Until now, debate in the Church in England and Wales has centred on whether postVatican II reforms have gone too far. Now a new alliance of ardently liberal Catholics has declared that they have not gone far enough. PETER STANFORD reports TnE CATHOLIC Church has long made it dear that it is not a democracy, God's revelation passing via popes and bishops to the pews. Such an hierarchical structure, -many senior clerics (and some recent converts) believe, is -Catholicism's greatest strength, that which sets it apart from wishy-washy Anglicans with their voting synods and mildminded Methodists who elect their leaders.
Yet the world's last surviving absolute monarchy is facing a mutiny in the ranks which some believe could dwarf all recent schisms in the C of E's General Synod. Disgruntled, mainly liberal-minded Catholics around the globe have been joining forces behind a fivepoint declaration demanding, among a package of reforms, shared decision-making, women priests and a relaxation of prohibitions on birth control. They have built up such a head of steam that one European bishop has warned openly that there is a "second Reformation" under way.
So far, the international "We are Church" movement which is promoting the declaration has collected 2.3 million signatures in just a year from its base in Central Europe. The initiative is now spreading to the Americas, Australia and most of western Europe. The declaration was launched in Britain last weekend by Jubilee People, a broad coalition of Catholic organisations including Catholics for a Changing Church, the Catholic Women's Network and Advent, a group of ex-priests and religious who have left the active ministry.
"We're aiming to reach those Catholics who have either stopped going to Church because they have lost hope in it, or who think that they are the only ones in the congregation . who question and see the need for change," says Ianthe Pratt, one of the organisers. "We know that many Catholics agree with us and that together, nationally and in international solidarity, we can start the process of change."
Getting an accurate measurement of the extent of such disillusionment is notoriously hard, While dissent at the teachings of Pope John Paul II on sex and morality has certainly been glowing throughout his 18-year pontificate, so tar the Catholic authorities have succeeded in playing down its public manifestations. Rebel theologians like the Swiss priest Hans Knog or the Brazilian Franciscan Leonanio Boff-have been silenced by the Holy Office in Rome and ousted by the Catholic universities that once employed them. Bishops who
challenge the 1 aft line on gays or Aids like Raymond Hunthausen in Seattle and Jacques Gaillot in France have been sidelined.
Some of those who have felt the wrath of Rome claim such methods have created a climate of fear in Catholicism with most progressively-minded leaders being afraid to speak out. Yet among the laity, where it is harder to maintain discipline, confidence in the Church as one, holy and apostolic has been eroded by scandal after scandal. It was charges of sexual misconduct made in 1995 against an already unpopular Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Hermann Groer, that provided the spark that ignited the declaration movement.
Groer was one of a number of senior bishops who had been imposed on local churches against the wishes of people and priests. An extreme conservative who had been running a Marian shrine, he was plucked from obscurity and promoted because he was one of that group of priests in western Europe whose theology matches that of the Vatican. There were protests and petitions at his appointment, but it was only last year when Groer was shown to be less Rome's man and more a sign of the hypocrisy eating at the soul of Catholicism that some Austrian Catholics were inspired to act.
The declaration quickly attracted the attention of fellow Catholics in neighbouring Germany and Italy where again local wishes had been ignored by the Vatican machine. They were particularly impressed by the success of the declaration in pushing six of Austria's nine bishops to offer concessions including advisory elections on episcopal appointments and the unprecedented promotion of a woman to run religious education in the archdiocese of Vienna. Catholics from other countries signed up at the end of November at a meeting in Rome and cited their own tales of injustice and lack of democracy, even condemnation, at the hands of their local bishops and the Vatican. But the participation of Catholics here in Britain has puzzled some notably Cardinal Basil Hume.
Self-effacing, humble, patently a man of God, he has steered a careful, usually uncontroversial path between Rome's dogmatism and the realities of Catholic's lives. At a time when other countries in western Europe have seen disputes between bbentl-minded laity and priests and Rome-appointed bishops, England and Wales has been a haven of cairn, wrapped in the protective cloak of Cardinal Hume's reputation. At the same time as winning John Paul's personal esteem, he has spoken with a certain ambivalence on priestly celibacy, promoted women to positions of authority in his archdiocese and within the bishops' conference secretariat, and fought shy of prescribing on sexual morality.
But there are divisions beneath the unruffled surface of English Catholicism. In recent years Cardinal Hume has found himself hard-pressed by the small but rejuvenated minority of traditionalist Catholics whose capacity to make a splash has been swollen by the arrival of well-placed, old-fashioned Anglican converts like John Gurnmer, Ann Widdicombe and Charles Moore. Now the Cardinal faces pressure on both flanks.
Though they stress that they do not want a confrontation with Hume, the organisers of the declaration feel his middle line begs too many questions. "When the English bishops published The Common Good as election advice a few weeks ago,"says hula Winkley, another of the committee, "they called on politicians to tackle injustice, inequality and sexism. But the bishops lack credibility. They have to get their own house in order first."
Ti., DECLARATION will contribute to that urgent process of rethinking and reform, says her colleague, John Challoner, himself an ex-priest and chair of Catholics for a Changing Church. Success will not he measured only in terms of a volte-face by the Pope or bishops. That, he concedes, is unlikely. "If we offer Catholics who are currently without hope for their Church a positive option then we will have succeeded. At the moment, their only choice is to leave. We're saying that together we can make our opinions heard."
The last survey of Catholic opinion in Britain, compiled at the time of the papal visit in 1982 by the Surrey University sociologist Michael HornsbySmith, gives some grounds for optimism. Despite the presence on these shores of thei Pope, half of those surveyed said that they would "pick and choose" which of his teachings they accepted. Some 40 per cent went against the papal line on abortion, saying that in some limited circumstances women had a choice whether to end a pregnancy. Yet transferring such statistics into action has always been the real problem. Previous initiatives like the National Pastoral Congress in 1980 gathered widespread support among Catholics for Change, but fizzled out when Rome showed its disapproval.
Attitudes have changed inside the English Church in the past 16 years, says Lala Winkley. 'We used to be too deferential to the bishops and the Pope, but that is going. We are the people of God, we are all the Church and we are demanding equal participation. This is not a petition. It's a declaration. We can stand up and say this is what we want and we are going to work towards it. The bishops can come with us or not, but these reforms must be implemented."
That is the point that will be hammered home next October when all the national groups gather in Rome to present their declarations to the Vatican. Their efforts and the final figure they achieve will be watched carefully by many as the firstever referendum among Catholics on their Pope. In England and Wales, this may be the moment when the silent majority drowns out the vocal minority. And in a world-wide Church habitually proud of being out of step with the modem world, the first flickerings of democratic consensus may just be arriving.
EFor further details of "We Are Church" write elo jubilee People, PO Box 12727, London SW1X 8FB