Ordination Reform and the Episcopal Virtue of Courage

Stained glass question markAs John Slattery notes, Bishop Erwin Kräutler’s account of his conversation with Pope Francis, in which the two bishops in part discussed the potential for ordaining married men to the priesthood, is making the rounds.  The Tablet article is helpful in making the distinction that this is a matter of church discipline, rather than dogma.  Whether  extending ordination to married men addresses sufficiently the situation of priest shortages is another matter; we might look at clergy shortages in other traditions that already allow for married clergy to gain a more complete picture of the complex factors contributing to shortages.  Personally, I would rather the church arrive at such decisions through discernment of calling rather than through a sense of desperation for a “fix” to the problem, however, often it is need that drives us to see and hear anew.

What is most striking to me about Bishop Kräutler’s statements is that in two ways they point to Francis’ focus on the importance of the local church as well as national/regional synods of bishops:  the bishops are to discern the needs of their churches, and the bishops are to make suggestions for reform:

“The Pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome.  We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be corajudos, that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions . . . . regional and national bishop’s conferences should seek and find consensus on reform and we should then bring up our suggestions for reform in Rome.”

This suggests a model of the church as a communion, yes, but more particularly a “church of churches” in which each local church (diocese) is truly “church” (and not only a piece of the universal church).  In a “church of churches,” bishops have a genuine role in pastoral discernment and decision-making, rather than the abridged function of implementing decisions that come from another quite special local church—the one in Rome.  A “church of churches” upholds universal communion through, and not apart from, the diversity of the local churches. This communion is part of the reconciled diversity of which Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium (131)

Why does such pastoral discernment and decision-making require courage?  I have some ideas, but am interested in yours as well—feel free to add them in the comments.

  • Courage is necessary to share another’s situation deeply enough to authentically receive—and thus know—her or his needs.  Such depth of engagement requires the strength of humility, in other words, a degree of self-understanding that is shaped by and responsive to others’ experiences, and that allows others’ perspectives to broaden and sharpen our own.
  • Courage helps us to admit that past ways of addressing pastoral problems are not working, to be open to the need for reform, to realize the future may not be what we thought it was, and to walk a bit closer to time’s horizon to see the kingdom of God breaking through within history in ways that are dangerous to our sense of control and stability.
  • It takes courage to face possible confusion and resistance from the faithful themselves over a change in the way the church has “always been,” and to receive anxieties thoughtfully and with compassion.
  • Envisioning a new pastoral response requires courage as well in order to think through the theological, canonical, and practical implications of a decision.  Pastoral decision making implies—but is not always accompanied by—pastoral planning that prepares the ground for a decision to be fruitful.
  • Developing consensus with others requires a combination of patience and fortitude.  It takes courage to represent pastoral discoveries and convictions to one’s “brother bishops” (not to mention Roman dicasteries) and to strive for a reconciled diversity at times when our communion may be difficult and uncomfortable.