Synod on the Family - What Next?
October’s Synod on the Family in Rome has been seen by many as of little consequence. There is however another view, that the Synod has marked a new direction in the Church and that it has given Pope Francis confidence in asserting the lessons of Vatican II and the need for bishops to be more inclusive of the laity, to listen to the people of God, and to respect the faithful’s sense of the faith, the sensus fidelium, as stressed by Vatican II – see David Timbs’ discussion of the Synod linked here: A Maelstrom of Discernment.
In Australia, we are being reminded by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that the Church has a long way to go in addressing its failures. Try to watch some of the current hearings in Melbourne which are accessible HERE . Archbishop Hart has recognised in recent evidence that bishops and others failed to speak up to stop the abuse of children by criminal paedophiles. The Royal Commission is doing the Church an invaluable service by exposing grave dysfunctions in the governance of the institutional Church. The President, Justice Peter McClellan, asked Archbishop Hart whether the inclusion of women equally with men in key positions in the Church might have precluded the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse. How many modern organisations would try to manage without gender balance informing their decision-making?
The Royal Commission will no doubt comment on the hypocrisy of the Church claiming to have introduced safeguards to protect children from abuse while continuing, throughout the world, to prevent bishops reporting criminal paedophiles to the police through imposing the ‘pontifical secret’ on such cases – unless civil law specifically mandates reporting to the police (the exemption designed to keep bishops out of gaol!). The Holy See has again refused to remove this prohibition on reporting despite a request from the United Nations, thus protecting paedophiles and leaving them at large in the community. It seems incredible that Pope Francis is now effectively implicated in this cover-up.
The evidence is now clear and accepted by bishops before the Commission. Protection of paedophiles and cover-ups occurred within dioceses across Australia and across the world, begging the question as to how the Church could sanction such evil behaviour so contrary to what it stands for? And will that dysfunctional governance continue to adversely affect the behaviour of the Church as a corporate citizen once the RC has wound up? It is imperative that the Royal Commission identifies the nature of that dysfunctional governance and that the Church reforms its governance culture and canon law accordingly.
There are many areas where the Church's governance is clearly inadequate and contributes to bad decision making, particularly through autocratic structures and attitudes. In the New Year, Catholics for Renewal will be advocating for the Church to seek the views of the laity in the appointment of new diocesan bishops. All bishops are required to offer their resignations at age 75 and there are several bishops in Australia at that stage of life. Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne turns 75 next May. The Apostolic Nuncio for Australia could, even within the present provisions of canon law, involve the laity in identifying the selection criteria for their new bishop. In the words of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests, the choice of candidates is "out of sync with the realities of life in Ireland today and with the openness of Pope Francis to change and reform in the church” – likewise in Australia and the rest of the world!
As David Timbs concludes in the linked article, Francis is probably doing the laity an enormous service by coaxing and cajoling the bishops to move forward. He is leading the hierarchy into unfamiliar territory where they are being coaxed to grow up, to think independently and to lead prophetically with confidence and courage. He is also providing the laity with the authority, validation and language to insist that their bishops listen to them, genuinely dialogue with them and collaborate in the common work of renewal and reform of the Church. The hierarchy is being summoned to a deeper conversion away from the insularity of clericalism to a genuine renewal of the culture of the primitive Christian Community wherein all were addressed as sisters and brothers and all were gatekeepers of the Faith.
At Florence recently Pope Francis asserted, “Closeness to the people and prayer are the key to living a popular, humble, generous and happy Christian humanism. If we lose this contact with the faithful People of God, we lose humanity and we go nowhere.”
Vatican insiders expect that Pope Francis will next, within the year, publish his second Apostolic Exhortation, formally communicating to the Church the conclusions he has reached from the Synod on the Family. That document will doubtless envisage a much greater role for the sensus fidelium, a recognition of the proper role of the laity in the Church.