Storm clouds are gathering around the Catholic Church in Ireland following the release of a summary report on a process that solicited views from members and others on leadership the Church should take to remain relevant in today’s world.
Many of those who participated feel disappointed with the final report that has been submitted to the Vatican which frankly amplifies the views of those who seek a radical change within Catholicism in form, function and purpose. The truth is that if liberal commentators had had the opportunity to write a treatise on the changes needed in the Irish Catholic Church, they could not have done a better job as the voices for meaningful but progressive change feel marginalized.
Presented by the hierarchy as a listening exercise leading to discernment, it is an extensive consultation process that began in March 2021. It involved focus groups, public meetings, online surveys, questionnaires, steering groups, etc.
All, in fact, with heard voices made up of people from all walks of life, north and south, urban and rural, those who went to church and those who did not. Working people, unemployed people, home helpers, families, people living alone, young people and the elderly were all consulted.
Particular care, we were told, was taken “to engage those at risk of exclusion”, including women, members of the LGBTQI+ community, travellers, migrants and refugees. Above all, those who were hurt by the church were also committed, as were non-Catholics.
All 26 dioceses reported on what they discussed and these are available online, while another 14 submissions were received from other groups such as religious congregations, lay associations, church agencies and certain individuals. . A national steering group then summarized them for the final report.
This is really where the problem begins, as those who submitted online seem to have had a fast track to having their views included. Not only that, but we don’t know who they were or what exactly they said. What should have been a transparent and open process has become anything but.
What is clear, however, is that some voices were heard more than others, and in this regard the authors fell into a trap that they themselves identified at the start of the journey. In an information document for facilitators, the advice was to avoid the temptation to see only “problems”.
“The challenges, difficulties and trials facing our world and our church are many. However, focusing on the problems will only make us overwhelmed, discouraged and cynical. We can miss the light if we only focus on the dark,” the document states.
“Instead of just focusing on what’s wrong, let’s appreciate where the Holy Spirit generates life and see how we can let God work more fully.”
Instead, those who synthesized the interactions were encouraged to also capture “appreciative perspectives,” and in many cases this did not happen.
Diocesan reports are full of examples of positive interactions and reasons for hope in the church, but most failed to make it to the final cut. Dublin illustrated the positive influence of new parishioners from different cultures bringing with them a lively and vibrant faith and high levels of participation.
In other cases, problems were identified and solutions were suggested. So, for example, Meath suggested creative yet practical ways to be more inclusive. But again, the final report preferred to highlight the problems.
Nor is there any mention of the opportunities and challenges faced by Catholic schools and their strong system of moral values which is valued not only by Catholic parents but also by members of other religions or none, who want their children to be educated in a Catholic school.
To be fair, the final report 20 identifies many key issues that need to be addressed and which were mentioned repeatedly during the consultation. The legacy of the abuse scandals was front and center with continued anger expressed by survivors, lay worshipers who walked away from the church because of it, and many good priests and religious figures who also feel betrayed. .
With regard to LGBTI+, there is practical unanimity for the church to be more welcoming and less condemnatory in its language. The same with the position on equality for women.
There was also a common concern about the need to engage with more young people, although ironically the hierarchy agreed to consider a letter from 500 young people who say their voices have not been heard.
The report touches rough waters when it raises questions without giving countervailing arguments. For example, it was particularly harsh on young priests, essentially throwing them under the proverbial bus, stating that many were rigid in their thinking and perhaps lacked the skills required for responsible leadership. But a different reading of the reports from the dioceses could easily have offered a more favorable and encouraging analysis.
Another more glaring example concerns health. A number of diocesan submissions had specifically mentioned the positive Catholic influence on health care, but this was ignored.
Instead, there is a call, in a chapter on sexuality and in a paragraph that refers to changes in church teaching, for the church to become “more compassionate toward women’s health, the well-being and education of families given many circumstances, including financial ones”.
This is a troubling phrase because, without the context of submission calling for these changes, it clearly implies that Catholic-oriented hospitals are in some ways indifferent and neglectful of a patient’s well-being.
Frankly, for many, this is not the justified concerns we all have for women’s health, but more of an abortion dog whistle. What voice was heard here?
Is the Irish Catholic Church really calling for a discussion on abortion and a change in its teaching? If so, it is introduced through the backdoor.
The problem for the future is that expectations of big changes have been raised. For example, former President Mary McAleese said the final document is “explosive, life-altering, dogma-altering, church-altering.”
Some commentators have been dishonest in their interpretation of the report. For example, the views of over 10,000 Catholics in the Dublin dioceses have been condensed into a single submission and given the same status as those of single individuals, but are proclaimed as the views of the majority of Irish Catholics.
The authors of the report state that the significance of the Irish contribution to the Universal Synod is arguably to be found in the radical demographic, economic and social transformation of Ireland which has been framed and accompanied by dramatic changes in the Church.
The wind is blowing so letting it take us is not really a solid basis for proclaiming “universal” truths.
This synthesis will be discussed at a Synod in Rome in October, and from there the plan is to have an Irish National Synodal Assembly within the next three years.
Already, some national media commentators are speculating about a dissenting church if high expectations for change are not met. Although this is highly unlikely, let me say for absolute clarity that if this happened, I would stay in Rome.