From the editor’s desk
Listen to the People14 April 2012
Catholicism’s reputation as a monolithic belief system is plainly no longer deserved. The latest evidence comes from what was until not long ago one of the most conservative parts of Western Catholicism, the Catholic Church in Ireland. A new survey of grass-roots opinion indicates that the typical Irish Catholic no longer accepts church teaching on a range of issues, mainly to do with sex and gender. Yet in terms of religious observance, they remain some of the most committed Catholics in Europe. But committed to what? The survey suggests that church teaching in these areas is no longer regarded as normative, and dissent from it as exceptional. The true position is almost the reverse: it is no longer seen as dissent, but as normal.
It would be strange if that snapshot of the sensus fidelium were peculiar to Ireland. All the evidence, including surveys conducted in Britain, suggests it is not. How to respond to this situation is a considerable challenge for the Church’s leadership. Its two approaches so far have been to launch an urgent programme for the re-evangelisation of Europe, and to deal with dissent among bishops and clergy by enforcing doctrinal discipline. The latter, seen for instance in the silencing of two Irish Catholic priests by their religious order, is almost guaranteed to be counter-productive. Such priests are not misleading the faithful but are responding to the state of lay opinion, which is already alienated from Church authority because of the child abuse scandals.
Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna is dealing with one of the most vocal expressions of “normative dissent” – the Austrian Priests’ Initiative – largely by appealing to its better nature. He has asked it for instance, not unreasonably, to delete the word “disobedience” from its manifesto. He has not so far used a big stick, though no doubt he is under pressure from the Vatican to do so. Pope Benedict’s stern words at his Chrism Mass before Easter did not indicate a great desire for dialogue. He called on priests to conform to Christ, who embodied “obedience and humility unto the Cross”, and to renounce “much-vaunted self-fulfilment”.
Clearly Cardinal Schönborn, who greeted this as helpful, is walking a tightrope. As in Ireland, the Austrian Priests’ Initiative is saying what many of their ordinary parishioners privately think. Tacit disobedience in practice, for instance over birth control and increasingly over the admission of divorced people to Holy Communion, is already commonplace. Disobedience, in theory, includes a rejection of the arguments against ordaining married men and, increasingly, against the ordination of women. Lay Catholic attitudes to homosexuality have changed remarkably within a generation. There is no method of re-evangelisation that will turn this tide.
So who is adrift, the leaders or the led? Indeed, which is which? If dissenting clergy are little more than proxies for dissenting laity, then the real chasm opening up is between the senior hierarchy, the Vatican especially, and the lay faithful at large. But they are out of reach, because the Church has neglected to put institutions in place through which an honest dialogue can take place. A useful move would be to remedy that deficiency. First, however, the Vatican would have to give at least the appearance of listening. And that moment is still some way off.
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In this week’s issue
Take the knocks – they do the Church good
Gather them in
On our forebears’ shoulders
Muslims are living in fear after the Woolwich murder
Gay marriage and disestablishment: better the muddle you know?
Medics don't want assisted dying legalised
Dr Gillian Paterson, guest contributor
Why do Catholic schools need to turn to Stonewall?
Banishing O'Brien answers some questions, raises others
Does Cardinal O’Brien deserve banishment or pardon? He at least owes us an explanation
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