Where does the ACP go from here?
Quo vadis? The ACP after three years.
— Some points to stimulate discussion – and discernment
Tony Flannery has given us a good outline of what has been achieved over the last 3 years. Gratitude is an appropriate context for discernment. To the ACP for providing a space in the Irish Church for open debate; a good media profile; a lively web-site encouraging open debate; prophetic work on behalf of priests; giving many lay people, especially those on the margins, new hope; a wise, astute, generous and courageous leadership, in particular their insistence, against media hype, that we are mainstream and not ‘dissident’.
And now of course gratitude because we have a new Bishop of Rome who is ‘stealing our best lines’, with talk of dialogue, consultation, collegiality, listening to the sense of the faithful, unequivocal affirmation of Vatican II and who wants the Church to reach out to the world and in particular to the poor.
Gratitude, above all to God, rejoicing in the newly felt presence of the Holy Spirit.
Where to now though, in the context of these past 3 years and the new Pope? After a preamble, I propose three main headings.
Preamble: Think strategically: how best to use this kairos? Political scientist Sidney Tarrow: the notion of political opportunity in social change, need to perceive and grasp, the importance of seeking structures of access rather than immediate advantage – cf Solidarity in Poland (recognition of Trade Union rights, rather than anything more specific). I refer you to our own recent history in the Church: Vatican 2, change of mood, change of theology, but without adequate structures/institutions/law to embody! We need to learn from this.
And insert any ‘ad intra’ talk of reform in the context of the ‘ad extra’ outreach to the world, the poor, the environment that is obviously dear to the heart of the Pope, and has deep resonances among the people (of faith and not!). Not narcissistic, not self-referential.
a) Structures and institutions of shared decision making and doctrinal formation
Continue to promote the ‘full implementation of the vision and teaching of the Second Vatican Council’ (Constitution), in particular the notion of collegiality at every level, parish, diocese, Conference, Synod of Bishop, Council of Cardinals (why not women cardinals?), Ecumenical Council. Melloni says the creation of the G8 of the Council of Cardinals is ‘the most important step in the history of the church for the past ten centuries’. These are the structures of access that Tarrow speaks of.
And it’s not enough that the Pope wants this: we need to continue to prepare the ground at local level, to support what he is doing and to challenge when it falls short. We need to find ways to encourage an atmosphere of more open debate in our church, and more inclusive access to decision making and formation of teaching.
To this end in Ireland, where there is a danger that the bishops will sit on their hands – note the good work already done (see Killaloe/Down and Connor/Kerry/Waterford, Limerick and so on). Lobby for regular Diocesan and then National Congresses/Synods, to make more visible, to give momentum? Monitor, to ensure that ground rules allow for open and honest discussion, and controversial issues are not ‘managed’ out of sight! All this to include lay people, and especially women. Why not a G8 now, in Irish Church, to include laity/women? To build on the momentum of the Regency Hotel meeting….
And, can we help parishes and priests to engage more with shared leadership at parish level? To inculcate facilitation skill? To make Parish Councils more effective?
Watch out: the Pope, with his love of discernment, is coming from a Jesuit/religious background which reserves decisions for Superiors – the distinction between consultative and deliberative assemblies and bodies needs to be thought through. In this context I note the significance of Canon 129 with its a-historical limitation of the decision making powers of laity.
b) Concrete issues
In tandem, it may be helpful to focus on a limited range of more concrete, specific issues that gave reasonable hope of early resolution–e.g. communion for divorced and remarried couples; clerical celibacy (in light of Eucharistic famine, present and impending, spoken about by Brendan Hoban). And, of course, continue to work for the interests of priests. And to support Tony Flannery and others in challenging their shabby treatment by CDF procedures which are manifestly not fit for purpose.
I would leave other more contentious issues on the agenda, but not be inclined to pursue them as vigorously unless, per caso, the opportunity arises – am thinking of contentious sexual teaching, the ordination of women, and so on. I think Conor Gearty is right: change of mood/attitudes/, then structures, then doctrine. But: huge caveat – remember, as above, that we had good mood/theology at Vatican 2 and the structures did not happen – learn!
Do all this in close cooperation with other groups like the ACI (think of appointment someone on our own leadership team as link person; issue of merger down the road?), ACTA, European and international groups. Continue to nourish more conventional institutional links – e.g. with the bishops, however difficult this can be.
Our spirituality – the tone of our approach.
I take it as a given that there is and will be huge resistance, not least within the Church, the Curia, the Bishops to what Francis is trying to do. This is what institutions do when faced with uncertainty, with radical change.
In this context a group like ours needs to take stock. Opposition, contention, generate energy, mobilization – what happens then when, for example, the likes of Obama takes power (drained energy away from anti-war movement in USA). And yet, as Francis says, complaining for its own sake ‘never helps us find God’. His own approach has resonated deeply with people on the ground.
We need to find a new voice, a new tone in this new context: of constructive but not uncritical support, conscious of our responsibilities towards unity and stability as well as change; able to be patient as well as insistent; open to the process of dialogue, consultation and prayerful discernment which Francis is proposing and without which we are building on shaky foundations. We need a hermeneutic of trust to complement our hermeneutic of suspicion.
Conclusion: The last 20 years have been awful. But now, still in exile, we can sense hope, can breathe again, a new spring in the step. Hope and history rhyming, the sense of ‘the marvellous’ (Heaney), the Holy Ghost brooding over the bent world (Hopkins), a space has opened.
I am suggesting gratitude, trust, and readiness to continue the hard slog, to focus on what is strategically important, to believe that central to our discipleship of Jesus Christ and the coming of his Kingdom for our world is a renewed and reformed church. It seems to me that we as a group are privileged to be part of this.
Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J.
Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.
29 October, 2013