Category Archives: Clericalism

2024: Irish Catholic Vocations Office Mired in Clericalism

 Front page of the Irish National Vocations Office website in January 2024

“Is God Calling You to be a Diocesan Priest? Come and See. Take the Risk for Christ.” This is what faces you when you click https://vocations.ie/ the website of Ireland’s Catholic “National Vocations Office”.

Asked by Ardal O’Hanlon on his RTE documentary what risk was involved in opting for the celibate priestly vocation today, the National Vocations Coordinator, Fr Willie Purcell, responded:

“Anyone who is presenting himself for priesthood nowadays is really being counter-cultural. It really is a radical decision. The risk really is giving yourself completely to Christ that others might come to know him through you.  There really is a lot of humility involved in it, of self-sacrifice involved in it, but most important of all a vocation is a selfless decision, to give yourself to Christ and then to give yourself to others.”

Yet again we are being asked here to ignore what the Gospel clearly tells us about Jesus, viz.:

  • That he was never a member of the priestly religious institution of his own time and place;
  • That his definitive role in ‘salvation’ was not sacramental or liturgical (i.e. symbolic) but the direct prophetic challenging of a religious system he saw as both exploitative and hypocritical, to the danger of his own life;
  • That it was therefore his integrity, not his celibacy, that constitutes the central sacrifice that he did indeed ask us to repeat in memory of him;
  • That the definitive Christian calling to ‘follow’ him was therefore NOT to males only to join an exclusively male religious institution but to the same self-giving and integrity in whatever social role we baptised Catholic Christians find ourselves – whatever our gender, age or occupation.

Why does the National Vocations Office see only the risk to clergy?

Why is it not obvious to the Irish National Vocations Office that any social role, in any society, can and does involve these challenges to integrity – and that risk can attach to any of these?

It isn’t only the lives and trials of outstanding Irish individuals such as Veronica Guerin, Maurice McCabe and Martin Ridge that demonstrate this. Public service, especially for women, has become notably more risky and challenging for anyone who approaches it with integrity in the age of the Internet. With Pope Francis now calling all of us, even teenagers, to ‘mission’ today – and with Irish Garda, nurses, firefighters and paramedics at risk on every callout in certain locales in Ireland  – why was this not obvious to whoever dreamt up the slogan ‘Take the risk for Christ’ – implying that the risk of Christian witness attaches solely to the male celibate sacramental calling?

Lessons of the Pandemic

Did not the Pandemic teach us that in an interdependent society the lives of all of us can depend upon those who risk turning up even to man the check-out in the local supermarket or the counter in a dispensary?

Isn’t even any Irish teenager who stands in school against sexual harassment or homophobic bullying – or online trolling of a friend – at risk, and is not this the risk that attaches to the common priesthood of the people of God, the risk that comes to all who affirm their Baptism?

Why does Fr Purcell imply that only the diocesan priest has the responsibility to bring the message of Christ to others, when the key message of synodality is that this responsibility comes to all of us with Baptism?

The Priests who spoke out

As for the specific risks that do indeed attach to the sacramental priesthood, how would Fr Purcell account for what happened to those Irish priests who did prophetically challenge the injustices of church policies in relation to women, the LGBT community and the mishandling by bishops of the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children in Ireland, back in 2012?

What a shame that Ardal O’Hanlon did not think to ask if that was indeed the ‘risk’ that the National Vocations Office has in mind!

Child Safeguarding and Risk

And if he had asked that question, would Fr Purcell have recalled  that we have never yet had an open conversation on the role and obligation of private conscience when faced with an abuse of authority in the church, as could happen, for example, to any of the child safeguarding personnel we now depend upon?

With synodality far from firmly embedded in our Catholic culture, and canon law still a mess, the risks for every servant of the church that are still posed by the church itself are far from merely notional or historic. Does Ireland’s National Vocations Office truly serve the church by apparently forgetting all of that?

Why in 2024 can we not instead have a properly balanced understanding  of ‘vocation’ that does not associate counter-cultural Christian self-sacrifice and ‘humility’ solely with the male celibate sacramental priestly role or imply that for all lay people the risk of Christian witness must be secondary?

Is it not to this clericalist talking-up of the sacramental role alone – and the consequent forgetting of the priestly and prophetic calling of all of us – that we must ascribe the incomprehension of so many young people about the Christian call to themselves?

Baptism the Primary Sacrament of the Priestly People of God

Finally, given the paramount importance of communicating the meaning of our common priesthood, why is the restoration of the primacy of Baptism still lagging totally in Ireland? Is that no concern of the National Vocations Office, or of the Irish Bishops Conference?

In its singular concern for the survival of the sacramental Catholic priesthood in Ireland the Irish National Vocations Office has presented us yet again with an understanding of the Christian vocation that is stridently and essentially clericalist.  This can only undermine the central message of synodality and delay the emergence of the co-responsible church we so badly need.

17th Jan 2024

Views: 203

A Reckoning on Catholic Clerical Abuse? Seriously?

Are Irish bishops truly serious in echoing the view of Ireland’s National Synodal Synthesis – that a conclusive ‘reckoning’ on the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children has yet to happen in the church? If so will they now call upon the Pope and the Universal Synod of Bishops to remove the obvious barriers to such a reckoning that the hierarchical church has maintained since the abuse crisis began in 1984?
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In a December 2022 statement Irish bishops repeated the assertion of the Irish National Synodal Synthesis that a ‘reckoning’ on abuse in the church has still to happen. They quoted the following paragraph from the National Synthesis:

“There was a palpable sense that despite many efforts by the Church, a ‘reckoning’ had not yet taken place, and the synodal process generated a clear imperative to place this issue at the heart of any Church renewal and reform. A submission noted: We must pledge ourselves to journey with survivors, to meet with them, preferably in small groups where dialogue is possible and opens us to the presence of the Spirit.”

Who do Ireland’s church leaders suppose should initiate such a ‘reckoning’ after three decades of church scandal, when everywhere the hierarchical church has deliberately dealt with survivors individually – often imposing non-disclosure agreements on receivers of settlements – and failed to provide victims of abuse in the church – or the people of God – with any corporate representative structures?

No Irish diocese has ever even projected a full reckoning on the issue of abuse, to end the isolation of survivors with a view to final reconciliation. This effectively means that the Irish church remains divided into three separate bodies: first, clergy; second, clerical abuse survivors; third, the now radically declining body of church goers. 

Furthermore the Irish Catholic Church has never published any account of the current wellbeing or otherwise of the survivor community, leaving the wider church completely in the dark on the wellbeing and health status of survivors. It is for all the world as though they are all out of sight and out of mind, and deliberately so.  If a ‘reckoning’ is sincerely contemplated now, shouldn’t survivors be asked, openly, what exactly that would mean?  

The 2022 synodal process received only one distinctive survivor submission – from only seven Irish survivors – and their submission was an indictment of the ongoing typical treatment of survivors as adversaries – by church servants who too often showed an inclination ‘to sacrifice survivors for what they considered to be the good of the Church‘.

And no Irish diocese yet has a permanent forum where anyone could ask why this is still so.

This is the deliberate maintenance of an imbalance of power between survivors and Irish church leaders, and the isolation of survivors from the wider church-going community.

When and Why did Secrecy Begin?

Meanwhile there has never been even a hint of an in-house attempt to uncover and reveal the root of the ghastly mishandling of the issue via secrecy and recycling of malefactors. What reason do survivors have to believe that they will live to see such a reckoning?

Ad nauseam we have been assured that celibacy does not cause clerical child abuse – but what caused the cover up by bishops everywhere, which empowered abusers and protracted this disease for centuries? When and why did it become standard procedure for the hierarchical church to ignore what Jesus had said should happen to those who caused children to stumble (Matt 18:6) – and to hide, systematically, the fact that the ordained could ever do this?

Did the rule of celibacy and the elevation of celibate clergy as exemplary models of Christ truly have nothing to do with the intensification of the practice of secrecy since the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, and especially from c. 1869 – as outlined by Tom Doyle in his brief history of this issue?

Given that Rome has not ever offered even a hint of interest in discovering the roots of this malignant secrecy, the onus must surely rest with the hierarchical church to prove that this had nothing to do with the preservation of the myth of a celibate clergy.

The obvious block on the disclosure of the full historical record, at the highest level, is a barrier to belief that living survivors will ever see a full reckoning. Those at the local level who don’t control access to the full historical record can speak of a reckoning easily enough, as another pious thought –  just something for the historians of the 2100s to get into.

Given the imbalance between the Irish hierarchy and the sufferers of abuse, the former can defer to the notion of a ‘reckoning’, while knowing full well that in their own time everything is being done at the centre to block all means of getting there.

So if Irish bishops are serious about a full reckoning, will they now call for a full disclosure of the historical origins of the greatest mistake ever made by church servants – the hiding of a phenomenon that has plagued the church for centuries and will continue to paralyse it until the mistake of secrecy is traced to its poisonous source?

Views: 129

The Frustrated Potential of the Alienated Church

“I no longer have any trust in the Catholic Church but I have my own faith and belief in God. I believe that Martin Ridge and his investigation stopped me from committing suicide and I owe him everything.”

This was Martin Gallagher – Donegal victim of the ordained abuser Eugene Greene in the Catholic diocese of Raphoe – speaking to the Donegal Daily (October 24th, 2019).

Martin Ridge was one of two Garda officers who painstakingly took the testimony of Martin Gallagher and twenty-five other victims of Greene, resulting in a successful prosecution in 2000, and a twelve-year prison sentence. Greene died in November 2018.

Martin Ridge d. Jan 6th, 2022

Martin Ridge, also raised a Catholic and still a firm Christian believer, sees the clerical Catholic church in Donegal as still in denial – his reason for calling for a ‘cold case’ forensic review of the mystery of Greene’s three-decade invisibility to church authorities before he came to the attention of the police in 1997.

Nothing could be clearer from Martin Gallagher’s testimony than that the Garda officers who took up this cause were also ministers of grace to himself and his fellow-sufferers – so why, more than half-a-century after Vatican II, can that not be fully acknowledged by our Catholic bishops – to begin a healing of the chasms that have opened up in the Irish Church over the past quarter-century?

And just how many others are there in Ireland who have been alienated from the church’s clerical superstructure precisely because they identify, as did Jesus of Nazareth, with victims of institutional injustice and have nowhere to go in their church to express their revulsion?

And just when will the Irish Catholic clerical institution begin to research this very question?

On October 1st 2019 Irish Catholic bishops were presented with the case for making the common priesthood of all baptised Catholics in Ireland the lynch-pin of a strategy for the recovery of the church. This would solve another pressing problem – the failure of the clerical church to address the problem of deference to clergy that lay at the root of the institutional abuse recorded by the Ryan report of 2009.

The Church of Christ the King, Gortahork, Co Donegal – one of the chapels in which Eugene Greene ministered

Despite that report, our Irish church has still heard nothing from the Irish bishops’ conference on the problem of clericalism – despite the many allusions to that problem by Pope Francis since 2013.

For example, on August 20th 2018 Pope Francis described clericalism as “an approach that not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people. Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.

When will all of those harmed by and alienated from the clerical church by Irish Catholic clericalism hear that emphatic ‘no’ to clericalism from their own bishops’ conference, and hear their own baptismal priestly role recognised?

Martin Gallagher, Martin Ridge – and far too many others – have already waited far too long for that to happen.

Postscript: Martin Ridge died in the Donegal Hospice, 6th February 2022 – without seeing the closure he hoped for – a full and honest accounting for the toll of secrecy and denial of true ‘synodality’ in the Irish Church, in the early decades of the 21st century – when transparency and honest communion could have made such a difference for himself and countless others. Personally suffering the memories of his years of investigation of an unspeakable evil he exemplified the common priesthood of service of others to which all baptised Christians are called.

Views: 278

St Mary’s, Dunboe on YouTube

Does the word ‘decrepit’ best describe the current state of Catholic Canon Law?

In what else could the Irish Church be ‘entrapped’ – to use the perfect word of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin – other than Catholic Canon Law?

And how else could the ‘We speak – you listen’ inertia of our Irish Catholic clerical culture have persisted – in a zombie state – for over half-a-century after Vatican II (1962-65)?

And how else could the dozy clericalism of the Down and Connor pastoral letter ‘To Follow Jesus Closely have found its way onto a leaflet to be read by adults at Easter 2019?

Then there had been an exploratory pilot study (EPS) of ‘lay involvement’ in Irish Catholic parishes, conducted by the steering group of the Association of Catholics in Ireland in the spring. Pending a more through professional report on this I could see three things right away from the returns:

First, ‘lay involvement’ can vary hugely from parish to parish – with the crucial factor always being the readiness of parish clergy to take time to develop that very thing. The reluctance of too many too-busy clergy simply to delegate parish development activities to lay people is crystal clear. The insistence of Pope Francis, that ‘making a mess‘ to begin with is OK, has fallen on far too many deaf ears.

Second, this sample of thirty-three different parishes was predicting that healthy parish pastoral councils are likely to be in a minority.

Third, some returnees expressed a fear of being known to have taken part in such a poll!

So, by July 2019, it was very clear to me that ‘things’ are very far from OK for the RCC on this island, and the Archbishop of Dublin is far from being the only Irish Catholic who feels ‘entrapped’.

But I wasn’t ‘entrapped’!

Not by lack of resources anyway. I hadn’t yet ever produced a video – but surely I could find someone who could help with that. And wasn’t there a perfect example of the very same ‘entrapment’ of a parish community on my own doorstep? By the system in which parish clergy are also ‘entrapped’.

And hadn’t I developed a bit of a ‘brass neck’ over the years, by just writing for public consumption? And wasn’t some persistent prayer for guidance on ‘entrapment’ making this neck brassier still?

And didn’t the example of the good ol’ Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey of Bristol in the 1780s and 1790s offer the perfect example of that proper respect for the good people of Dunboe that was so clearly missing from the canonical treatment of their community 2018-19?

Mind you, I had one detail of that story quite badly wrong, I am told. Since the voiceover for the video was recorded I have received the following from Jim Hunter of the Hervey Heritage Society, based in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry.

Jim quotes Stephen Price as writing that:

Frederick [ the Earl Bishop ] stipulated in his will that Catholics living near Downhill should be allowed to hold a service in the Mussenden Temple every Sunday in the actual Temple itself and not in the less salubrious basement, as is more often recounted. He even laid aside a payment of £10 per year for the priest and decreed that he and his horse should be fed. The arrangement persisted until the 1850s, although a row over a missing book caused a priest to take his congregation into the basement, which was never the Earl Bishop’s intention.”

So that point in the video could have been made even more strongly!

What am I hoping for now?

First, that Catholics struck by this story would both pray and think about it – to clarify for themselves whether it seems important that this present state of affairs should be ended. Might everyone who does feel ‘entrapped’ ask themselves ‘Am I, really?’ and then decide on a course of action. It’s pointless to be complaining while doing nothing constructive oneself.

Not everyone can be, or needs to be, with myself and some friends, at the gateway of Maynooth College, Co. Kildare on October 1st, 2019 – when all Irish bishops next meet.

But those who cannot be there could instead write to their bishops on this matter, expressing an opinion.

And in the meantime you could be discussing this with some friends too.

Nothing will change without obvious and overwhelming momentum for change, an unstoppable ‘enough already’ tsunami of rejection of the non-accountable and non-transparent canonical clerical culture that keeps Irish Catholicism entrapped – in 2019 – in the legal detritus of the Middle Ages.

We’ll see – as my Mum used to say.

Views: 31

‘Holy Sacrifice?’

Without question our Irish Catholic chapels – especially the smallest – are both holy sanctuaries and places of sacrifice.

That is, they are places set aside for the sacrifice of time… for contemplation… of a life given totally to others, in love.  The life of Jesus.

And places for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the celebration of that greatest gift ever given, and of the gifts that we now make of ourselves. 

And places of celebration of the other lives that loved him, the life of Mary, the Mother of God, of Joseph. The lives and holy deaths of the Saints.

Places of proof that such a life is not only possible but historically verified in all the lives that have followed, in hopeful imitation, over so many generations.

Of that life that did not ever end, that rose from death, that is alive still in the memory and bodies of local people who came with their own sacrifices of penitence and self-giving.

Places for the shedding of whatever in us that is unholy, selfish, dark – and therefore places of penitence, forgiveness, light, generosity, restoration and renewal.

For the shedding of tears over centuries and centuries – wrenched by miseries that only the angels have total record of …

And places of sacred bonding in marriage, of sacred parting in the mystery of death.

And places of Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, weekly Mass – the rites of passage from womb to tomb – in stubborn hope of the eternity that children trust to in their own innocence and wisdom.

These churches memorialise those who designed and built them with love – with that letting go of the little wealth they could donate, for the sake of that dream of eternity.

What could it mean that such places – and especially the smallest – could now be under threat of closure, of the dying of the sanctuary lamp, of shuttering, of decay or transfer to another usage?

What better source of meaning has replaced the Creed that built these Holy Places?

None whatever! Merely the novelty of meaninglessness, the entrancement of a commerce that glories in novelty, illusion, unreality – the endless screenings of stories of superheroism that deny human vulnerability and the facticity of death.

If our chapels are in danger of closure, that is not because the Trinity are absent but simply because our pastors are temporarily without passion for the Creed and the Gospel , and cannot convey to us why Holy Sacrifice is still the only trustable path to the future.

We must now therefore make holy sacrifice of a different kind – in our own vigilance and prayer and study – to keep these places safe and holy for a better time, for a renewed Eucharistic ministry. 

For, built in confidence in the power of Holy Sacrifice, they belong to the future, to the Omega, the Christ, the One who is coming – who must find them clean and warm, lit and welcoming.

They must not be sacrificed to the dark, grasping, confused and baffled present.

Views: 102

Christendom compromised Christianity – and gave birth to Secularism

knight in battle
Christendom – the long era of confusion of the Christian cross with the sword – the symbol of coercive state power

When Archbishop Michael Neary said in November 2014 that we are hearing the ‘death rattle’ of Christendom he was clearly not saying that secularism has defeated the church – as the Irish Catholic mistakenly claimed in its headline of November 13.  (‘Church has ‘lost the battle’ with secularism – archbishop’)

The term ‘secularism’ does not appear at all in the Archbishop’s complete homily. A close reading makes it clear that Dr Neary distinguishes between Christendom and Christianity, that he has not given up on the latter, and that he is therefore not at all as pessimistic as the Irish Catholic’s headline could suggest. He has simply recognised that a long era in the history of the church has come to a close.

Dr Neary describes Christendom as a ‘shared set of assumptions about life and its purpose, reflected in use of language, in culture and in the law’.  These shared assumptions were always formed principally by a close relationship between church and state. This relationship created a social envelope in most of Europe from the fourth century onward – an envelope into which most people were born and from which they gained their understanding of the faith.

This relationship between church and state always severely distorted the church’s message and limited its evangelical impact – giving rise to the very scandals that led to the secularist reaction in the modern era. When the church aligned itself with emperors and kings who had acquired their power by violent competition, its bishops were soon mostly recruited from these very same military-aristocratic elites, and the Gospel message of social humility, peace and welcome for the stranger was necessarily compromised.  The pattern of seeking to ‘convert’ social elites in the expectation that their underclasses would then conform made clergy generally content with mere conformism, not at all the same thing as deep Christian conversion.

The worst scandals of Christendom followed: the persecutions of Jews, ‘witches’, ‘heretics’ and other minorities, the horrific excesses of the Crusades, the churches’ alignment with European global imperialism, and even the corruption of popes and papal courts. From the latter followed the splintering of western Christianity in the 1500s and the inter-Christian religious wars that had alienated so many by the end of the following century. This set the scene for the 18th century reaction historians call the ‘Enlightenment’, the cradle of modern secularism. The ideal of a better world was taken over by democratic political reformers – and this process was consolidated in the later 1700s when Christian hierarchies threw their lot in with the landowning ascendancy from which they themselves had too often been recruited.

And that was when Ireland’s major seminary, Maynooth, came into being – formed in 1795 by an alliance of landowning aristocrats and Catholic bishops who were equally determined to oppose social and political transformation.  Is it any wonder that modern Catholic social teaching never gripped the imaginations of most Irish secular clergy, and has therefore made so little impact on our political culture? Instead our clergy remained predominantly socially and politically conservative – setting the church up for the secularist reaction of recent decades.

It was the Irish church’s consequent blindness to social elitism and snobbery that led to the worst scandals of the present. In the wake of Irish political independence in the last century the dangers of a close relationship between church and state were illustrated in church-run institutions that cruelly abused the most socially disadvantaged women and children – a scandal still being revealed.

The 'Cross of Sacrifice', Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, 1918. What does the image of the sword on the cross convey to you?
The ‘Cross of Sacrifice’, Ypres Reservoir War Cemetery, 1918.  What does the image of the sword on the face of the cross convey to you?

Another effect of Christendom was the unbalancing of Catholic moral theology. Beholden to social elites, clergy too often became blind to the origins of elitism, violence and injustice in the disease of Status Anxiety (what the Gospel calls ‘worldliness’), and in the sin of covetousness – yearning for what the wealthiest have. Clerical attention became diverted instead into a fixation with the minutiae of people’s sexual lives. This imbalance inevitably distorted the theological understanding of many generations of Catholics.

It is clear from the scriptures that the weight of divine anger falls against injustice and lack of social compassion – the specific faults of social elites – but this emphasis was far too often replaced in Catholic preaching and censure by an obsession with sex. The God whom so many now reject is this same sex-obsessed – and non-existent – God.

Given the distorting straitjacket of Christendom it is truly miraculous that Christianity nevertheless survived – in the lives of saints, in the best theology, in the mystical tradition and in the arts. Nevertheless the long alignment of the church with social elites and the state had done so much damage that an anti-religious secularism was inevitable.

So the death of Christendom is not to be lamented. Instead its benefits should be welcomed and even celebrated – as the necessary precondition for the next phase in the history of Irish Christianity.

The very rapid growth of Catholic Christianity in China – under a regime that regards it with the deepest suspicion and refuses relations with the Holy See – proves that the faith can flourish without the church-state relationship characterised by Christendom.  So did the very rapid growth of the church in the Roman empire before it was legalised by Constantine.  Many Chinese Christian intellectuals also trace the decline of the western church to the church-state relationships of Christendom, and fear the corruptive potential of state patronage in China.  We should pay very close attention to that perception.

The 13th century Franciscan movement was essentially a protest against the corruptions of Christendom, so the reign of the first pope to be called Francis is an ideal moment to begin a new era in Ireland.

 

Views: 18

Struggling Orchestra in Search of a Maestro

Huge longing, as well as potential, for renewal – but also, among many, a deep frustration with an Irish church system no longer remotely fit for purpose. That was the impression I took away from the three-day day Irish Catholic National Pastoral Conference in Athlone in late September 2014 – ‘Growing in Faith Together as Local Church Community’

Robert Schreiter from Chicago, an eloquent proponent of the need for ‘local theologies’, was the headline speaker from Thursday to Saturday. Well aware of the historical legacy to the wider global church of Irish Christianity in the past, he challenged all of us to think about a likely global crisis of ecological stress and of human displacement and growing conflict in the years ahead. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Irish Church is just about as well prepared for that scenario now as the whole country was for five years of total war in 1914.

Nonetheless this first-timer in Athlone was impressed by the representation at this event from the Irish Bishops Conference. My own invite had come in a letter to the Belfast Irish News last February from Bishop Donal McKeown, of the bishops’ Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development and Bishop Donal was present throughout the first and last day. The newly appointed Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, was present to meet attendees on Thursday – and I would guess that most of the other Irish bishops spent some time in Athlone also.

What exactly is the local church, and what exactly could and should it be doing to prepare for ‘future shock’? This latter question in my own head was amply answered by the three days: the last thing we should be doing is waiting for orders from the summit. Bishop Donal said as much on the opening day when he declared that the conference would not produce a master plan for the future – and it was clear throughout that as yet no musical maestro has emerged in Ireland with the flair to get all of the instruments in the Irish church orchestra to make beautiful music together.

My own conviction is that the fundamental gift required is a pedagogical one – an ability to hold and articulate a Catholic faith that can confidently address the full dimensions of the gathering crisis. There was still far too much reliance at the conference upon weighty printed sources – such as the new catechetical plan ‘Share the Good News’and the recently launched ‘Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults’. Both are weighty and worthy tomes, but by their nature neither can be sung to a rousing tune that captures the need of the moment.

The greatest merit of Share the Good News is that it implicitly admits the fundamental shortcoming of the church’s current systems of education and formation – they remove all responsibility for that from the merely baptised and place that in the hands of supposedly trained professionals. Nothing could be better designed to achieve two objectives simultaneously – to persuade all of us that in the end the faith can reside only in the heads of experts, and to create so many printed sources that the task of recovering a vibrant faith appears way beyond most of us. It is a supreme irony of Irish Catholicism that it was transmitted far more effectively by a preponderantly oral and isolated culture in the past than it is these days in a ‘connected’ literate society by a professional educational elite.

The main reason for this is the many decades of conditioning we have received in the always-greater wisdom of external summit authority. We have thus been made as insecure in our own understanding of the Creeds as the inhabitants of Kazakhstan were in their understanding of the Communist Manifesto by the Moscow politburo. While Irish Catholic bishops will agree that the whole weight of the Catechism derives from a vital core of meaning – the creedal truths that lie at the summit of the whole hierarchy of Catholic truth – none has yet managed to articulate that core in a way that can set fire to the imagination and help us all to make beautiful music together.

The consequences were clearly evident in Athlone – a sincere anxiety to be as demanding of ourselves as we are of those who lead us, combined with a frustration that the bishops have not yet managed to appoint a national coordinator for the new Catechetical strategy. There is also deep frustration with the canonical constraints upon parish pastoral councils. Without any assurance of continuity when parish clergy are changed, those who currently man those councils are rowing against the tide of disillusionment that so often prevails ‘where the rubber hits the road’.

In this situation it is difficult to see how these biennial conferences in Athlone can survive without a clear signal from the Irish Bishops Conference that it will change this state of affairs, and give parish councils genuine power, responsibility and continuity. It is the dead hand of clericalism that prevents that happening and that leaves us still defenceless against the likely storms of future decades.

Do things really have to get even worse before they can get better – when they are already surely far worse than they should ever have been allowed to get?

As for the local church, I must suppose that begins with the parish – and that I should begin by telling all in my own space that we should definitely not hang about with our hands in our pockets, waiting for clarion commands from on high. We need to discover right now what exactly our Catholic faith means to us – while there is still a parish community of some kind to speak of. There are no experts in the proactivity that Ireland now needs to become again a vital habitat of ‘the faith’.

Views: 9

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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Rethinking Catholic Formation

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Reality Feb 2011

As more and more teenagers and young adults fall away from the practice of the faith, we need to rethink the timing of baptism and the other sacraments of initiation.

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For the earliest Christians, initiation into the life of the church was a deeply experienced event occurring in adulthood. Those who had actually known Jesus of Nazareth, and who had experienced the Pentecostal flame, were profoundly changed by that experience, and spoke of a ‘new life’ beginning at that point. So did St Paul, who had an equivalent experience. As an often persecuted minority living in an environment that was usually unpredictable, those early Christians had a highly compressed sense of future time. Typically they expected that the ‘end times’ – the return of the Lord and the ‘coming of the kingdom’ – could happen very soon, quite possibly in their own lifetime.

Consequently they saw the baptismal initiation of other adults into this new life as the most urgent priority, and as the sacramental equivalent of the Pentecostal experience. All New Testment accounts of Baptism are accounts of the Baptism of adults. Preparation for this event was at first also an urgent affair, stressing the ethical challenge that Jesus had posed, rather than setting out a systematic Christian theology. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find an account of the instruction and Baptism of children. That is not to say that this didn’t happen: it is more than likely that parents would have wanted their children to be instructed and baptised – but we have no account of that in the New Testament.

It’s clear instead from the earliest accounts that the church grew rapidly at first mainly through the deep conversion of adults who were attracted to the spirituality, discipline and warmth of the Christian community. Baptism typically celebrated the conscious beginning of an adult life of faith – after a period of formation known as the Catechumenate. The profound culminating experience of Baptism was thought of as the beginning of an eternal life in union with the Trinity. ‘Salvation’ was believed to begin with this experience – this ‘dying to the self’ – rather than after physical death.

As these early centuries passed and the church grew rapidly, that early sense of urgency gradually evaporated also. With the Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity early in the fourth century, persecution ceased and new questions arose. If Baptism was actually necessary for salvation, what happened to the ‘catechumens’ – those waiting for Baptism – if they died beforehand? Prudence counselled the wisdom of earlier and earlier baptism. So did the strictest teachings on original sin developed by St Augustine of Hippo. By the end of the fifth century, infant baptism had become the norm.

By that time also, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman empire. Infant baptism and the expectation that children would grow up within a Christian society meant that an entirely different sequence had overtaken Christian formation. Instead of first being instructed in the faith and then freely choosing baptism as adults, most Christians were first baptised as infants and then received as they grew some kind of formal or informal Christian education.

This had profound implications. For those baptised as infants – the overwhelming majority – there was no longer an overwhelming sacramental ‘rite of passage’ into an adult life of faith. It was simply assumed that the Christian social environment would gradually complete the process begun for the infant at Baptism.

The Catholic educational system we know today was first developed in this ‘Christendom’ social context – in which the state and the surrounding society supported the church and protected it from unorthodox ideas. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s did not radically change this system in Catholic societies. The development of Catholic schooling in the modern era continued to be based upon the assumption that the individual baptised in infancy would be somehow formed into Catholic adulthood by the Catholic environment, especially the school. Increasingly, responsibility for Catholic education was delegated to professionals – trained Catholic teachers who were usually at first also priests or religious.

The assumption that this Catholic sacramental and educational system would in itself automatically ‘form’ adult Catholics was never subjected to a radical open questioning by the leaders of the church. This was despite the fact that the history of the church shows that many of its greatest saints had experienced a deep adult conversion arising out of unpredictable life experience – usually a deep personal crisis of some kind. (St Augustine of Hippo, St Patrick of Ireland, St Francis of Assisi, St Alphonsus de Liguori and St Ignatius Loyola spring readily to mind.)

In the eighteenth century the secularising intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment began seriously to undermine this ‘Christendom’ environment. Even Catholic schools had eventually to devote the bulk of their curriculum to secular subjects. In our own time in Ireland we have seen the rapid disappearance of priests and religious from Catholic schools – and at the same time the development of a powerful ‘youth culture’ that erodes parental influence during the child’s early adolescence.

Yet still today the ‘cradle’ Catholic child will usually receive the three Christian rites of initiation – Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation – before adolescence sets in – as though Christendom was still in place and no environment hostile to faith awaited the teenager. The assumption of major responsibility for formation by the school has meant that typically parents feel incompetent to assist in the formation of teenage children. We still tend to rely upon our schools to do what we have been taught to believe they always did: form the Catholic adult. If they don’t succeed we often assume the fault must lie with the educational professionals.

Our sacramental system continues to deny most ‘cradle Catholics’ what the earliest Christians all took for granted – an adult sacramental ‘rite of passage’. Thus the Catholic teenager has no such event to look forward to, no opportunity to opt in as an adult. (Neither ordination nor marriage adequately fill this need.) It is a huge mistake to take teenagers for granted – this is undoubtedly a major cause of many of them opting out.

Since infant baptism became the norm in the fifth century the most rigorous teachings of St Augustine on original sin and salvation have been modified by Catholic theology. We no longer believe as he did that the unbaptised are denied heaven. Even less rigorous teachings on the existence of Limbo for unbaptised infants have been superseded. The Holy Spirit is now believed to be at work in the conscience of all humans, and the church teaches that divine grace will save the eternal lives of all who sincerely respond. It follows that the original argument for infant baptism has evaporated.

As for our Catholic formation system, it has always been the case that life experience will raise questions that children usually have neither the ability nor the need to think deeply about. Many adult Catholics will attest to later life experiences that made early instruction deeply meaningful for the first time. The deepest ‘conversion’ is almost always an adult affair. Nevertheless ‘adult faith formation’ is still just an option for a minority.

Those who have deeply studied the development of religious faith now agree that this usually happens in a sequence of stages. One of these is typically a period of the deepest questioning of early life instruction. A mature adult faith involves a deep experience of the mystery and beauty that lies behind childhood conceptions that are typically too literal and naive. It follows that it was always a mistake to suppose that faith can be guaranteed by childhood instruction alone, and to trust that Catholic schools should be able to ‘produce’ committed and fully formed Catholics.

The question must therefore arise: why is our formation system, including the timing of our sacraments of initiation, not now undergoing a radical reappraisal? Current circumstances for Catholicism in the West are increasingly closer to the crisis of the early church than they are to the era of Christendom – so why do we continue to behave as though Christendom was still in place?

It seems to me that three interrelated shifts need now to take place in our formation system.

First, we need to switch our major formation effort from childhood to adulthood. This does not mean that we abandon child religious education, but that we cease to think of it as a stand-alone system for ‘perpetuating the faith’. It means also that we need explicitly to tell our children that the deepest Christian faith does not usually come through school instruction, but through adult experience and through the graces available when we meet a crisis in our teenage or adult years.

Second, responsibility for adult formation must be relocated in the Christian community and combined with the missionary and evangelical effort that will now be required to meet the all-enveloping crisis we are facing. Adult faith formation must become part of the ordinary experience of all Catholics – not just an option for those who can afford the cost and the time. Catholic parents who are developing their own faith will need to become much more involved in the Christian formation of their teenage children. Those who argue that Catholic formation must be left to ‘the professionals’ need to recall that the word ‘professional’ is derived from the verb ‘to profess’, i.e. to adhere to and to avow, a faith. It is faith itself that best develops faith, and faith cannot be guaranteed by any professional training.

Thirdly, the adult experience of deep conversion must receive some kind of liturgical celebration, a ‘rite of passage’ organised by and for the Christian community. It simply does not make sense to confine all Catholic rites of initiation to the pre-adolescent phase of life when we know that the Pentecostal experience is almost always an adult experience, and when we know also that there is no eternal penalty for those who die unbaptised . We need to rethink the sequencing of our Catholic sacramental system, timed and structured as it is for an era that is now rapidly passing into history. As it stands it fosters clericalism – the assumption of all major responsibility for the church by ordained clergy, and the abdication of that responsibility by most of ‘the people of God’. It is clericalism above all that stands in the way of a revitalised church.

Christian faith in the end is not something passively received as a child, but something deliberately embraced as an adult. Our Catholic formation and sacramental system needs urgently to reflect that fact, while there are still some of us left.

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