunami in the 20th century. We must humbly begin to pick up the pieces and put them back together again.

The 20th century was a crucible. The world which has emerged from this time-machine is changed, changed utterly. There is no going back; our only way is forward.

Discovery of the world of the unconscious; full acknowledgement and acceptance of the dimension of femininity, both inside and outside of ourselves, with all this implies in terms of gender balance and sexual diversity; recognition of the immensity of scientific discovery; and humble apprenticeship in a laboratory of ever-expanding technology; these are some of the characteristics required for access, capability and survival in the new world we have inherited.

It is as if our world were precariously poised, metaphorically speaking, on two tectonic plates as far as socio-political awareness is concerned. On the one hand you have the more advanced and sophisticated cultures, such as many of us in the so-called “first world” enjoy, where democracy has become the accepted idiom.

Then you have the Catholic Church, and many others who, in certain respects, have not yet moved out of the nineteenth century.

But, at this time, it is as if these two tectonic plates were on the move. The place where they could meet is called a plate boundary. Plate boundaries are commonly associated with geological events such as earthquakes. When previous tectonic plates separated, some millions of years ago, the cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland represented one half of the divide and Nova Scotia in Canada became the other, with the Atlantic Ocean in between.

We may have to experience an even greater divide if the two tectonic plates I have been describing collide before the Church realises that such danger is imminent.

Dr David Barker, responsible for the 2004 Report of the Church in America, refers to the “perceived wisdom that culture change takes 200 years in the church. This is no longer an acceptable point of view; it is an excuse for inaction,” he warns. The Catholic Church in Ireland has probably five or, at most, 10 years to take these realities on board before being reduced to a tiny irrelevant minority.

We have been slow to appreciate what the Pope’s core revolutionary strategy is. Francis is convinced that what is required for the third millennium is a “synodal church”, in which there is free and open debate and consultation. We don’t belong to a global organisation as such – we are part of an organism [wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them].

That is: it is not simply constituted by the macrocosm of its universal totality, it is alive and well and fully present in each part of itself wherever “two or three are gathered in my name”. “I call you friends,” Jesus says to each one of us. It is not enough for the hierarchy or even the Pope to be in direct connection with the Holy Trinity.

Always it is each individual member in direct touch with the Holy Spirit and not simply in touch with HQ here on Earth. So, how do we promote such an organism in the local church where we are?

Since the year 1983, which is only 30 years ago, a canon has been added to the Revised Code of Canon Law which stipulates that “power” in the church can only be exercised by those who are ordained priests.

This raises serious problems for the Roman Catholic Church in general.

This canon specifies that only those who have received sacred orders are qualified for the power of governance, also called the power of jurisdiction. The canon further stipulates that although lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this same power, they really cannot wield it in any significant way because, legally speaking, “co-operate” does not mean “participate”.

 This is a matter separate and different from the question of women’s ordination. What we are talking about here is the total clericalisation of the Church we all belong to. Whether priests are men or women, or both, we cannot have a situation where only priests can exercise power.

This amounts to a clerical oligarchy in which lay people have no say whatsoever in matters of legislation or governance and can have no real or effective participation in the running of the Church. This has to change and we have to believe that Pope Francis is doing the best he can to bring this about.

Can one man pit himself against the deeply entrenched conservatism of one of the largest and the oldest religious institutions in the world? Even more important, is he interested in doing so?

Whether he is or not, other inexorable forces are on the move. Times have changed; both the world and ourselves are different from what they were 100 years ago. The task of spiritual leadership is not to silence but to discern, where and when, to whom, in whom and by whom, the Spirit is speaking. The task of the spiritual leader is to read the signs of the times. Pontifex, the word we use to describe the Pope, means in Latin, a bridgebuilder, a passageway between two worlds.

We have to decide whether we intend to work from a 19th- or a 21st-century template. And certainly, for anyone claiming to be “Catholic”, refusal to embrace universality must go against the thrust of conviction that His salvation should reach to the ends of the Earth. It is important not to allow the perception of a reactionary ghettoised minority to be foisted upon us by the media and some hostile public opinion.

The world itself is the universal religion that precedes all organised religions. Nature is the first scripture wherein we read the word of God. And, we have to face reality; another unfortunate but understandable difficulty is that the word “Catholic” can have bad press in the 21st century thanks to the catastrophic revelations of evil-doing in the recent past, which has undermined trust in the institution as such.

Banner headlines, cartoons and caricatures depict the Catholic Church, for the pantomime which the press is keen to promote: Wicked Stepmother, Cruella de Vil, the strict governess in General Montgomery’s autobiography who used to get up every morning and say: “Go out and see what that child is doing and stop him!”

If we wish to remain conservative and old-fashioned, at least let us not be sectarian and supportive of values and lifestyles which have been rejected by the majority of 21st-century people.

Otherwise we are categorised as out-of-date leftovers from a previous era, such as the Amish communities in America and Canada. These were founded in the 17th century and they steadfastly refuse on principal to move into the 21st. They use horses for farming and transportation, dress in a traditional manner and forbid electricity or telephones in the home.

Church members do not join the military, nor do they apply for social security benefits. They refuse to take out insurance or accept any form of financial assistance from the government. They value rural life, manual labour and humility, and they discontinue formal education at the age of 14. We might be less identifiable and less obvious retros but nonetheless determined to remain behind where the 19th century left off.

Our cultures in the past have undervalued and degraded the feminine, both as internal part of each one of us, and as incarnated in over 50 per cent of the human race registered as women. We should no longer make such stark divisions between the two genders but should recognise the continuity of the spectrum in which we all share, in varying degrees.

Each of us is situated somewhere along a spectrum of masculine and feminine traits and characteristics, making each of our particular identities as unique and unrepeatable as a fingerprint.

We need different strategies, policies, norms and behavioural patterns, to live together in harmony, not just as one island continent and community, but as part of an ever expanding and, at the same time, interconnecting universe.

Of course it is possible to remain stubbornly ensconced in a preferred world of the past, to batten down the hatches and create an “old-world” milieu for ourselves and those who care to join us, but such a King Canute-like attitude can only be a holding operation; the waves of change must always eventually submerge even the most resolute dug-out.

The suggestion that because there are two forms of the one species, male and female, our culture must be either matriarchy or patriarchy, that either the women must dominate the men or vice versa, is simply to transfer the worst features of the culture of the past onto all culture of the future. A balance between two such tendencies should be achieved and maintained, even if this has never been done before.

 The human species is in charge of its own cultural development. It is not like the animal kingdom, prisoner to the laws of its nature, to the instinctive coding in its DNA. We can invent whatever culture we choose to endorse, provided we have the collective will to do so.

But to do so we must change our paradigms. Domination is the hallmark of the patriarchal paradigm. It should be replaced by a paradigm of partnership. And this goes for any form of leadership in the world today.

Mark Patrick Hederman is a monk of Glenstal Abbey in Limerick. His latest book is The Opal and the Pearl, Towards a Gyroscopic Ethics, Dublin, Columba Press, 2017

The Irish Times