24 September 2015, The Tablet

The laity has spoken and the Church must learn

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have published an extraordinarily candid piece of criticism, accusing the Church of being bigoted, misogynistic, controlling, judgemental, outdated and Pharisaical. These are all words taken from a summary of responses to a consultation conducted by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in preparation for the forthcoming international synod of bishops in Rome next month, on the subject of marriage and family life.

Yet there is no cynicism among these accusations. Rather, the laity who commented are revealed as warm, generous, open-hearted and still committed to their faith. What they were criticising was the “official” Church, however defined – the disapproving judgemental hierarchical Church as portrayed in the media and as described by its enemies and those it has hurt. And as many of them point out, this is not based on the Church as it presently is under Pope Francis, but on how it is perceived to have acted over generations.

The consultation produced a rich seam of spiritual insight and reflection. It pleads for things to change, especially regarding those who are estranged from the Church over issues of sexual ethics. A constant refrain was that the next generation of Catholics will be permanently alienated unless there is change that makes the Church a warmer home for women, for gay people, and for the divorced and remarried.

They want a Church that engages with married life and its messy difficulties realistically and humanely, not one offering idealistic textbook answers.

As Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said at a press conference where the summary was unveiled, the depth of faith the respondents disclosed was humbling and moving. It even moved him to say that “this family witness to the Church is very very important, more than what the Church can teach the family”.

By “the Church” he meant, indicating the clerical platform party at the press conference, “in the sense of us lot”. Indeed, one respondent is quoted as saying: “It would seem that right now the Church may well have more to learn from marriage and family life than to teach.” It is the sensus fidelium at work.

Hence a recurrent theme was the divide between the clerical hierarchy and the laity. Putting an official stamp of recognition on that, as Cardinal Nichols did, could well be a watershed moment in the life of the Church. It establishes that the real experts on family life are those actually living it, not celibate theologians, canon lawyers and bishops.

This could have enormous consequences in issues ranging from contraception and homosexuality to married priests and even female priests. While an overwhelming number wanted the lifting of the ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Holy Communion, they equally wanted the Church to promote marriage as a lifelong vocation.

If the bishops needed evidence that the laity put a high value on marriage, they have it. They also have evidence, however, that their stewardship of this priceless institution has been found seriously wanting. That is the challenge.

What do you think?


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User Comments (6)

Comment by: Xavier Grange
Posted: 30/09/2015 15:35:15

Carlo, The 'Experts' are those who are married, who are bringing up children and grandchildren.

We might also want to include those who thought they were in a loving marriage only to be cruelly abandoned by their spouse and left to bring up their children alone.

Presumably, you are not such an 'expert' so are hardly qualified to comment on what such an experience entails.

Comment by: Carlo
Posted: 29/09/2015 03:54:41

"Accusing the Church of being bigoted, misogynistic, controlling, judgemental, outdated and pharisaical."

Then leave it, for goodness' sake!

"It establishes that the real experts on family life are those actually living it, not celibate theologians, canon lawyers and bishops."

Given the current divorce rate, children out of wedlock, etc. the "experts" are not doing such a great job.

Comment by: PB
Posted: 27/09/2015 22:42:52

I was delighted to hear this press conference had been held. I had been dismayed that the results of the survey had previously not been revealed. But they have now! We must pray that this does indeed prove to be a watershed moment for the laity.

Comment by: Father Ron Smith
Posted: 26/09/2015 01:07:18

What a wonderful witness to the Faithful Laity of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. If only the Church of England could allow its Laity to constructively criticise its own history of misogyny and homophobia!

Your Pope Francis, in his recent address to the Catholic Bishops of the United States has urged a policy of pastoral gentleness, in place of a culture of harsh criticism of perceived sinners in the midst. How wonderfully refreshing is this reflection of the Love of Christ for ALL people - regardless of their waywardness!

Comment by: Michael Kennedy
Posted: 25/09/2015 18:15:32

I am delighted with this response. Not aggressive but beautifully put by good Catholics who love their church and want their Priests and Bishops. I am really looking to the kind / Christian approach to marriage which so many Catholics are hoping for and committed to

Comment by: [email protected]:35
Posted: 25/09/2015 17:35:51

I have tears in my eyes and hope in my heart as I read this. These are men open to conversion. They now realize that many of us wanting change who are living the sacrament of marriage have deep and abiding love of Jesus, our faith, and our church. And we are demanding/asking for/begging for change not to harm the church-but to open her arms and heart to those grappling with family life. I give thanks for these men and their humble and loving response.

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