One of the characteristics of the Church of our times is the emergence of regular, serious and structural forums for listening to the People of God.
There is a variety of ways in which this can be done. Sometimes, it can be on a national level — for instance, plans are being made in Ireland for a synod that will, among other things, hear from people who were raised as Catholic, but have walked away from the Church. In Australia, the Plenary Council process is well underway, with feedback from Catholics having been distilled into a working document, looking ahead to its first assembly in October, which will be held in “multi-modal” form online. In Germany, the “synodal path” process is underway, although some would say that this has generated as much heat as it has light.
In this country, the last such forum, on a national basis, was probably the submission processes that took place before synods of bishops in Rome on the family and on young people, faith and vocational discernment. In 2014, the New Zealand bishops received more than 2000 responses to questions sent out ahead of the first family synod. Those responses formed the basis for the New Zealand bishops’ contribution at the synod.
There have also been more local efforts here, such as diocesan synods, bishops’ forums, consultation on the future of parishes and the like. More permanent structures, such as diocesan pastoral councils and parish pastoral councils also play their part.
Are they really working? People who are involved, or who have been involved, will have their own answers.
But it is instructive to look at the working document prepared following phases of listening, dialogue and discernment in Australia’s Plenary Council process. Many of the problems and challenges identified there would also likely apply here, where the Church, by and large, does not have the resources that our co-religionists across the Tasman have.
Analysing the Plenary Council working document in a series of articles in The Catholic Weekly, from Sydney, columnist Dr Philippa Martyr identified some trends in the Catholic community there that are evident here too.
She noted the document’s admission that “many Catholics, for a variety of reasons, did not engage directly” with the listening and dialogue processes.
“I heard from some of these people,” Dr Martyr wrote, “who told me they’d been involved in processes like this before. Their consensus? The conclusions are already written by the people who always make the decisions. Church leadership needs to address this major breach of trust if we are to move forward.”
Dr Martyr lamented that “the Plenary Council process has laid bare a truly dismal ignorance of basic Church teaching, leading to divisions that drill down to parish level”. The sensus fidei, needed to protect the community of faith from falling into fundamental errors in matters of belief, “can’t operate in a vacuum like this”.
Dr Martyr admitted that the Church’s truths “about sex, love, and marriage can be expressed and taught better”. She suggested how such truths could be modelled, but acknowledged the challenges. More broadly, a variety of strategies for renewal were mentioned. But Dr Martyr wrote: “All genuine change in the Church will come from a personal and authentic relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Bureaucratic and organisational change is not going to produce the results needed, she noted the working document saying.
“This is nothing less than a call to personal holiness — bringing the full implications of your baptism into every aspect of your life, not just what you do for an hour on Sundays.”
Not all Catholics would see eye-to-eye with all of Dr Martyr’s view in this area. But there is plenty of food for thought there, especially as the widespread consultation with the People of God envisaged in the revised process for the Synod of Bishop is implemented in dioceses.