The Catholic Church is increasingly diverse – and so are its controversies

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There is a lot of talk about “synodality” in the Catholic church these days. Synodality refers to a process in which bishops and priests consult with lay Catholics about issues in the church.

In 2021, Pope Francis called for the “Synod on Synodality,” a worldwide discussion of issues that impact the church, which will culminate with a bishops’ meeting in Rome. A final report is scheduled for October 2023.

The Catholic Church in Germany has also moved forward with a national “synodal path” to restore trust after its own sexual abuse scandal.

The German synodal path has been controversial. On Sept. 8, 2022, a minority of German bishops blocked a motion to redefine Catholic teaching on homosexuality, bisexuality, gender identity and masturbation. In response, some proponents of these liberalizations warned they would “take it to Rome.”

Church leaders around the world and in the Vatican have closely watched the German meetings. There has been sharp debate over calls by German Catholics for priests to ordain women and bless same-sex unions. These proposals have been embraced by some German church bishops, but criticized by the Vatican as well as by an international group of 74 bishops.

As a scholar of global Catholicism, I believe this controversy reflects much wider tensions within Catholicism. In 1910, two-thirds of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe. Today, just one in four do. The church’s numbers have grown most quickly in Africa and Asia. As more power shifts to the global south, the church sometimes struggles to chart a path forward for all regions, each of which has its own distinct perspectives.

The German meeting spotlights particularly difficult topics about sexuality and women’s roles, where some Catholics in Europe, North America and Australia clash with Catholics elsewhere.

Continental divides

The Catholic Church is often assumed to look and feel the same everywhere. But Catholicism is culturally quite diverse.

The most public disagreement involves African Catholics and those in the United States and Europe. For example, Ghanaian Catholic bishops have criticized advocates for LGBTQ rights for imposing “their so-called values and beliefs.” Other African bishops have said they feel betrayed by liberal sentiments in European Catholicism, such as the push to allow Holy Communion for divorced church members.

People in white robes kneel near the altar in a brightly colored church with a teal and orange wall.
A bishop blesses worshippers during an early morning mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Yamumbi, Kenya.

Polygamy continues to be a pressing issue in some regions of Africa. While Catholic doctrine prohibits polygamy, polygamous unions are still common in many countries with significant Catholic communities.

A crucial question is how to welcome polygamous families into the church. Some African bishops have suggested that the church’s most important rites, called sacraments, should be available for at least some polygamous Catholics.

Tribalism also remains a challenge. For example, a Nigerian priest published a social media video asserting the superiority of the Igbo tribe. In rejecting such attitudes, other African priests have emphasized that African Catholics should draw on the philosophy of “ubuntu” that affirms collective belonging to humanity.

Looking East

Issues in Asia, home to 12% of Catholics, are diverse.

In Japan, for example, where Catholics make up less than 1% of the population, the main dilemma is how Catholics can maintain their community identity. In the Catholic-majority Philippines, recent meetings for the Synod on Synodality have focused on how poverty and corruption impact the Catholic community and the nation as a whole.

In India, where 20 million Catholics live, the Dalit Catholic community is especially important. Dalit means “oppressed” or “crushed” and refers to the marginalized groups once known as India’s “untouchables.” It was only recently that a Dalit, Anthony Poola of Hyderabad, was named a cardinal, even though Dalits have long made up a majority of India’s Catholics. Caste discrimination in the church is a reality that Dalit Catholics have joined together to protest.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in East Timor, where Catholics are 95% of the population, has experienced its own divisive sex abuse crisis connected with a highly regarded American priest.

A woman in a pink shirt and green sari touches a statue of the Virgin Mary covered with garlands of flowers.
Catholics offer prayers in front of a statue of Virgin Mary in Hyderabad, India.

Catholic churches in China face unresolved disputes over who has final say in the appointment of bishops – the Vatican, or the Chinese government. Also, there are continuing issues about the status of the underground Catholic churches, which worship outside the purview of the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

In parts of Oceania, climate change is an existential concern. The spread of HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea remains an important issue as well.

Stronghold no longer?

Latin America is home to almost 40% of the world’s Catholics. But the rise of Protestantism has concerned many priests and laity. Many new Protestants in Latin America believe that evangelical and Pentecostal communities are more sensitive to their needs, prompting soul-searching for Catholics.

Another crucial question in Latin America is whether to ordain married men in regions where priests are scarce, like the Amazon. The Catholic church in Latin America still struggles with its colonial past and calls to apologize for that violent history. This legacy makes it particularly important to hear the voices of Indigenous peoples.

A global conversation

The worldwide Synod on Synodality is focused, in Pope Francis’ words, on creating a church that “walks together on the same road.”

It would be a mistake to see this “walking together” from an exclusively Western perspective. The debate in Germany reflects how ideologically divided Catholicism has become in the Western world alone. And it is not as though churches elsewhere are simply areas of potential problems or disagreements; their faith and rich theological traditions are an important resource for Catholics worldwide.

Still, given the cultural diversity of Catholicism, there are many potential flash points as the Synod on Synodality moves forward: poverty, adapting to local culture, sexuality and gender, church governance and the continuing sexual abuse crisis – just to name a few.

This has left some commentators wondering if anything meaningful can be discussed or achieved. In my view, whether Synod conversations turn into controversies will ultimately depend on how Catholics see themselves as part of a church that is truly global.

Complete Article HERE!

Surprises in the Irish Synod Report

Archbishop Eamon Martin

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About five years ago, I attended a lecture in Manhattan by an Irish Redemptorist priest, Fr. Tony Flannery. The event was sponsored by Call to Action, an organization that is critical of the Catholic Church because of its ineptitude in applying the gospel message to the realities of our time. Fr. Flannery was and still is banned from speaking publicly in any church-owned facility.

In his speech he explained why he is considered a persona non grata, an outcast, by the powers in Rome. He named three areas of disagreement, pointing out that he does not question any of the traditional Catholic dogmas.

He objects especially to the second-class status accorded to women in all areas of ecclesiastical life. He cautioned that while he favors full ordination rights for females the focus for now should be on achieving deaconate status, a step below the priesthood.

He favors ending mandatory celibacy and welcoming married priests, and he was adamant that his church’s attitude to the homosexual community could only be described as pathetic. He spoke with conviction and left no doubt about his continuing commitment to radical changes in his church.

Amazingly and ironically, in response to Pope Francis’ Synodal Way, the Irish church recently submitted what they call the National Synthesis of its recommendations to Rome, and they have come out in favor of the positions which led to Flannery’s exclusion from practicing as a priest.

The big boys in Rome silenced him, but what will they do now with the whole Irish church?

The National Synthesis document was based on reports prepared by all 26 Catholic dioceses on the island of Ireland following widespread consultations with the people over many months, culminating in a countrywide national symposium in Athlone in June.

Over 19,000 people participated in Dublin with about 5000 in Limerick and a few hundred in the mini-diocese of Achonry in the west of Ireland. Reports from all sides suggested enthusiastic involvement throughout the country with members over the age of 60 showing the highest level of interest.

Cynics warned that the submission to Rome would be a watered-down version of the ideas for change that emerged from the consultations. The bishops would wrap the radical concepts in language acceptable to the Vatican hierarchy.

Not this time! The National Synthesis document pulls no punches and fairly represents the thoughts and feelings expressed up and down the country, as well as during the big weekend in Athlone.

In a cover letter sent with the report, Archbishop Eamon Martin explained to Cardinal Mario Gresch, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican, that that there is a crying need in Ireland for healing, especially “among those who have suffered abuse by church personnel and in church institutions.”

He stressed that clear calls were heard in every diocese for “fresh models of responsibility and leadership which will especially recognize and facilitate the role of women. Our listening process has identified the need to be more inclusive in outreach, touching those who have left the church behind and, in some cases, feel excluded, forgotten or ignored.”

Pope Francis’ words are genuine. We believe him when he says he wants to hear from ordinary parishioners. Will he lead the response when the cry for change arrives in Rome from people all over the world?

In order to dampen expectations, he insists that the church is not a democratic institution. So, despite the strong support for radical changes, backed by a clear majority of the faithful, their ideas may well be set aside as traditionalists assert the pre-eminence of the church’s historical beliefs and practices.

During the struggle for democracy in Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, successive popes favored the old European autocracies with single strong leaders, which, of course, defines the Vatican. They still diminish the democratic process which claims that, despite its limitations, the people’s wisdom is the nearest we can get to an optimal system for selecting leaders and determining policy. Why is the church so dismissive of this approach? What are they afraid of in Rome? Is it just a power game?

Take the widespread belief that women should be ordained at a time when their services as pastors are clearly needed in many parishes. Most people in the United States and in Europe strongly support this needed alteration of church discipline. The Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), a very credible Catholic organization, affirms the many women who feel called to priestly service.

A tribute to Francis, information about WOC is included in the Vatican website as part of the synodal discussions. However, it is very unlikely that he will overrule John Paul II’s arrogant and dogmatic statement that women should never be permitted to say Mass.

Back to the real world of male hierarchies who preach their openness to the Spirit of Wisdom, but always seem to revert back to glorifying tradition. In October 2019 the Amazon Synod of Bishops met in Rome to consider the church crisis in that region of South America. The people in large parts of a few countries there have very irregular access to the sacraments.

The Synod passed, with a big majority, two recommendations to help ameliorate the situation. First, open the deaconate to permit nuns and other dedicated women who are serving there to provide communion for the people. Second, allow viri probati, married men of sterling character from the local communities, to be ordained to the priesthood. Pope Francis took their recommendations under advisement. No action. That was almost three years ago. Tough luck on the people pleading for communion in the Amazon region.

Mary McAleese. RollingNews.ie photo.
Mary McAleese.

Former Irish president Mary McAleese, who has had a conflicted relationship with the church, especially with John Paul II, was elated by the document and congratulated the hierarchy for not doctoring the recommendations to placate Rome. The adjectives she used to commend it left no doubt about her satisfaction: “explosive, life-altering, dogma-altering, church-altering.”

Mrs. McAleese has a particular peeve with the church’s puerile insistence that the gay lifestyle is unnatural and sinful. Her son is a homosexual. This demeaning thinking has been repudiated by science for more than half a century. Rome, however, keeps beating the old drum based on an outmoded belief in their version of natural law.

Fr. Tim Hazelwood, one of the leaders of the Irish Association of Priests, described the document as “stunning” because “it is not trying to uphold any of the old negatives from the past.” Those “old negatives” did immense harm to the preaching of the gospel message.

Pope Francis will meet with a full synod of bishops in October of next year to decide what changes they will institute, based, supposedly, on the recommendations from Catholics all over the world. We live and hope!

Complete Article HERE!

‘Too harsh’ and ‘out of step’

— Survey finds NJ Catholics want a more inclusive church

By Deena Yellin

Thousands of New Jersey Catholics gathered over the past year in an unprecedented series of meetings designed to help steer the future of the church.

The consensus, officials say, was clear: The Catholic Church needs to open its arms more to women, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals and others who feel marginalized by the faith.

The desire for more inclusivity was a major theme in discussions with 16,000 parishioners in four of New Jersey’s Catholic dioceses, according to summaries released recently by each diocese. While responses varied widely, many at the listening sessions said they too often feel unwelcome. Participants also cited distress at the church’s handling of the clergy abuse scandal.

“The challenge remains,” Trenton Bishop David O’Connell said in a statement, for the church “to determine ways to address and minimize the hurts felt by people.”

The surveys conducted by the Trenton, Camden, Paterson and Metuchen dioceses — representing almost 2.5 million Catholics — were part of a synod, or assembly, launched by Pope Francis last year and aimed at taking the pulse of the world’s Catholics. Such efforts have been convened throughout the centuries, generally with church leaders. But Francis upped the ante by asking every diocese on the planet to survey its parishioners, churchgoing or not.

The Newark Archdiocese, the state’s largest, with nearly 1.5 million worshippers in Bergen, Essex, Union and Hudson counties, is still working on its report, and its completion date is uncertain, spokesperson Sean Quinn said.

Other key themes from the New Jersey sessions included women’s role in the church, a desire for greater involvement in decision-making by the laity and the need to better engage young people, who have been fleeing religion in general. The call for a more welcoming church was echoed in recent reports from Catholic leaders in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

Findings from the U.S. and assemblies around the world will be sent to participants of the synod in Rome, due to gather in October 2023.

Francis’ synod is the “widest in scope” that’s ever been attempted, said Tim Gabrielli, an expert in Catholic theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio, “Whether there will be a change in church doctrine as a result of the reports remains to be seen.s

“The process itself — which involves speaking with frankness, accompanying one another and carefully listening to each other — is transformational,” he said. “I don’t think anyone knows what will come of it. Pope Francis has never suggested a change to church teaching but has been consistent in emphasizing the importance of a more complete welcome and ministry to LGBTQ persons.”

Here’s a look at what local Catholics had to say, based on the four dioceses’ reports:

Paterson Diocese

Bishop-elect Kevin Sweeney, named the new leader of the Paterson Diocese, seen during ordinations of priests in Brooklyn.

The Diocese of Paterson, with 577,000 members in Passaic, Morris and Sussex counties, said many of the 5,000 participants in its synod sessions expressed a sense that the church is not loving. The church’s report said people cited “the absence of inclusion and sensitivity to women, Hispanic/Latino community, LGBTQ people, families with young children, people with special needs, people victimized by abuse, the elderly and other people who, for whatever reason, feel that they do not conform to the prevalent social or moral norms.”

English-speaking participants most commonly cited gender as a fault line and Hispanic churchgoers’ ethnicity, the diocese said. “Although not all participants called for a change in the Church’s teaching on these matters, they did call for a change in approach and attitude,” its summary added.

Some said the church should adapt to modern times, while others were content with the status quo. Some said priests should be allowed to marry and women to serve as deacons and priests; others affirmed their support for an all-male, celibate priesthood.

Parents and relatives “expressed that their LGBTQ children did not feel welcome and included by the church,” said the Rev. Paul Manning, the Paterson diocese’s vicar for evangelization. “People were on both ends when it came to the morality of the issue, but certainly felt that ministry to and inclusion of the LGBTQ community was lacking.”

Not all the feedback was negative, he noted in summarizing the synod results. “Most Catholics long for Jesus and care for the Church,” Manning said. “That is the key message of the report.”

Trenton Diocese

Bishop David O'Connell of the Trenton Diocese is shown during a Confirmation mass at the Church of St. Martha in Point Pleasant Borough on October 26, 2018.

The Diocese of Trenton, which encompasses Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties, has a Catholic population of 774,000. Among the 4,500 participants’ most prominent concerns was that their children and grandchildren don’t practice their Catholic faith. “There is a dismay that the church doesn’t know what to do to attract and keep young people,” said the report.

The clergy abuse scandal and the crisis of credibility it generated was anther major theme. It “continues to be a source of pain for many, not only for victims and their families, but also for average lay Catholics and priests,” the diocese said. Some said they lost confidence in the church leadership because of the way the abuse crisis was handled.

Among the conclusions of the Trenton synod was that the church should consider married priests and reopen discussion about women serving as deacons and priests, along with other leadership roles.

“We need to continue to increase respect for women and their role in the Universal Church,” the diocese concluded. “The church must also do more to engage young people and offer them opportunities to be included. And finally, the church needs to be more welcoming to all, not only in words but in action.”

O’Connell, the Trenton bishop, said he wasn’t surprised by the criticism but also noted people’s “love for the Holy Eucharist and willingness to serve in various ministries.” The diocese must look to “build upon the strengths and good experiences expressed by participants.”

Camden Diocese

Many of the nearly 4,000 participants discussed the need for women in church leadership and also said the diversity of the local community is not reflected in their parishes. The diocese includes 475,000 Catholics in Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.

A substantial number of people complained about the exclusion of LGBTQ and divorced individuals. The common recommendation was to create specific ministries where members can enjoy the richness of parish life, the church said.

“There appears to be a perception that the LGBTQ and divorced individuals cannot receive communion and participate in liturgy,” said the report. “Many expressed a need for improving the teaching on these subjects.”

Metuchen Diocese

The Metuchen diocese is composed of a Catholic population of roughly 650,000 and encompasses Middlesex, Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren counties. About 1,800 people participated in sessions, and many said the church is moving “too slowly” and is “too harsh,” but didn’t offer specific examples.

As in the other New Jersey dioceses, Metuchen participants were concerned about marginalized groups feeling “excluded” and said the church needs to become more hospitable, its report said.

People pointed to outdated language used by the church to refer to those who identity as LGBTQ as “disordered,” describing it as hurtful. Some respondents accused the church of being “out of step with the world” regarding gender issues.

Complete Article HERE!

‘No turning point in sight’

— Archbishop warns Church is in a ‘dramatic’ decline

Francis Duffy Archbishop of Tuam

By Sean ODriscoll

The Catholic Church is heading ‘dramatically downwards’ with no turning point in sight, the archbishop of Ireland’s biggest archdiocese has said.

Francis Duffy, the Archbishop of Tuam, told parishioners in Westport to look at their priests because they are likely the last generation of priests to be resident in a parish.

He said all figures, from men entering the priesthood to the attendance at Mass, all point to a dramatic decline in the Church.

Francis Duffy, the Archbishop of Tuam, with his predecessor Archbishop Michael Neary.

‘All trends are dramatically downwards with no turning point in sight,’ said Archbishop Duffy.

‘I suggest you look at your priest.

He may be the last in a long line of resident pastors and may not be replaced. I suggest you look at your church. You may be lucky to have a Sunday Mass or several, but for how much longer?

‘I suggest you look at your fellow parishioners at Mass. Who among your neighbours will continue to be the new leaders and carry on pastoral work in your parish, alongside a much smaller number of clergy? Who among them will lead prayer services and keep faith alive and active?’ he asked.

He said the one certainty ‘is the ongoing and sustained decline both in the numbers who practise and in the numbers of those who answer the Lord’s call to priesthood and religious life. ‘Some may think I have painted a somewhat dismal picture. It is the current reality as I see it, and as I know many of you see it too.’

Just nine men entered the seminary last year, and a fifth of all priests and brothers have died in the past three years, according to the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).

In 2004, there were 3,141 priests in Ireland but this has steadily declined in the past ten years, with 2,627 priests in 2014. The ACP said on Monday that an updated figure is not yet available. It’s believed the current number of priests is about 1,900.

The number of men interested in becoming priests is dwindling year on year, with 13 starting on the path to priesthood in 2020, 15 in 2019 and 17 in 2018.

Just nine men entered the seminary last year, and a fifth of all priests and brothers have died in the past three years, according to the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).

However, Archbishop Duffy urged people not to lose hope.

‘The landscape of the Catholic Church in Ireland, as you know, has been changing for some time and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future,’ he said.

‘Each diocese has its own story of this reality. Every parish will be affected by this in terms of the number of clergy available and the number and frequency of Masses.

‘While we must face it and work with it, we must not lose hope. We have the Lord with us and He will lead us through this time of transition and restructuring,’ he said.

He recalled that, when he became archbishop in January, he referenced a report on the future of the Church that was being prepared for the Vatican.

Archbishop Dermot Farrell
Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell acknowledged earlier this year that the ‘shortage of vocations… could be discerned as God calling for change in the Church’.

That report, due to be sent by August 15, includes views from Catholics across the country on celibacy, attitudes to the gay and lesbian community, women priests and cohabiting couples.

Father Brendan Hoban of the ACP said more emphasis will have to be placed on lay people.

‘There was a time when a priest had less work to do as he reached retirement age, but not any more. You have priests covering two or three parishes and up to five churches. Their workload is going up and up as the number of priests declines,’ he said.

Fr Hoban said he doesn’t think vocations can be revived and most priests now accept that greater lay participation is required.

Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell acknowledged earlier this year that the ‘shortage of vocations… could be discerned as God calling for change in the Church’.

The Catholic Communications Office said the nine new seminarians bring to 64 the total number studying for the priesthood.

Complete Article HERE!

Vatican slams German reformers, warns of potential for schism

The Holy See rebuked the progressive “Synodal Path,” which seeks more agency for lay members, saying it has no authority on doctrine. They warned that issues taken up by the group could split the Catholic Church.

Shepherds in Rome have been criticized for the mishandling of scandals but refuse to share power with the flock

The Vatican on Thursday issued a terse statement on the progressive German Catholic movement known as the “Synodal Path.” The statement warned German reformers they had no authority to instruct bishops on moral or doctrinal matters.

Moreover, the Holy See made clear that it views the Synodal Path’s calls for addressing homosexuality, celibacy, and women in the Church as divisive and warned those calls could cause a fracture.

Members of the Synodal Path, a group made up of equal numbers of German bishops and lay Catholics, meet regularly. In February, they called on the Catholic Church to allow priests to marry, women to become deacons, and same-sex couples to receive the Church’s blessing.

The Vatican, or Holy See, said the Synodal Path, “does not have the faculty to oblige bishops and the faithful to assume new forms of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”

To do so, read the statement, “would represent a wound to ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church.”

German reformers responded to Vatican statement with ‘astonishment’

Speaking on behalf of the Synodal Path, Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference Georg Bätzig and President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) Irme Stetter-Karp, said they were “astonished” at the “poor form” the Vatican had shown by releasing such a statement to the public without putting a name to it.

Both Bätzig and Stetter-Karp vowed there would be no “German deviation” but said it is their “responsibility to clearly point out where change is needed.” The two say the problems they are addressing are not unique to Germany, but common to dioceses all over the world.

Bätzig and Stetter-Karp voiced “bemused regret” over the fact that no direct communication with the Vatican had yet taken place.

On Saturday, the German Catholic women’s movement Maria 2.0 (Mary 2.0) said church leaders should not fear confrontation with the Vatican.

Theologian Maria Mesrian, who represents the group, told Deutschlandfunk Radio that the bishops will have to “decide whether they want a living church in Germany or whether they would rather lead a dead institution.”

Mesrian said the Vatican is all about “power and the unity of the omnipresent church.”

Hundreds of thousands leave Catholic Church over lack of reform

The German group, formed in the wake of woefully mishandled clergy sexual abuse scandals, also calls for ordinary Catholics to have more of a say in how the Church operates. The Vatican again warned that if national Churches chose to pursue their own paths they would, “weaken, rot and die.”

In 2021, 360,000 Catholics formally left the German Church— which has 22 million members in the country and rakes in €6.45 billion ($6.58 billion) in church taxes every year — in protest at corruption and abuse

Although progressive European and US Catholics would likely be willing to support progressive issues, such as blessing same-sex relationships and ordaining women, Rome would risk backlash with fast-growing South American and African congregations.

In 2019, Pope Francis warned German bishops against the temptation to change for the sake of appeasing certain groups or ideas. Observers speculate that the reforms could leave the Catholic Church open to a splintering, similar to the one which befell the Anglican and Protestant Churches after they introduced similar changes.

According to the Vatican statement, any changes to teaching on morals or doctrine must be taken up by the Church’s own synodal path. The Holy See said preliminary consultations are already being held globally in preparation for a meeting of bishops next year in Rome.

The next gathering of the German Synodal Path is scheduled to convene on September 8-10.