Catholicism’s reputation as a monolithic belief system is plainly no longer deserved. The latest evidence comes from what was until not long ago one of the most conservative parts of Western Catholicism, the Catholic Church in Ireland, writes The Tablet in an editorial.
A new survey of grass-roots opinion indicates that the typical Irish Catholic no longer accepts church teaching on a range of issues, mainly to do with sex and gender. Yet in terms of religious observance, they remain some of the most committed Catholics in Europe. But committed to what?
The survey suggests that church teaching in these areas is no longer regarded as normative, and dissent from it as exceptional. The true position is almost the reverse: it is no longer seen as dissent, but as normal.
It would be strange if that snapshot of the sensus fidelium were peculiar to Ireland. All the evidence, including surveys conducted in Britain, suggests it is not. How to respond to this situation is a considerable challenge for the Church’s leadership.
Its two approaches so far have been to launch an urgent program for the re-evangelisation of Europe, and to deal with dissent among bishops and clergy by enforcing doctrinal discipline. The latter, seen for instance in the silencing of two Irish Catholic priests by their religious order, is almost guaranteed to be counter-productive.
Such priests are not misleading the faithful but are responding to the state of lay opinion, which is already alienated from Church authority because of the child abuse scandals.
Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna is dealing with one of the most vocal expressions of “normative dissent” – the Austrian Priests’ Initiative – largely by appealing to its better nature. He has asked it for instance, not unreasonably, to delete the word “disobedience” from its manifesto.
He has not so far used a big stick, though no doubt he is under pressure from the Vatican to do so. Pope Benedict’s stern words at his Chrism Mass before Easter did not indicate a great desire for dialogue. He called on priests to conform to Christ, who embodied “obedience and humility unto the Cross”, and to renounce “much-vaunted self-fulfilment”.
FULL STORY Listen to the people (Tablet)