Listening key for Church reform in our time

dr myriam1

The royal commission investigation of sexual abuse in care in New Zealand is likely to highlight systemic problems in the Church that will prompt calls for reform.

This is what has happened in other countries and reform processes have started in places like Australia and Germany, said Dr Myriam Wijlens at a lecture in Auckland on March 11.

Dr Wijlens, who is a theologian, canon law professor and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, stressed that reform has to address issues at their roots, touching and impacting the whole body of the faithful.

She said guidance for the necessary reform comes from the Second Vatican Council.

The Holy Spirit guided the council and is also guiding its reception and implementation, even though different Church members and local churches might be at different points in the process.

Pope Francis has picked up on some key aspects of Vatican II teaching in the way he has stressed the importance of “synodality” in the Church.

Most important in his understanding is how he sees the need that the whole Church, all the faithful, begin by listening to the Word of God and to each other. This occurred first in the synod on the family in 2014 and 2015. Bishops were not asked to report what they think the faithful believe, but rather they had to ask the faithful themselves to report what they believe. This was something new.  It had not happened in previous synods, Dr Wijlens explained.

“Synodality thus begins with listening to all [the] faithful. This method will impact all future synods. It will also impact all discernment and decision-making processes on all levels in the Church on all major topics,” she said.

Dr Wijlens, who is Dutch and is a Professor of Canon Law at the University of Erfurt in Germany, explained how this approach derived from the Second Vatican Council’s location of the office of the bishop within a theology of the People of God.

Key to this is a new understanding of revelation itself.

“Before the council, revelation was a set of doctrines about God formulated by the hierarchy that the laity would learn by heart. Vatican II understands revelation as God speaking to men and women as friends to enter with them in fellowship. It is an encounter with God. The Holy Spirit leads into relationship and understanding and of decisive importance is that the Word of God is listened to and heard by all [the] faithful – including the ordained members of the People of God,” she said.

“Revelation occurs within the whole People of God in a complex network of relations between all the faithful, be they laity, religious, theologians, bishops, pope, college of bishops. It can only be understood under the guidance of the Holy Spirit through a complex interaction of all the faithful – each and every one – according to his or her position and function.

“Such an understanding can only be appreciated in conjunction with the doctrine that, through baptism, all the faithful participate in the threefold ministry of Christ – priest, prophet and king. And that we all receive charisms as well as the doctrine that the Holy Spirit is active in each and every one.”

As a result of this, Vatican II introduced the doctrine of the “people of God” and inserted this in its document on the Church before the council spoke about the hierarchy. By doing so, it was then able to affirm the infallibility, not only of the pope and college of bishops, but of the whole Church.

Dr Wijlens quoted paragraph 12 of Lumen Gentium.

“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’, they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, [in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of (people) but truly the word of God].” (Lumen Gentium #12)


Important, therefore, Dr Wijlens said, is the insertion of the people of God before the treatise of the hierarchy and the new understanding of revelation. How did this impact the synod of bishops? The synod of bishops was the result of another debate in the council, which was to clarify the relationship between the pope and the (college of) bishops.

That treatise on that topic was not rewritten in light of the doctrine of the people of God. Hence two different understandings stood – so to speak – side by side.

“In itself this was not new. Vatican II does it time and again, as it is a peaceful way of renewing because almost all can find themselves into either the one or the other understanding,” Dr Wijlens said.

The council was aware of this, in as much as it was aware that not all issues were definitely decided. Often the council declared that the post-conciliar Church would have to deepen a new understanding. It was a trusting in the continuous working of the Holy Spirit and thus introduced a dynamic understanding of the faith. At the same time, it could give rise to post-conciliar tensions, Dr Wijlens said.

Pope Francis has struck out in a remarkable direction, in line with Vatican II teaching on revelation and the people of God, she said.

He begins with the people of God and locates the hierarchical authority within it. Pope Francis said that the sensus fidei (the sense of the faith – also called the sensus fidelium – the sense of the faithful) “prevents a rigid separation between the teaching and the learning Church, since the flock likewise has an instinctive ability to discern new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church”.

“The synod of bishops is the point of convergence of this listening process, conducted at every level of the Church’s life. The synod process begins by listening to the people of God, which shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, according to a principle dear to the Church in the first millennium – what touches all is to be discussed and decided by all,” the Pope said.

“He elaborates,” Dr Wijlens said, “that we have to continue to listen to the pastors. Through the synod the fathers – the bishops – act as authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses to the faith of the whole Church, but they need to discern carefully from the changing currents of public opinion.”


Dr Wijlens also spoke about the task faced by legislators in redrafting Church law after the council, given the different perspectives side-by-side in council documents. A middle path was adopted in the drafting of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Diocesan synods, diocesan pastoral councils and parish pastoral councils were all catered for.

“[But] it should be noted,” Dr Wijlens said, “that there is no institution in a diocese in which laity can participate that is obligatory for a bishop.”

“If a bishop wants to govern his diocese without the participation of any lay person, he is able to do that and he would act in conformity with the law of the Church. Yet, by doing so, he would not receive the new understanding of Vatican II.”

Dr Wijlens said that, during her recent visit to Australia, she discovered that only one third of Australian dioceses have a diocesan pastoral council. She understood that the situation was better in New Zealand dioceses.

But “if we go by the intentions of the Second Vatican Council, we have to say the diocesan pastoral council cannot be a mere option, it should be obligatory unless there are circumstances that prevent having such a council”.

Such circumstances could be where it is dangerous for Catholics to meet because of political conditions, she said.

Dr Wijlens said she wanted to be realistic.

“A bishop who does not internalise the theological notions will convoke a body for the sake of being able to say that he has such a body.”

“No legislator can ultimately determine how to use these bodies and how to use them best. What is required is an internal disposition on the side of the bishops to appreciate the gifts of baptism and thus to listen to the working of the Spirit among the faithful, as well as on the side of the baptised to see and discover their own responsibility to work for the well-being of the mission of the Church.”

Dr Wijlens finished her talk with a cautionary note: “Canon law does not solve all problems. [What is] necessary is really an internal disposition to listen to the Word of God and to each other, to discern what the Holy Spirit is conveying to us here and now.”

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Michael Otto

Reader Interactions


  1. Hamish MacDonald says

    The basic issue with priestly pedophilia has to do with power.
    Priesthood by virtue of their commitment in Christ reject what Christ rejected.
    Thus power is rejected, as is clear in the three temptations of Jesus before he began his ministry.
    By embracing power other temptaions arise.
    It is important for priesthood to reflect long and often on the temptations of Christ.
    They can do well to enter into a coninued ongoing relationship with Our Blessed mother, who is
    mother to all, and particularly priesthood.
    They can also increase in grace by making Jean Vianney, patron saint of priests an essential in their ministry.
    On their ordination, they must enter into the Divine life of Christ, by assuming a meek and humble place and be
    utterly aware of the boundaries priesthood undertake in order to fulfil their place in the economy of salvation.
    Power is not Love.
    True priesthood choose to love.
    God alone judges their lives.

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