Earlier this week, the clergy of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne gathered online for their annual conference. On day two, participants heard from Austen Ivereigh, the UK-based journalist, author and biographer of Pope Francis. His talk was broken into two parts and focussed upon understanding Pope Francis’ pontificate and the nature of authentic renewal in the life of the Catholic Church.

Understanding Pope Francis

The first of Ivereigh’s talks was largely focused on what he thinks is the interpretive key to the Francis pontificate. To understand this key is to understand Pope Francis’ vision and the kinds of changes he wants to see in the Catholic Church. This ‘key’ is called the Aparecida Document.

In 2007, the Episcopal Council of Latin American Bishops (known by its Spanish acronym, CELAM) had its fifth assembly which was opened by Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, was chosen to lead the committee that would draft the assembly’s final document. This document is one that was seen to be a “roadmap” usable for the entire Church.

‘It has a very brilliant analysis, I think, of contemporary modernity,’ Ivereigh said. Its analysis was one people today are quite familiar with, he said, referring to Zygmunt Bauman’s idea of ‘liquid modernity’: the idea that modernity is characterised by the dissolution of structures of meaning, by constant change, constant movement and flow, making it impossible for authentic identities to be catalysed in people. It was marked by the fragmentation of the human person.

The document went beyond this, however. The Latin American Bishops understood ‘the implications of this for the Church in a whole new way,’ he said, and that ‘the Church had to change in response to this.’

They see that there is a crisis above all of belonging, that modernity has eroded the bonds of belonging; whether it’s of the family, of institutions, of parishes . . . there is a wider crisis as a result of what in Greek is called the oikos, the environment, understood not just as the natural world but as the very way we relate to the world around us. There is an uprooting of people spatially, existentially, and spiritually … What this produces in people is a hunger for closeness, for proximity, and for experience.’

Some people think that Pope Francis is a liberal, but Ivereigh thinks this is far from the truth. Traditionally, a “liberal” is someone who has faith in the modern world and what it can achieve, but Pope Francis, he says, is one of modernity’s biggest critics, and the Aparecida Document shows that.

Regular features of Pope Francis’ teachings are themes of closeness and proximity, of trying to break the Church free of its self-referential concern with worldly reputation and honour and instead going out to the people, especially to those on the peripheries. Throughout the years, Ivereigh said, the Church itself had become secularised and defined by modernity precisely because it had ‘become removed from the life of the people’ by a process of distancing and abstraction, of a moralism that was not the fruit of an encounter with the living God. Reconnecting with the life of people was an important remedy for the way in which modernity had dissolved people’s bonds of belonging.

One of the reasons [Aparecida] was such a breakthrough moment, was that in itself it embodied a response to modernity … the option of Aparecida was to discern and reform rather than lament and condemn.’

Secularisation does not simply involve people leaving the Church, Ivereigh said, but the Church leaving the people:

In the absence of a culture of belonging, the Church had come to appear distant, even self-referential, obsessed with itself as an institution.’

What the Aparecida Document laid out was a vision in which Christ was the heart of culture. It said that ‘Christians must start over from Christ, from contemplation of Him who has revealed to us in his mystery, the complete fulfilment of the human vocation and its meaning,’ so that in Jesus ‘culture can again find its centre and depth’ (§41). What this document recognised was that humanity was not simply living through an epoch of change, but ‘a change of epoch,’ where the ‘all-embracing conception of the human being, in relationship with the world and with God is vanishing’ (§44).

Austen Ivereigh presents to Melbourne clergy

Authentic change in the Church

The question then becomes: If the Church needs to change in response to her own unwitting secularisation, how should the Church change? Is there a path of authentic change, as opposed to superficial and damaging change? It is to this question that Ivereigh dedicated the second half of his talk.

He began with a quote from the French writer and novelist, Georges Bernanos:

It is a fact of experience that one reforms nothing in the Church by ordinary means. Whoever pretends to reform the Church with the same means used to reform temporal society—not only will he fail in his undertaking, but he will infallibly find himself outside the Church. The only way of reforming the visible Church is to suffer for the invisible Church. The only way of reforming the vices of the Church is to lavish on her the example of one’s own most heroic virtues.’

Ivereigh laid out the example of both the German and American responses to the clerical sex abuse scandal, both of which, he claimed, relied heavily on juridical and legal changes. The German Synodal Path, for instance, was quite an impressive assembly of debate with experts from many different fields, but there is ‘a lot of division happening, people splitting into left and right,’ Ivereigh said. It was very focussed on the juridical element in the Church.

In the same way, the US Bishops developed their own legal solutions, but as far as Ivereigh is concerned this did not go deep enough into the problems of the clerical sex abuse scandal. What was needed was a change in culture and more of an openness to the workings of the Holy Spirit.

‘Structural changes can turn out to be superficial or even damaging if they don’t reflect the deeper cultural change,’ he said. ‘The Church has to change according to the power that the Church has been given, and the power the Church has been given is fundamentally the Holy Spirit.’

He also quoted the Vatican II document Unitatis Redintegratio, which states: ‘Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling …’ (§6).

This is what the Synod on Synodality represents and neither the “left” nor the “right” has been willing or able to engage with it properly. This is because ‘they both have their ideas about what the Church should be doing,’ Ivereigh said. ‘The way they view the process prejudges the process. They already think they know what the Holy Spirit is doing.’

It is also important to point out what the synodal process is not. Referencing the Anglican model of parliamentary voting, he said that synodality is more of a consultative process. At the end of the day, the pope is still the one who makes the decisions and determines the best way forward, but only after a long process of consultation and discernment. This is something that already exists within religious orders around the world, Ivereigh said. It’s present in the third rule of St Benedict, which says that when the abbot needs to make a decision about any ‘special business’ to do with the monastery, he must consult the whole community and listen to ‘the counsel of the brethren’.

‘Perhaps this is a moment when the religious orders are coming to the rescue of the diocesan Church,’ Ivereigh suggested, ‘as they so often have in Church history.’

The synodal process is not an overthrow of the divinely ordained hierarchical communion, but it is a process whereby that hierarchical communion is ‘complemented by a culture and a habit and a practice of synodality, of consultation, of involving everyone as subjects of discernment.’

‘We have seen the consequences of a hierarchical, command and control structure which has not been complemented by synodality,’ Austen said, ‘and it’s called the clerical sex abuse crisis.’