Church's strongest supporters its most vocal internal critics Painting: Jesus among the temple doctors, Giotto di Bondino 1304-06
“If you, though Christian, don’t live like Christians, how can you convince others to live like Christians?” (Taking a small liberty with Galatians 2: 11-21, esp. 11-14)
It is hardly surprising to thoughtful observers of both modern times and church history that many people in the Western world are exiting the Church, and that priestly vocations continue a downward trend. It's not because the teachings and example of Christ are less relevant, understood or accepted in the West, so why then? Sometimes the Church is its own worst enemy, not intentionally because most of its leaders are faithful, honest, committed and well intended servants of God, striving to exercise authority responsibly, sometimes even collegially. However in the midst of unprecedented change and challenge in the world many Church leaders, some more than others, find it increasingly difficult to comprehend and therefore relate to today's world and life challenges.
Unhelpful also is that some Church practices and organisational structures designed for times long passed have progressively hindered a relevant and viable Church today. Under prevailing governance and operational arrangements it's easy for threatened Church leaders (almost all male) to become distracted from the original spirit of Christ, which is to love, serve and support people in faith amidst the diversity and pain of ever-changing life circumstances. In leading his disciples Christ was at the forefront of change, and responded humanly and spiritually. His teachings and values remain constant despite today's very different world. 2000 years later we are blessed with a pope who understands and seems to be listening with discernment in order to respond in a faith context to the reality of peoples changing needs and lives today. Change can be uncomfortable, but responding remains a collective obligation for all of the 'people of God'.
"Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach the "peripheries" in need of the light of the Gospel" - from para. 24, The Joy Of The Gospel, by Pope Francis
Those with a strong focus on Christ's teachings and example increasingly recognise that over history and even more so today faithful and focused internal critics remain the Church's strongest supporters. Some others in authority sadly respond differently. In the worst of a subculture of clericalism such people tend to regard any criticisms as a personal attack, and tend accordingly to become reactive. Few in the hierarchy still openly acknowledge the abysmal situation of having so few women in key Church leadership roles. The leadership of the Catholic Church needs to recognise the collective and shared authority of all the people of God, and that the most loyal and energetic supporters within the Church are precisely those who are the most constructive critics of unacceptable attitudes and practices within the Church. With such collegiality most current Church problems would progressively disappear. All these Catholic people want is to be able to work together in support of a Church under threat and in need of renewal. These offers are, sadly, either unheeded or rejected.
Much has already been written on the extent of suffering caused by Child Sexual Abuse and damage to reputation. The institutional Church has not only been painfully slow to acknowledge offences with humility and remorse but has protected paedophiles and exposed further children to sexual abuse, and through its own systemic failures has failed to accept accountability. Responses have mostly not been readily forthcoming until demanded by civil authorities. The Church must not only preach the Gospel but model it as well. Pope Francis amongst some others have effectively declared need for urgent and profound renewal.
Some Lessons from Church History
Students of Church history can be rewarded with deeper understanding of today's Church and issues. Despite some shameful events in time there is much more of encouragement and hope over Church history. After 2000 years the Church has shown capacity to evolve significantly. A much faster rate of change is necessary today. For this reason an important section of the Catholics For Renewal Website "Church Mutation" was established to observe trends over time. The term 'mutation' was applied by Church historian Paul Collins who in writing an illuminating brief paper helpfully indicates how church 'mutation' has been significant, progressive and evolutionary. Encouragingly it highlights continuing potential for significant change. Catholics For Renewal member David Timbs has just contributed a further significant paper in that area of that website "The Jesus Movement, Part III" as introduced and launched further below, and elsewhere on the website the final paper in his series "The Great Disaffiliation, Part IV"
Some lessons from elsewhere
The Church is not a Corporation, Business, or royal 'Firm', however successful secular organisations have long learned to benefit from constructive critics. The 21st Century Western Church is dysfunctional in some ways and poorly versed in the operational processes of large successful organisations, or in ascertaining and discerning the sensus fidelium, and consequently making informed decisions consultatively. Pope Francis's Joy of the Gospel (Evangeli Gaudium) also highlights the Church's need and challenge to Consult and be collegial. The Church should not lack the humility to recognise the inadequacy of its global governance and administration and need to learn. It has much to gain from engaging in faith with its internal critics, and learning from other organisations, religions, Faith Traditions, and synodality.
The 'Family Synod' and its consultative processes though technically flawed and with patchy implementation across the world is a significant step in a positive direction, but its data gathering, information processing and decision making processes are dubious and very much in need of review and development. In his paper Catholic Synods in Australia, 1844-2011, December 2011 Peter J Wilkinson said "....in the 46 years since the 2nd Vatican Council (1962-1965) which explicitly called for synods 'to flourish with new vigour' (Christus Dominus, n. 36), and insisted that the laity have an active role in them, no plenary or provincial councils or synods have been held, and only five Australian bishops have convened just six diocesan synods. "... he added "This is a serious concern for many Australian Catholics who feel they have been denied official church forums allowing their voices to be heard and their views to be properly considered." The time has come to devise and implement local consultative processes that endeavour to openly engage all of the people of God in a process which is part of decision making. As part of its advocacy for governance reform on conjunction with other renewal groups this significant issue is included for ongoing pursuit by Catholics For Renewal and other groups.
Christ was the greatest 'Church' reformer, and to some a rebel. There have been other reformers and theologians at various times throughout church history, some now canonised and some formerly regarded as heretical. Pope Francis is a vocal advocate for Church renewal. It is encouraging that he is calling for much of the renewal that Catholics For Renewal and other such groups in Australia and around the world have been advocating. May critics and those criticised work together in shared faith and discernment under continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit.