Unity inside the Church
The We Are All Church movement in South Africa (or WAACSA) has decided to modify its name and adopt its own mission statement, so as to set it apart from the international We Are Church movement, which to some in the Church is a toxic brand. For those interested in fostering unity across the spectrum of perspectives in our Church, this must be seen as a welcome step.
We Are Church, which promotes what it believes are necessary reforms in the Church, has acquired a reputation, rightly or wrongly, of fostering dissent and division in the Church — and its recent call to “holy disobedience” will do little to pacify the suspicion of many Catholics.
Bishops are rightly anxious when groups in their dioceses challenge Church doctrines and disciplines, especially those that have become virtual litmus test issues: Humanae vitae, the admission of women to holy orders, and clerical celibacy. Without absolute clarity about how issues such as these are going to be addressed, and in what tone, a bishop cannot be expected to authorise the use of Church property for public events involving debate on the “hot issues”. Indeed, doing so could create division and confusion among the faithful.
In November, We Are All Church wrote to the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) with a request for dialogue to establish that the group can function as an organisation of good standing in the Church. Indications are that within the SACBC there is some openness to exploring dialogue with WAACSA. Such a willingness would indeed be commendable. The importance of dialogue, at least in some respects, is being recognised in the Church today.
For example, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna made it a point of meeting with rebel priests, prepared to listen even as he forcefully restated the position of the Church authorities. In September he said: “We are in talks and will remain in talks because I and the bishops are still convinced that a lot can and must be cleared up by dialogue.”
Among the primary constituents of Pope Benedict’s pontifical pursuits has been dialogue with another group of dissenters. Unlike the members of We Are Church, the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) exists outside full communion with Rome.
Pope Benedict’s admirable efforts at bringing the SSPX — which rejects the authority of the Second Vatican Councils and several conciliar teachings — back into full communion will likely be fruitless, but they suggest that the pope takes seriously Christ’s command that his followers be one (Jn 17:21).
There is a hazard in marginalising Catholics on the progressive end of the spectrum by neglecting to hear their concerns. In many parishes, it is precisely those Catholics who are most dedicated in contributing to the live of the Church. They must not be taken for granted, never mind being denigrated, by those in authority.
Whatever one thinks of their vision for the Church or the way that vision is expressed, it is evident that the leading members of We Are All Church in South Africa are good Catholics whose actions are rooted in love for Christ and the Church, and who strive for gospel holiness in communion with the People of God. The good faith of WAACSA’s membership should not be doubted, even if one disagrees with them.
At the same time, the movement will have to persuade the Church authorities and fellow Catholics that their brand of critique is not intended to sow doctrinal discord and dissent. Its arguments, therefore, need to be stated within the possibilities provided by the framework of the Church’s doctrines and canon law, their demands must be reasonable, and their rhetoric must not be inflammatory.
By creating some structural distance between the international We Are Church movement and themselves, WAACSA has stated its serious intent to be part of the life of the local Church.
Sincere and open dialogue between the group and the bishops will be necessary to establish whether this will be possible.