From the editor’s desk – ‘The Tablet’
What does a merciful Church look like, not just from the papal balcony overlooking the Piazza San Pietro but at the grass roots? Some answers to this question were beginning to emerge at a three-day conference at Durham University this week, held as the high point of this year’s celebrations of The Tablet’s 175th anniversary. Participants, a mixture of mostly lay readers of The Tablet with assorted parish clergy leavened by members of the university’s Centre for Catholic Studies and other distinguished academics, were in the mood for what felt like a collective sigh of relief after a long siege. Pope Francis has relaunched the Catholic project in a way that seems to have lifted a heavy burden off many Catholic shoulders.
Yet in a spirit of mercy they were not in the mood for blame. It was widely felt that Pope Benedict was faced with more than he could handle; that Pope John Paul II could only have been the media superstar he was. Nevertheless, the Church suffered under both of them – the disintegration of the Roman Curia as Benedict’s energy failed him; the shame of clerical child abuse scandals that were never properly addressed under St John Paul II; the one-size-fits-all micromanagement that happened under both of them; the silencing of original voices who ventured beyond a narrow path of orthodoxy; and above all, a Church that never seemed to understand its members but bullied them to be good. All those things are passing. A new sense of being proud to be Catholic has arrived. Whatever the downside of Francis’ papacy may eventually prove to be, and every papacy has particular weaknesses, this is an optimistic moment. There is mercy, hope, even joy. But as Professor Eamon Duffy remarked after reading a paper from Cardinal Walter Kasper (who was absent due to illness), these things should not have had to wait for a new pope. Catholicism should never depend for its health on the character of one man, however much the age encourages the cult of personality.
The 300 or so Tablet readers who attended the events in Durham may have arrived as separate individuals, but seemed quickly to coalesce through shared conversation, worship and meals into what became a kind of “Tablet community”.
A distinctively liberal and tolerant English Catholicism, without which The Tablet itself would not have survived, is emerging from the shadows. “Tablet Catholicism” may after all be indistinguishable from mainstream English Catholicism in general. Ever since it resisted Humanae Vitae in 1968, conservative voices tried to brand the journal as disloyal. But in taking its position, The Tablet, far from urging a libertarian approach, was recognising the faults and foibles of humanity that make it so difficult to follow the path of that encyclical. In the light of Francis’ gospel of mercy, the official Church has begun to glimpse what families have always known – that even in the case of transgressive sexual behaviour, it may be where love is, and so where God is. Pope Francis may not read The Tablet often, but he would have been comfortable among its readers in Durham.
At a time when our own Anglican Communion Churches seem to be at sixes and sevens on the matters of spiritual human concern connected with sexuality, bibilical authority and jurisdictional integrity, the Roman Catholic Church – after its recent Synod on The Family in Rome – seems set to bring new life to what had seemed to be a ‘loss of nerve’ in that institution after the promising path of renewal at Vatican II, under the leadership of Good Pope John XXIII.
With the increasing reversion to pre-Vatican II institutionalism;the revival of the Latin Mass, and other mediaeval ideas of ‘catholic propriety’ which tended, under Pope Benedict XV, to put the brakes on some of the forward movement already happening as a direct result of Vatican II; Pope Francis has already indicated his desire to revive the momentum gathered at the Council, by openly proposing new ways of looking at the established doctrines of the Catholic Church. While affecting not to interfere with the doctrines, the Pope has suggested ways in which they may be more mercifully and effectively be reviewed as ‘base-lines’ for human behaviour.
The Meeting celebrating 175 years of the U.K.’s oldest Roman Catholic newspaper, known as ‘The Tablet’ – at England’s Durham University – last week, brought a variety of Catholic clergy, laity, academics and observers together, and the outcome was obviously – from this report – a cautious feeling of hope about the future of the Roman Catholic Church – in the U.K. and around the world. The final paragraph of this report – highlighted by me – gives an idea of the place of ‘The Tablet’ in the lives of British Roman Catholics. As a liberal and open news commentator on Catholic affairs around the world, the Tablet has many readers from other Christian Churches – not least of those being Anglicans in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand