Wind of change whistling through the Vatican
Fr Kevin Hegarty
The election of Pope Francis in March 2013 has heralded a new era of openness and transparency in the Catholic Church. It has been especially felt by liberal Catholics who were marginalised during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XV1. What has happened mirrors some words from the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ where Paul and Barnabas put ‘fresh heart’ in the Disciples.
The new spirit was reflected recently in Limerick where delegates from Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, India, Austria and Switzerland met to discuss ecclesiastical governance, the accountability of hierarchies the full participation of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, and the place of LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics and inter-faith families in the life of the church.
The role of women in Catholicism was central to the discussion. According to Deborah Rose Milavec, Executive Director of the US-based reform group, Future Church: “We think that there are many ways that the role of women can be improved within the church without even addressing ordination.”
Inspired by Pope Francis’ call for a more incisive presence of women in the church and a new theology on women, she continued: “One suggestion we are putting forward is the creation of a council of women, like the commission for the protection of children and his council of cardinals, which would advise him and become a mechanism for launching something like a gender policy within the Vatican and the Church.”
She is hopeful he will respond positively as “there is a new open space, the system of silencing is being lifted to some degree. He is stirring up the pot and asking for dialogue. If we have that kind of opening we can bring in new elements.”
Sr Jeanine Gramick also attended the conference. She is a founder of “New Ways Ministry” which cares for LGBT people. She bears a war wound from the papacy of John Paul II. In 1990 she was censored for her work by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.
She claimed that Francis’ comment, “Who am I to judge”, in relation to gays, “reverberated around the world”. While the church’s insensitive teaching on homosexuality has not yet changed, she believes his comment is a powerful message of hope and reconciliation.
In February, she led a pilgrimage of LGBT people to Rome. She thought it significant that her group was brought to the front in an audience with the Pope.
“We took that as a mark of special treatment for LGBT people all over the world and that I think is the spirit of Francis.”
Participants at the conference also called for name accountability from church hierarchies and a devolution of authority from the Vatican to local churches. They expressed disappointment that many bishops seem less than enthusiastic in their response to the new spirit engendered by Pope Francis.
In an open letter to the Pope they exhort him to “clear the way for new forms of parish life, their ministry and their management. Let us open the priestly office to everyone who has the charism. Let us establish a new culture of co-responsibility in all structures of our church.”
The conference reflected the real concerns of the Catholic Church in the western world. But, perhaps the most poignant contribution came from an Indian delegate.
“For me it is about women in poverty. Indian women have second class status with little or no access to healthcare. We have the highest maternal mortality rate in the world but we have a declining sex ratio. In the age group from birth to six our sex ratio is as low - 914 girls to 1,000 males. The reason is that the girl child is killed off. So how do you look at family in this context. For me these are very real concerns and I wish that they would be brought to the agenda of the family synod in Rome next October.”