Shaking the structures of the Catholic church

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Image credit: EpiskopatNews CCLicense

By Christopher Lamb 

The Roman Catholic Church is set to embark on an historic reform process that has the potential to reshape its power structures, give more prominent roles to women and make it more adept at responding to poverty and climate change. 

During a Religion Media Centre online discussion, five experts shared their views about a global synod to be launched by Pope Francis on 10 October and which will take place in dioceses across the world. 

Over the coming months, the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics have been asked to take part in discussions about the church’s future and bishops have been encouraged to canvass the views of everyone  — including non-Catholics — in what is an unprecedented listening exercise. 

The process announced by the Pope has been described as the most ambitious renewal effort by the church in 60 years and is an attempt to implement the historic changes bought about at the Second Vatican Council 1962-65. 

Reform is seen by many as an urgent priority in the church, given the sex abuse scandals, and the discussion took place on the day that a devastating abuse report from France was released. Synod processes have already got under way in Germany and Australia, with both of them coming in the wake of abuse scandals which have revealed deep institutional failings. 

Pope Francis, who has taken Vatican II as the guide of his pontificate, wants the synod process to inform the church’s future, although there is already intense discussion over what “synodality” really means. Some see it as a chance to debate the contentious topics such as women’s ordination and sexuality, whereas others want to focus on social issues.  

Francis sees it as building a church that is outward-looking, responsive to needs of the poorest, able to listen to different voices and to navigate disagreement. He believes it can bring about an end to “clericalism”, an attitude that concentrates power and status in priests and something the Pope has described as a “perversion,” and bring about a sense of shared responsibility for the church between bishops and people.  

The Bishop of Salford, John Arnold, told the Religion Media Centre that the synod is an “an open invitation to everybody” to discuss the future of the church and that he would not be setting “an agenda” for what can be discussed. 

“The church is always in need of reform,” the bishop, whose diocese covers Greater Manchester and Lancaster, said. “We’ve got to gauge where the gospel needs to be, in our thinking today, in the 21st century, with climate change, with a pandemic, with migration, with modern slavery, the growing inequality where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. This is where the Gospel must be interpreted today, and we’ve got to act on it.” He said there was also the challenge of restructuring parishes due to a falling number of priests. 

Phyllis Zagano, a theologian at Hofstra University in New York and expert on women’s roles in the early church, said that female deacons and the ordination of married men would be on the agenda.  

“Clearly, the role of women in the church, the role of married men in the church, including married priests [is going to come up],” she said. “It is not a discussion of doctrine. No one will be discussing whether Jesus was human and divine.”

She said that the synod process, which will culminate in a summit of bishops in Rome in October 2023, could take at least four or five years. But Professor Zagano warned that reform was urgent given that “every day women are just walking away.”  

She explained how she spent months living in the Casa Santa Marta, a Vatican guest-house which doubles up as the Pope’s residence, while sitting on a papal commission examining the question of female deacons. Professor Zagano explained that during her time in the Vatican she met a number of bishops who were open to female deacons, adding that the prelates that were opposed tended to be older, and would soon be out of office. 

Meanwhile, Professor Tina Beattie, a Catholic theologian, writer and broadcaster who has worked at Bristol and Roehampton universities, said the difficult topics needed to be discussed. The Thought for The Day contributor said that women’s ordination needed to be discussed because in the past it had been banned while genuine dialogue and listening needs to take place. 

“We’ve had, to be honest, really appalling arguments against a female priesthood put forward by the Vatican. Those who would say, ‘but there might be much better arguments against and in favour, but particularly in favour’ have been told that ‘you’re not allowed to speak because issue is closed,” she said. “So ask women about contraception, ask women about childbearing, ask African women about maternal mortality…ask gay people about gay love, ask women with a vocation to ordination. And listen, listen.”

She is remaining sceptical about what the process could deliver. 

“If Pope Francis allows us all to follow his own very wise guidance for how dialogue happens with honesty with candour, allowing room for mistakes, allowing the other to speak and really listening, it could be very exciting. But I think at this stage, we need to say the jury is out.”

Although the global process is staring on Sunday 10 October, synods are already under way across the world. In Germany, a synodal pathway has been tackling some of the most contentious tops in the church including the use of power, women’s ministry, sexual teaching and the blessing of same-sex unions. It has led to a furious reaction from conservatives in the United States who have accused the Germans of fuelling a schism, while Rome has warned that the Germans cannot unilaterally rule on these issues alone. Although the Pope has expressed some concern about the German synod he says it came from a “pastoral desire.” He’s also indicated that any major changes need to be through consensus, and not just one country. 

Brendan Thompson, the chief executive of Catholic Voices, a group which seeks to communicate the church’s voice in the media, said the synodal process needed to navigate the tension between those wanting to push forward with reforms and those wishing to maintain the status quo. For some priests, he said, the whole process was “quite nerve wracking” and there was “plenty of resistance, and plenty of scepticism.” Rather than “democratising” the church, he stressed that it would make it better at “discerning” the future. 

“If we come to it with particular agendas that we want to see, I think that will somewhat exclude us from the process: we have to find a grace to be able to enter into it with a spirit of newness, a spirit of possibility.”

Dr Alana Harris, who is the director of liberal arts and senior lecturer in modern British history, described the synod as an “exciting moment” and a “wrestling with what the signs of the times require.” She argued that it could open up a closer collaboration between the Roman Catholic church and other denominations including “some shared discernment agendas” with the Church of England.

Pope Francis will formally launch the synod with a Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, while the day before, groups of Catholics will gather in the Vatican to model the “listening and discernment” needed for the synodal process taking place across the world. 

For more on this story: 

View the media briefing again on our YouTube channel here


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