Bishop Vincent Long ‘My hope for the Plenary Council’
There is a sense in which the Church must change into a more Christ-like pattern of humility, simplicity and powerlessness as opposed to worldly triumphalism, splendour, dominance and power. Christians in the post-Royal Commission are like the Jews after the exile. The future of the Church, like the New Jerusalem that the exilic prophets often speak of, will not be revitalised by way of simply repeating what was done in the past. It will not be simply a restoration project or doing the old things better. Rather, we must have the courage to do new things; we must be open to the Spirit leading us to new horizons even as we tend to revert to the old ways.
Many Catholics hope that the Plenary Council 2020 will see a change in a number of priority issues such as greater inclusion of the laity, the role of women, clerical celibacy et cetera. While it is important that there is an openness and boldness to discuss these matters, what is more important is to envision a new way of being Church in the world.
The model of the Church based on clerical hegemony has run its course. Insofar as it is deeply embedded in patriarchal and monarchical structures, it is incapable of helping us to meet the needs of the world and culture in which we live. We have long moved out of the Ancien Régime and the age of absolute monarchs. We are on this side of the secular state and the rise of democracy. Yet it seems that the deeply entrenched patriarchal and monarchical structures of the Church have failed to correspond with our lived experience.
For the Church to flourish, it is crucial that we come to terms with the flaws of clericalism and move beyond its patriarchal and monarchical matrix. What is urgent is that we need to find fresh ways of being Church and fresh ways of ministry and service for both men and women disciples. New wine into new wineskins! The new wine of God’s unconditional love, radical inclusivity and equality needs to be poured into new wineskins of humility, mutuality, compassion and powerlessness. The old wineskins of triumphalism, authoritarianism and supremacy, abetted by clerical power, superiority, and rigidity are breaking.
It is worth noting that at the recent Synod on the Amazon, the synod bishops say they consider it “urgent” for the Church to “promote and confer ministries for men and women in an equitable manner.
“It is the Church of baptised men and women that we must strengthen by promoting ministeriality and, above all, the awareness of baptismal dignity,” they state. Beyond these generic statements, it remains to be seen how women can share in the decision-making power and institutionalised ministries in the Church.
The Church cannot have a better future if it persists in the old paradigm of triumphalism, self-reference and male dominance. So long as we continue to exclude women from the Church’s governance structures, decision-making processes and institutional functions, we deprive ourselves of the richness of our full humanity. So long as we continue to make women invisible and inferior in the Church’s language, liturgy, theology and law, we impoverish ourselves. Until we have truly incorporated the gift of women and the feminine dimension of our Christian faith, we will not be able to fully energise the life of the Church.
In the world where the rules are made by the strong and the structures of power favour the privileged, the Church must be true to its founding stories and responsive to the living presence of God. It must find ways to promote a community of equals and empower men and women disciples to share their gifts for human flourishing and the growth of the Kingdom.
Our founding stories are those of emancipation and liberation. It is the story of Moses and the movement of the new social order against the tyranny of empires that lies at the heart of the prophetic imagination. It inspires Mary who sings of the God who overthrows the powerful and lifts up the lowly. It is the story of Jesus who washes the feet of his followers and subverts the power structures that are tilted towards the strong. This narrative of the new reality that envisions radical reordering of human relationships was in fact the hallmark of the earliest Christian movement.
The Church must continue to embody the alternative relational paradigm. This alternative relational paradigm turns the world’s system of power structures on its head because it is rooted in the biblical narrative of the new social order of radical inclusion, justice and equality. The Church cannot have a prophetic voice in society if we fail to be the model egalitarian community where those disadvantaged on account of their race, gender, social status and disability find empowerment for a dignified life.