On Tuesday 5th of March at 12.00 noon the Declaration was publicly launched in Committee Room 8 of the House of Commons in London, UK. About 40 people were present, among them representatives from the media. The Declaration had been opened for endorsement from the 11th of October last year, but never been launched for the media.
This report is partly based on material made available by the Press Association UK.
Ms. Siobhain McDonagh MP opened the meeting. Dr John Wijngaards, a Dutch-born theologian who is acting as international co-ordinator for the Declaration, gave a short introduction. He said the declaration had gained the support of 179 theologians and scholars worldwide and would be submitted to cardinal electors, who are preparing for a conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. “The election of a new pope is a rare opportunity for the Church to reconsider its systems of governance, to introduce a more democratic system of electing leaders and to reassess the leaders’ accountability to the faithful,” he said. “The pope’s role needs to be clarified. He should not be an autocrat but more like a team-leader. The Church should be a church of churches, to quote Cardinal Walter Kasper, rather than a top-down pyramid of power.” “The central synod of bishops was instituted by Vatican II to create a balance to papal authority. But the synod that now exists has been emasculated by the Vatican. It cannot fix its own agenda. Its resolutions and recommendations are clipped or suppressed. It cannot publish its own report.” He added that there needed to be reform of the way leaders within the Church were appointed. “A system has developed by which only candidates are selected and appointed and then ordained, of a certain mind, a certain way of thinking, that corresponds with what they think should be right,” he said. “As a result, the Church is in danger of being governed by a self perpetuating little clique, who are just creating clones of themselves, instead of allowing a fresh imput.” He also said that at present most groundbreaking new theology is being suppressed. “We live in a climate of fear in which academics don’t dare to speak up for fear of losing their job, and in which thinking people know the public stance is wrong but don’t dare to challenge it openly.” Signing the Declaration on behalf of the underprivileged and marginalised worldwide, Lord Hylton called for the church to actively follow the Second Commandment. He said: “Loving our neighbour is fundamental – it is a commandment which must be right in the mainstream of the Catholic Church.” “The Church is doing good work in many countries, but at times the focus is not on the right priorities. There are champions for justice and peace in many countries who are not being given the support they need.” “I am just back from Iraq where Christians of all denominations are going through very difficult times. And so are Muslims for that matter.” “At all times we should be there as brothers and sisters to all people, brothers and sisters who are willing to help and share the common burdens rather than as opponents or rivals.” Lady Helena Kennedy of the Shaws signed the Declaration on behalf of the faithful who have suffered from “misguided” church rulings on sexual ethics, including contraception, homosexuality and remarriage. She told the news conference that she backed the Catholic Church’s work in areas such as alleviating poverty and also its stance on opposing the Iraq war. But she said there had been “serious crises” in the Catholic Church and it faced issues of “transparency, accountability and governance”.
“The Church has existed for millennia and like all ancient institutions it is very slow to change and it is confronted with a number of problems,” she said. “It is almost exclusively run by men and that is how the world was, we don’t have to see it as a conspiracy, it was the nature of things. We have to recognise that within the Catholic Church power is located in one gender, we might dress up the story of women playing important roles in the Church but it is actually a fiction and is unacceptable in the modern world. That issue of women’s absence from the positions of power within the Church I do think creates a serious dysfunction for the Church.” Lady Kennedy said she was opposed to compulsory celibacy for the priesthood, saying it should be a choice. Women should also be permitted to become Catholic priests, she said. “I think we as people who are part of this Church recognise that there is a wholly disproportionate, if you like, distraction about sex, it arises on many different fronts, the unwillingness to accept that in relationships people give expression to their love in many different ways, that there is nothing that is unhealthy about having a sexual drive. “Unfortunately, we still cling to this idea that sex only is about reproduction.” Lady Kennedy said she was not speaking as someone who would consider herself to be a “devout” Catholic. She said she preferred to call herself a “bad” Catholic. “I call myself a bad Catholic, I say that I am a bad Catholic… that is my statement because I don’t feel that the Church is in any way reflecting the things that are the concerns of many of the women who are brought up as Catholics,” she said. “That is the reason why so many young people are no longer practising Catholics, they don’t feel that the Church in any way is engaging with the issues that concern them.” Speaking about the term “devout” to describe Catholics, she said: “The word for me is often a description of people who I think, do less credit to the Church.”
Professor Ursula King, well-known feminist and spiritual writer, of Bristol University, signed the Declaration on behalf of all women in the Church. She too demanded changes in church attitudes to women. She said: “The 21st century is the century for women. In all religions, world wide, women are beginning to assert their rights. Most religious practitioners are women and they are the ones who pass that practice on to future generations. Catholic women need to be able to hold positions within the church authority.” She told the meeting that she had grown up in a small German village but then had struck out to study at many universities, not only in Germany but also in France, India and the UK. “Joseph Ratzinger was my professor for two years”, she said. “Before he became conservative. He always stayed within his own little patch. He never really opened his mind to the rest of the world.” “I attended a meeting women theologians last year. In my youth there was no single woman professor in Germany. Our meeting of Catholic women theologians in 2011 was attended by 20 German women professors, indicating a great change.” “Women are now actively involved in all faiths, whether in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam or other faiths. There is truly a revolution going on among women in the world religions. But where are we in the Catholic Church? Catholic women have so many gifts and can give so much to the pastoral and spiritual life of the Church. In fact, their contribution is indispensable for the future of the Church, for there can’t be a church without women.”
Ms Siobhain McDonagh, a Catholic and MP for Mitcham and Morden, south London, said the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church needed to understand the crisis it was facing. “I think they need to take on board the crisis that appears to be developing in the Church between, on the one hand, the views expressed by those in authority and on the other, how we all live our lives because there is a gap there that needs to be bridged,” she said. She added that there should be a top priority of listening to ordinary churchgoers. “I would ask that there would be a priority given to the kindness and the pastoral nature of the Church in dealing with people in difficulties rather than always sending down impossible standards of behaviour that we all, whoever we are, sometimes fall short of,” she said. Asked for her reaction to Cardinal O’Brien’s admission on Sunday that his sexual conduct had at times “fallen below the standards” expected of him, Ms McDonagh said: “On a human level, I feel terribly sorry for him. “On a formal level, it is just hard to understand how the Church has got to a place where people are prepared to say things in such black and white terms about being gay, gay marriage, all sorts of things that we talk about, yet behave in a different way. Ms McDonagh repeated her criticism of the Archbishop of Glasgow, the Most Rev Philip Tartaglia, over his reported remarks last year apparently linking the death of the gay Catholic MP David Cairns to his homosexuality. “It is a very hard thing to come to terms with when a person of authority in my Church, the Church that I was born into, is willing to make a statement about my very best friend, whom I watched every single day over a two-month period die of a terrible illness that you would not wish on anyone,” she said. “His remarks were beyond comment from my perspective – how you can say something so unkind, so brutal from a complete position of ignorance.” Ms McDonagh was a close friend and neighbour of Mr Cairns for almost 20 years, and he was her parliamentary assistant from 1997 to 2001. Mr Cairns, a former Scotland Office minister, died of acute pancreatitis in hospital in May 2011.
Gernal View of the room
From left to right: Miriam Diuignan, Jackie Clackson, John Wijngaards, Siobhain McDonagh
Other guests at the launch
From left to right: John Wijngaards, Ursula King, Lord Hylton, Helena Kennedy,