The Church Always In Need of Reform

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"Nothing he has written is as important as this book"

- Fr Brendan Hoban reviews Fr Gabriel Daly's new book

Part of the human condition is that we often find our place in the world by reacting to those whom we come to regard as ‘the opposition’. Catholics used to regard Protestants in that way. The GAA used to see soccer in the same way. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael used to define each other through mutual antipathy. (This latter may change, of course, when the people have their say in the next election).

At a larger level, the new secular world emerging in Ireland is defining itself in its opposition to religion and religion, as a result, is turning in on itself and becoming more fundamentalist as both sides refuse to listen to one another, indeed often regard each other as toxic.

In a sense this kind of division is inevitable, ‘human’ we might even say. And it runs through every gathering, every association of people, no matter how large or small – and through every Church too.

For example, there’s a very clear division in the Catholic Church between those who are content with the Church as it has been up to now, and those who want to see a change in its attitudes, structures and behaviour. That last sentence is out of a new book by theologian Gabriel Daly, called ‘The Church always in need of reform’, a robust and convincing analysis of where we are as a Church, and, if there’s a book I’d recommend for Christmas, this would have to be it.

Daly sees himself, as indeed I would see myself, as ‘one of an increasing number of Catholics who believe that our Church is in urgent need of reform’. He accepts that ‘some fellow Catholics will take offence’ at what he has to say but ‘I do not ask that they share my views, and they should not insist that I share theirs’.

Daly argues that a diversity of opinion in matters that do not belong to the essence of faith enriches the Church. He believes that, for the good of the whole Church, a range of views should be encouraged rather than trying to impose a narrow view of orthodoxy on everyone. And he’s clearly delighted that Pope Francis is moving the Church in that direction.

Daly doesn’t hesitate to use words like ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ to describe what he calls ‘two conflicting mentalities in the Church’. And he sees no point in trying to reconcile progressives and conservatives because, for him, a consensus between the two wings of the Church is logically impossible since their positions are mutually incompatible.

What he wants to do is to let both sides ‘live tolerably and peacefully together in spite of their different attitudes’ but that no side should seek to impose its understanding on the whole Church and that the Church should never use its power to penalise Catholics who dissent from its views and mindset.

What Daly has in mind is that despite the great spring of the Vatican Council in the 1960s, in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI the Church became a cold place for many Catholics who didn’t see the Church and the world as they did. And he believes that Popes John Paul and Benedict had no authority to impose their theology on the whole Church.

Daly’s basic point is that though people of one mind-set may control the Church they can’t put forward their own theology as ‘the teaching of the Church’ and that they have absolutely no right to use their power ‘to punish those who are clearly within the parameters of credal doctrine’.

Daly charts his own experience and the development of his theology from the years he studied in Rome where he was taught the answers (in Latin) to his time in Oxford where he was taught to ask questions – and to think for himself.

Daly believes that the notion that doctrine doesn’t change or that there’s a ‘seamless continuity of church teaching’ in history are simply a fiction. He quotes Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council as saying that while the substance of the faith remains constant, the way it is formulated can change.

Daly’s book is a reflection on the need for reform in the Church, the implications for theology and the difference between ‘unity’ (what Jesus made clear he wants for his Church) and ‘conformity’ (what traditionalist authorities have insisted on, most notably in the last two pontificates).

For Daly, the pontificate of Pope Francis contrasts sharply with that of Pope Benedict. For those like Daly (and so many others), for whom Pope John XXIII was a source of great hope in a dispirited Church, Francis offers the same hope as he struggles, despite huge opposition in Rome and nearer home, to bring about necessary reforms in our Church.

Reform is necessary, Daly argues, because the message of Jesus is strikingly simple and direct and internal structures are posing an obstacle to our mission in the world.

This is a remarkable book in the clarity of its thought and the conviction of the writer. Gabriel Daly’s contribution to theology has been immense but I would suggest that nothing he has written is as important as this book. His belief that discussion and debate are how ideas are clarified and, where necessary, challenged is what Pope Francis is saying and it’s just, well, wonderful and life-enhancing for those of us who agree with Daly’s basic thesis, to have it argued for so compellingly and so cogently.

We are in his debt.

Fr Brendan Hoban; Western People; 14 December 2015

  • Gabriel Daly, OSA , The Church always in need of reform, Dominicam Publications, pp. 298, €19.99