Voices of challenge and hope


Distinguished speakers shared their reflections on issues facing the church in a series of virtual meetings organised by lay Catholics in Scotland this summer.

The Scottish Laity Network takes its inspiration from the gospel and the insights of the Second Vatican Council. Its members seek to discern and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and by sharing their experiences aim to help find constructive solutions to issues which confront the church and the world today.

The network embarked on a journey of discernment this summer on the future of the church after the pandemic with the help of distinguished speakers from Europe and the USA. Over 130 people registered for a series of Zoom meetings which ran weekly from May to July. Scots were joined by people from England, Ireland, Wales, Spain, Australia, the US, Tanzania and El Salvador. They listened to the speakers, asked questions, and shared what they had heard with one another, and how they might respond.

The speakers brought a rich diversity of thought and experience to the journey. First was American Jesuit Fr Jim Martin, who introduced the principles of discernment, which are rooted in prayer. He provided practical guidance on how to discern the promptings of the Spirit and observed that the synod, which Pope Francis has put at the centre of church reform, is a processes of discernment in which the creator deals directly with the created. Those who criticise the pope, he suggested, do not believe this is possible and choose instead to focus on rules.

The second talk was given by theologian and church historian Massimo Faggioli, who reflected on the church in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In terms of liturgy, he said he had expected more courage of church leaders, with greater encouragement for domestic liturgies and more of a focus on the word of God instead of livestreamed Masses and rosaries. He saw this as a symptom of the church’s failure to implement Vatican II, especially in relation to scripture.

The pandemic revealed a paradox, he suggested; we were without the sacraments, but there was a great deal of sacramentality, as people began to see God in small moments. The church fought to go back to normal without understanding this opportunity.

In terms of ecclesiology, the pandemic has underlined that the church is not an island which is above the problems of the world. It is about solidarity.

In terms of spirituality, the pandemic has revealed how hungry we are for symbols, signs and spaces. There is a welcome emphasis on what we do rather than a list of ‘don’ts’. And we need to cultivate the virtue of hope, which is not the same as optimism.

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh spoke the following week about Pope Francis’ response to the Covid crisis. Francis sees this as a time of tribulation, he said, an invitation to change; a time of closeness, of human solidarity and the overflowing of kindness; a time of revelation, a hermeneutic shift, a new way of seeing. We thought, wrongly, that we could stay healthy in a world that is sick. It is a time to see the poor, to allow ourselves to be moved to tears by their suffering. A time for remembering – Francis critiqued, for example, the selective remembering of the Normandy landings which forgot those who were killed. A time of discernment, to choose what matters and what is of value, to reflect on the price we have paid for our model of economic growth.

Dr Lorna Gold, head of policy and advocacy at the Irish aid agency Trocaire, shared her journey of commitment to tackling climate change. She recalled a life changing moment when she visited a child headed family in Tanzania where a 15-year-old was caring for four younger siblings after their parents had died of AIDS. She felt helpless and privileged. She met people in Africa whose experience of climate change undid their efforts to work their way out of poverty. When she thought about the future of her own children she felt outrage: why were we not all mobilising to save the future?

When Laudato Sí was published in 2015 she rejoiced that the church was at last catching up with scientific and human reality. The encyclical offers a bridge between faith, culture and science and calls us to embrace a gospel lifestyle of simplicity and new ways of living.

Lorna was part of the ‘slow and difficult’ process of getting the Irish bishops to agree to disinvest from fossil fuels. She is now deeply involved in the global Catholic Climate Change movement which started as a tiny seed in 2015 and now has 900 groups of people seeking to live out the message of Laudato Sí.

Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland and currently professor of children, law and religion at Glasgow University, recently completed a doctorate in canon law. She was the fourth speaker and considered the purpose and limitations of canon law.

She began by stating her love of the church and her desire to see it flourish. But she pointed out that the management and magisterium of the church are contested spaces, and that poor management feeds the sense of dysfunction within the church.

Canon law is the man-made law of the church, first codified in 1917 and revised in 1983 in the light of Vatican II. It can only be changed by the pope or a Vatican Council. The 1983 code’s thinking on rights and obligations was informed by the 1945 UN declaration of human rights. These rights are, however, constrained by the obligation in canon law for Catholics to be obedient to the magisterium and to maintain communion with the church – ie not create dissent.

In 1990 the Holy See became the fourth state party to sign up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes freedom of religion and freedom to change religion. As a signatory, the church is obliged to implement its principles in its own laws. Twenty years later it argues that it doesn’t have to do so.

The issues of canon law, human rights and the primacy of conscience are linked by baptism. The failure of the Holy See to address the effects of baptism in human rights law, she argued, is a serious flaw in the christening contract. Canon law insists that the baptised are enrolled in the church, and as members they have rights and obligations for life. Infant baptism is not a problem if we understand it in terms of gift, but it has legal consequences: we are enrolled as members of the church, with duties and obligations, but no opportunity to say whether we accept or reject them. Over 84% of Catholics were baptised as children. Is it legitimate to impose duties and obligations on a non-sentient child, who is never given the opportunity to evaluate them, and encounters catechesis as an obligation, not an invitation? A child who has freedom of religion, belief and thought which is nowhere acknowledged in the code of canon law, despite the fact that the Holy See has signed up to the UN convention?

We need to separate the beautiful gift of baptism, she argued, from man-made laws. Today people are educated about their human rights. We need to shift from a catechesis of obligation to one of invitation.

Mary was also asked to speak about the challenge of women and LGBTI members to the church. Only 22% of roles in the curia are held by women, she pointed out, and none of them heads up a dicastery. Pope Francis has convened four synods in which no woman had a vote. Yet the church has 600 million female members.

In relation to homosexuality, she argued that the church’s language of ‘intrinsically disordered’ translates into homophobia, name calling and pain for gay Catholics.

The veteran American justice and peace activist, Jim Wallace, was the next speaker. He described the Covid pandemic as a Kairos moment for the church and linked it with the US response to the killing of George Floyd. He describes racism as America’s original sin. He described the coming together of faith leaders in the USA and a growing focus on the need to change unjust systems; to move from prayer, to protest, to policy.

He described the ‘Reclaiming Jesus’ movement which has grown up in the US and its involvement in this year’s election campaign which will focus on voter protection to ensure that black people can cast their votes.

The final talk in the series was given by Fr Augusto Zampini of the Vatican’s Covid-19 Commission, was set up at Pope Francis’ request to ‘prepare the future’. Fr Zampini described the Commission’s ambitious programme of work, which seeks to address the interconnected issues of economics, health, ecology and security in co-operation with experts around the world.

The commission’s detailed programme, together with the papers it has commissioned, is set out on its website at http://www.humandevelopment.va/en/vatican-covid-19/ultime-notizie.html.

The organisers of the journey of discernment are now collating the thoughts and suggestions that have emerged from the weekly meetings in order to inform the next steps. We owe them a debt of gratitude for bringing speakers from Europe and America into homes around the country in a stimulating process of listening and learning.

Mary Cullen is the editor of Open House

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.