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Shifting the Stance of the Bishops – from conformity to freedom

10 January 2015
David Timbs

Catholic reform groups have chosen a very difficult task in attempting to persuade the Synod of Bishops to listen to them as their sisters and brothers and to influence them in such a way that they will be prepared to accept the risks associated with taking the Sensus Fidei Fidelium seriously. This would require them to step outside the boundaries of rigid conformity and genuinely walk the road with the faithful.

From long and painful experience, we have learnt that the bishops of Australia who have listened to us, heard what we are saying and have acted on that are few and far between. Even now that Francis has freed them up to break out of the thirty five years spent in the JP II-Benedict XVI obedience and compliance school, it will take a very long time for them to recover, if they ever had it, the sense of autonomy, self-possession and confidence in working outside their own symbiotic clique. Ever since the Irish bishops gained the ascendancy here, they have become collectively and institutionally deaf to the voice of the laity.

Secondly, as a coalition of lay groups we are faced with the problem that the papacy and the college of bishops are terrified, almost beyond belief, at the prospect of admitting fundamental mistakes in doctrine (at least in its formulation in some respects), discipline and governance. Certainly since the time of Leo XIII, the magisterium and the curia have created scorched earth around the status quo of self-interest.  

Effectively, they have become a church within the Church. What they fear the most is to admit error, lose face, honour and power and be converted to Christianity! I don’t say this lightly. I am more and more convinced that a sizeable proportion of the Roman Curia, including top cardinals, and maybe other hierarchs further afield, are functionally agnostic. We need to keep in mind just how powerful are those narcotics that Francis calls careerism, sycophantism and the primitive will to power.

What we are witnessing right now is at the very least the equivalent of the massive popular rejection of Humanae Vitae by the overwhelming majority of Catholic people, laity and clergy alike. The magisterium’s stubborn doctrinaire insistence on being right and the People of God being wrong has continued into the present and manifests itself in bleats about a massive failure of catechesis from 1968 onward.

Until our leaders from the Pope through to the local bishops acknowledge that the magisterium got it badly wrong with Humanae Vitae, then they will continue to lose any remaining credibility and respect. The magisterium’s failure to adjust to a new culture of transparency and co-responsibility will continue, at least de facto, to aid the spread of widespread scepticism among Catholics that is derived from the perception that since it got Humanae Vitae wrong, then what other doctrines – often promoted as of divine origin – are seriously flawed or just plain wrong?  The John Paul II confection, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, excluding the ordination of women, immediately comes to mind as an example.

In short, the College of Bishops have a great deal to get over before we see huge changes in doctrinal vision and governance style. Someone who has written wisely about these issues is Aaron Milavec (‘Papal Politics, Paul VI and Vatican II: The Reassertion of Papal Absolutism’, E-International Relations, 28 July, 2013). I include some quotations from his piece as discussion starters.

‘The noted American moral theologian, Richard McCormick, SJ, observes that the coercive atmosphere in the Church on the issue of birth control does irreversible harm to the credibility of the magisterium as a whole. By “coercive ecclesial atmosphere” I refer to a gathering of symptoms familiar to all. Bishops are appointed by ideological conformity. Theologians and bishops are disciplined [for nonconformity].  Obedience is demanded to all teachings. Judicial processes fail the criteria of due process.  Consultation is secret and highly selective, [and includes] only those qualifying who agree with a pretaken position…

It was contended that the Church could not modify its teaching on birth regulation because that teaching had been proposed unanimously as certain by the bishops around the world with the pope over a long period of time.

At this point Cardinal Suenens replied: “We have heard arguments based on ‘what the bishops all taught for decades.’ Well, the bishops did defend the classical position. But it was one imposed on them by authority. The bishops didn’t study the pros and cons. They received directives, they bowed to them, and they tried to explain them to their congregations.”’

 ‘As for the repressive conduct of the Vatican and a large segment of the hierarchy in these matters, one would do well to remember the cautionary words of Harry S. Truman: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” Many Catholics think that a tyranny cloaked in the garb of Jesus can hardly be a tyranny at all.  The truth, however, is just the opposite.  The Vatican’s insistence that they are merely implementing the sovereign will of God in these matters fundamentally distorts the person, the teaching, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The impulse toward dissent within the Church is usually not a resistance to authority as such; rather, it is the repeated and flagrant abuse of ecclesiastical authority that is being called into question.’



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