Irish bishops will be meeting the Holy Father Pope Francis in the Vatican tomorrow morning, Friday 20 January, as part of their ten-day Ad Limina visit to Rome this week. The visit, which they make every five years, is for the Bishops to report on the state of their dioceses.
This week also, La Civiltà Cattolica, the official newspaper of the Vatican, has published an article by Irish Jesuit theologian Gerry O’Hanlon on the Catholic Church in Ireland today, under their title, ‘Il Cattolicesimo in Irlanda è entrato in crisi?’ (‘Irish Catholicism: is it in crisis?’). In it, the former Irish Jesuit Provincial firstly provides a background to the dramatic decline in the reputation and fortunes of the Church, with even most Catholics losing faith in its institutional forms and placing new emphasis on the role of personal conscience. He notes in particular that the Church traditionally had been “deeply institutional in form, dependent on a type of clericalism which was vulnerable to a more critical culture”. But a general cultural shift and many specific experiences and events, the clerical abuse scandals being not the least of these, led to most Irish Catholics becoming more and more disillusioned with the Church. It was fast becoming, in the phrase of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, an “irrelevant minority culture”.
With what options did this leave the Church? Dr O’Hanlon comments:
Some have argued that a way forward is to return to the more traditional form of Catholicism, even at the risk of becoming culturally irrelevant. This nostalgic turn, they would say, respects the mission of the Church to be counter-cultural and respects the fragile identity of younger Catholics in a post-modern world who require greater certainty. However, true tradition surely knows how to read the signs of the times, in fidelity with what went before, and to discern what in the culture is to be respected and used to reform the Church and what is to be rejected?
What one sees most clearly when one reads the signs of the times is that power, governance, and authority are not viewed as they were in the past. There is much less unquestioning deference; there is an expectation of participation and dialogue in the decision-making process; and there is an insistence that knowledge sources will be tapped, that reasons and reassurances will be given, and that consequences will be assessed and prepared for in the course of setting rules or effecting laws. Dr O’Hanlon quotes theologian Michael Lacy: “These are now among the customary duties of rule in civil society, and the need for something more closely comparable to them within the church is becoming increasingly evident”.
With this in mind, Dr O’Hanlon calls for Church renewal and reform in Ireland through an adjustment to “this new emphasis on the ancient truth of synodality and conciliarity”. In particular, he argues, we need to learn how to do communal discernment. Hence the need for ‘listening exercises’ such as have already been happening in some dioceses, and this approach will have to be taken systematically and with conviction. “Bishops as well as faithful,” Dr O’Hanlon asserts, “need to come to the point where they see consultation as real and not just token, capable of tackling neuralgic issues, reaching out to the young and disaffected and not just the already committed who tend to come from a predominantly middle-aged and older demographic.”
Dr O’Hanlon concludes with the hope that the Irish bishops would provide leadership in following Pope Francis’s indication of “a different model of Church”, one built on “deeper conversion to Jesus Christ, missionary in its approach to the great issues facing humanity and our world, respectful of both personal conscience and Magisterium, and entailing a synodal form of church at all levels”.