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Church must listen to what the faithful tell it – and act

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Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus prayer from his window at the Vatican. Photo: Vatican Media

Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus prayer from his window at the Vatican. Photo: Vatican Media

Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus prayer from his window at the Vatican. Photo: Vatican Media

Neither a ladder nor a telescope was required for the Catholic Church in Ireland to see its scale of decline. Archbishop of Tuam Dr Francis Duffy spelled it out dramatically earlier this month when he said: “All trends are dramatically downwards with no turning point in sight. I suggest you look at your priest, he may be the last in a long line of resident pastors and may not be replaced.”

So, it is no exaggeration to say the newly published National Synthesis Document represents a make-or-break moment. Its findings, based on consultation with thousands of Irish Catholics, represent a lifeline.

Some will view the demise as a tragedy, others will regard it as just deserts that an institution promising salvation has been brought down by its own weakness. But what this document is attempting to do is listen to the lay person.

It ought to surprise no one – other than an arcane doctrine-bound Vatican elite – that the role of women was a major concern for respondents.

A persistent complaint has been that the church is determined to protect the pulpit as a last bastion of the patriarchy, utterly impervious to change.

But if it is to find the new energy and vitality it so desperately needs, it must address the fact that, for many, the relegation of women is indefensible and unjust. Pope Francis has attempted to tilt the balance, but the moves have been tentative.

In 2020, the first woman was appointed to a managerial position in the Vatican’s most important office, the Secretariat of State. In the same year, the world’s bishops suggested Francis reconvene a commission he had created to study the ordination of women as permanent deacons. They would be able to perform some of the duties of priests but not celebrate mass or hear confessions.

For many Catholics, the lack of real power given to women within the church affirms its status as an anachronism.

The treatment of the LGBTQ+ community was also high on the list, in terms of a failure to reach out or imagine a more inclusive future.

These welcome conversations were instigated by Francis in preparation for a synod in Rome in October next year.

Submissions also recorded how physical, sexual and emotional abuse and their concealment by the church in Ireland were described as an “open wound”.

The treatment of that wound is still a source of pain for too many.

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And the time for unquestioning obedience has long ended.

The collapse of the moral authority of the church can only be rebuilt from the ground up.

This consultation confirms feelings of estrangement and betrayal.

The fact that the Vatican has chosen to involve its congregation in how it might reform will be regarded as positive.

But trust will only begin to be restored when it shows it has listened and acts on the answers, whether it likes them or not.


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