Bishop Bill Morris was sacked by Pope Benedict because he thought like Pope Francis. At the consecration of Bill’s successor the homilist implied that Bill was not a team player. In fact Bill has always been a model team player – just not on the homilist’s side. Meanwhile, many priests and a few bishops around Australia were decidedly on Bill’s team. They thought that communal penance services were the only chance the Sacrament of Penance had of survival. They continued to use them despite John Paul II’s condemnation. They knew that the time had come to contemplate ordaining married men - and women too. Many knew that re-married divorcees were going to Communion and even encouraged them if formally asked. Many were pleased when parishioners they knew to be gay were ready to take an active part in parish life. They were embarrassed by Cardinal Pell’s public refusal of Communion to gay Catholics. Many knew that some of their number were celebrating the marriages of divorcees.
Many rolled their eyes when they read rules for receiving Communion in parish newssheets. Most accepted contraception as normal and respected the consciences of those who used it.
Many thought that knee-jerk reaction to new ethical situations was bad policy. IVF resulted from new research and called for new ethics.
Many priests were disappointed with action in the Church abroad. They agreed with theologians who had been sidelined. They thought that Charles Curran was right. They thought that Roger Haight and Elizabeth Johnson made sense of Christology. They thought that Tissa Ballasuriya was a faithful Christian in an Asian world. They thought that the pursuit of Jacques Dupuis was a disgrace. They thought that Liberation Theology looked right in South America, and that Basic Christian Communities may well be the answer in a clergy-deprived world. They thought that you found better leadership in USA from the women religious than from the bishops. Yet the women religious were the ones being hounded.
Something was wrong. All these people were facing a Church in decline precisely because it would not seek new answers to new questions. Our world out there was changing. It was secular and pluralistic. The Church was just one institution among many. Its old privilege was gone. In this new climate it had to make its mark on society from a standing start. It needed leadership which could see this challenge and recontextualize its message. All this defensiveness, all this pre-occupation with sexual rules was creating a community which was exclusive rather than inclusive. Remember that adaptation to new circumstances was there even before the Gospels were written as the Pauline and Petrine privileges attest.
Many open-eyed pastors believed that simply thinking like Jesus and believing in Jesus – basic Christianity – had something to say to this pluralistic world. But a Church preoccupied with its old formulas, its rules forged in a past cultural context, its institutional structure and total clerical control looked insular and passé.
Then along came Pope Francis. Clericalism is a cancer, he said. Reality is more important than the idea, he said. Get real. The Church has a message to proclaim; a way of love, mercy and forgiveness to live. Embrace the world. Try to understand it; heal its wounds, give comfort in its sorrows. Don’t go lecturing it with nobody listening. You have lost the high moral ground. Clerical privilege is over. The Christian confessional state is finished. Tribal Catholic affiliation is waning. Any new evangelization must start from scratch. Pope Francis is right. An inward looking Church will fail in its mission. How can we look outward again?
First step is to think over Pope Francis’ dictum that the reality is more important than the idea. For too long we have been forced to take the roadblocks listed above seriously – even when we knew they were obstructing the gospel. Talk about inward looking! Doctrinal arguments mean nothing to your average Catholic. They see the selectivity of moral outrage as part of the culture wars. They believe that personal sexual morality is better adjudicated by a sincere conscience in touch with contemporary cultural values. It is time for us to get back to the reality.
Secondly, most of us intuitively know that the core message of Jesus is very relevant to today’s Western World. So, alert to our world today, let us re-evaluate the priorities of our own belief. Odds are that you will think we have been wasting psychological energy on the wrong issues.
Thirdly, if you have any influence in the seminary, rid it of its clericalism as Pope Francis wishes. Clericalism is more alienating today than ever. Spending years in the clerical hothouse of the seminary is not a good preparation for a hands-on pastor today. A seminary producing clerical graduates is on the wrong track.
Fourthly, we need to give real authority to those lay leaders we spot in our parishes. Devolve power so that it is more and more in lay hands. This need is heightened due to the short sighted policy of importing priests of an alien culture. Authorising the laity to lead, preach, teach and celebrate is the only answer. It will happen eventually– so better to be prepared.