The Church needs structural reform

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  March 2011

It’s clear that our church cannot renew itself unless radical structural change takes place.

“Renewal and reform of the Church …. will only come from within the Church, that is from within a community of men and women who listen to the word of God, who come together to pray, who celebrate the Eucharist and are called to share in the very life of Christ himself … Renewal of the Church is not about … structural reform.”

These were the words of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin on November 20th, 2010. Fervently in agreement with the first sentence, I was stunned by the last. I simply could not understand why the archbishop seemed to believe at that time that our church could renew itself without radical structural reform.

To begin with, he himself has had to grapple with the consequences of church structures that give conflicting and irreconcilable responsibilities to bishops. The reputation of his four predecessors will forever be tarnished by the events related in the Murphy report. This clearly showed that until 1994 Dublin’s archbishops were unable to reconcile their obligation to care for the church’s most vulnerable members – children – with their other obligation to safeguard the clerical institution from scandal.

Hundreds of children suffered horrifically as a consequence, and this then became the greatest scandal of all. And this scandal was revealed not by church structures but by secular structures. The latter are far from perfect, but they are in one respect superior to the governing structures of the church: they allow for transparency and a separation of powers and responsibilities. This prevents the secrecy and concentration of power that gave us the abuse crisis – the organisational culture that the church still clings to.

The archbishop could of course argue in response that the independent National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) will prevent the events of 1975-2004 ever recurring. But the NBSCCC itself believes that further church reform is necessary. In its second annual report of April 30th, 2010, its chairman, John Morgan declared that a period of reflection is needed that should (in his words) “extend to trying to understand and examine what Church structures brought about the situation that has unfolded before us and how such structures must be changed”.

Almost certainly the NBSCCC is concerned about the culture of clericalism fostered by current church structures – a culture that conditions clergy to be in control and also conditions Catholic lay people to defer to that arrangement. This will remain a threat to the principle upon which all child safeguarding in the church must rest – the principle of the paramount interests of children. The hundreds of child protection personnel currently being trained by the NBSCCCC cannot do their job effectively until that principle is embedded in the church’s own organisational blueprint – canon law. And until lay people participate as of right in the governance of the church.

Furthermore, the widespread confidence that the NBSC has managed to create in its own integrity and independence could still easily be lost. If church structures are not changed to make them far more transparent, clericalism could dictate that the bishops who appoint the executive board of the NBSCCC would appoint compliant lay people who would be prepared to ditch the paramountcy principle for the sake of ‘harmony’ – taking us back to the era of the cover-up.

A key weakness in the church’s governing structures is the total absence of a canonical mechanism for removing a dysfunctional bishop. Of the four Irish bishops who have resigned in the wake of the abuse crisis, none was removed by an internal church process. Bishops Comiskey, Magee and Murray resigned in the wake of the public revelation of their failures, and the outcry that followed. Bishop Moriarty resigned because in his own view he had failed to challenge the culture of cover-up that had failed the children of Dublin. In all cases it is clear that had it not been for factors external to the church’s governing system those bishops would still be in place.

Dublin is currently fortunate to have Dr Martin in charge. But what would happen to the reforms he has introduced in Dublin if he were replaced by someone far less committed to them? Without changes to canon law, and to diocesan church structures, everything he has achieved would be entirely reversible.

To be fair to Dr Martin, he was entirely right to stress that renewal of the church will also depend upon a renewal of faith, sourced in the Gospels. But does he really appreciate how the faith of the Irish Catholic people has been challenged by church structures that have let them down so badly? There is a very real danger that seeking now to retain their faith in the current awful crisis, many more Irish people will conclude that their native church is irreformable, and that they must detach themselves completely from it. Many have already done so.

Others, however, refuse to give up on the idea of structural reform of their own church. Evidence of this came following the December meeting of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. A press release on December 14th revealed that over 2,500 respondents to a consultation on the papal pastoral letter of March 2010 had focused on the following core themes: ‘Spiritual Renewal; Structural Renewal; Role of Women and on the Church of Community and Communion’.

Further information on these responses soon came from the bishops’ ‘Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development’. In a report that is available on the website for the Irish Bishops’ Conference it was revealed that:

“There was widespread disappointment among respondents that in the Pope’s Letter child sex abuse is not seen as a symptom of shortcomings in structure and function in the Church. In addition, there is no critique of the role of the Vatican. There is little or no acknowledgement of the exclusion of lay people from roles where they can make significant contribution.”

For most of those who took part in this consultation it must have been heartening to find that they were not alone in calling for structural change. Disappointingly, the Irish bishops’ conference has so far failed to comment at length in reply. Bishop Seamus Freeman in his own letter of response merely referred everyone to the papal document ‘Verbum Domini’ of 2008. As this is a complex exhortation by Pope Benedict to read and reflect on the scriptures it is difficult to see how it is especially helpful in illuminating the question of structural change.

At the most basic level an organisation’s structure convenes its members to meet regularly, to enable them to interact to their mutual benefit and to come to a common understanding. Even to do what Dr Martin and the Pope advocate, to come together to pray and to listen to the word of God, we need to ‘structure’ this into the habitual life of the church.

Instead, our habitual way of ‘interacting’ – the Sunday Mass – has undergone no substantial change in this awful crisis that would allow us to interact at the deepest possible level. It observes the traditional rigid apartheid between priests and people, and requires the latter to open our mouths only for scripted responses and the occasional hymn. No wonder our young people are wondering why we go on mindlessly like this – meeting weekly without communicating. There is a deep dysfunction in the Irish church at present – the kind of dysfunction that prevents a troubled family from meeting in one place to come to a new understanding of how its members are to love one another again.

The newly formed Irish Association of Catholic Priests seems to be well aware of this. Welcoming Bishop Freeman’s publication of the results of the 2010 consultation in the Irish Times, it too called for structural reform and declared that the time might be right for the calling of a national assembly or synod of the Irish church.

At Christmas it seemed that Archbishop Martin had also been paying close attention. Whereas in November he had insisted that renewal was ‘not about structural reform’, on December 24th he said in his Christmas homily “Renewal in the Church is not
simply about structures and organization, no matter how important these can be.” Just a small shift, certainly, but a potentially very significant one.

The absence of structures that will require clergy and people to interact respectfully, thoughtfully and regularly will prove fatal if it continues. Since Vatican II we have never had an opportunity to come to a fruitful understanding of our complementary roles. It is this above all that has given us a ‘two-tier’ church in Ireland, and attitudes that devolve all church responsibility onto clergy in the first instance. Embedded in our church structures at the deepest level – actually institutionalised in them – is the heresy of clericalism.

It is important to say this because Dr Martin has many times identified clericalism as a major obstacle to renewal. It cannot be confronted or eradicated without structural reform.

In the end, of course, events may prove Dr Martin correct in one sense. Oppressed by the multiple crises of the moment more and more Irish people may indeed come together spontaneously to reflect upon the Gospels and to pray. That was exactly what happened in the 16th century when to many people the church of popes and bishops had become corrupt. This led to the fragmentation of north-European Christianity and to the multitude of varieties of Christian witness that we see today. It is now far from certain that the Catholic church in Ireland will avoid a similar fate.

If it is to do so, structural reform must be on its near horizon. We need to be convened as regularly for renewal as we are for Mass. It is an insult to the Mass, and to God, to go on as we are going. If the Irish Bishops’ Conference is at last to show real leadership it must face this issue squarely in 2011.

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