What Needs Reform in the Church?

What Needs Reform in the Church?

Posted by Colm, With 0 Comments, Category: Church News, Church Reform, Latest News, Pope Francis, Women in the Church,

Gabriel Daly OSA's talk to We Are Church Ireland on 9 November 2015


When we adopt the posture of someone who is disillusioned against much that is happening in their church, we have to be very careful that we don't become professional grousers, seeing nothing but faults in the church to which we belong. Professional grousers quickly become bores and this seriously damages their vocation to witness.   I know this because my way of life for the last four years has been concerned with reform of the church. I was fortunate to have companions with a sense of humour who pulled my leg in a way that was sometimes irritating but was ultimately healthy.   A talk like this tends to sound negative.PP-GD-9-nov-2015

Let's start, then, with a positive and uncontroversial remark: Christianity is about peace, friendliness, caring and loving - to the extent of even loving enemies - and here am I about to plead the necessity of refusing to seek a compromise, a consensus, between two wings of the church, resolutely opposed to each other. Strange as it may seem, I am quite convinced of the validity of the conviction that there are, two fundamentally irreconcilable ideas and images of the Catholic Church. There were at Vatican II, and there were at the recent Synod. I say 'irreconcilable' because we are foolish if we expect reason and Christian love to make them change.   On the one hand there are those who hold fixed and unchangeable ideas which they regard as the church's changeless teaching. On the other hand there are Christians who believe that the church is always in need of reform.

Christians have indeed to seek peace, expressing itself in understanding and tolerance; but they may also have to engage in an intra-church struggle for conscience sake. Ecumenism is relevant within a church as well as between churches. Pope Francis avoids saying that the senior traditionalists who hold offices of power in the church, most notably the Roman curia, are obscuring the message of the Gospel, but he has made it quite clear, in his address to the Vatican Curia last Christmas, that the Catholic Church is seriously affected by careerism, fear of victimization by the Curia, denial of the right of women to be given a proper structural role in the church - including ordination to the priesthood.

A while ago I wrote a piece for the Tablet claiming that there are two mindsets, two contrasting attitudes, in the church. They are mutually exclusive and not patient of consensus. The headline writer at the Tablet made my meaning uncomfortably clear with the headline 'Let Battle Commence' - which made me appear more pugnacious than I intended but was an accurate reflection of my mind! The Tablet's cartoonist added spice to the situation by depicting two clerics in their cassocks, one of whom is wearing a pair of boxing-gloves, while the other is saying "Well, I hope you know what you are doing".

The Christian Church has existed for over 2000 years. That means that it has lived through many different cultural changes and has been influenced to some extent by many of them.   It has sometimes proved difficult to distinguish between doctrine and the culture that shaped it and gave it its currency.   Some, for example, have left a semi-permanent impression of princely grandeur on the papacy and on the bureaucracy that surrounds it, because that is how rulers lived at that time. Curialists like to boast that Rome thinks in centuries.   For centuries the pope had temporal power and treated it as if it was a part of Catholic doctrine. It can come as a surprise to learn that that the temporal power of the pope was still being proclaimed as Catholic doctrine in the late 19th century! Much of Pope Francis' popularity stems from his abandonment of a princely persona together with all the trappings of secular power. He has severely shocked his curia, who know how dependent they are on the pope for their influence and power, and even for their very existence.Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 21.47.36

Some traditionalists like to insist that in spite of his highly symbolic gestures, Francis is doctrinally a conservative. In this they are correct.   He differs from his predecessors in abandoning imperial gestures, adopting less exalted and more human attitudes, and notably by his emphasis on God's mercy.   He does not think of the church as a changeless dominion, a hierarchical fiefdom, solidly clerical, excluding the laity and especially women from structural power, but he acts as if he does. He has done nothing to break with the clerical structures of the church.   Cardinals lead his reforming bodies and bishops predominate at assemblies.   The atmosphere is suffocatingly male and hierarchical. The rest of the church is missing.   Francis knows all this; but for some reason he is doing nothing about it, because his opponents have convinced him that to go further would offend against 'the teaching of the church' - a phrase that is often intended to intimidate and control when it is employed by traditionalists.   Clericalism is ultimately a matter of power and control. The Redemptorist, Fr. Tony Flannery made a remark that got him accused of heresy by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is what he wrote:

“I no longer believe that the priesthood, as we currently have it in the Church, originated with Jesus." - an unexceptional remark, but it implicitly unveiled a neuralgic curial view of priesthood. It is quite plain that priests in the early church were not clerically and hierarchically organised as they are today.

The plain fact is that the church has changed its teaching many times over its history. The American bishops have made Humanae Vitae an unchangeable doctrine of the church - a very foolish move indeed. They have made a doctrine which has not been 'received' by the church-at-large into a fetish by which the Roman Catholic Church is to be publically known.   This is not merely an act of utter irresponsibility, it is a gesture designed to be an attack on those who are trying to promote a much needed reform of the church.    Traditionalists parade "church teaching" unscrupulously as a kind of weapon. They claim that because Paul VI in 1968 published an encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, that renewed the ban on contraception, all his successors are bound by his teaching, because it is 'church teaching', and not even popes can touch it.   This is nonsense, but few Catholics would be prepared to say so.

Francis is pushing out the boundaries of change in the church but finds himself restrained by a shadowy barrier called 'the teaching of the church', which is regarded as untouchable and unchangeable. His instincts point him in a progressive direction, but he is brought to a halt by the mention of church teaching.   History is a great help here. There are many examples to be found which were rightly described as 'church teaching' at the time, but which would today be dismissed as out of harmony with the Gospel.

Let's take a fairly clear one: In 1095 Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade.   Its purpose was to seize Jerusalem and other places in the Holy Land from the Muslims. Those who 'took the Cross' were forgiven all their sins. Indulgences were lavished on the whole church. It was quite clear that going on crusade or even supporting it was a response to church teaching. You won't find the church presenting it as a doctrine today; so evidently church teaching can change!   There are many examples of church teaching presented by traditionalists as 'the unchangeable teaching of the church', which have nothing to do with the Gospel, represent the views of only one party in the church, and are in point of fact crying out for reform.

Let us consider for a moment the issues that the conservative Catholic Church has chosen to illustrate the changeless teaching of the church.

I limit myself to the three most politically significant in the church today: (1) Contraception.   (2) Women in the structural church.     (3) Homosexuality and gay marriage.   As a matter of fact, each of them happens to be an area in church life greatly in need of reform.   None of them has any direct relationship with the Gospel.

(1) First, there is the matter of Pope Paul VI' encyclical Humanae Vitae published in 1968. Paul had removed the topic from the floor of the Second Vatican Council and reserved it to himself.   Most bishops said nothing, but the Belgian Cardinal Suenens, an influential figure at Vatican II and a man of courageous authenticity, challenged Pope Paul on the matter. In a strikingly courageous remark he expressed an appreciation of the danger of the encyclical becoming "another Galileo affair. One is enough for the Church". [1]   Suenens, much admired by Pope Francis, saw the ecclesiological implications of what Paul VI had done, and he pointed out that Humanae Vitae offended against the collegiality that had been proclaimed by the recent council.[2]   This was a crucial contribution to the debate, by a cardinal no less, though the Vatican has subsequently managed to ignore it with impunity.   When Pope Paul VI chose to reject the advice of the group he had set up to counsel him on marriage, sexuality and the family, and opted instead for a reiteration of the ban on contraception, he did so less because of substantive moral thinking about contraception than because of previous papal pronouncements on it.  Thus, in Paul's thinking, the immutability of papal pronouncements prevailed over all other moral and doctrinal considerations. As long as popes continue to see themselves as bound by previous papal teaching on topics not belonging to the substance of Christian faith, there is little prospect of amelioration of current papal attitudes to sex and reproduction.

The church at large has never 'received' Humanae Vitae; and to describe Pope Paul's view of contraception as 'the unchangeable teaching of the church' is theologically unacceptable to many modern theologians and historians and it presents the church as hopelessly out of touch with today's world. Rome's way of dealing with this problem is to refuse to listen to modern theological arguments, and simply to reissue a prohibition by proclamation and without satisfactory argument.   The truth of the matter is that Humanae Vitae has done an appalling amount of damage by prompting a sizeable exodus of faithful Catholics from the church and by earning the church a reputation for dictatorship in an out-of-date moral question.

(2) The second issue, the position of women in the structural Catholic Church remains perhaps the most urgent issue in the contemporary church and the one most in need of reform.   Women have been treated disgracefully. You will notice that I am not speaking explicitly of women's ordination, not because I don't think it is very important, but because it is less important than the bigger question of women's place in the structural church. I only wish that female ordination could come without women priests having to be clerics; but I recognise that as long as male priests remain clerics, women will probably adopt a clerical status for the sake of authenticity.   Many Anglican women-priests wear clerical collars in order to make a clear statement about their equality with men.

In my opinion there is no argument against female ordination that can be taken with theological seriousness. That Jesus was a man, therefore priests must be men, or because Jesus did not ordain women, neither can we, can hardly be taken as serious arguments.   They offend against both logic and sound theology.   John Paul II was the pope who was most opposed to women's ordination.   He didn't argue his case, he affirmed it with stern authority. One is tempted to ascribe his attitude to women's ordination as sheer sexism.   It probably was sexism, but there were other reasons too.   I believe that traditionalists desperately want this matter to go away. They sensed that if they give way on this, the whole structure of the hierarchical church would crumble, as it did, in their eyes, at Vatican II.

John Paul II drew on his instinctive authoritarianism to make a very strong proclamation: He said: "I declare that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church's faithful." Short of declaring his judgement to be infallible (which he wanted to do but was fortunately dissuaded from doing), this is a formidable, would-be infallible statement: "I declare that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church's faithful."   It is hard to understand the fervour with which Pope John Paul condemned this issue.            Many feminists would say 'misogyny' and I would find it difficult to disagree.Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 21.47.47

For reasons I will shortly consider, Pope Francis, who is given to making important off-the-cuff statements on aeroplanes, said somewhat surprisingly, "with regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no. Pope John Paul said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed." Notice that he does not discuss the matter as representing his own view, but he accepts the authority of John Paul II and this means that he considers himself bound to go along with John Paul's teaching. In point of fact, there is nothing to prevent Francis from disagreeing with it. There has to be resistance to the habit of traditionalists identifying their own views as doctrine binding the entire church.   Not even ultra-traditionalists today would regard themselves as bound by Pope Urban II' enthusiasm for crusades. There are numerous instances where the teaching church has abandoned what it once taught with conviction.

(3) The third major point at issue in the contemporary church is the attitude towards homosexuality. There is fierce opposition to it, especially from elderly bishops and others who have been taught according to the old scholastic preoccupation with essences. I realise that that this sounds philosophically technical, but I have to mention it because it is the key to what needs to be changed. Let me try to explain what I mean.

In 1930 Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical letter, Casti Connubii. It was intended as a response to the Anglican Lambeth Conference. It laid down moral principles applying to sex in marriage:

... [N]o reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious (art.54).

There is much to be learnt from the language used here.   We find Pope Benedict XVI using it in his case against homosexuality. Note the phrase "intrinsically against nature". This means that what he calls the "conjugal act" is designed by nature, and consequently by God, for one purpose only, namely, the "begetting of children". To exercise it deliberately for any other purpose but procreation is to "frustrate its natural power and purpose" and to commit a deed which is "shameful and intrinsically vicious".

After Pius XI' bombshell, there followed a period of obsession with contraception in the church, and I vividly remember years of trying to counsel people in accordance with "church doctrine". It was an impossible task, and advising couples to adopt "natural methods" - which one wit described as 'Vatican roulette'! - became a burden on most confessors   (There were, of course, some confessors who saw no difficulty, but penitents soon recognised who they were, and simply avoided them.)

We should consider carefully the phrase "intrinsically against nature". Incredibly, we find the phrase still being used by curial members and bishops, as if the reforms of Vatican II had never happened. Traditionalists like to speak of "homosexual tendencies" as if they were describing a virus that attacks a healthy body. They continue to regard 'nature' as immutable, in spite of the fact that science has shown that it is always evolving.   There has to be a break with the kind of essentialist approach to nature that measures it according to intrinsically fixed values that are wide-open to scientific refutation.

Homosexuality can no longer be credibly regarded as "intrinsically vicious", as Pius XI claimed in his estimate of birth control. This view can now be seen as seriously wrong, and actually against the spirit of the Gospel. Homosexuality can no longer be credibly regarded as being "against" nature. Scientifically, although there is no agreed explanation for it, there is agreement that it is part of nature and is never a matter of choice. One does not choose to be gay; one is born gay. Theologically it has become part of the mystery of creation, and today is a very serious theological problem. To describe it as sinful, as Pope Benedict does, is to remain imprisoned in an outmoded kind of thinking which may actually verge on unintended blasphemy against an all-good and all-knowing Creator.

The issue of gay marriage is of course closely related to what we have been considering, and its moral rejection would be considered by many Catholics to be part of the teaching of the church.   The result of the Irish constitutional vote came as a severe shock not merely to the Irish bishops, but especially to Rome where the response of the Vatican Secretary of State , Cardinal Pietro Parolin, stated that the result of the poll in Ireland was "a defeat for humanity".   I had reached precisely the opposite conclusion!   It was quite clear from letters and articles that gay people felt that the possibility of marriage was necessary for their sense of belonging to society and for their human dignity. It seemed to me that if one looked at the matter in the light of the Gospel, their situation and their feelings took precedence over fidelity to an abstraction. It is the lack of humanity in the institutional church that is most in need of reform.   Traditionalists in the curia and the episcopate have allowed canon law to obscure the spirit of the Gospel.

As the Redemptorist priest, Tony Flannery, pointed out in the journal Reality some time ago, the church that we have today is not what Jesus had in mind, two thousand years ago. The CDF was appalled by his sentiments, which threatened their very existence. Flannery was condemned and pursued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for pointing out that the contemporary arrangement of a clericalised, hierarchical and self-referential church is far removed from the gathering of Jesus' followers two-thousand years ago. The apostles were not clerics, nor did they belong to a hierarchy. The sad fact is that the institutional church has become so self-centred and self-important that its attention to the simplicities of the Gospel has been seriously impaired. Perhaps one of the greatest of Pope Francis's contributions to reform in the church is his return to Gospel values which stand out in relief against the stylised clerical and hierarchical obsessions and values that so badly need reform.   For the completion of his reforming task there remains only the need to escape from mandatory fidelity to everything his predecessors wrote. The fact is that he is not bound by Paul VI' views on contraception, John Paul's views on the ordination of women, or Benedict XVI' views on homosexuality. His change of papal style will remain purely cosmetic, unless he ceases to consider himself bound by the words of his predecessors on matters that have nothing to do with the Gospel.

Let's consider for a moment the meaning of the word 'liberal'. Many traditionalists use it as an automatic censure of members of the church who are looking for change in the church.   It comes from the Latin word 'liber', meaning free. Free from what? - that's the important question.   The notion of 'freedom' is totally dependent on its context for its meaning. There is a world of difference between, for example, economic liberalism and ecclesiastical liberalism.   Economic liberalism holds that the world of business and commerce should be governed by market forces and be free from governmental intervention. Ecclesiastical liberalism takes place, in the Catholic Church, when some of its members feel oppressed, for one reason or another, and have to struggle against an organization that has never, until the pontificate of Pope Francis, engaged in open discussion and debate, except during general councils and latter-day synods.   It normally acts in an authoritarian manner in the name of God and on behalf of ultra-conservative opinion and against those who are utterly convinced that our church is in urgent need of serious reform.

I have just written a book entitled The Church: Always in Need of Reform. (I am not trying to plug the book! I simply want you to know that for several years my mind has been on the topic of reform in the Catholic Church.)   My decision to write the book came about in a most practical and experiential way.             A few years ago, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the CDF, the most powerful and most unscrupulous department in the Roman Curia, and the one most in need of reform, attacked a former colleague and friend of mine, Seán Fagan, a Marist priest, a moral theologian who had written a book entitled Has Sin Changed? Seán was always sensitive to the deepest pastoral needs of people and his book helped many Catholics. Seán knew that the notion of sin that was common then in the Catholic Church was often grim, off-putting and discouraging to many people.   His book was an attempt to introduce a note of reason and compassion - what Pope Francis would later teach us to call 'mercy'. Seán saw that there was little of the Gospel in the hard-line attitude that prevailed in the pre-Vatican II period, and since Vatican II, among many senior clergy who quietly resented what had happened at the council, yet could not be seen openly to attack a council.

Traditionalists who are preoccupied with law, prohibitions and general nay-saying can convey an image of joyless dictatorship that is in flagrant contradiction of the way in which Jesus approached people and taught them the inspiring truths of God's kingdom.   The readiness of the traditionalists to reduce Jesus to the status of rule-giver betrays a woeful ignorance of the New Testament; but, worst of all, it kills the joy of the Gospel.   Certainly, Jesus pointed to laws and other moral obligations; but he placed far more emphasis on forgiveness.            Notice that it was the Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus excoriated.

It is imperative to realise that in many instances what is described as 'the teaching of the church' is, in effect, the teaching of one party in the church - a party that does not feel it necessary to defend its attitude; it has the power simply to impose it. It is vitally important that we recognise what is going on here. The phrase 'the teaching of the church' is often used in an aggressive fashion that is designed to intimidate. Certain curial cardinals use it to describe their own outdated and unscholarly views, which they inflict on others, not by argument but by sheer coercion.   This tactic is intended to influence even the Pope himself. When they see Francis behaving in a manner that they disapprove of or holding views that offend their opinions and prejudices, their instinct is to appeal to 'church teaching' as the only way to restrain him. Even a pope, they say, is bound by 'church teaching' - which of course they identify with their own ideas.  It's a kind of blackmail, not merely of the pope but also of Catholic theologians everywhere, and it has been very effective, especially when it is accompanied by unscrupulous use of authority and the power to punish Catholic theologians in ways that are blatantly unjust and often cruel. It takes courage to stand up to them. Most of the great modern theologians who taught the bishops something about modern theology at Vatican II had been harried and humiliated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the Congregation has never apologized for its unlawful deeds.

Then came the appalling spectre of clerical paedophilia which gave the curia a chance to inspect the seminaries.   An inquisition was set up and carried out.   It revealed nothing, though it damaged the reputations of several innocent priests. The visitation failed to uncover any unorthodox teaching or indiscipline in behaviour or governance.

The same thing happened on a much larger scale to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. A full heresy-hunt was launched against them based on the conviction that the changes inspired by Vatican II had led to a weakening of principles and the fall-off in vocations to religious life.   The inquisition discovered nothing and the Sisters emerged totally vindicated, and, into the bargain, having given an inspiring example of how real Christians can behave in circumstances where their persecutors, from the heights of the institutional church, behave in a thoroughly unchristian manner. The Sisters were admired all around the world, while their judges were widely condemned. Has the Roman Curia learnt anything from these failed enterprises? Apparently not.   It seems the curia is incapable not merely of apologising for their injudicious acts, they don't seem able to appreciate that their acts are wrong, unloving, and unchristian.   The Statement issued by the CDF after their humiliation of the American Sisters was face-saving and hypocritical. Instead of apologising for what they had done, they carried on as if they had initiated a worthy task in service of the church.

I know that I have been critical of the institutional church, and I don't apologise for that.   However I would like to conclude by envisaging the kind of church I believe could result from reform. Please remember that I am concerned with structural reform, which can look rather dry and even impersonal, but is necessary for the implementation of other reforms. Popes like Paul VI set about reforming the curia, but the reform remained purely cosmetic because kept well away from structures. In my view, Francis is ensnared by the idea that he is bound by the teaching of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II on matters that have nothing to do with the Gospel. As long as he remains imprisoned in a scheme that binds him to all the teachings of his papal predecessors, the needed reforms cannot take place even though the Gospel and the creeds are not involved.

We need to be aware of the gift of peaceful diversity where fellow- Catholics feel free to hold and to express their opinions. Above all, no one will try to use the structures of the institutional church to impose their views on others who do not share them.   In the case of disputes, attempts will always be made to reach an amicable conclusion or compromise.   In disputes over whether the church should be reformed or not, it is useless to seek compromise. Attempts may be made to convert others to one’s own views, but in a thoroughly Christian manner.   Decisions at assemblies should be accepted as gracefully as possible.

I could mention many other structural needs for reform, but I just wanted to give you an idea of what I think is needed for genuine reform.   The ecumenical movement has shown us that the search for unity does not entail agreement on everything, and this applies as much to living in unity with members of our own church as it does living with members of other churches. Ecumenism begins at home and radiates outwards to other churches. Members of the church with contradictory convictions will be free to hold and express them freely. However, if they are in positions of authority they will not be allowed to impose them on the entire church as "the teaching of the church".

I know that I am suggesting a church that sounds utopian and therefore bound to fail time and again. Consequently it will be in need of forgiveness. But that is precisely what Pope Francis has been saying about the church as it pursues its vocation as what he calls "a field hospital".

Let me finish with a quotation from the Roman 4th century statesman and scholar, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, reflecting on the loss of Pagan Rome to Christianity. Symmachus was a Roman pagan, but his noble words have universal meaning:

"We gaze up at the same stars; the sky covers us all; the same universe encompasses us. Does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the Truth? The heart of so great a mystery cannot be reached by following one road only."


Gabriel Daly OSA

[1] Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI, (New York, 1993), p. 394.

[2] Op. cit. p. 533.