Ways must be found to give women “very real leadership roles” and “a very real say” in the life of the Catholic Church, according to Bishop Paul Dempsey of Achonry.
Speaking to members of the lay reform group, We Are Church Ireland, after an online talk on the National Synodal Assembly for the Irish Church, Bishop Dempsey said: “I certainly can see that there can be all sorts of very real leadership roles given to women around decision-making and voting, that are nothing to do with ordination.”
Bishop Dempsey, who is a member of the steering committee working on the National Synodal Assembly in Ireland added: “I personally don't understand why the Church can't move forward more in this area.” He acknowledged that it was an area that needed to be looked at.
The 50-year-old prelate referred to an article in the September issue of America magazine by Lucetta Scaraffia, Women in the College of Cardinals: A modest proposal for a more equal (and prophetic) church, and noted that to be appointed as a cardinal does not require ordination. “It is an interesting question to be reflect upon,” he said.
Ordained in August 2020 in the Cathedral of The Annunciation and St Nathy in Ballaghaderreen, the Irish Church’s youngest bishop would not be drawn on the issue of women’s ordination.
“I know many here would advocate for the ordination of women and there are huge groups in the Church that say ‘absolutely not’ [to the ordination of women]. But leaving that aside, there has to be a way women can have a very real say in the life of the Church and not go near the ordination question. It has to be looked at.”
The Carlow-native, who was ordained a priest in 1997, and served as a priest in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin before being appointed Bishop of Achonry, expressed concern in his talk that the synod in Ireland would focus only on “red button issues”.
He said: “I’m not saying that the red button issues should not be discussed. Of course, they need to be discussed. But I think there has to be more to it than just the red button issues. My fear would be that we get caught up in our own agendas, rather than the bigger picture of the mission that we are given by Jesus Christ to share the gospel in today’s world.”
He identified other concerns as the polarised positions and divisions within the Church where some people want to see very major change in the life of the Church, and others do not want to see any change at all but want the Church to go back to what it was a century or more ago.
“My fear is that for some, if change doesn't happen as they would like to see it happen, that there will be disappointment and disillusionment. And for others, if change does happen, then they will be disappointed and disillusioned. It’s tricky and we are certainly going to need the Spirit to help us to deal and navigate the different strong views that people have.”
He also warned that the synod should not become issue oriented rather than mission orientated. Noting that the Second Vatican Council was about mission not modernisation, Bishop Dempsey said the call today, as it had been with Vatican II, was for the community of disciples to share the vision of Jesus Christ and the Gospel.
“My fear would be that maybe that might get lost a little bit if [the synod] becomes very controversial and just about issues.”
The Irish Church’s synodal journey should not be a “once-off” journey over the next couple of years culminating in the Assembly or Assemblies in five years’ time and then people say, “that’s it”.
“That would be a big mistake. Synodality has to be a way of being Church. I hope it will encourage us to be more open to the Spirit in the life of the Church for many, many years to come.”
Speaking about the processes of the synodal journey in the Irish Church, the Bishop of Achonry said the next two years would be a listening process. “I hope that we reach out to as many constituencies as possible – to everybody who wants to feed something back to the Irish Church.”
The steering committee overseeing this process is made up of 20 women and men, lay and ordained. A member of the group, Bishop Dempsey described it as a “very varied group” and stressed that people’s feedback would be directed to this group, rather than on to the bishops’ table. Though he underlined that the “vast majority of bishops are very open to trying to hear what people are saying and to be part of this wider synodal process”.