Renewal it seems, may be a bit like beauty: in the eye of the beholder. I recall a sermon about how, oh if only we dressed in ‘Sunday best’, then everyone would want to join our Church! I had my doubts. Perhaps easier consensus is found bemoaning attendance numbers. Yet there are various reasons to turn up, so now that Pope Francis is ‘shaking things up’ for renewal, we need to ask what we hope to get once the dust settles.
Looking at the two Synods on the Family, I’d say right now, we’re in roughly three camps – two divided over what Jesus wants, and the larger third just watching from the sidelines. Who’s right?
I’ll come to Jesus in a bit. First, many see Francis picking up hopes from the 1970’s, for a more open Church. One that would catch up with the world. Those were popular hopes, but strangely our numbers began going down. By the end of the 70’s John Paul 2 had begun to call us to cast into the deep, to be authentic, not to pine after ‘progress’ like contraception, trial marriage, and women priests. At the same time, the secular atmosphere strengthened, and you listened to who you preferred. It became easy to forget Heaven and Hell if you wanted. Many wanted.
Result? The remnant in Church appeared a bit more united in purpose – everyone who didn’t like it had left! If I had a hope at the end of the Noughties, it was that perhaps we were forming a more faithful base, to counter the secular tide. But we were still weak in Christ (Matthew 13:58).
So then came Francis’ fresh approach: the supposedly excluded are included. Some people are excited, others fear losing authenticity, and most are just unsure. No surprise then the divided lay reactions captured by the press. You can even see the scope for activism. If I were a supporter of say, gay agenda progress in the Church, then what better tactic than voice hopes as an ‘included Catholic’. In the current atmosphere, I’d expect a pretty clear run.
Dear gentle reader, will it surprise you if I suggest many clergy may be more open to change than their congregations? Think about it, it’s harder to drop out if you’re in service, so you cling to hopes of change and lessen emphasis on what you don’t like. 1 in 10 British priests recently pleaded publicly with the Synod not to deform teaching on marriage. It was unprecedented, but still a minority stand. I’d love to be proved wrong here, but think a lot of our clergy never bought into the heart of JP2 and Benedict 16’s teaching, like on contraception. I look back how the Catholic Times newspaper used to reflect JP2’s teaching with very gentle opposing voices. Then a priest-columnist expanded much further into areas seemingly impossible before Francis: including change on handling remarriage and sexuality. There seemed to me a prolonged dearth of balancing views in both columns and letters, suggesting a revised editorial initiative. The internet soon exploded with excitement over Cardinals pushing for change (who we later found had a secret network – the Sankt-Gallen group – which claims Francis’ support). I was struck how accurately the paper had anticipated their lines before they spoke. Was it coincidence, supernatural guidance, or is the network much larger? The fact the paper continued to be promoted in our churches also suggests to me some sympathy.
So much for the proportions, but who’s right? Committed Christians sometimes make the mistake of thinking that their spiritual path or understanding is the only one the Spirit uses. So we hear the dressing up panacea above, the Charismatic panacea, the Latin liturgy panacea, and the personal encounter panacea. Little surprise we now hear the ‘come as you are, no change required panacea’! Not all spiritual experiences are equal though, which is why we’re Catholic: the ‘Pontiff’ is supposed to ‘bridge’ all the good things the Spirit does in any or all of the above, for the greater good. But he has to filter out error as well.
It seems to me that those who call “come to the Eucharist as you are” (we’re not talking clothes here!), fail to anticipate they would build an army of the blind to lead the blind (Matthew 15:14 & Matthew 15:19). I say this with no heart for condemnation, but believing that it’s knowing the truth that sets us free (John 8:32).
Consider this night-time metaphor – ‘how can anyone land the plane if the runway lights are out? I’ve yet to hear the so called progressives say, at what point of the journey, they would encourage those divorced and then remarried outside the recognition of the Church, to stop you-know-what? Ignorance can mitigate sin only so long as ignorance is maintained. Do our Church leaders really want to keep the landing-lights turned off deliberately and indefinitely?
So to Jesus: we mustn’t ask what He hopes, for God doesn’t hope in the colloquial sense. He asks, and the requests don’t change with the decade. Revelation is for all time. Never mind Francis’ ‘shake it up’, ‘I’m not telling you yet’ tactics. He can’t cancel the revelation of what is marriage, because this forms a core of the opening and closing covers of Scripture itself. When the dust settles, God’s saving plan will be the same it was – Mark 1:15 – “repent and believe the Gospel“!