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.

  • Mach1965

    I totally agree and find the statistics fascinating, I think it’s time not only to modernise but to have some modern eyes.

  • ted hagan

    The Pope’s interference in the Charlie Gard case was clumsy, unhelpful and unwarranted.

  • Brett Lockhart

    It might be helpful if the recommendation was accompanied by some kind of precedent of when “the revelation of the human spirit” created the kind of renewal in the Church that Gladys and Denis Bradley advocate. Newman brought balance to the argument of papal infallibility at the time of the first Vatican Council and his “consulting the faithful on matters of doctrine” remains a classic. It is, however, a world away from modern analysis. Why do I get the impression that the diagnosis and the prescription for the undoubted crisis in the Irish Church is focused on yielding to principles, which have more to do with the sexual revolution than the Holy Spirit.? If the Church ordained women priests allowed priests to marry and changed its teaching on homosexuality abortion and divorce, would we see an outpouring of the Holy Spirit ? Many of the mainline Protestant Churches have signed up to all or part of the agenda. I don’t see how this has brought renewal…quite the reverse.Perhaps Rod Dreher is right and that the (St) Benedict option is the antidote to a culture which has tired of the Church.

  • Zorin001

    You could say that about nearly anyone outside the immediate circle of participanys who decided to stick their oar in.

  • ted hagan

    Yea, suppose so. I mean it was only the Pope after all.

  • William Kinmont

    Extrapolating this to its extreme would the church not end up as an athiest/humanist organisation.

  • Brian O’Neill

    For those wondering this is the Benedict option https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/04/the-benedict-option/

    I worry when people suggest cutting themselves of from society. It is a very sceptical view of the world that sees people as evil in some way or ungodly. That they feel they must shelter themselves and their children away from the evils of this world is in my mind anti Christian.

    I also take issue with Christians portraying themselves as some persecuted minority. There are other 1.2 billion Catholics in the world alone https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_by_country

    Yes church attendance is falling but show me in the Bible where Jesus says you must build a giant bureaucratic organisation in my name. It must use fear and oppression to control people. It must be corrupt and lust for power and money.

    I am a small c Christian but in my mind the traditional church’s are they very opposite to Christ’s teachings.

    To be clear my issue is not with Christians or any religion but with the centralised structures that hoard power and wealth.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Yes. Many of the things Catholics say they want are already available in other Christian churches. In America people jump around to different churches that suit their needs. We don’t do that here as people don’t want to be disloyal to their tribe and defect to them uns.

    While personally I am happy with female priests, married priests, gay priests etc I do accept the argument that if most practising Catholics want a traditional style of church they should be free to do so.

  • Zeno

    I seem to remember reading that there were over 35,000 different Christian Churches.

  • William Kinmont

    Why be a member of something you fundamentally disagree with when membership is voluntary.
    Start stripping away the rules that are out dated according to to days social norms or to scientific discovery eg(contraception and aids). Will you not approach the point where the GOD bit is questioned

  • Granni Trixie

    Strangely, the word “secular” to describe “the world” is not mentioned in the post or in comments. What I object to regularly, is that this S word tends to be used pejoratively as the polar opposite to ‘the Christian world’ – as though the former have left the church for lax lives in the latter – partaking of all the sex on offer etc. Yet I agree with what you imply Brian, that some leave the church because they want to live up to the law of loving ones neighbour as thyself and striving for justice and equality in society.

  • Granni Trixie

    To mention but one example.

  • Granni Trixie

    If only the Pope were applying himself wth similar alacrity to the problems of babies now grown up who seek justice and information concerning treatment by Church run institutions..not to mention priests.

  • Granni Trixie

    Surely it’s not so much the church many are tired of but its lack of transparency, equality, inclusivity not to mention a culture of misogyny. People are more clued up nowadays and know hyprocasy when it hits them in the eye. I actually think that reform from below is already underway despite attempts to stifle it from above. By “below” I include priests as well as rank and file churchgoers demanding change.

  • Brett Lockhart

    Not sure Brian that the aim of St Benedict was to cut oneself off per se, but to replenish and restore the gifts that God has given to us or to open the door of beauty to God by rediscovering, inter alia, the Mass the liturgy and the sacred music of the Church. Western civilisation was preserved by Irish monks and monasticism was previously the primary means of renewal in the Church. The call for a new monasticism in an age where beauty has been supplanted by autonomy and we have a vulgar and relativist culture is apposite. In so far as the Church has been guilty of the sins you list (and it certainly has) then that is a cause for shame but you cannot separate Christ from HIs body and the Church is not merely a human institution.

  • William Kinmont

    Think i am mostly on the same page as you but would take issue re the bible and fear. is it not full of stories of terrible fates for those who do not follow its particular god

  • William Kinmont

    i like those ones where they get bitten by snakes

  • Zeno

    LOL, yeah I remember seeing that.

  • Brian O’Neill

    To be honest I never heard of this St Benedict concept till you mentioned it. So I could be picking it up wrong.

    But it you think about it in all of human history knowledge has never been more accessible than now.

    When you consider a few hundred years ago they hand to hand copy the Bible now you can carry a copy anywhere you like on your phone.

    Can you expand on this ‘ beauty has been supplanted by autonomy and we have a vulgar and relativist culture is apposite’

    Do you mean that people are not selfish these days?

  • Brett Lockhart

    Knowledge and more specifically information has expanded exponentially, but not sure we have expanded in virtue. Ideologically the West has cut itself off from its Christian roots and developed a new ideology where personal autonomy and a kind of faux tolerance are the supreme virtues. We have supplanted our inner longing for transcendence with various ersatz spiritualities, which have the same impact as a McDonald’s! .When we walk into Notre Dame or Chartres we glimpse a previous culture which prized virtue self sacrifice and yes beauty. The modern version is I think coarse and selfish and society has lost its bearings. Where clericalism or the sins of the Church have abounded, (as in Ireland,) the process has accelerated. In this context the Church often has to return to its core and the values which inspired the Saints..hence the reference to St Benedict

  • Abucs

    Yes I agree. The western world took a very wrong turn in listening to the academics of the 20th century who were mainly populated by people of the failed and horrendous Marxist ideology. The church did well to stay away from those disgusting doctrines and help defeat the original form of it in Eastern Europe, For the church to run after derivations of this failed mindset now would be, if nothing else, an intellectual embarrassment.

  • Ros R

    the issues are not about “social norms”, the issues are fundamental issues of ethics, and a belief that discrimination based on aspects of anatomy is absolutely unethical. This is not “fad” or “trend”. As for contraception, why should this ONE medical advancement be condemned? I don’t see surgery or modern medications being condemned as against God’s will.

  • Ros R

    People in the US do not “jump around to different churches that suit their needs”. People make sincere and often heart rending choices based on ethics and a sincere quest for a spiritual life which in line with what they honestly belief God wishes for them. It is not some frivolous desire for a different music style or more or less incense. And the basic ethical differences with the Roman Catholic church regarding discrimination based on anatomy are about ethics, about standing up for respecting the dignity and equality of all humans beings, this is not a trivial matter. And as for “tradition”, slavery was traditional and quite biblical, killing people who worshipped the wrong god was traditional, stoning people to death was traditional.

  • William Kinmont

    contraception is prohibited no?
    take a bible and strip away all the bits where violence or mistreatment against none believers women, or incest or complete innocents or animals is all condoned by or in the name of god and what is left.

  • Ros R

    It is not “faux tolerance”, it is the genuine belief in respecting and supporting the dignity of all human beings, it is the genuine belief that discrimination based on aspects of human anatomy is fundamentally and absolutely unethical. These are not trivial matters. As for “erzatz spiritualities”, please consider choosing not to judge another person’s experience of God. thank you for your time

  • Ros R

    regarding your mention of marxism, the new testament tells us to sell everything and give the money to the poor, or give the money to the community that it might be, one might infer, distributed according to need.

  • Brett Lockhart

    The problem with blogging is that there is insufficient room for context. I think the Christian Church has a good claim in its teaching to respecting the dignity of all human beings from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, which is why it opposes experimentation on human embryos and euthanasia. By “faux tolerance” I refer to the increasing tendency for those who espouse what might be described as the views of the metropolitan elite to indignantly reject any alternative view. The actions of the National Trust (before their U Turn) on requiring volunteers to wear Pride lanyards etc is an example.

    I would not presume to ever judge another person’s experience of God, but I think one can legitimately give a view on belief systems and their claims. New Age spirituality might be an example.

    I suppose Ros we need a means by which what we regard as”fundamentally and absolutely unethical” can be measured.The alternative is post modernism and deciding that everyone’s truth is the same (except we know that it isn’t)

  • Abucs

    It doesn’t say anything about taking by force other people’s stuff though and distributing it to whoever secular government ordains. Usually themselves. No, trying to steal other peoples stuff through skewed Christian reading and manufacturing morals has had its day. You shall not covert your neighbours property.

  • Granni Trixie

    First of all, the NT immediately recognised that it had made a mistake which it tried to rectify something even supporters of rights for gay people seemed to agree was the right thing to do.

    Secondly,I do think saying that the world lacks “virtue” begs questiOns regarding The worlds one mixes in. In mine for instance I am constantly impressed – moved even – at the sacrifices and care of people to help their fellow man. And whilst some probably see this as a Christian duty many do so as people identifying with the secular world because they have a social conscience.

  • Granni Trixie

    Or why divorced Catholics cannot receive communion which puts this “sin” above that of murdering someone (as long as you say sorry).
    Crazy or what?