Pope Francis, on Why and How the Church Must Change

Ever since the moment that the America extended interview with Pope Francis was published on – line, I’ve been deluged with messages, news headlines and RSS feeds alerting me to it, mostly drawing attention to his observation that the Church has been too obsessed with gay marriage, and on the importance of more sensitive, more pastoral approaches to lesbian and gay people. I obviously welcome these words, which largely repeat some of what I’ve been saying here at QTC, and are a logical extension of what he’s already been saying, in his widely reported in – flight interview, returning from Brazil. 

But because these words have been so widely reported, I feel no particular need to do so myself. Perhaps I’ll have a closer look later, and share some thoughts on the significance of the words on homosexuality and gay marriage, rather than simply report the content. We’ll see.

What I want to draw attention to, is something else, of probably greater importance for the Church as a whole (not just LGBT Catholics), and which has far – reaching implications. It’s been often noted (quite correctly), ever since his election, that Pope Francis is not about to change Church teaching.  There is nothing in this interview either, to suggest that he is the one to change anything in that respect (change in style and tone is quite a different matter, which is already abundantly in evidence). But while he many not be the one that will introduce change, he did signal very clearly, that there is continuing and constant need for change in the Church. Nowhere in this interview is there any reference to Benedict’s regular mantra, claiming for the Church a mythical  ”constant and unchanging tradition”. Francis knows very well that this “constant” tradition is a myth, and without spelling it out in single syllables, has given clear reasons why it is inevitable that the church will and must change. Unless it does, he noted, the Church will fall “like a house of cards”.

Francis, America interview

The change he is referring to, once again, is change in style and tone, not of doctrine, but these are not independent. The changes in style that he wants are so fundamental, that they will inevitably lead to more enduring change in doctrine, too.


Vatican II themes: The church as servant |

A third major ecclesiological principle in the Second Vatican Council’s teaching is that the mission of the Church includes service to human needs in the social, economic, and political orders, as well as the preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacraments.

-full report,   National Catholic Reporter.

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Vatican II themes: The people of God | 

Who or what is the church? It is first and foremost people. It is also an institution. But it is primarily a community. The church is us.

A second major ecclesiological principle adopted by the Second Vatican Council is embodied in its teaching that the church is the whole People of God.

In other words, the church is not only the hierarchy, the clergy, and/or members of religious communities. It is the whole community of the baptized.

-full report at Richard McBrien, National Catholic Reporter.

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DIY Catholicism: The Prophetic Voice of the American Catholic Council

Among the repeated laments for the Vatican roll-back of the reforms of Vatican II, or appeals to Catholics to stand up for Vatican II, or hopes that are expressed for a Vatican III, there is an inherent contradiction (if we are to take seriously the message that we too, are part of the whole church), in sitting back and waiting for the bishops to take the lead in reigniting the flame of church reform. However, I am encouraged by the signs that some groups are taking seriously the message of VII that the whole church comprises more than just the oligarchs that currently wield the power, and pronounce sanctimoniously on Catholic belief – with scant regard to what Catholics really do believe.

One manifestation of this at about this time last year was the major academic conference in Triento (billed as the second Council of Trent) which brought together academic moral theologians from all parts of the world and ethnic backgrounds, and including lay married men, religious and lay women, gay men,  lesbians and trans theologians, all done entirely independently of the Vatican. At a completely different order of magnitude, was the Minneapolis Synod of the Baptized last September, in which Catholics of the Twin Cities set up a local synod to debate matters affecting the local Church, independently of the Bishop. and with a tight, specialist focus,


Mass, during the American Catholic Council conference in Detroit (Pic: Detroit Free Press)



This week in Detroit, a three-day conference of liberal Catholics falls somewhere between these two in scale. This is not only conducted independently of the institutional church, it has met with direct opposition – but nevertheless has drawn strong attendance, in yet another manifestation of how the designated leaders no longer have monopoly control of the Catholic Church.

In a video message to the conference, the theologian Hans Kung called for a peaceful revolution against Vatican absolutism:

“I think few people realize how powerful the pope is,” Kung said, likening papal power today to the absolute power of French monarchs that the French people revolted against in 1789.

“We have to change an absolutist system without the French Revolution,” he said. “We have to have peaceful change.”

National Catholic Reporter

It is my growing belief that to a degree, it is too late to be calling for such a peaceful revolution: this conference and the others alluded to, together with the mounting evidence that the Vatican no longer has the power to control Catholic consciences or Catholic politicians, and is losing its monopoly control of Catholic theology, shows that the revolution has already begun.

Despite warnings from Catholic leaders, liberal conference draws large crowd

Calling for reform, Catholics from around the world came to Cobo Center in Detroit on Friday for a three-day conference that’s one of the larger gatherings of liberal Catholics in years. Held by the American Catholic Council, an umbrella group of about 30 liberal Catholic groups, the crowd largely consisted of elderly Catholics who are upset at what they say is the church’s turn to the right.

The Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron warned Catholics to stay away from the conference and said that priests and deacons could be defrocked if they attend a Sunday mass at Cobo.

But that didn’t deter local Catholics from attending, and may even have encouraged them to come, say conference participants. Attendees included everyone from former seminarians to anti-war activists to those calling for women and married priests. All were united in saying that lay people need to have more say in church decision making, such as being able to help decide who becomes bishops and where pastors are assigned.

Some 2,000 are attending the conference, which kicked off Friday with workshops during the day and talks in the evening by theologians Rev. Hans Kung and Prof. Jeanette Rodriguez along with a prayer service that declared support for gays, women, and victims of racism and child abuse.

“Angered by church leaders who protect pedophiles and persecute prophets, we cry,” the crowd said together.

Jerry Schoof, 68, of Sterling Heights, was born and raised a Catholic, but is frustrated by the leadership.

“They want to drag us back to the 15th century,” Schoof said. “I don’t like what I’m seeing…we’re going backwards.”

“There has to be a place for women — and we can’t even discuss this,” he said. “We’re educated people, not like in the past.”

The conference comes on the 35th anniversary of a conference called Call to Action that was held in Detroit and led by the late Cardinal John Dearden, the former Archbishop of Detroit, to discuss the Second

Vatican Council reforms of the 1960s. Participants at this weekend’s conference praised the Second Vatican Council and Dearden, describing him as a progressive who listened to people, unlike the leadership in recent decades.

“We need church reform,” Schoof said.

Tim Westfall, of Detroit, once attended Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, a place that educates many future Catholic priests. But he said the institution, like the broader Church, is a close-knit society out of touch with regular Catholics.

“It was just repressive,” he said.

Chuch leaders say this weekend’s conference is at odds with Catholicism, but participants say they’re the ones in touch with their faith.

“It will be a great weekend to experience the holy spirit,” Westfall said.

He and others were also upset at Vigneron’s threat against clergy to not attend.

“It’s sad,” said Westfall. “To make that threat is very anti-Christian.

Of particular concern to the Archdiocese of Detroit and its supporters is the list of keynote speakers, which includes Matthew Fox, a former Catholic priest who was expelled in 1993 for beliefs the church said were anti-Catholic.

In a statement, the Archdiocese warned that “all of the invited keynote speakers have manifested dissent from Catholic teachings or support for dissenters.”

The Archdiocese is supporting an alternative conference, Call to Holiness, Saturday in Livonia at Burton Manor.

via Detroit Free Press

Hans Kung Urges Peaceful Revolution Against Roman Absolutism


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Reaffirming Vatican II: We are the Shepherds

From the archives, this was first published in February, 2009. Two years later, I am more convinced than ever by its central thesis: that in the Catholic Church as it is today, we too are called to be shepherds – including at times and in some respects, shepherds to the clergy.


After writing earlier this week about Bishop Robinson’s book (“Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church“) on power and abuse in the church, with its reflections on the attempts at Vatican II to re-balance the power structures, I was interested to find in quick succession two items which between them shed some light on the problem.  And the answer, I suspect, lies not with ‘them’, but with  ‘us’.

First,the more seemingly frivolous item:  a report in New Catholic Times (sensus fidelium) on a novel, “Waiting for Mozart”, by Chuck Pilon, set in a Catholic parish 25 years after the conclusion of Vatican II. “Less than and somewhat more than” a review,  it is John Quinn’s reflections that I found particularly insightful.  Let me quote from  Quinn’s review /reflection:


“In Chapter 2 of Waiting for Mozart, Fr. Joe Burns is described thus:

A  fine priest…Ordained before Vatican II but known for aggressive application of its directives.

In those couple of sentences we have the story of Waiting for Mozart captured.

Ordained before Vatican II“, so socialized by a Catholic world-view radically different from that articulated by the council.

Joe was “known for aggressive application of its directives.” His was the responsibility of ‘applying” the directives of the council. This he would do “aggressively.

And it was “directives“, that is something given him to implement, to put into operation.


Quinn goes on to describe an incident from his own parish experience, in which parish priests would not ‘allow’ development & peace groups (a diocesan initiative). This led to a follow up where his own PP prevented him setting up a children’s liturgy for the parish – so he went elsewhere, and set up a children’s liturgy in a parish 25 minutes away.

The point is, that even where clergy have embraced the ideas of V2 (and many have not), they still cling by habit to the old style – and too often, too easily, we let them.  In my own experience on the Parish Council of a reasonably progressive Jesuit parish, I recall several instances where council members would privately say to each other “Fr….. will never allow that”, and so would never raise the issue!  But it is not the business of the priest to allow, or to disallow, but to serve.   In acquiescing without a fight, we are collaborating in our own oppression, to use the language familiar from my time in South Africa during the ‘struggle.’

Later, Quinn notes

“Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher said that an idea, once implanted in the mind, takes at least fifty years to see the light of day.”

If that is so, than the time is now.

(Read the full original article )

The same theme is put more formally in an address by Dr Diana Hayes given back in 2006 to the Call to Action conference, but posted this week on New Catholic Times (sensus fidelium) “Our Leaders are Like Sheep! so Rise up Shepherds! We are the Prophets. “ I loved the title! Even before reading the article,the key message strikes home.  If the point of the re-balancing at V2 was to empower the laity, we are on weak ground blaming the hierarchy for the problems.  If those at the top of the power pyramid are behaving like sheep (and it has often seemed so in recent weeks), then it is time for the rest of us to take charge, to become the shepherds.

I quote just a small part of this address:


“Where are the prophets of our time? Prophecy is a dangerous, thankless job. Too often it leads to martyrdom. It certainly leads to pain and suffering. But prophets we are called to be. For the rebuilding of the Church and the revamping of its structure is not the work of the weak or timid, but of those willing to rise up in God’s name and proclaim the truth!

The bishops are naked! They hide themselves behind vestments and liturgical rites and gobbledygook; they shield themselves behind cadres of yes-men – and a few yes-women. They destroy parish life, ignore the Holy Spirit’s voice and deny the fear and emptiness at the heart of their efforts to control rather than shepherd.

WE are the prophets
We are the prophets; all of us in this room and scattered throughout the nation in groups large and small are the voices that refuse to be silenced. How do we learn to prophesy? The late Monika Hellwig set forth two aspects of prophecy. The first is the willingness to turn towards God in receptivity of God’s grace and blessing. The second is to turn to the world around us as it stumbles forward, seeking the way to a better future.”


It is of course true that notwithstanding the council, formal power remains in the hands of the top echelons of the hierarchy. Even the bishops, as noted by Bishop Robinson, often seem helpless in the face of Rome.  But in reflecting on papal history, I have been struck how, until modern times, the growth of papal power and control mirrored that of secular power and control in the emergence of the state.  In recent times, though, we have seen seemingly powerful autocratic states crumble in the face of populations who refused to be cowed indefinitely.  Certainly, in South Africa change did not come because the government decided to change the laws, but because the people gradually refused to cooperate in injustice.

So, take up your crooks – let us become the shepherds.

Recommended Book

Robinson, Bishop Geoffrey: Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church

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The Subversion of Vatican II, Laid Bare

For anybody looking at the papacy and the Vatican from the outside, the nature of the problem is fairly clear:  we have a monolithic, centralized power structure dominated by people far removed from real life, steeped in fossilised theology from the middle ages, who are convinced not only that they are the sole holders of truth, but also that they thereby have the right to legislate for all Catholics everywhere. This goes to the heart of so much of what is wrong with the church today, from the total disconnect between official teaching on sexuality and the lived experience of ordinary Catholics to the appallingly inappropriate response of the Vatican (and the supporting chorus of bishops around the world) to the worldwide scandal of clerical sexual abuse. The oligarchy claim that Benedict has done a great deal to fight the problem, pointing to his many interventions in canon law.

This, however, is precisely the point:  that Benedict and his minions are inherently incapabel of seing anything, or doing anything, except in the context of canon law, church teaching, and the curial bureaucracy.  They have no conception of dealing real people, or of the importance of secular law and authority, or even of the simple principles of love and genuine human interaction as promoted by the Gospel.

The second Vatican Council appeared for a while to breathe fresh air into the church, pointin the way to a more inclusive structure, with greater sensitivity to the modern world, but this brief promise was soon swept away.  All this is clear.

A new book by an eminent scholar is welcome for putting the obvious into clear theological terms.  Judging by this review from National Catholic Reporter, this book would seem to be compulsory reading for anyone seeking understanding of how the modern crisis of the church has developed.   (more…)

Freedom of Conscience

In Washington DC, here in the UK and in Ireland, Catholic church authorities have resisted moves toward gay equality and civil rights by insiting on religious freedom of conscience for themselves.  This, of course, completely overlooks the equally important teaching on freedom of conscience within the church, which John McNeill reminds us was one of the key teachings to come out of Vatican II, and whihc is widely accepted in the church today by married Catholics who disregard “Humane Vitae” .

McNeill has written a three part-series on conscience at his blog, Spiritual Transformations – a site we should all bookmark and visit frequently.

This is Part I (the emphasis added is mine) :

Bishop E Carter

Bishop G. Emmett Carter observed in his comments on the Declaration on Christian Education that the theme of personal responsibility dominated many of the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council (Carter, 1966, p. 640, footnote). One such example is found in the opening lines of the Declaration on Religious Freedom which reads as follows:

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man. And the demand is increasingly made that humans should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty [Vatican Council II, 1966, n. 1, p. 675]. (more…)

Reality Based Theology, or the 5% Solution?

In Minnesota’s Twin Cities, there is a fascinating and important process now underway, as it has been for some time. This may seem parochial, and some of the work very narrow in focus, but I believe it has much wider importance for all of us. To illustrate, I want to begin with an example at the micro scale, about which Michael Bayly has written at the Wild Reed. Michael serves as the executive co-ordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, and is currently working with a group of people who comprise a “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Work/study Group.  It is the work of this group that Michael wrote about last week, calling it “An exciting Endeavour” .

(Michael Bayly and Friends: Picture from the Wild Reed)

Parochial / local? Narrow/ tightly–focussed? Certainly.  Exciting?  Absolutely.

The reason for the tight focus is simple:  this is just one part of a broader project of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, which. In parallel with the work of this group, has convened further study groups on a wide range of topics, or “areas of disconnect”

between current church practices and the church’s mission to manifest God’s love. These areas of disconnect include: Church Authority and Governance, Bishop Selection, Clericalism, Communication in a Polarized Community, Church as a Community of Equals, Catholic/Christian Identity, Catholic Spirituality, Emerging Church, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Social Justice, and Faith Formation of Children and Youth. (more…)

“The Holy Spirit Moves Through All: All Must Be Consulted.”

What do you think has happened to the spirit of Vatican II?  Depending on your personal view of the value of the Council, most assessments appear to either lament the rolling back of the reforms by the revisionist JP II and Benedict XVI; or to rejoice in the return to the authentic tradition before that prevailed before the supposed errors of the reformists. Ted Schmidt, editor of the Canadian “New Catholic Times sensus fidelium” has a much more encouraging view.

The Canadian church is still recovering from the shock of Bishop Leahy, who resigned suddenly after being charged with possession of child pornography. It was in the light of this scandal that Schmidt conducted a series of interviews with Canadian bishops, then shared his reflections on what these said about the state of the Canadian Catholic Church. His observations, though, are applicable to the whole church, not just to Canada.  I share here some extracts – the full article is available at   New Catholic Times sensus fidelium

Knowing many of these fine men I say without fear of contradiction that presently they seem to have missed a fundamental truth of modern ecclesiology, the teaching on the sensus fidelium, that the Spirit is given to the entire church and not an ordained rump of clerical celibates. They are so fixated on the idea that they are “the teachers” that they have forgotten that they must first be the listeners and learners.

That sounds familiar, but it is what follows that is important: (more…)

Church, Power & Abuse

Depressing church news over the past two months has led me to pick up and start reading a book which has been on my shelves some time, but which I have previously only dipped into.  The removal of  excommunication of SPXX  members has received wide and ongoing publicity; clerical sexual abuse is again in the news with the FBI reopening old investigations in LA Diocese, and fresh revelations over   Fr Marcial Maarciel Delgado of the Legionnaires of Christ.  Meanwhile, on the progressive wing of the church, there has been less coverage in the MSM of the silencing or excommunication of the priests  Fr Roger Haight,  Geoffrey Farrow and Roy  Bourgeois, or of bizarre goings-on in the parishes of St Mary’s, Brisbane and St Stephen’s, Minneapolis, where attempts to muzzle complete parishes have led to resistance (St Mary’s) or exodus (St Stephen’s).

What all these have in common is that they are concerned with power in the church – its extension, its abuse, or attempts to defy or resist it.  so I picked up again  “Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church”, by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.  I am pleased that I did.  Published in 2007, this book (more…)

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