Denis Bradley: The Church Needs a Consultation of the Unfaithful

Writing in today’s Irish News, former priest Denis Bradley argues that what the Catholic Church needs to renew itself is a ‘consultation of the unfaithful.’

Reflecting on how aging priests, a lack of vocations, and vows of celibacy are symptomatic of a deeper malaise, Bradley rightly acknowledges that in recent years the Church has attempted a number of ‘listening exercises’ in an effort to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying through the church. The fact that the so-called ‘institutional’ Church now recognizes that the voice of the laity can communicate the voice of the Holy Spirit is progress of sorts.

But Bradley implies there is no future for a Church that turns in on itself and listens only to those who ‘have little or no antagonism to the present governance of the Catholic Church.’ In other words – the people who are likely to pitch up at a ‘listening exercise’ in the local parish. He writes:

What would be interesting would be a consultation with the ‘unfaithful’. To hear the thoughts and encourage the support of those who are not gospel greedy, those who are just hanging in there, including former clerics and former nuns who, in the eyes of many of the clerics and the faithful, have sinned or reneged on their vows. (It is surprising the number of people who don’t know that diocesan priests don’t take vows ). It should especially involve women who feel deeply offended by the misogyny of the Church and homosexuals who have been insulted and marginalised.

Within that forum there would surely be the revelation of the human spirit in this time and in this place. It would likely present the modern anxieties and fears, coupled with the aspirations, the hopes and the courage of the ‘smelly sheep’ as Pope Francis describes us.

Within that cauldron the debate would be fearsome. It would be all over the place and it would throw up the most outlandish and impracticable ideas. But it would also reveal some of the flavour and some of the texture that a renewed Church would need to embrace and manifest.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the institutional Church already has a good idea of what it might hear in a ‘consultation of the unfaithful.’

Indeed, back in 2012 the Association of Catholic Priests – an organization oft-criticized by the hierarchy for its more radical stances – conducted a poll of Catholics in Ireland that revealed that almost 90% think that priests should be allowed to marry.

What’s more, 77% said women should be ordained and 60% disagreed with the Church’s official teachings on homosexuality.

Bradley also writes of Pope Francis:

While he is charismatic and enormously popular and influential within and without the Church, he has the disturbing habit of answering questions with a further question of ‘what do you think yourself?’

The Catholic Church will  never be governed by opinion poll. But the Association of Catholic Priests poll begins to answer Francis’ ‘what do you think yourself?’ question.

As Bradley hints, the institutional Church may think it can ignore the answers it disagrees with, dismissing those who hold those views as unfaithful. But in doing so it may miss ‘the revelation of the human spirit’ that could help it respond with compassion to the people and the problems of 21st Century Ireland.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at