Reflections on the diocese and the Church after Munilla

Bishop José Ignacio Munilla presided over the diocese of Donostia-San Sebastián from 2010 to 2022. The following is a response to the questionnaire proposed by the editor of RELIGIÓN DIGITAL, but is intended more as an in-depth reflection on the situation of the Catholic Church in general:

1) What has Monsignor Munilla left behind?

After 12 years he has gradually left behind a social, political and religious situation that in his eyes must be devastating: the widespread acceptance of the diversity of truth and the secularization of ethics, the massive abandoning of religious practice, the unstoppable closing down of convents and monasteries, the general distancing from the Church, and… the considerable increase in the nationalist vote.  All this constitutes an abject failure of the ethically confessional, religiously pre-modern, and politically pre-democratic National-Catholic project, to which José Ignacio Munilla was appointed. A fortunate failure.

An unfortunate failure, however, because he leaves behind a diocesan community whose most active and open sectors –action and reflection groups, catechists, religious men and women with a greater spirit of renewal, a good proportion of the older clergy inspired by the Second Vatican Council– feel discouraged by age, by the lack of replacements and by the 12-year-long institutional diocesan marginalisation endured. The diocese is in the hands of young clergy that is both thin on the ground and ideologized in equal measure, clad in black suits and clerical collars, closely identified with their clerical role and overly concerned with doctrine, ritual and sexual morality. They are driving the community of believers into a social and cultural ghetto, and are condemning themselves to useless, painful conflicts with society and with themselves.

However, I am not holding José Ignacio Munilla personally responsible for this, but rather the ecclesiastical system of which he is the son and servant. Nor is it a particular and distinctive problem of this diocese, I hasten to add, but a mirror of the general drift of the Catholic Church in recent centuries and especially in recent decades, during the pontificates of John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013), a mirror of a Church bent on preserving and restoring the ruins of the past. In doing so, it only succeeded in ruining its most living spiritual legacy, the liberating and humanising memory of Jesus for our time.

The situation in this diocese reflects the irreversible socio-cultural collapse of the traditional theological paradigm and ecclesial model. And, at the same time, particularly under the leadership of Monsignor Munilla, it has been a reflection of the following: the Church’s refusal to change its paradigm and model, the most tenacious, anachronistic clinging to the old theological paradigm, the old, hierarchical, clerical, masculine, patriarchal, ecclesial model in an ever growing break with culture, the Spirit and the spirituality of life.

2) What are your hopes for the future?

I may seem very pessimistic, and perhaps I am, but as far as I can tell in this diocese and in the Catholic Church in general, in the short and medium term, I can see no signs that the profound spiritual, theological and canonical transformation that our day and age needs, seeks and is crying out for is going to be promoted from within the ecclesial institution. The same is true in general for all the other churches and for all traditional religions, but I am confining myself to the Roman Catholic Church.

There was a period of grace around the time of the Second Vatican Council when parishes, dioceses, the entire Catholic Church still had vibrant social masses of men and women, young and old, from all social classes, numerous Christians inspired by the dream of another Church and another world in this world. But by then it was too late, the Church was 500 years behind Western culture, but it could still have been an appropriate time for a profound renewal of the institutional Church, in which a symbolic, spiritual, free and liberating reading of the Bible could be accepted and promoted; in which God and Jesus, sin and salvation could begin to be discussed in a different way; in which a final break could be made with the clericalism that does not allow a community to celebrate life and remember Jesus by sharing bread and wine unless presided over by a male priest ordained by a bishop appointed by a pope; in which it would be possible to go beyond the clergy-laity, reason-faith, Church-world binomial and so many others of bygone times. But the Catholic hierarchy allowed itself to be led by fear, it preferred security, did not know how to read “the signs of the times”, did not dare to undertake the necessary profound reform of the institution and theology as a whole.

And that is how we have reached the point of no return in the internal implosion and external collapse in which we find ourselves. Radical reform from within no longer seems to me to be possible because of the dizzying pace of global cultural change, and the obvious lack of a social, theological and pastoral mass needed to guide the process. It is already too late to provide for an orderly demolition of the doctrinal and canonical scaffolding, and be able to promote an inspirational, inspiring charismatic, itinerant ecclesial recreation, beyond dogmas and codes, beyond any rigid institution.

Nor do I believe that Pope Francis is going to promote that indispensable radical reform far beyond his personal disposition, simple changes of style and mere curial reforms; I cannot see him doing that given his age, his isolation, his personal theological frameworks, and the intrinsic contradiction of any absolute personal power, such as that of a pope, which no one can exercise personally and which ends up in an impersonal and uncontrollable web of interests and powers.  The assessment of his pontificate spanning 9 years reinforces my scepticism. It was already too late when he was chosen. Today, 9 years later, with plenty of very good documents and declarations, three sterile general synods and in the midst of this synodal process without soul or horizon, not a single canon has changed. In the end, we are where we were, and remaining stationary in a moving world is tantamount to going backwards.

So I do not expect the radical transformation being called for will be promoted from within the Catholic institution. However, I am hoping that it will. Of course, “hoping” in its spiritual sense does not mean waiting for something or believing that something is going to happen, but anticipating the expected future in some way, making a tiny contribution towards reflection, action and encouragement so that it can take place in the present, so that it can be created right away. In spite of everything, and, above all, my own contradictions, in spite of this ecclesial institution that has not yet breathed its last and therefore has not succeeded in being reborn as Jesus taught us, I cling to the hope of a new Church in a new world, of a more humane, just and free humanity, within the community of all living creatures.

I place my hope in the Spirit that inspires everything, and also in the heart of this Church that is not subject to any dogma or canon or institution. I place my hope in the Spirit that inspired Jesus and that encourages the hearts of all women and men irrespective of their beliefs, religions and churches.

I place my hope, in spite of everything, in this diverse, critical, secular, modern, complex society, with its huge contradictions, wounds, lacerations and threats of total planetary collapse. And I stress that when I say “hope” I am not saying that I expect that everything will be better, I am saying that I feel called to promote, from near and far, a fairer, more peaceful world. And no matter what happens, I want to keep on hoping.

3) Are there any names being bandied about regarding Monsignor Munilla’s eventual successor?

Names are being bandied about, of course: a Jesuit, a Salesian, a diocesan… And while the rumours are rife and continue to be so, someone close to Munilla has been appointed as apostolic administrator, but we don’t know for how long. And who cares about that? Frankly, it matters very little to me.

Whoever the successor is, he will be appointed from above, and we will hear about it in the press. Nor will we know who has decided on his appointment, why, or for what purpose. What is certain is that he will not have been chosen by the diocesan community he is supposed to serve and encourage. It will be imposed from above. In other words, the hierarchical-clerical system will continue to function.

4) What should he be like?

Is there any point in saying what the person who is coming should be like when we are not allowed to decide who should come? We continue to be treated like little children.

This is what I will say like a child, but fully aware that I am asking for the impossible. It would have to be a man or woman elected at least as democratically as a mayor or general secretary of a political party, and for a limited time; a man or woman who empathises deeply with the joys and anxieties, the dramas and hopes of this society; someone who knows how to speak and write grammatically correct Basque and Spanish, the two official languages of this Basque diocese (Spanish will not be a problem, but Basque will); someone who knows how to listen, to dialogue, and to respect diversity; someone who does not feel that any clerical, divine or superior power has been conferred on him or her; someone who dreams of and promotes the new Church and the new theology impeded by the Catholic institution and its Canon Law.

I know that will not happen and that what I say will be of no use, but I want to cherish the hope and share it beyond any dogmatic and canonical boundaries.

Aizarna (Basque Country), 24 April, 2022

(Translated by Sarah J. Turtle)