Sean O’Conaill © Reality Nov 2011
The recovery of the Catholic church in Ireland will occur just as soon as its leaders realise that they need to share responsibility with lay people for evangelising secular culture.
The summer months of 2011 saw an intensification of the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The Cloyne report showed how the powers exercised by Catholic bishops could be used to frustrate even the church’s own child protection guidelines as late as 2008. Once again, despite the warning provided by previous scandals, an Irish bishop had totally mishandled this issue – to the detriment of victims of abuse, and to the disgrace of his church. With other dioceses now undergoing investigation, we wonder how Irish Catholic bishops can ever regain the trust and confidence of their people.
Soon after, something entirely different happened in a neighbouring society. London, Birmingham and other major British cities were convulsed by terrifying riots that saw wide scale looting and destruction. In the aftermath over 1,300 rioters were brought before emergency courts – and media commentators agonised over this unexpected event. Many spoke of the alienation of too many young men from modern society, but none saw any easy solution. The most honest pundits confessed to total bewilderment.
How would the Irish Catholic church react if similar events were to take place in Irish cities? There is no precedent for the emergency that would then present itself, and no precedent for the calling together of the Irish faithful to respond to such a secular crisis. And that encapsulates the problem of the Irish Catholic church today. With no reason to believe that what happened in Britain could not happen here, our Irish church occupies itself entirely with internal diversionary matters – for example, ‘World Youth Day’ and the Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012.
It is a state of affairs that cannot continue. Sometime soon Ireland will reach a tipping point – a severe and immediate crisis that will precipitate a realisation on the part of church leadership that the division of the church into clerical insiders and non-clerical outsiders simply cannot and must not be maintained. We are sleepwalking at present on the edge of a cliff, maintaining a model of church that prevents us from doing something basic to the health of every social entity – communicating with one another over a host of vital issues.
We obviously need to communicate, for example, about the desperation of so many young people, and about the vulnerability of the family – and the role of adult males in mentoring and providing role models for young men. We need to acknowledge also that the fragile forces that prevent the collapse of any society into chaos are in need of support from every concerned citizen. We need to talk about the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the vast disillusionment that has overtaken Irish society in recent years. We need to discuss how we are to counter the dangerous negativity that threatens to overwhelm Irish life, and to replace it with a soundly-based optimism. In a climate of deep cynicism created by so many failures of leadership, we need to restore confidence in the possibility of unselfish public service.
We need to develop together also a deeper understanding of the perils of consumerism and the relevance of the Gospels. It simply will not do to go on moralising about ‘materialism’ from the pulpit when it is absolutely clear that we humans are entirely uninterested in ‘matter’ for its own sake. What drives consumerism is the search for social status, the status that is supposedly conferred by possession of advanced technology and expensively ‘styled’ possessions of all kinds. Churchmen need to become aware that the search for status is a problem they also have – it is actually the root cause of their aloofness, their preference for the company of their peers and their distance from their people.
This ‘status anxiety’ is also the trigger for ‘contagious greed’ – the infectious manias that drove, for example, the Irish property bubble, and even, partially, the craze for ‘designer drugs’. At a more benign level ‘contagious greed’ even maintains the higher consumer spending that economists tell us we need to revitalise the global economy. We really need an opportunity to discuss all of this – because unbridled contagious greed is also obviously the trigger for looting.
How many Irish priests and bishops are able to connect in their homilies these obvious phenomena of status anxiety and infectious greed with Jesus warnings against seeking status and against coveting a neighbour’s possessions?
Is it too dangerous to ‘go there’, perhaps? Is status anxiety also the root problem of the Irish church, the source of clerical aloofness – the basic reason that Catholic clergy – and especially Catholic bishops – are afraid to make open discussion the weekly diet of a church in deep crisis? Was it also the underlying reason for the cover-up of clerical child abuse? Are clergy basically fearful of losing their status in the church if they lose control? Is clerical status anxiety the root cause of the widespread weakness of preaching at Mass these times?
Preaching would be far stronger also if clergy could confidently assert that it is possible to overcome status anxiet’. That is in essence what Jesus did – and what Francis of Assisi and every other great saint of the church did. They lost the fear of descending to the base of society because they were already secure in the love of God. When secular commentators ponder the nature of ‘strength of character’ we all need to be ready to point out, confidently, the source of the greatest strength. Spirituality is not just for monks – it is the soundest basis of moral character and of civic responsibility.
If the seeking of status is the root source of the growing secular crisis, how is the church to say so if it cannot criticise and dismantle its own status pyramid? How many humiliations must the church experience before it chooses the path of humility willingly?
It will choose that path soon enough in any case – there will be no alternative. With austerity set to intensify in Ireland in the months ahead the scene is set for a tipping point that will get us all talking at last – and using the Gospel as a source of salvation.
That cannot happen soon enough, but why do we need to wait? The relevance of the Gospel to every major problem threatening us is clear enough. It is only our absurd church structures that prevent us from sharing our understanding of that, and from bringing far better news to a secular society desperately in need of hope.