Reform Groups meet in Limerick, April 13-16, 2015
“Virginia Satir, one of the pioneers in family therapy, wrote in her book, Conjoint Family Therapy, that dysfunctional people have difficulty with difference. The Vatican certainly has a problem with difference.”
– Tony Flannery CSsR, A Question of Conscience.
Thirty eight Catholic women and men from ten countries, representing lay reform groups and three national priests’ associations, met in Limerick, Ireland over four days in mid April. They had been invited to attend by the Association of Catholic Priests, Ireland with the support of the Pfarrer-Initiative, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. It was clear from the meeting that the challenges for the Church that we see in Australia are recognised internationally.
The meeting originated from a gathering in Bregenz, Switzerland, in November 2013. This followed soon after the now famous Call to Disobedience by Austrian parish priests (here) and Fr Helmut Schueller’s Tipping Point speaking tour of Nth America (here). The Austrian, German and Swiss priests had taken a very public confrontational stance with their bishops because of the claimed lack of pastoral insight and courage in the local Church situation. Despite the ongoing tensions, genuine dialogue continues.
Now the Irish priests are reaching frustration point and are becoming much more insistent in their call for dialogue and resolution to what are, currently, intractable problems, with the Association of Catholic Priests, Ireland stating:
"But with priests disappearing, progressively Irish Catholics are losing patience with the refusal of church authorities to acknowledge problems that need to be faced if parishes are to survive or even have Mass in their churches. And Irish priests are becoming increasingly ill-at-ease with the failure of church leaders to respect their opinions, the burden of work expected of them in their declining years and the way bishops continue to take them for granted.
Sometime, someplace, in an Irish diocese or an Irish parish we will have a ‘San Franciscan moment’ and then we will have to examine why it happened.
What we may discover is that there is a limit to loyalty.”
– Fr Brendan Hoban, ACP Ireland, 28 April, 2015. (Linked here).
While there was no set pre-arranged agenda for the Limerick gathering, the participants were invited to establish closer networks, to come to consensus on shared principles and achievable aims, to support the pastoral vision of Pope Francis, to work on specific topics such as: the future of parishes; equality of women; Synod on the Family and, finally, how the representative groups might work together as closely as possible to get our message to the Vatican and to the people.
It soon became evident at Limerick that a top priority for all groups was the need to address the deep-seated, systemic institutional dysfunctionality of our Catholic Church and to settle on united strategies to help remedy the situation before it is too late.
Identified common issues:
· The culture of Curial governance marked by authoritarianism, secrecy, bullying and resistance to lay leadership at the highest levels.
· The failure of Church leadership to meet institutional best practice for good decision-making by ensuring gender balance at the highest levels of governance.
· The reluctance, even resistance of many Bishops to genuinely listen to their people and to engage with them in serious dialogue. There was collective dissatisfaction about the inadequate way the Synod Lineamenta surveys were administered, if at all, and with the almost total non-existence of feedback.
· Bishops don’t very often reply to letters. If they do, these are often couched in autocratic, patronizing, dismissive, even contemptuous language. People are aware of this and deeply resent it. A well canvassed view at the Limerick meeting that there is probably a great deal of fear among the bishops throughout the world and that many are subject to peer group pressure and even intimidation.
· Widespread resistance to popular consultation through diocesan Canonical Synods or even less formal Assemblies. The suspicion is that bishops are reluctant to consult at any depth because they might find themselves in a position whereby they have to act on what they hear.
There was a consensus that the papacy of Francis provides a make or break time for renewal groups and priests associations to work to recover the legacy and promises of Vatican II especially at the local levels of diocese and parish. Central to these are collegiality, co-responsibility, transparency and accountability in Church governance.
The Austrian Pfarrer-Initiative (“Parish priests’ Initiatives”) had, as part of their local Austrian reform campaign, made strong ambit claims for:
· allowing priests to marry
· allowing women to become priests
· allowing lay people to have communion services without a priest present
· giving lay people much greater control of church policy and practice at local and higher levels
· allowing remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist
· honoring loving committed gay relationships (According to Limerick meeting co-convenor, permanent Deacon Markus Heil, one or other priest members of the Swiss Pfarrer-Initiative has performed ‘blessings’ of gay relationships without any attempt at a wedding ceremony. Tens of thousands of Catholics have come out in support of this action.
Agreed upon action:
· That reform groups across our international networks intensify their collective efforts to ensure that the voices of Catholics are heard, listened to and acted upon at the October Synod on the Family in Rome;
· that Pope Francis be supported in his program of reform and that he be urged, even challenged to push beyond his own boundaries and initiate radical reforms to ensure the laity are represented at the highest levels of counsel and are appointed to the most senior position of Church governance;
· that working groups set up at the Limerick meeting continue to work on position papers to assist members who will be attending the Family Congress in Philadelphia and the October Synod on the Family in Rome.
If Australian Catholics ever think that the problems they have with the local Church are unique, they can be assured that similar frustrations and challenges are faced by the Europeans and Americans.
David Timbs is a member of Catholics for Renewal, May, 2015.