22Feb Why won’t the Pope treat his faithful like adults?

A Pope who invites mothers to breast feed at a baptismal ceremony, encourages young people to experiment and explore, exhorts bishops to have about them the smell of the shepherd, and who denounces in unequivocal terms the pathology of clericalism and the demonic allure of careerism in the priesthood – this is not a man to shy away from risk.

And so when Pope Francis summoned bishops from around the world to gather in Rome for a synod on the family this fall, and when he instructed his staff to prepare a questionnaire inviting serious input from the Roman Catholic world, bishops moved quickly to adjust the generic template to their local constituencies. Information was gathered, sifted and systematized in preparation for the gathering. This was bound to be fraught with risk – actually soliciting data from the Catholic laity, inviting their honest responses to contemporary moral and pastoral issues and finding ways to incorporate this information in a submission to synod authorities was not going to be easy.

After all, if you seriously intend to listen to the laity about a wide range of often controverted and fractious issues, then you must be prepared to act on the data received. In other words, serious consultation (as opposed to cursory and polite solicitation) is serious stuff, both theologically and spiritually.

But there are signs that the papal nerve may be wavering a mite. Vatican authorities have actively discouraged, if not directly forbidden, the public release of the materials gathered. The results of the consultation are to remain sub secreto.

The vast majority of national hierarchies appear to have complied with this classically Roman obsession with “pastoral solicitude” over transparency and openness. And it’s not as if the results would be a surprise – various non-episcopal bodies have done their own polling and analysis and published the results.

There are a couple of outstanding exceptions, however, to the near universal deference to Rome’s will. The Germans and the Swiss released the results of their consultations, held press conferences, and provided appropriate and frank commentaries. They faced openly the fact that a substantial percentage of Catholics disagree with church teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation, homosexuality and artificial birth control.

These bishops appear to have taken seriously what British columnist, mother and Catholic activist Joanna Moorhead argues is a providential time when “an acknowledgment that the voice of God, the will of God, could be as well discerned if laypeople were involved in the process, as when only male prelates make the call. It is a radical thought in Rome, but maybe, just maybe, it is an idea whose time has come.”

The enormous chasm that exists between official church teaching and Catholic practice and conviction among the laity is a known if institutionally embarrassing reality. How to account for it?

The usual trilogy of evil “-isms” – relativism, secularism and materialism – is trotted out with regularity, and church disapprobation is the norm. But pastorally sensitive clergy and enlightened bishops have known for a long time that when a teaching is not “received” by the faithful then the causes are more complex and the need for discernment more urgent.

The German and Swiss bishops are unafraid of facing the pastoral reality squarely. They may have earned Rome’s displeasure over disseminating the results of their consultation, but they have earned the gratitude of the majority of Catholic laity, who appreciate being treated as adults.

In the 19th century, Cardinal John Henry Newman, author of the influential On Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine, responded to Bishop Bernard Ullathorne of Birmingham’s query “Who are the laity?” with the quick retort that “the church would look foolish without them.”

Indeed. It’s time for Francis to recover his nerve.

 Michael W. Higgins is vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn, USA.

 

19 Responses

  1. Con Devree

    “…a substantial percentage of Catholics disagree with church teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation, homosexuality and artificial birth control.”

    Thankfully, we weren’t asked about the Third Commandment as well!

    What’s new about “The enormous chasm that exists between official church teaching and Catholic practice and conviction among the laity…?” Or about our lack of awareness of Divine Love?

    “ …pastorally sensitive clergy and enlightened bishops have known for a long time that when a teaching is not “received” by the faithful then the causes are more complex and the need for discernment more urgent.” Absolutely true. That’s the purpose of the Synod. But it relates to all of the commandments, and to discernment, not just by bishops, but by all of us, (now presumed) erudite, enlightened laity. Especially in relation to relativism, secularism and materialism, (First Commandment, Ninth Commandment, option for the poor et al), and any Beatitude one wishes to mention.

    The notion of “the faithful” is interesting. Does it mean the majority as majority? Presumably not “mother[s] and catholic activists?” And how does one classify those who accept the teachings and try however unsuccessfully to be faithful to them? Pope Francis seems to place himself in that category.

    Out of context as it is, the quote from Blessed John Henry Newman is equivalent to asking where the Department of Education would be without students. It’s surely not the case, but does this article suggest that “It’s time for [Michael Higgins] to recover his [academic urbanity].”

  2. Brian Coyne

    QUESTION: Why won’t the Pope treat his faithful like adults?

    ANSWER: “The Christian believer is a simple person: bishops should protect the faith of these little people against the power of intellectuals.” …J Ratzinger, 1979, in a homily justifying the penalties imposed on one H Küng

    It’s the culture at the top of the institution, silly. Get it through your silly heads that they are the ones who have been given a personal mandate by none other than Almighty God himself that they alone are the ones to interpret the mind of God. Now will you all please go back to sleep like good children and not confuse yourselves with these silly questions!

    Brian Coyne
    editor
    http://www.catholica.com.au

  3. Joe O'Leary

    Newman’s idea of “consulting the faithful” was not a matter of taking a poll; he actually used “consult” in an old-fashioned was as in “consult the movement of the leaves on the river surface to see which way it is flowing”. The category of “reception” runs into huge problems when on attempts to apply it in practice. The Synod Fathers would be well advised, I think, to take the situation as calling for deeper and wider discussion and consultation in order to give their statements on marriage more meaning — a good step would be to get married folk and lay experts into the Synod.

  4. Donal Dorr

    There may be disagreement about whether or not it was right for the German and Swiss bishops to publish the results of the survey in their countries. But they have done so and the Vatican now has to deal with the effects. The fact that the bishops in only these two countries have published the results means that we don’t have the results from the many countries where it is quite likely that the results are rather different, possibly far less radical. So people are likely to assume that what we have seen from Germany and Switzerland is typical of Catholics everywhere. In this situation it might be wise for the Vatican to authorize all the other countries to publish their results, so as to get a more balanced and accurate view of Catholic practice and opinion on a global scale. Otherwise we in the West may have an inaccurate view of Catholic practice and viewpoint, and unrealistic expectations of what we can expect from the forthcoming two Synods.

  5. Joe O'Leary

    Here’s a report on the Spanish responses, but not one forwarded by the bishops: http://iglesiadescalza.blogspot.jp/2014/02/more-responses-to-synod-on-family.html

  6. iggy o'donovan

    No fear the results of the poll in Ireland will be published. But I would hazard a guess at their contents

  7. John

    The first Reformation came about when knowledge, old and new was disseminated through printing. Information and education are available to nearly all people now. Democracy and economic development has given people a sense of their own worth and power. Perhaps we are seeing now a second reformation or maybe discovery of the point and value of the first.

  8. Adrian Grenham

    I wonder if the responses to the survey are more a reflection on the lack (or poor quality) of Catholic doctrinal teaching carried out by our priests – some of whom spend more time attacking rather than understanding and explaining Church doctrine. I wonder what the ultimate Boss will think when they present their talent back.

    Just a thought !!

  9. Con Devree

    As constituted, is it true to say that the Vatican exercise was in fact a “poll.”

    Only a fraction of Catholics participated. There is no proof that only Catholics filled the questionnaire. Contributors to this website complained as to its style and content.

    Insofar as polls are concerned, a poll, which was commissioned by the U.S. Spanish-language network Univision found different results in Europe and Africa.
    See http://world.time.com/2014/02/09/poll-catholic-beliefs-at-odds-with-vatican-doctrine/

    In relation to Ireland, Fr O’Donovan’s assumption (My presumption!) cannot be discounted. But where does this leave us?

    I am reminded of the ACP commissioned poll 2-3 years ago which purported to show around 60% levels of disagreement among Irish Catholics with aspects of Catholic sexual ethics and social teaching. An MRBI associated poll a week later claimed similar levels of non-belief in the Real Presence. To what extent were the doctrinal implications of both polls the same?

    So changing teaching on foot of polls, according to what the majority is doing, is a hazardous business. Confining oneself to this mode of thinking about the recent Vatican exercise is surely not the best way of exercising solicitude for the full communion of all Catholics with the Church.

  10. Martin Gordon

    Haven’t been on here for a long time. Thought it would be of interest to some you, especially in Dublin, that atheist Michael Nugent has accepted my invite to discuss with me: GOD: Myth or Reality? in Dublin on March 25th. The venue is likely to be the Davenport hotel at 8p.m. I intend to begin contacting parish priests in Dublin next week, in the hope that most of them will advertise the event in the their parish bulletins. I did this in Cork.

  11. ts

    Didn’t the Japanese publish something as well or at least didn’t they make a comment questioning the relevancy of the questions asked in the survey.

  12. Joe O'Leary

    While I did not learn much from the Japanese bishops’ document, they certainly showed parrhesia in publishing it. http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/japanese-bishops-vatican-mindset-doesnt-fit-asian-church

  13. Billy fulton

    The biggest problem facing the Church is the number of members who are not adequately evangelised. The result is that one is getting a lot of opinion based on values which are more secular than anything else. The teaching Church makes moral demands of those who have no real relationship with Jesus. The discernment of God’s will by those who lack faith is likely to be wrong as often as right. Our need is to evangelise and to be evangelised and then and only then can moral decisions be based on the truth of the Gospel.

  14. mjt

    Billy fulton @13 Pope Francis has identified self-referentialism as the greatest threat to the life of church. So here we go again, back in the opposite direction, circling the wagons, if that`s possible, keeping the baddies out, “the imperfectly evangelised”, or rather, those who think differently to you?

  15. Con Devree

    Those acquainted with the ongoing work of the Public Religions Research Institute in the United States will find little new in the outcomes of the Vatican exercise. The Japanese report is helpful in that it provides an incisive explanatory sentence: “Contemporary Catholics are either indifferent to or unaware of the teaching of the Church.”

    If Catholics don’t hear the teaching, how can they listen to it or avoid being indifferent to it. The seed is not being sown and there is little to reap. Neither the sower nor the reaper “may rejoice together.” (Jn 4, 36)

    The Father seeks “true worshippers” who must worship “in Spirit and in Truth” (Jn, 4, 23-24). We all create our own obstacles in this regard, be they greater or smaller.

    In the economy of grace, under the reign of grace it is possible by God’s grace to seek to live according to the original blueprint. In terms of Truth we need frank acknowledgement of what we know to be true about ourselves at the deepest level of our mind. In this we are assisted by Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

    This compassionate approach, in the light of Truth we have not of ourselves created, is the pastoral approach advocated by Pope Francis, and also, I would say, by the Japanese bishops.

  16. Sean O'Conaill

    #13 “The biggest problem facing the Church is the number of members who are not adequately evangelised.”
    .
    ‘Adequate evangelisation’? Is there a ‘process’ for this? If so, what is it (briefly!)?
    .
    And what exactly are the ‘before’ and ‘after’ differences for the recipient?
    .
    Might the CDF even be perfecting an ‘evangelisation machine’ – something that looks a bit like an MRI scanner – in the bowels of the Vatican?
    .
    (Sometimes the Good News can look remarkably like the Bad News!)

  17. Ronan Coghlan

    I was thinking of writing on this. Then I remembered that the last time I did so, I received an ill-mannered and unacceptable comment from another contributor. I had thought this a website where one could speak honestly about his beliefs rather than one where you received an insulting diatribe as an answer.

    I will however go so far as to say that Catholic laity are often insufficiently educated in Catholic schools and this may be one of the reasons John Paul II thought them so simple. Indeed, I think a good many of the Catholic clergy are insufficiently educated too – a seminary education does not seem to instruct them sufficiently. And I’m not only talking about this country.

    Every Catholic priest should be educated to degree level in theology, biblical exegesis and philosophy. They should also have a good knowledge of psychology. Moreover, they should not smoke in public while wearing canonical dress.

    Every nun should be educated at least to degree level in a relevant subject.

    Academic theology and philosophy courses should also made available to us simple faithful.

    I believe teachers trained at Catholic colleges are trained to teach religion, but, once again, they should not be able to teach in Catholic secondary schools unless educated to degree level.

    In my experience, the Church is academically poor and insufficiently equipped to deal with opinions opposed to theistic religion.

  18. Billy fulton

    I regard ‘adequately evangelised’ to mean that one has a sufficiency of faith meaning personal commitment to the following of Jesus Christ. Doctrinal and moral values should always be coloured by this. Of course this means also some understanding of one’s membership of the faith community, of the Church. To give an example many parents bring children for Baptism, and yet do not seem to have any faith practice, at least to the extent of it having any meaningful content in their lives. How can they know God’s will if they don’t know God? There should be some minimum grounding in God’s Word. Polls are meaningless without this apart from illustrating the amount of ignorance there is. Recently I was asked about drinking the ‘wine’ at Mass. I regard the ‘wine’ at Mass, as the Blood of Christ. For me it is part of the faith content of my religion. Polling only reveals the amount of ignorance. I don’t think I, or anybody else has the right to challenge this core belief.

  19. john

    Religions in general are meant to teach the highest ideals.We human on the other hand tend to fall short of these standards of goodness & miss the mark in our daily life(sin). Should we blame God or ask God to change his expectations for humans or should we humbly repent & begin again each day to live up to these beautiful ideals of creating a happy marriage & family etc?