A Church that urgently needs to undergo a change of heart

Turning hearts of stone to hearts of flesh must become the Church’s main objective and it starts with synodality, writes Professor Eamonn Conway, a priest of the Tuam Archdiocese and Professor of Integral Human Development at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

In October, the Synod of Bishops published the Working Document for the Continental Stage of the Synod 2021-2024. This provides the framework for the second stage of the synodal process. At present the Document should be under discussion in every diocese and Catholic organisation around the world.

Then, beginning in January 2023, a series of meetings will take place across the continents to discuss the text as well as any feedback from the discussions currently underway. The outcomes from these discussions will shape the agenda for the Assembly of Bishops in Rome in October 2023.

Reading the Document, which accurately reflects syntheses received from almost every local Church throughout the world, it is evident that the damage to the Church’s mission and credibility globally, resulting from various kinds of abuse within the Church, is incalculable.

The Document catalogues five forms of abuse: spiritual, sexual, economic, abuse of authority, and abuse of conscience. It also links sexual violence with the abuse of power in the Church, noting that “clericalism in all its forms was frequently associated with hurt and abuse of power by participants in the process”.

The Bishops of England and Wales, in their submission, also linked the way power is exercised in the Catholic Church to the devastating impact of clerical sexual abuse on the victims. The legacy of abuse “is an open wound that continues to inflict pain on victims and survivors, on their families, and on their communities”, the Document reports, citing the Australian submission which states that, “There was a strong urgency to acknowledge the horror and damage, and to strengthen efforts to safeguard the vulnerable, repair damage to the moral authority of the Church and rebuild trust”.

The Document goes on to note that, “Careful and painful reflection on the legacy of abuse has led many Synod groups to call for a cultural change in the Church with a view to greater transparency, accountability, and co-responsibility”.

The Australian Church’s synodal process became in effect a response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017). Significantly, the first decree following the conclusion of their Synodal Plenary Council is on reconciliation and the healing of wounds.

Similarly, the German Synodal Way is a reaction to a four year long university-based research project undertaken into sexual violence in the Catholic Church in that country. After its findings were published in 2018, the late Fr Bernd Hagenkord SJ said, the Catholic Church in Germany was “staring into the abyss”.

From gestures to genuine conversion of heart

The word ‘abuse’ occurs nineteen times in the Irish Bishops’ submission. It also links sexual abuse to the abuse of power in all its forms. The bishops call for a process of journeying with victims as well as for healing, penance and atonement. These are all necessary. But are they enough?

We are familiar with the Ash Wednesday reading: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:13). Tearing one’s garments is a gesture of contrition recorded in the Old Testament, along with shaving one’s head, throwing dust on oneself and wearing sackcloth. However, what matters, as Jesus often reminded the Scribes and the Pharisees, is not obsequious gestures but a conversion of heart.

So the question is, how do we avoid settling for mere gestures, of little value in themselves, and instead undergo a genuine change of heart? How can we get beyond the rhetoric of synodality, to the reality of personal and institutional transformation to which the Holy Spirit is calling us?

Compensating for immaturity through power abuse

As we look back at decades of revelations of abuse by clergy and religious, it is mind-boggling that seemingly devout men could go to Mass each day, say their prayers, and present themselves publicly as men of God, and, all the while, be plotting and perpetrating life-altering acts of sexual violence against vulnerable children entrusted to their care.

However unpalatable it may be to do so, we need to consider carefully and to learn from this phenomenon. We need to acknowledge that the same disparity between espoused beliefs and concrete actions, what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’, could still afflict those of us who exercise authority of whatever kind and at whatever level in the Church today.

Immense resources have been put into ensuring that the door to sexual violence within the Church is shut as tightly as possible. Other pathways to the abuse of power, however, may still lie open and be unguarded.

Twenty years ago, Marie Keenan showed that clerical abusers ‘came off the page’ in terms of unresolved issues relating to conflict, authority and power. Is it still possible that some in authority in the Church can seek to compensate for personal immaturity or feelings of inadequacy by dominant and controlling behaviour without being challenged? Is it possible for such people to hide the gratification of their desire for power over others behind a facade of concern for the wellbeing of the Church, just as abusers, and those who covered up abuse, did in the past?

If the suffering of victims is to be taken seriously and the Church’s credibility restored, we need to give this possibility serious consideration.

Clericalism as power differentiation

Many priests are tired of the Pope’s criticism of clericalism and find it dispiriting. But by clericalism he doesn’t mean a healthy and supportive camaraderie or fraternity among priests.

Clericalism, which Pope Francis considers to be one of the greatest evils afflicting the Church’s mission, has to do with a power differentiation between clergy and laity; the protection of the privileges and power of priests at the expense of the distinctive charisms and gifts of the entire people of God.

Pope Francis sees clericalism as an evil in which the laity are often complicit by being inappropriately deferential to priests and bishops. Such deference, of course, is appealing to clergy who dislike having their authority questioned.

Speaking recently to graduates of Maynooth Pontifical University, Archbishop Eamon Martin said of the Irish synodal pathway: “There are clear calls for greater transparency and participation in decision making and for more accountability within our parish and diocesan church structures”. Archbishop Martin’s reiteration of these calls is welcome.

Synodality, if genuinely operative, will make itself felt in how as Church we celebrate liturgy, run our schools, look after our finances, prepare people for the sacraments, enable and empower our pastoral and finance councils and so on.

Not just involving those “on side”

However, cognitive dissonance, the disparity between what we claim to believe and how we concretely act, often hides in broad daylight. It is operative, for instance, when we see only compliant clergy or clericalised laity being appointed to advisory boards or commissions within the Church. It is at work when the principal criterion for appointability to such bodies, enquired about discretely behind the scenes, is whether the appointee is considered to be “on side”.

This translates as meaning, “unlikely to challenge those in authority and the status quo”. Pope Francis has spoken of lay people’s complicity in clericalism: “many of the laity are on their knees asking to be clericalised, because it is more comfortable”.

Synodality, on the other hand, is at work when different criteria apply. Firstly, it is at work when the question being asked is if the person being considered for appointment will have the courage to speak with ‘boldness,’ the parrhesia of which Pope Francis speaks, that is, speak plainly and frankly, and without holding back out of fear of disagreement or of criticism.

Secondly, it is at work when the appointee is sought after because it is known that he or she will listen openly, honestly and with humility, and with the capacity to hear not just the words being spoken but also to get to the heart of what is being said, discerning this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, and most fundamentally, it is at work when the processes and criteria for appointments to Church positions and bodies are transparent and accountable.

Appointing laity to Church bodies

A ready-to-hand test of genuine commitment to synodality in the Church is the role assigned by Church authorities to the laity in the administration of the Church’s finances and properties. We rarely find clergy with competence in such matters, while such expertise is readily found among the laity.

In recent years, trusts that own and manage Church assets and finances have been obliged to become civilly registered charities subject to Company and Charities legislation. The names of charity trustees are published on Church websites as well as on the websites of the Company Registration Office and the Charities Regulator.

There, we can see that many Irish dioceses make good use of the gifts and charisms of the laity by appointing experienced professionals to governance roles on these bodies. Others, however, still manifest a tight clerical stranglehold, where the bishop and senior clerics loyal to him are clearly in control even though there may be one or two laity appointed for the sake of appearances.

Where this is the case, one has to presume a de facto lack of any genuine commitment to synodality, regardless of the rhetoric. Such situations may pose a problem in civil law, however, because charity trustees are required by legislation to act independently, placing their loyalty to the purposes of the charity above loyalty, say, to the bishop of a diocese.

However, this is a particular problem for priests who are also Vicars General and Episcopal Vicars, and as such likely to be appointed to the boards of diocesan Trusts. The reason why is that, according to Canon Law, such clergy “are never to act contrary to the intention and mind of the diocesan bishop” (Can. 480). So, Vicars General and Episcopal Vicars are in the invidious position of being prohibited by Canon Law from doing what they are required to by Civil Law.

Ironically, by insisting on charity trustees acting independently, the law of the land reflects the spirit of synodality better than the law of the Church.

The voice of the laity in making decisions about Catholic education

One area of Church governance where courageous and independent lay Catholic voices are urgently needed is in regard to the divestment of Catholic schools and colleges.

Writing in The Irish Times last month, Breda O’Brien surmised that the abuse scandals of recent decades may have left Irish bishops too demoralised to resist on their own undue pressure to divest our educational institutions whether such pressure is brought to bear by the State or by interest groups locally.

It is generally agreed that some divestment of Church-owned schools and colleges is inevitable. It might also be desirable, not only because several of our educational institutions are already secularised in practice, but also because those that remain under Catholic patronage could, as part of a negotiated settlement, adopt policies and curricula that accord with Church teaching and be free to live out their Catholicity authentically.


The concern, however, is that no such negotiated settlement seems to be in place. Meanwhile, valuable Church-owned institutions and properties, worth hundreds of millions when added together, are being handed over without any evident safeguarding of resources for the mission of the Church in Catholic education into the future. In many other countries there is no problem with the public funding of religious-run schools, colleges and universities.

It is not unreasonable to negotiate for the same in Ireland. Instead, however, what is being allowed to happen has been compared, not without some justification, to the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of Church properties in the sixteenth century.

Would it not be worthwhile, therefore, for the Church in Ireland to put synodality into practice by convening a special synodaltype assembly to discern a future for Catholic education at all three levels, primary, secondary and tertiary, pending which, the further divestment of educational property and resources would be put on hold?

Is this not one obvious area of concern for the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland where the charisms and gifts of the laity urgently need to be empowered and drawn upon?

Father Eamonn Conway is a priest of the Tuam Archdiocese and Professor of Integral Human Development at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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