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Equality within Catholic leadership structures promotes greater joint responsibility

There is a growing distrust for formal leadership structures. This partly stems from a crisis of leadership, both in society and the Church. Patrick Giddy reflects on a recent article by theologian Nicholas Healey that promotes Catholic leadership that is less hierarchical. Giddy tries to imagine a leadership structure where both the laity and the clergy study and contribute to Church teaching.

The “New Catholics” are here to stay, says theologian Nicholas Healey, in his contribution to the volume on New Theological Practices for the Contemporary Catholic Church (2018).[1]

Studies have pointed to a growing number of Catholics who are “self-distancing” from the teaching offered by the Church’s formal leadership structures. These are people, Healey explains, who do not believe that the leadership is a sufficiently reliable source of truth and guidance that can be accepted without critical reflection.

They think of themselves as Catholics and go to church occasionally or very frequently. They base their decision to distance from the church leadership most recently on the poor response of bishops and others to the revelation of pedophilia among clergy.

It also shows an awareness of the historical mistakes made by Church leaders, going back to Urban II’s call to the First Crusade, or to the Catholic Church’s part in the Wars of Religion following the Reformation. They do not accept the claim that the church leadership is always right.

New Catholics search for authentic leadership

It is important not simply to anathematise this group of contemporary Catholics, said Healey, who calls them the “New Catholics”. They are going to be a significant factor in the Church for some time.

These are people, Healey explains, who do not believe that the leadership is a sufficiently reliable source of truth and guidance that can be accepted without critical reflection.

They cannot simply be labelled as “cafeteria Catholics”, choosing for themselves which teachings to follow and which not to follow. They are also not the same as “Seekers” who are on a quest for authentic spirituality by means of a personal relation to the transcendent – a relation they believe is incompatible with “organised religion”.

It is important to be aware of how global divisions within the Catholic Church may foster prejudice against the New Catholics group. The central idea of Vatican II, explains Healey, was that of acting in the world and with the world. This has pulled down the old bastion of Catholicism and forced the Church to question its identity in relation to the world in which it inhabits. As a reaction to this bewilderment, some conservatively-minded Catholics have labelled those who support Vatican II as sycophants vis-à-vis modern individualist society, imitating the worst of this society.

This parallels the view in Islam that the only true Muslims are those who follow the Qur’an literally and that everything about “secular Europe” is bad. This leads to the closing down of minds and manipulation by, among others, unscrupulous politicians and politico-clerics.

Church leadership should not be drawn into a conflict between the “conservatives” and the “progressives”. The idea of Pope St Pius X, who spoke of the Church as the “mystical body of Christ” ruled by pastors and doctors in his “Vehementer Nos” (1906) encyclical, is no longer an option, and this has been decisively put to bed by Vatican II.

It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the Flock… The one duty of the Flock is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile Flock, to follow the Pastors.

Vehementer Nos, Pope Pius X

The mistake here would be to conclude that obedience alone can achieve sanctification. This fails to treat ordinary Catholics as adults. It could be compared to the Lutheran idea that faith alone sanctifies, with no real effect on the person. It sidelines the traditional Catholic idea of progressive sanctification through various acts such as those of charity, sacramental practice and prayer.

The Catholic leadership should be encouraged to see the “New Catholics” as a gift to the Church. “They constitute a vast and vastly complex set of experiments in living the Christian life,” says Healey. He refers readers to the important work of Jesuit historian and theologian Roger Haight, who has sought to reconcile those who are “seeking” with an appreciation of the religious tradition and its wisdom (Haight, Spiritual and Religious: Explorations for Seekers, 2016.)

Imagining a different Church

Allow me to imagine a future Church in which Catholic clergy and laity engage on matters of doctrine and theology in a non-hierarchical structure to find answers to the challenges that the lived life of faith poses for Catholics in the modern age. Below is a fictional account of what this engagement might look like:

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference announced, at the end of the difficult second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, that it is setting up a dedicated ministry for the “New Catholics” movement. This follows a two-day seminar at which the new social phenomenon of “New Catholics” was explained and discussed.

The attention of the bishops was drawn to the writings of French Jesuit Joseph Moingt, who has seen the importance of the New Catholics. Moingt wrote:

I think that the Church’s salvation does not imply the reinforcing of the ranks of the clergy. It first of all consists in restoring the equality at its base, by giving back to the faithful the right of speaking up that they enjoyed long ago, and by letting it spread all over, so that the Christians may take responsibilities, and feel rightly in charge of their Church and of its survival in the world.

Fr Joseph Moingt SJ (1915-2020)

“It is not going to be a matter of ‘us’ teaching ‘them’,” the newly elected president of the Bishops’ Conference said. This is a ministry that suits our “age of authenticity”, he explained, referring to the well-known Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor’s book on secularisation, A Secular Age (2007).

The teaching authority of the Church does not have an exclusive “God-franchise”, making all other commentators illicit. Instead, the Holy Spirit, we know, is at work in all people of good will. Christian groups other than the Church-leadership must be recognised as having “local authority”, and listened to without condescension, the president concluded.

In a contribution from the floor, Bishop Patrick Zulu of the Emaphethilwini diocese, mentioned, as an example of the “New Catholics”, the local “Church and Spirituality Teams” (CAST) – (originally, “Church and Spirituality Movement”, CHASM, but the acronym was considered unfortunate and too pessimistic about the distance from the institutional side of the Church). This local group has dedicated itself to furthering the ideas of Vatican II, by way of study and discussions. It is a good example of the “New Catholics” developing their own resources to supplement those available within the structures of the Church.

The teaching authority of the Church does not have an exclusive “God-franchise”, making all other commentators illicit.

At the same time, CAST – which has always sought the blessing of the bishops – illustrates the importance of continuing to consider the teaching of the Church leadership, as the necessary reference point for all Catholic theology. CAST does not propagate any teachings at odds with the leadership, bar that no topic is precluded from open discussion.

The international body, ICAST, in contrast, holds as founding principles, that all church positions should be open to men and women, that celibacy should not be compulsory for clergy, that the Church teaching on sexuality should be revised, and that there should be more local input in the appointment of bishops.

The president of the Bishops’ Conference concluded that the “New Catholics” seminar is the beginning of a new form of engagement between the faithful and the Church’s teachings and structures. He expressed this sincere desire that the interactions will give rise to a church that can respond more meaningfully to the issues of contemporary society and be more democratic in its leadership structures, in the tradition of the first Christian communities.


[1] Healey, N, “New Theological Practices for the Contemporary Catholic Church,” in Staf Hellemans and Peter Jonkers (eds.), Envisioning Futures for the Catholic Church (Washington, D.C.: CRVP, 2018; open access).  The whole book can be recommended for study purposes. The final chapter is by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., on the future of religious orders.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.