Thinking the Unthinkable

It seemed far-fetched to say such a thing in the closing days of Pope Benedict’s papacy. But a pope who washes women’s feet on Maundy Thursday, and is in many ways so different from his two immediate predecessors, seems capable of doing what was once almost unthinkable. Nor is it just what he does himself that will change the Church, but how people respond to him and to the opportunities that define this new Franciscan era. In that respect, the German bishops’ fresh thinking on women’s ministry is a straw in the wind. Nor is it now unimaginable that Pope Francis’ strictures against clericalism when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires – against clergy who strut around declaring “I’m the boss,” as he puts it – might influence the way the Church functions elsewhere.
Anglican church leaders, who had come sadly to terms with the fact that no further progress towards visible unity with the Catholic Church was likely, have already noted that a change in style in Rome could put organic union back on the agenda. The international Anglican-Catholic theological dialogue is about to resume, and the question of how the two Churches reach decisions on disputed matters is a key one. In Anglicanism the lay voice has a real right to be heard; in the Catholic system this right is purely theoretical. For its own good as well as for the sake of the ecumenical process, the Catholic Church needs to grow structures of dialogue with its own laity – for genuine listening, with a genuine prospect of responding. The Catholic Church in England and Wales has been negligent in this respect, despite the positive encouragement given to participative structures in the Second Vatican Council.
So far, the positive response to the election of Pope Francis by the bishops of England and Wales has consisted of some fine words, an expensive trip to Rome to pay him homage, and little else. History does not relate whether Francis was impressed by their visit, though it is not irrelevant that he discouraged Argentine Catholics from flocking to Rome for his installation, saying they would do better to spend the money on the poor.
The Catholic laity do not want bishops who go around proclaiming, “I’m the boss.” They want partnership with bishops who are ready to be held to account for their actions. And as in Buenos Aires under the man now called Francis, they want to be challenged by the Gospel, and in the name of Christ and the new Pope’s namesake, to become the Church of the poor.