Still Listening in Down and Connor: Perspectives on the Listening Process in the Catholic Church

I’ve written several posts about the Catholic Church’s ‘Listening Process’ in the diocese of Down and Connor (see links at the end of this post).

The listening process has been undertaken with a sort of ‘brand’ name of ‘Living Church 2013’. The process is to culminate with a Diocesan Congress at Pentecost 2013, where a ‘roadmap for the future’ and ‘pastoral priorities’ will be set out.

The listening process has raised all sorts of questions for me:

  • Is it a sign of ‘democratisation’ in the Catholic Church?
  • Does it mean that the views of laypeople will be taken more seriously?
  • Is it a cynical public relations exercise meant to rehabilitate the church in the wake of the clerical child sex abuse scandals?
  • Is it a tired bureaucratic exercise that gives people the chance to let off steam, but in the end will not result in meaningful change?
  • Is it even welcomed by the laity? (Some commentators on my blog have stated bluntly that they are in principle against consulting the laity about any important spiritual and church governance matters.)
  • And to what extent are the laity actually equipped to make positive contributions to the discussion?

That last question took on added significance for me when I received an email from a reader of the Slugger O’Toole blog, where I have published my posts on the listening process.

The listening process event that I attended, at Clonard Monastery in West Belfast, was better than I expected it to be.

The Living Church 2013 facebook page has just instigated a poll, asking people ‘What was your reaction to the Listening Process events in your area?’ with the following options: better than I expected it to be, just as I expected it, didn’t know what to expect of it, not as good as I expected it to be, and a lot worse than I expected it to be.

But the emailer, who wishes to remain anonymous, would probably choose the last option: ‘a lot worse than I expected it to be.’

Or, given what seem to be low expectations, ‘just as I expected it.’ With permission, I share the substance of the email below:

I went along to one such meeting – though I am not disaffected from the Church – in my local parish which is rural. I was very disappointed with the event – not its organisation or those who ran it – but rather by the contribution from the laity present.

There were, perhaps, 50 in attendance but those attending the various Masses in the parish are well over 300 for the main Sunday Mass and another couple of hundred at the other Masses in the parish. I did not expect much more, to be honest, but the contribution from some of the laity present was very, very poor.

There were certainly a couple of people who deserved to be listened to but, I felt, there were one or two sore heads who had an axe to grind with (the very elderly and ill) parish priest. Some of the suggestions for ‘renewal’ were little more than ad hominen attacks on the priest.

People often say in regard to the Catholic Church that letting the laity run things will make for a better Church. On the basis of what was said in our meeting, I would disagree.

While the three facilitators did their best to open up the meeting, some of those present showed less than Christian desire to be loving or helpful in their critique – and I am trying not to judge lest I be … oh you know the rest!

I should add too that the parish priest has done his best to encourage democracy. We have a parish council – one of the few to do so – but people were not exactly storming the barricades to join it. (Myself included!) The parish priest initially wanted parishioners to nominate people to serve but no one was in any rush to do so. He then suggested that people just put their own names forward in an attempt to encourage more participation! Hardly Stalinist!

This description presents a rather sobering picture of parish life, hardly a ‘living church.’ I suspect that all of the public events were different, with no single event being ‘representative’ of the various discussions or views of Catholics in Down and Connor.

Over on the Slugger blog, Fitzjameshorse commented that he was against sharing what was said at such meetings because it ‘would indulge voyeurism.’ I can understand that perspective, but in the end I disagree. I have just replied to Fitzjameshorse on Slugger, saying:

I don’t necessarily think it indulges voyeurism to talk about what went on or was said at these events … I thought the listening process was supposed to be public so people could hear different views … whether in the small group, face to face event discussions or in online forums such as the Living Church facebook page or other blogs. Yes, protect people’s confidentiality if that is what they want, but my reasoning is that the greater variety of ideas and perspectives are heard, the better.

Thanks to all of you who are participating in the discussion, sharing and helping Christians to reflect on and to consider what have been positive and negative aspects of the process so far.

My previous posts on the Listening Process:

Listening to those ‘Estranged and Disaffected’ from the Irish Catholic Church

Listening Process in Down and Connor: What are People in the Irish Catholic Church Saying?

Is the Irish Catholic Church Starting to Listen?

3 Responses to Still Listening in Down and Connor: Perspectives on the Listening Process in the Catholic Church

  1. Martin April 11, 2011 at 12:53 am #

    Your bullet points, Gladys, and my replies IN CAPITALS (not cos I am shouting, but so we know who is saying what!):

    Is it a sign of ‘democratisation’ in the Catholic Church?

    NO, THE CHURCH IS NOT A DEMOCRACY IN MATTERS OF FAITH OR MORALS, NOR IN GOVERNANCE.

    Does it mean that the views of laypeople will be taken more seriously?

    HOPEFULLY. THE VIEWS OF LAITY ARE IMPORTANT AND OFTEN PROPHETIC.

    Is it a cynical public relations exercise meant to rehabilitate the church in the wake of the clerical child sex abuse scandals?

    I DUNNO. WHO CAN SAY? LET’S HOPE NOT. IF THE VOICES OF FAITH AND REASON ARE LISTENED TO, THEN THE EXERCISE WILL HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFUL. IF IT LEADS TO MORE CONFUSION AND MORE DISSENT, IT WILL BE A FAILURE.

    Is it a tired bureaucratic exercise that gives people the chance to let off steam, but in the end will not result in meaningful change?
    WHO CAN SAY?

    Is it even welcomed by the laity? (Some commentators on my blog have stated bluntly that they are in principle against consulting the laity about any important spiritual and church governance matters.)

    YES AND NO. IT IS WELCOMED IN ONE SENSE, BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, IT IS UNNECESSARY AND POTENTIALLY HARMFUL. YOU DON’T WALK INTO AN INSANE ASYLUM AND ASK THE PATIENTS WHAT TREATMENTS THEY WOULD LIKE BEST AND GIVE THEM FREE REIGN. THE CHURCH IN IRELAND IS SICK AND IN CRISIS. THE LAST THING WE NEED IS TAKE ADVICE FROM A LARGELY UNFORMED, UN-CATECHISED, UN-EVANGELISED LAITY. I AM NOT AGAINST CONSULTING LAITY. I AM AGAINST CONSULTING DISSENTERS ON HOW TO FURTHER THWART THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH.

    And to what extent are the laity actually equipped to make positive contributions to the discussion? SEE ABOVE. THE LOUDEST VOICES AT THESE EVENTS ARE OFTEN DISSENTERS. I ALSO THINK SUCH EXERCISES ARE NOT HELPFUL TO THE DISSENTERS THEMSELVES, IN THAT THEY SEEM TO LEND CREDIBILITY TO THE DISSENTERS.

    (Having finished this little exercise, I am now wondering why I didn’t just use a dash and a space, instead of capitals. Hmm….

  2. Martin April 11, 2011 at 12:58 am #

    (I should also add that, in Ireland, a big part of the problem is the clergy, many of whom appear unwilling to pursue authentic renewal in line with the Second Vatican Council, as given by the Magisterium, as in, what the Council documents actually teach, as opposed to the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ which one American bishop said recently was a demon which needed to be exorcised. Benedict XVI said that the documents contain the teaching, not some nebulous ‘spirit’ from the 1960s free love era. SO it is not only the laity who are problematic. What we need is a comprehensive programme of authentic and exciting Catholic evangelisation and catechesis)

  3. Eric Conway April 11, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    The e-mailer’s comments are very interesting. We constantly hear ( particularly from non, dare one say, anti-religious media commentators ) how the Catholic Church needs to listen to the laity ( particularly those members of the laity who subscribe to an anti-Roman, anti-Papal version of the Church ; akin to the Chinese patriotic association ) more & democratise it’s structures. The underlying motivation being to emasculate the Church & turn it into a compliant servant of Caesers. Yet the reality is, due to very weak cathecesis most of the laity are not aware of their pivotal role in defending the integrity of the faith ( the infantile religious instructtion in Catholic secondary schools, leads straight to the exit sign ; it’s not the laity’s fault ; it’s largely the Bishops, for tolerating this in their schools ). So when these listening processes are held, the damage is done ; the uneducated laity mainly parrott the puerile stuff they’ve picked up from the equally ill-informed Irish media – blame Rome ; married Priests ; dilute/downplay the sacramernts etc. No listening process is a substitute for sound theology ; good/faithful/joyful ( it is Good News, after all ) Priests ; a well educated laity. Pope Benedict is an excellent exemplar, but it’s going to take a few generations to recover ( & that’s assuming common sense prevails – not a certainty ) from the general infantilisation of Catholicism, Irish style.

Leave a Reply