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!

‘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!

The Catholic Church should end its policy of celibacy for priests

The Catholic Church is desperately short of priests. If they dropped their celibacy and male-only requirements, it would open up a stimulating new pool.

By Gerry O’Shea

I cannot think of one good reason for the Catholic church to continue its policy of compulsory celibacy for priests. I search my mind in vain for any cogent explanation for maintaining the present damaging discipline.

Up to the Second Lateran Council in 1139, most priests married, sharing that experience with the majority of the families in the pews. It seems that the main reason for the unfortunate policy alteration related to priests’ children claiming inheritance based on parentage. Understandably, this clashed with the church’s commitment to maintain ownership of any accumulated wealth.

The inheritance problem could and should have been dealt with by other means than the extreme prohibition against marriage by priests. Sigmund Freud asserts that after self-preservation, the next most demanding human drive involves procreation, and celibates must find ways to respond to that human sexual imperative as much as married men.

In the last 50 years, the Roman Catholic Church has been battered by a seemingly endless succession of child-abuse scandals. We are talking about priests and brothers demanding a full range of sexual favors from innocent children and using the power of their clerical status to intimidate their victims into silence about their “special relationship.”

If the dire behavior was reported to the church authorities, the bishops and other powerful men in chancery offices sought to protect their institution by moving the culprits around where, in a new setting, they often continued their sexual rampage. Parents trusted these men because of the roman collar they were wearing.

Abused children felt isolated and many suffered long-term negative consequences, including a plethora of suicides. It is hard to imagine the sense of abandonment felt by the church faithful as the depth of the betrayal sank in.

Today, clerical leaders have lost credibility and carry a red question mark on their soutanes.

Predictably, disillusioned Catholics left the church in droves as they realized the early defense metaphor about a few bad apples was fatuous when the reality showed the whole orchard rotting. Trust in the American church among parishioners fell from a credible 70 percent to a measly 20 percent, and weekly Mass attendance folded from 31 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2021.

Revelations are still flowing in as major diocesan and national organizations reveal that the rot was not confined to any geographical area. The stories from missionary countries, staffed mostly by Western priests and brothers, are only seeping out now.

Some of these men making their way into cultures with different sexual traditions and expectations found satisfaction with mature local women. Children from these clandestine relationships present new challenges, especially for the welfare of unclaimed children.

A French investigation last year concluded that at least 216,000 children had been abused there over the last 70 years. The numbers from other inquiries are just as damning. Early indications from an ongoing major Portuguese probe suggest that another bombshell revelation is on the way from that Catholic country.

The dismal numbers have fueled calls for change. Already strict instructions from Rome have ensured that any church official – priest, brother, or layman – credibly accused of misbehavior in the sexual area is immediately suspended and the local police are informed of the alleged transgression – very different from past practices.

Church leaders regularly trot out the spurious argument that by forgoing marriage priests emulate Jesus and can devote themselves more fully to their flock. In fact, Christ chose mostly married men among his apostles, and we read in Matthew’s gospel that he healed Peter’s mother-in-law who was suffering from a fever.

The disastrous handling of the abuse crisis by male celibates has raised the important question of how parents would have dealt with it if they had any clout. Would they have hushed up the allegations and shuffled the pervert priests around to other parishes, hoping, somehow, that they would behave differently in a new place?

Sex abusers seem to be unusually common among the clergy, perhaps because the job offers a plenitude of opportunity to meet with children and, until recently, to enjoy unqualified parental approval for this access. Some professionals estimate that between six to nine percent of priests have strong pedophile tendencies by comparison with one to three percent in the general population.

Irish psychologist Marie Keenan argues that abusive priests are products of a twisted formation system that left them fixated at an adolescent level of sexual development.

The first acknowledged Christian theologian, Tertullian, viewed sexuality as a “bubbling cesspit of desire.” For him, it was the sin that transcended all others and women were seen as man’s downfall, a view that was later seconded by Augustine of Hippo whose misogynistic thinking still influences Rome’s approach to females.

Reflecting on this whole area of caring for the young, women are far less likely to engage in sexually abusive behavior than men.

Many Eastern-rite churches, aligned to Rome, let their priests marry before ordination. Significantly, these churches have low levels of reported sex abuse.

The Catholic Church is desperately short of priests. If they dropped their celibacy and male-only requirements, it would open up a stimulating new pool. Many aspirants are unwilling to give up sex and parenting, and that will continue as a deterrent until the Vatican changes the rules.

Priestly celibacy continues as a topic of contentious debate among the 1.4 billion Catholics worldwide. Outside of Africa, a clear majority of the church members want change.

This carries some weight but is not determinative. The prelates, the men with the power, must be convinced of the need for new ecclesial structures, and most will use any phony argument to maintain the status quo and their own continuing authority.

Leave aside for a moment the various power games that many in the hierarchy will continue to play to justify holding on to the status quo, and concentrate instead on the awful damage that mandatory celibacy does to the men who are forced to follow this outdated and dehumanizing rule.

Obligatory virginity for priests may have made sense in the culture of the 12th century, but it certainly does not today.

In a recent speech Desmond Cahill, an Australian professor and expert on world religions, says many priests “are terrorized with their own sexual desire.”

Father Daniel O’Leary from the village of Rathmore in Co. Kerry served as a parish priest and theology professor in England until his death a few years ago. He authored a dozen books, and in his last essay before he faced what he called “the final inspection” he wrote movingly of celibacy as “a kind of sin, an assault against nature and God’s will. This mandatory celibacy does violence to a priest’s humanity and leaves wounds on his ministry.”

Is there any chance that Rome will heed O’Leary’s profound words and move from its antiquated ways?

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.

 

Spanish Church to mull optional celibacy and women priests

Spanish Catholics want Rome to consider talks on the future of the priesthood including optional celibacy, the ordination of women, and also of married men.

Spanish priests celebrate a mass at the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona.

Spanish Catholics want Rome to consider talks on the future of the priesthood including optional celibacy, the ordination of women and also of married men, a key document showed Saturday.

The document, a copy of which was seen by AFP, was unveiled by the CEE Episcopal Conference that groups Spain’s leading bishops at a 600-strong gathering in Madrid.

It was drawn up after months of consultation with more than 215,000 people, mostly lay people but also priests and bishops, with the proposals to be condensed into a final document that will be presented to next year’s Bishops in Synod assembly at the Vatican.

In it, they stress “the need to discern in greater depth about the question of optional celibacy for priests and the ordination of married people; to a lesser extent, the issue of the ordination of women has also arisen,” it said, while noting such issues were raised only in certain dioceses.

“There is a clear request that, as a Church, we hold dialogue about these issues… to be able to offer a more holistic approach to our society,” it said. It also stressed the need to “rethink the role of women in the Church” to
give them “greater leadership and responsibility” notably in places “where decisions are made”.

There was also “a need for greater care” for those who have been divorced or remarried or with an alternative sexual orientation. “We feel that, as a Church… we must welcome and accompany each person in their specific situation,” it said.

The document was unveiled just months after lawmakers approved Spain’s first official probe into child sex abuse within the Catholic Church through an expert independent committee.

The Church itself also took its first steps earlier this year towards addressing alleged abuse by clergy by engaging lawyers to conduct a year-long investigation that will take cues from similar probes in France and Germany.

Complete Article HERE!