Craggy Island Revisited

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2000

The Father Ted TV show hit Catholic Ireland at a psychologically interesting moment. Bishop Eamonn Casey’s flight from Ireland in 1992 had begun a spate of clerical sex revelations deeply damaging to a clerical church whose foundations had been built largely upon lay sexual guilt, and had thus been thought secure for all eternity.

But if our faith depended upon the sexual irreproachability of a clerical elite, what was it exactly that we had believed in? A God who disempowers himself, or a clerical apparatus that had been doing the very opposite for over two centuries?

This question still hangs in the air here, as good people struggle to separate in their minds an ecclesiastical system that has let them down from a God who promises never to do so. At first furious at a comedy show that poked fun at the upholders of sacred truth, many staunch Catholics then began to grin ruefully in recognition at some of the most awful pathologies of ‘Catholic Ireland’ – especially the priest’s housekeeper whose hairnet is as permanent as her wheedling ‘ah go on’ insistence upon the cup of tea. (The latter becomes a kind of lukewarm and very extreme unction that will heal all ills, available at all hours – even to the crack of doom.)

It seems that only laughter can save us now – a laughter that will put us all on the same level again. Clerics, too, are people, in the end – worthy of the same respect as any child of God. Many have found the grace to join in the joke. Some may even be able to weep a bit also – in relief at the fact that they do not need to climb back onto the social and spiritual pedestal the poverty and illiteracy of Ireland had put them on in penal times, as the only educated leadership we had.

Sadly, however, our conference of bishops cannot see much to laugh at. Instead they are looking – to the secular world – for cement with which to repair the pedestal. Our largest newspaper conglomerate is being threatened with legal action by four bishops, each representing one of the four provinces of Ireland, for overstepping the limits of fair comment. The article at issue was one that complimented Gay Byrne, recently retired doyen of our top TV talk show, for revealing to the Irish people that bishops, being human, can err in fairly scandalous ways, sometimes in spheres of morality over which they have for generations inveighed with great self-righteousness.

This was common knowledge. And for a variety of other reasons the last thing the hierarchical Catholic Church in Ireland should be setting out to preserve in the present situation is its own dignity.

That hierarchy goes on interminably about ‘dignity’ – as though the latter was a vast resource that can enrich everyone. In fact dignity relates to the balance of human relationships, and is thus always a scarce resource. There is never more than enough to go round equally. Those who have a lot of it, such as media magnates and bishops, beggar those who have none – and Ireland still has a lot of the latter. Lay Catholics in Ireland are tumbling to this in droves – and wondering why the Irish church still has absolutely no apparatus for redressing internally the inequality of dignity and power that has forced the victims of clerical abuse also to seek redress from the secular state.

The reason this puzzles many people is that in many other areas our bishops denounce secularism per se – although clerical child abuse – and the manner in which it has been handled by the episcopacy – is now the most powerful secularising force on the island. It completely destroys the argument for a clerical monopoly of church administration – because this is clearly seen as the root cause of the victims’ frequent alienation from the church into which they have been baptised.

Arising out of this there is a growing perception of another void – the absence of permanent formal means of upward communication and representation through which lay people can be listened to. Although canon law allows for the establishment of synods at diocesan and national level, there is absolutely no movement from the church leadership towards setting these up. The last time the Irish national Conference of Priests debated the possibility of an Irish church assembly, in September 1998, they judged that the laity were not then ready, and might not be ready for another twenty years.

If this is true it raises fundamental questions about Catholic education in Ireland. The products of our Catholic schools can become brain surgeons, airline pilots, computer software and hardware designers, academics, EC commissioners, UN commissioners, and even heads of state – but remain – it is claimed – incompetent to participate in the development of their church – even though the hierarchy proclaims the ‘Catholic ethos’ of these schools. Is this incompetence the deliberate intention of up to fourteen years of Catholic education in Ireland, including thousands of hours of RE?

The truth is that Irish people learn very quickly when they need to. They will never have the slightest incentive to think deeply about the problem of living their faith as long as they are treated as intellectually disabled children whose highest aptitude is that of flag wavers in a cast of thousands for papal visits.

Another cause for deep concern is that despite a series of cataclysmic public relations disasters that have shaken Irish Catholicism to its roots over the past eight years, there has been absolutely no serious attempt to measure the effects of this upon the morale of Catholics generally by the church’s leaders. What information we have we owe – once more – to the secular media, or Andrew Greeley. Wondering at first when effective leadership might eventually emerge at the summit we now ask ‘What leadership?’ A way of being church, constructed over 150 years by upwardly mobile ecclesiastics contemptuous of democracy, is now plainly dead – but there hasn’t even been a wake.

That’s why we are laughing more freely at Fr Ted these days – because it provides the banana skin that every small boy wants to throw under the feet of the self-important. So long as our bishops can’t join in the joke, so long will they remain unable to understand what is happening on this island.

It is, I believe, precisely the process that Jesus Christ came to accomplish – the equalisation of human dignity. At some stage this process must destroy the religious pyramid of esteem that every religious elite in history has built. That pyramid preserves itself – as did the Temple pyramid in Jesus’ time – by declaring itself the only source of wisdom and salvation. But laughter is another kind of grace, and in Ireland today it is as free as Jordan water.

‘The faith’ is dying, the pessimists say – as though faith was a kind of abstract bundle of Greekified and Latinated truths that only bishop-theologians fully understand. In fact gospel faith was simply trust – in a man who did not believe that religious leadership could only be accomplished from a position of eminence and power. Far from setting out to build a pyramid through which he could dominate, Jesus made himself deliberately approachable and vulnerable, and it is that truth that draws those without dignity to him. An ecclesiastical leadership that sets out to do the opposite cannot image, and can only confuse, that truth. The hierarchical church has lost the trust of many good people in Ireland – and its inability to understand and deal with this is testing the patience of even the staunchest.

The very staunchest used to be the womenfolk of Ireland – those mothers who raised their sons to be priests and insisted upon family observance and nightly Rosary. We know enough history now to be sure that not one of those sexually active but prayerful women ever even became ‘Blessed’, let alone ‘Saint’ – and that the reason for this is that the scales for such promotion are tipped heavily in favour of people who are male, celibate, prudish and ordained. The Papal declaration that the ban on female ordination has the status of an infallible teaching – perpetuating forever the humiliation of those who once raised Ireland’s priests – must be reckoned the most astonishing example of foot-shooting in the history of Irish Catholicism.

This female disillusionment with a male chauvinist Catholic leadership is part of the demoralisation that challenges many women religious. It guarantees the disappearance of their communities forever, at a time when the country in which they grew up is disappearing before their eyes – in a tide of covetousness, crime and addiction. In these circumstances the bullying pursuit by the CDF of dissenting women religious seems gratuitously vindictive, and the final straw. Had the Curia deliberately set out to destroy the tradition of religious and priestly vocation in Ireland it could not have been more effective.

And that is why our Catholic schools are failing also as nurseries of faith. Dedicated teachers present an irreproachable image of a compassionate God who descends to eye-level, while simultaneously having to defend an ecclesiastical system that turns its shepherds into remote and elevated princes of the Church. Those shepherds (with a few outstanding exceptions), prove – without words – that the God of the text books must stay there, because his human life of openness, simplicity and personal approachability cannot be lived by themselves.

True, the hierarchy does try to engage with the rampant covetousness of Ireland’s entrepreneurial revolution, calling for a juster society and basic humanity in dealing with the flood of refugees from Eastern Europe. However, the bishops need to realise, and urgently, that you cannot challenge the hubris of secularism while clinging on to the vestiges of the power and status inherited from the cosy patronage of yesterday’s secular regimes. Today’s secular regime is dismissive of what the bishops say, because it knows that the days when the bishops had clout with the people are over. The bishops need to discover urgently why this is – by engaging for the very first time in direct, serious consultation with those on whose behalf they presume to speak Their continuing failure to do this, when those people are their only source of revenue and recruitment, and are now voting with their feet in massive numbers, is a greater mystery than Arthur C Clarke has yet stumbled over in the jungles of Central America.

Everyone I talk to gives me the same analysis: top-down manipulation of Irish society by Irish Catholic bishops, for whatever cause, has had its day. Every twelve-year-old in Ireland knows today what most of our bishops apparently do not – that leadership by verbal exhortation and condemnation can easily be replaced by a recorded message.

Eight decades after toppling its Big House political system, Catholic Ireland still has an entrenched Big House ecclesiastical system – and the sheer absurdity, mindlessness and immorality of this becomes starker with every scandal that hits the news. The old triumphalist claim ‘the church is not a democracy’ seems to more and more people the very root of the problem, a clericalist excuse for a clerical closed shop that hurts people and then turns to the secular world to repair the damage. Contempt for administrative democracy in the church (unchangeable dogma is not the issue) is contempt for the creator of the Irish Catholic people, to whom the Trinity have given wisdom and grace in abundance.

It was compassion and humility that led Jesus to the cross – not an outraged sense of his own challenged dignity. As the Irish hierarchical church decays into a national facsimile of Craggy Island, and our churches fall into disuse, this penny too must eventually drop at its summit. Until then Father Ted’s exposure of the lunacy of the recent past will have to do us for grace instead.

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