Category Archives: Church Dysfunctions

Struggling Orchestra in Search of a Maestro

Views: 9

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’.

What went wrong? Do Irish bishops want to know?

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Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Cork
Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Cork

Vincent Twomey has called for Irish church leaders to launch an internal inquiry into Catholic failures in the last century. Will the ACP support that call, and could the Irish bishops respond?

On July 3rd 2014 Vincent Twomey, emeritus professor of moral theology at Maynooth, called in the Irish Catholic for Irish Church leaders ‘to appoint an expert panel to review what went wrong in Irish Catholicism to cause the prevalent culture of abuse’. This was in the context of the imminent state inquiry into ‘Mother and Baby’ homes in Ireland in the last century. (Click here to open this Irish Catholic report in another window.)

Two weeks later, in the wake of the announcement that this inquiry was to be led by Judge Yvonne Murphy, the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland called for this inquiry to take note of the findings of a study it had sponsored of the 2009 Murphy Report – to the effect that the latter had allegedly contained ‘significant deficiencies in terms of respecting the demands of natural and constitutional justice’. (Clicking here will also open this ACP page under another tab.)

My first reaction to this ACP statement was one of ‘more clerical circling of wagons’. I was struck by the apparent contrast between the priorities of the ACP and those of Vincent Twomey. Where the latter wants above all to know what went wrong when the political power and social clout of his church was at its zenith in the last century, the former emphasises the importance of doing full justice to the service given by Catholic clergy and religious when Irish society was immeasurably weaker economically.

I was struck also by the fact that the ACP had not reported Vincent Twomey’s initiative earlier in the month. Does this mean that the ACP is not also concerned to know what went wrong with Irish Catholicism in the last century when it must be obvious that something did, and to a deeply demoralising extent? Surely no one can question that by about 1951, when Archishop John Charles McQuaid could influence the fate of a government  ‘mother and child’ scheme, the suffering of the most unfortunate women and children, the Irish anawim, was also peaking?

Vincent Twomey is not alone in wanting above all to know why that was. In the wake of the Ryan report of May 2009 Bishop Noel Treanor eloquently expressed the same need: “We have to examine why this happened …. so that we have the best anthropological and scientific analysis available to try and understand”. It is still a mystery why the Irish Bishops’ Conference did not act on that suggestion five years ago.

How should we react to these apparently different priorities? On reflection my own inclination is to give them equal respect. Opinion is still obviously divided on whether the Murphy report did full justice to the clergy it named as failing in their duty of care to Catholic children in Dublin. Many of us are still so deeply angry about that failure that we see the naming of the church personnel concerned as a relatively minor matter. However, I can see no harm in Judge Murphy bearing in mind the ACP’s own study of that. The overriding purpose of the ‘Mother and Baby’ inquiry should be to serve both justice and understanding – not to strengthen a tendency towards excoriation, even scapegoating, of those who served the church in a very different time.

But will the ACP also accept that there is a need to understand exactly why it was that when our church was eventually released from centuries of subordination, and then given a status that verged on state establishment, it failed to stand squarely in the way of the social shaming of those defenceless women it judged most morally at fault, and too often participated in their social exclusion?

Don’t we all need to know why our church did not see the cross as an expression of divine solidarity with all who are shamed and excluded, and as a challenge to put that right?

For those interested I have asked that question of the ACP in a post to the above ACP page.  Pádraig McCarthy of the ACP has already responded there favourably, albeit with doubts as to whether such an inquiry can happen.  The discussion is ongoing.

Why are we waiting?

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colourJust how many trumpet blasts do our Irish Catholic Bishops need?

First , last March we got a new pope who admitted straightaway that he too is a sinner  – i.e. fallible.  Numb silence followed that in Ireland, as though deep shock had overtaken his Irish episcopal hearers.

Then we had a call from Rome for something unheard of since 1965 – feedback from the people of God on family issues.  Most Irish bishops again reacted with apparent shock – and then scrambled to make a token response.  None asked to be personally advised by his own flock in a diocesan conference, in preparation for Vatican synods on the family this year and next.  A parlous fear of assembly still ruled the Irish church.

Then in November 2013 Francis issued his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, including this:

“I dream of a ‘missionary option’,  that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything so that the Church’s customs, way of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can suitably be channelled for evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. “  (Evangelii Gaudium § 27)

If this wasn’t an invitation to Irish church leaders to do their own dreaming about reawakening and renewal, what on earth are they waiting for?

Yet so far, even by Easter 2014, there was no similar exhortation from any Irish bishop.

So, why are we waiting still, and what are we waiting for?

It couldn’t be for this 77 year old Argentinian’s age to catch up with him, could it?

So, as our bishops still seem to be heading away from Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus, let us pray for the Lord to take them in hand, walk with them – and make their hearts burn strongly enough to blow away the mountain of ash that keeps them so torpid.  And send them racing back to us with something more like excitement than disillusionment – as well as eagerness for that elementary particle whose absence erodes their authority day after day:  dialogue with the people of God.

It’s surely time for a new Pentecost in the Irish Church, and time is running out for the current generation of Irish bishops to prove that they can lead it.

Sean O’Conaill 03/05/2014

Can Pope Francis restore faith in the Irish Church?

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Sean O’Conaill  April 2014

One year on from his election Pope Francis has already changed the image of the papacy, and modelled an entirely different style of leadership from that of his two predecessors.  Reflecting the amiability and simplicity of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, he may even be setting out to respond to the same challenge that the Italian friar heard from Jesus:  to ‘rebuild my church’.

However,  Pope Francis is now in his late seventies – and many younger bishops appointed by his predecessors may well be wondering if this new wind from Rome will last long enough to oblige them to amend their own way of going.

So far no Irish bishop has become quite so accessible, so open, so eager to meet people and hear their stories and grievances.   Where Francis could meet with an atheist editor in Italy – and allow their exchange to be published – no Irish bishop will formally and openly meet with the leaders of the reformist Irish Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).  Where Francis could call a synod on the family, no Irish bishop yet shows any sign of responding to the call Francis makes to all bishops in Evangelii Gaudium 31 – ‘to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law’.

For example, not even Archbishop Martin of Dublin has projected the holding of a diocesan synod – something his predecessor had done in his final years in office.

And no Irish bishop has shown any sign of taking up another suggestion offered by Evangelii Gaudium – the pope’s advice to every bishop to be willing at times to be led by his own people.

FOA – fear of assembly – still grips Ireland’s bench of bishops in a vice – that fear of ‘stirring up a hornets’ nest’ by, for example, arranging regular open diocesan forums to respond to the missionary challenge issued from the heart of the church.

There can be no missionary revival led by men gripped more by fear than the confidence shown by the pope.  Where is the Irish bishop who will call all of his people to read and discuss Evangelii Gaudium and to feed back to him their vision of the future church, in a truly ‘developed’ diocesan synod?

And where is the Irish bishop who will commit himself to regular interface with a diocesan pastoral council – to respond, for example,  to questions such as those that arise out of Ian Elliott’s concerns for the integrity, independence and strength of the NBSCCC?

If co-responsibility is the challenge of the moment, no Irish bishop has yet risen to that challenge – or responded to the Pope’s clearly given invitation to all national bishops’ conferences to freely consider the particular needs of their own societies, and to be proactive in finding solutions – even at the cost of making mistakes.

Here’s Pope Francis again: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”  (Evangelii Gaudium 27)

What are Irish bishops dreaming of these times?  Why can’t they tell us?  And listen to our dreams too?  Which of them will show the same confidence in the Irish people of God, and in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us?

And when will they ever change the closeted style of their quarterly meetings in Maynooth – those funereal huddles to prepare statements so guarded that they merely add to the mountain of verbal ash that buries the embers of the Irish faith.

They speak now of St Columbanus and his impending 1400th anniversary.  They need to pray for his courage in venturing into another unknown land awaiting the Gospel – and step out, unguarded, onto the island of Ireland.

The Church needs structural reform

Views: 48

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.

Rethinking Catholic Formation

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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.

~*~

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.

The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism

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© Sean O’Conaill 2010

(This article was first published in ‘The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?’, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010)

Concentrations of power are not divinely mandated or divinely supported.

This is the single most important lesson to be drawn from the catastrophe that overtook the Catholic clerical system in Ireland in the period 1992-2010. Far from being a catastrophe for the Catholic Church, this revelation will liberate and reshape all that is best in Catholicism, including Irish Catholicism, during the rest of this century.

As late as January 2010 no Irish Catholic bishop had publicly recognised why it is that the Catholic Church in Ireland has been exposed as deficient in its care for children not by any internal church mechanism but by two Irish state inquiries.  This is simply the fact that power in western secular society is not concentrated but distributed. Media, courts, government all wield considerable power, but none has the absolute power of a monarch. And it was monarchy, and monarchism, that was finally disgraced in Ireland in 2009. It became clear to everyone in that year that in the end only the secular media and the secular state could make an Irish Catholic bishop minimally accountable for the crime of endangering children.

True, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and retiring Bishop Willie Walsh have acknowledged that the present church system presents problems of accountability for bishops. However, no Catholic bishop has yet acknowledged that the Ryan and Murphy reports have clearly revealed that concentrations of power actually corrupt all institutions that adhere to them. This lack of recognition, especially from the papacy, of something that any bright teenager can see, means that the Irish church, and Catholicism generally, lacks authoritative leadership from its hierarchy at this time.

Ireland’s Debt to the Enlightenment

It was the French Enlightenment philosopher, the Baron de Montesquieu, who first noticed that human liberty is best protected by a separation rather than a concentration of power. For intellectuals threatened with imprisonment by the vagaries of monarchical absolutism in early 18th century France, England was a haven. The long drawn out 17th century contest between monarchy and parliament had ended in stalemate in England, creating a rough balance of power. Unable to impose religious uniformity, the aristocratic and mercantile establishment in England had even granted a wide liberty to the press.

Very impressed, Montesquieu developed from this insight the principle of the separation of state power – a principle which became the bedrock of the US constitution of 1787. It was a principle that proved its durability in the lifetime of many of us, enabling the US Congress, supported by the Supreme Court, to force the resignation of the corrupt President Richard Nixon in 1974. Had Nixon been an absolute monarch, or a military dictator, this could not have happened.

It was essentially the same principle that enabled Catholic families harmed by clerical sexual abuse to launch the first civil suits against the Catholic clerical system in the United States in the 1980s, and to provoke the first criminal prosecutions for this crime. And it was the freedom of the press under that system that made sexual abuse a discussable subject by all news media in the West. Ireland’s liberation, beginning in the 1990s, began under a state system very different from its own.

Reformation Fragmentation

Montesquieu’s work had, of course, been placed upon the Roman index in 1751. It is deeply scandalous to the Catholic clerical system that the eventual vindication of Irish Catholic children should be partially a fruit of Montesquieu’s insight. There is another deeper scandal, however. The historical sequence that had led to the freedoms that Montesquieu had noticed in early 18th century England had begun with the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. It was the religious fragmentation that followed the Reformation that had induced the creators of the US constitution to separate church and state – another key reason that the crime of Catholic clerical sexual abuse could first be uncovered and prosecuted in the United States.

The conclusion is inescapable. The poorest Irish children in the first seven decades of the life of an independent Ireland were severely penalised by the collusion of the Irish state with the monarchical Catholic clerical system – wedded as the latter was to paternalism, authoritarianism, clericalism and secrecy. The forces unleashed by greater access to international media in the 1960s eventually brought us into the Western intellectual mainstream – subject to the winds of change initiated by both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. It was no accident that the first prosecutions for clerical sexual abuse in Ireland were brought by the RUC. Or that many of the most forceful Irish journalists who uncovered the Irish scandal had already been themselves liberated from deference to Irish Catholic clericalism.

It is almost certainly this historical scandal – the origins of the liberation of Catholic children in forces hostile to monarchical Catholicism – that prevents the papacy from doing what Bishop Geoffrey Robinson requested it to do in 2002 – to undertake a church-wide investigation of the causes of the clerical child abuse catastrophe. This failure also is fast eroding the dwindling credibility of the system, and reinforcing the perception of many ordinary Catholics that most of their current bishops, and the pope also, are on an endless learning curve.

The Heresy of Clericalism

It was, after all, the Catholic historian Lord Acton who formulated the axiom of 1887 that every educated person knows by heart: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are still awaiting a papal encyclical that will notice this principle at work in the church, and in the corruption of bishops. The fact that we are still waiting is proof of that system’s continued denial of what history is revealing to it. So is the fact that we have never had an encyclical that will rise to the challenge of another sentence in that very same passage from Acton’s letters:

Here Acton was clearly indicting both Catholic clericalism and the monarchical principle – the notion that either kings or clerics are sanctified – made holy – by the offices they hold. This axiom is of supreme importance in the context of clerical child sexual abuse, because part of the abused child’s disempowerment was the contrasting supreme power assumed by the cleric by virtue of his office. (Was he not another Christ?) It was essentially this heresy that prevented one mother in Ferns from suspecting any danger in a priest sharing a bed with her own daughter.

The same heresy underlay the preference given by bishops in Ferns, Cloyne and Dublin to clergy over abused children. It underlay also the disgraceful deference shown by officials in the Department of education to those who dominated the dreadful Catholic institutions indicted in the Ryan report.

Clericalism and Cowardice

This latter connection is most deeply damaging to Catholic clericalism. Defining Catholic loyalty always in terms of deference to clerical authority it brought us in 2009 to an inescapable conclusion: the roots of the moral cowardice that prevented Irish civil servants from protecting Irish children from the most grotesque abuse in the residential institutions – and from reforming that system – lay in Catholic clerical authoritarianism. And so did the supine attitude of too many Gardai when confronted with clerical sexual abuse of children.

It was therefore deeply troubling for every thoughtful Irish Catholic to hear Pope Benedict XVI enthusiastically echoing in June 2009 the spiritualised rhetoric of the Curé d’Ars when he inaugurated a Year for Priests, with the words “After God the priest is everything!” Of course the morale of Catholic priests is a matter for concern at this most difficult time, but could there have been a better year for the pope to say instead: “After God the child is everything“? How are we now to believe that this pope has ever come close to empathising with the powerlessness of a Catholic child at the hands of a clerical sexual predator? Or to grasping the spiritual damage done by that offence – precisely because the child had typically been taught that ‘after god the priest is everything’?

Such rhetoric is therefore deeply offensive to the survivors of clerical sexual abuse, and an insuperable barrier to their reconciliation with the Catholic clerical system. Their lives will be long over before the slow learning curve betrayed by such an utterance will have been completed.

Conscience

This brings us to another reality: many conscientious Irish Catholics now feel an overwhelming obligation of solidarity with the victims of the Catholic clerical system, and deep anger at that system still stuck on its learning curve. They have a consequent deep need to discover a tradition of Catholic conscience that is not the clerical authoritarian one: “your conscience ceases to be Catholic if it does not accord with your bishop’s“.

This ‘take’ on conscience was always driven by a need for control. Its rationale was, of course, that without strict obedience ‘the church’ would fall apart and its core teachings would be lost. But just look at the state of the church in Ireland after four decades of authoritarianism following Vatican II. It is as far as it could be from a heaven of peace, harmony and unity.

The reason it is in fact a shambles was brought home to me soon after I had begun to make contact with some of those who had suffered most from clericalism – survivors of abuse and of the ecclesiastical mishandling of abuse. This had led members of VOTF in Derry to report our bishop, Seamus Hegarty, to Rome in 2006. The factuality of that report has never once been contested, but nevertheless I was faced one day with the following indignant question from someone who would consider himself the staunchest of Catholics:

“”Who told you to do what you are doing?”

It had obviously never occurred to this person that the primary obligation of a Christian, the obligation of love, might ever require him to act decisively on his own initiative – in opposition to a bishop whose policy and practice were in conflict with that obligation. If we reflect for a moment on what might have prevented those Department of Education officials from taking a Christian initiative in relation to the residential institutions, or on what led Gardai in the Archdiocese of Dublin to turn a blind eye to the criminal activities of abusive clerics, we will be led inexorably to the conclusion that they lived in total dread of the very same question:

“”Who told you to do what you are doing?”

To be paralysed by fear of that question is to be guilty of moral cowardice. To what extent is the social conscience of Irish Catholicism still paralysed by that fear?

The axiom that lies behind this question must run something like this: Catholic identity is to be defined solely in terms of total obedience and deference to Catholic clerical authority. Unquestioning adherence to that axiom is the root source of the disgrace we have all suffered in 2009. If we do not grasp that fact, and abandon that conviction, we will have learned nothing from what could be the most traumatic, and important, year in Irish Catholic history.

The Church’s Debt to Conscientious Integrity

To help us to abandon that conviction we need only reflect on an event that took place in October 2007. On the 26th of that month, in Linz, Austria, our church beatified Franz Jägerstätter. He had been guillotined by the Nazis in 1943 for refusing to serve in the German army on the eastern front. He had taken this decision in opposition to the pleading of his own bishop who, in common with all of the Austrian hierarchy, had supported Hitler’s war.

The conclusion to be drawn is starkly obvious. Although the Catholic magisterium will insist upon obedience in all eras, and will insist that a properly informed conscience cannot be disobedient, it may end up with no alternative but to honour a Catholic for disobedience in cases where it has itself been morally deficient.

To rescue ourselves from the moral and ecclesiastical cul de sac into which we were led by clerical authoritarianism we need to recognise that the authoritarian take on conscience (which emphasises obedience above every other consideration) has always been counterbalanced by what could be called the ‘divine spark’ tradition which accords to the individual the dignity of discernment and judgement, both likely consequences of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of wisdom within the individual. Exponents of this tradition include St Jerome, Meister Eckhart and Cardinal Newman.

The Catholic Catechism itself expresses this richness by its reference to Newman alongside its emphasis upon the role of the magisterium in forming conscience. The conscience of the individual is also, in Newmans’ words ‘the aboriginal Vicar of Christ‘.

Let us suppose for a moment that the following fantastical sequence of events had occurred in Ireland in the aftermath of Vatican II.

Disturbed by the situation in Ireland’s residential institutions for children, a small group of civil servants in Ireland’s Department of Education discovered one day in 1966 the references in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium to the ‘just freedom which belongs to everyone in this earthly city’. After further thought and prayer, and meditation on Cardinal Newman’s teachings on conscience, this ‘LG37’ group decided to conduct a surprise inspection of a sample of the institutions, and then immediately to leak their findings to the media. These caused a sensation and a crisis of church and state. Popular outrage led to a more thorough study, which broadly vindicated the original findings and led to a thorough reform of the system in the decade that followed.

Given the climate of the time, this would, of course, have been an almost miraculous occurrence – but so was Franz Jägerstätter’s exercise of his own Catholic conscience in Austria in 1942. Had this actually happened, would such an ‘LG37’ group now be vilified as disobedient Irish Catholics who had acted in defiance of the church’s teachings on obedience and conscience? Or would they be regarded as having vindicated their church when it was in serious danger of being totally disgraced?

The Case for Loyal Opposition

The case I am making is the case made by Joe Dunn in 1994 in “No Lions in the Hierarchy”1Joseph Dunn,“No Lions in the Hierarchy:  An Anthology of Sorts”, Columba Press, Dublin, 1994 – for the toleration by the magisterium of a loyal opposition within the church. That case has conclusively been made by the events of 2009 – because we have all been totally disgraced by the absence of that very thing. Most of the scandals of the past sixteen years could have been avoided if the Irish church had developed after Vatican II a structural tolerance for serious differences of opinion among the people of God.

Of course there is a need to be concerned that ‘the deposit of faith‘ is not fractured, dissipated and lost. But what ‘deposit of faith‘ was occupying the minds and hearts of all of those who turned a blind eye to the intense suffering of children in Catholic institutions within living memory? Or the Archbishops of Dublin who imperilled children? Or the Gardai who also failed to react decisively against criminal behaviour by clerics?

There is a crucial distinction to be made between core Catholic belief, and the living out of that belief in the real world. It is now clear that the most senior members of the magisterium can make appalling mistakes in the practical application of their faith and in the administration of the church. An overweening concern to maintain a monolithic church by penalising any kind of dissent has given us the global and Irish Catholic catastrophes of this era. The equation of independence of mind with disloyalty is a mistake we must recognise and rectify, with the greatest urgency.

Just now in January 2010 it seems extremely unlikely that the pastoral letter promised by Pope Benedict XVI to Ireland for the spring of 2010 will rise to these challenges. Given the fact that Catholic bishops have protected abusers in at least twenty-five other countries, the confinement of a church reorganisation to Ireland is entirely indefensible and reeks of the deadly disease of damage limitation. If there is a sweeping change in personnel at the summit of the Irish church as a result of this pastoral it will then fall to this new generation of Irish bishops to prove it has learned something from the total failure of the church system we have inherited.

But whatever happens, the exposure of the total moral failure of Catholic ecclesiastical monarchism will not be lost on future generations of intelligent Irish children. They have already established a tradition of waving goodbye to that system in their teens. There is a good case for arguing that the better part of the Irish Catholic church has already escaped from it, and waits only to be reconvened by a papacy and hierarchy that will at some stage in the future have completed its learning curve, recovered its intellectual integrity and finally woken up to the moral superiority of distributed power.

Catholicism has no other viable future in Ireland, or anywhere else.

Notes

  1. Joseph Dunn, “No Lions in the Hierarchy:  An Anthology of Sorts”, Columba Press, Dublin, 1994
[Correction – July 3rd, 2024 – The date first given for the execution of Franz J was 1942.  He was guillotined on 9th August 1943 – so this has been corrected above.]

Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice

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Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life  May-June 2010

Among the major questions that need consideration in the wake of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the CICA Report) and the Murphy Report of 2009 is this: why did paid servants of the Irish state, with responsibilities for protecting children and preventing crime, fail so badly in their obvious duties?

We need urgently to reflect upon the way in which the CICA Report describes the failures of the Department of Education both to supervise and to reform the residential institutions. The following references to the Department are culled from the executive summary of the CICA report:

The failures by the Department that are catalogued in the chapters on the schools can also be seen as tacit acknowledgment by the State of the ascendancy of the Congregations and their ownership of the system. The Department’s Secretary General, at a public hearing, told the Investigation Committee that the Department had shown a ‘very significant deference’ towards the religious Congregations. This deference impeded change, and it took an independent intervention in the form of the Kennedy Report in 1970 to dismantle a long out-dated system. (CICA Report, Executive Summary, Chapter 1: The Department of Education)

The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools. The Reformatory and Industrial Schools Section of the Department was accorded a low status within the Department and generally saw itself as facilitating the Congregations and the Resident Managers. (CICA Report, Executive Summary, Conclusions, 3)

When these passages are juxtaposed, a key descriptor leaps out: deference. Departmental officials, and the Department as a whole, were deferential and submissive to the congregations, regarding them as owners of a state-financed system. This was despite the fact that those officials were answerable as employees to a democratic state and an elected minister, not to any cleric. A similar attitude seems to have determined the decisions of Gardaí who, according to the Murphy Report, regarded criminal clerical child sex abuse as a matter for Archbishops of Dublin to deal with.

How are we to explain this deference, which amounted to collective moral cowardice? Let us suppose for a moment that among the sensational accounts of Irish Church-State controversies of the twentieth century the following was to be found, perhaps in an online encyclopaedia:

The Irish Civil Service Revolt of 1967

In 1967 senior officials within the Irish Department of Education launched a sudden and unexpected investigation of conditions in Irish state-financed residential institutions run by Catholic religious congregations that catered for disadvantaged children. These officials then immediately leaked to the Irish media a scarifying account of their findings, which included not only widespread extreme physical abuse but ‘endemic sexual abuse’. It transpired that they had undertaken the surprise inspection on their own initiative, without waiting for ministerial authorisation.

When the congregations protested and sought the sacking of these officials, the latter responded by pointing to current Catholic social teachings which emphasised the right of all people to equal dignity and respect. The officials also claimed the duty of lay Catholics to act on their own moral initiative, as sanctioned by the Church document Lumen Gentium, agreed by the Bishops of the Catholic Church in 1965.1

The Irish Catholic Church was, for the very first time, deeply and openly divided by this controversy, with some bishops expressing outrage that lay Catholics would forget their obligation to act `respectfully and subordinately’. Others took the view that, given the seriousness of what had been revealed, the officials had been amply justified in their actions. Most Irish Catholic theologians also took the latter view. Outraged public opinion decided the issue in favour of the officials, who were reinstated after suspension. A thorough reform of the institutions was then initiated.

I hope the point of this lapse into romantic historical fantasy will be properly taken. Such an event could indeed have occurred in 1967, on foot of happenings in the wider Church in the period 1962-65. What were the countervailing circumstances in Church and society? It was undoubtedly a deferential era. There could obviously be a wide divergence of opinion about the degree to which the Irish Church was to blame for this, but here is my own brief attempt at an inventory of Church circumstances that contributed to the culture of deference:

  • Irish lay Catholic clericalism: a strong historical inclination among Irish lay Catholics to leave all moral leadership to Catholic clergy, and especially to the hierarchy. ( ‘We lay Catholics can’t do anything Church-related that our bishops and priests don’t tell us to do’.)
  • A reciprocal Irish clerical tendency to prioritise the rights of clerical magisterial authority above the formation of private lay conscience. As late as 2007, Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at Maynooth, insisted that the lay Catholic’s duty of obedience ‘includes submission to the Church’s teaching authority on faith and morals, irrespective of how little we understand of the reasons why the Church so teaches’ (my italics) 2
  • The tendency of the institutional Catholic Church to see itself as a moral monolith, in which any kind of dissent was to be seen as dangerous to the unity and survival of the Church, and lay people would not take unilateral action (The idea of a ‘loyal opposition’ was considered ludicrous and subversive);
  • The absence of an Irish culture of open-minded Catholic adult education, alive to Catholic social teaching, and passionately imbued with the Gospel of love and justice;
  • The absence of interfacing Church structures for Catholic clergy and laity which would allow the open asking of awkward questions and the threshing out of the kind of misgivings that many had about the residential institutions;
  • Irish hierarchical attitudes which saw Vatican II as potentially dangerous to the supposed ‘tranquillity’ of the lives of lay people and did nothing to improve Catholic adult education or modify Church structures in favour of permanent open dialogue;
  • The failure of any Irish Catholic Church leader to utter public criticism of the running of the residential institutions, even though, by 1962, some leaders were certainly aware of the worst that was happening;3
  • The hierarchical structure of the Church, which turned itself, and Irish society, into a social pyramid of dignity and deference. In this pyramid the ‘preferential option’ must always go to clergy and religious. Unwanted and ‘difficult’ children were at the base of this pyramid, preferably out of sight. This Church structure subverted official Catholic teaching on the equal dignity of all;
  • The monopoly of the Sunday pulpit by Catholic clergy, who therefore retained enormous power as brokers of honour and shame in Irish society. This could be deployed against anyone considered dangerous or disloyal. Lay people had no counterbalancing right or power of self-defence within the Church;
  • The consequent deep fear among lay people of the power of `the Church’ — the clerical apparatus which in the lay view included the religious congregations that ran the institutions. `The Church’ was believed to have ‘tentacles everywhere’, and to be ever ready to ask ‘Who do you think you are?’ of any lay Catholic who presumed to quote the Gospel in defence of private conscience. This fear ensured the dominance in Irish Catholic life of the Seamus Heaney protocol: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’;
  • The prevalence of this fear of the ‘the Church’ in Irish political culture also, encapsulated in the view that to oppose or criticise `the Church’ would be to ‘commit political suicide’.

In sum, Catholic authoritarianism prioritised, and continues to prioritise, uniformity, docility, obedience, unidirectional ‘communication’ by bishops, and silence and deference on the part of those who must listen to them. Its ecclesiological ideal is indeed a moral monolith in which bishops never disagree publicly, everyone waits for hierarchical sanction of anything new, bishops may secretly report to Rome theologians they dislike, and ‘group think’ is therefore obligatory. Authoritarian clerics are ready to label as ‘disloyal’ any breach of this culture of uniformity, and to publicly shame ‘dissidents’. They scorn lay initiative of any challenging kind. They refuse to be questioned by the lay people who pay all of their bills, not simply on matters of doctrine but on any administrative matter, and block all structural reform that might facilitate such questioning. They prize their own completely unaccountable status, with the consequence that a culture of unaccountability cascades downward through the Church and spreads outward into wider Irish society.

It is therefore to Catholic clerical authoritarianism we must look for some of the thickest roots of Irish lay Catholic moral cowardice. The sooner this is acknowledged, the better for the Church, the whole people of God. A Church structure that tolerated disciplined dissent would now be embraced joyfully by most Irish Catholics as an alternative to the utter global disgrace we have suffered.

Sometime in the future, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland will acknowledge that the authoritarian culture of Irish Catholicism in the twentieth century:

  1. seriously weakened the moral character and Christian initiative of the Irish Catholic people;
  2. helped to subvert the obligation owed by the Irish state to its poorest citizens;
  3. disproved completely that the Church functions best as a clerically dominated army acting with complete uniformity under a unanimous leadership;
  4. proved the necessity of moving to a Church structure in which the following principles apply:
  • unity in essential doctrine;
  • structured freedom to debate all other matters, especially the social implications of Christian principles;
  • the sovereignty of individual conscience.

It remains to be seen whether such a leadership can emerge in the wake of the shock we have all experienced. Mooted reorganisation of Irish dioceses could facilitate such a development, but the history of the Church seems to prove that creative movements for change seldom originate at its summit. Ireland badly needs a grassroots movement aimed at establishing a more grown-up church, and a tradition of conscientious Catholic independence from the dominant authoritarian and clericalist current.

Notes

  1. See, for example, Pacem in Terris, 1963, and Lumen Gentium, 1965 (n. 37).
  2. Quoted in ‘Catholic Church “cannot teach what is wrong in itself”‘, P. McGarry, Irish Times, 27 December 2007.
  3. See, for example, The Irish Gulag, Bruce Arnold, Gill and Macmillan 2009, Chapter 24.

Of Good and Evil: I – Dealing with the Darkness

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Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Mar 2010

As a child of the Age of Optimism – the 1960s – I have never seen a darker time than the present.

And yet it is this deepest darkness that defines the brightest light and draws my eye – and my heart and my mind – towards its source. And that source fills me with a hope that is more deeply grounded than ever.

Graduating from secondary school in Dublin in 1960 I caught the optimism of JFK and Martin Luther King and Pope John XXIII in the years that followed. Although these men were all dead by 1968 – two by assassination – I never doubted that the future must always be brighter than the past. Until 1994.

By then I was 51, and overworking in a Northern Ireland Catholic Grammar school. Fascinated by the digital revolution, I was using the new technology to gather and process news data from around the world for use in my current affairs classes for older teenagers.

That news was increasingly bad. Children were suffering and dying in too many places – victims of an indifference fostered by Western escapism and what we miscalled ‘materialism’. The environment was under increasing threat, and governments were not yet paying close attention. We already seemed to be losing the war against a plague of addiction and its close relative, depression. This in turn was often related to a chronic instability of relationships, captured in a question from an Anne Murray song: “If love never lasts forever … what’s forever for?”

This gathering darkness threatened the future of the children I was teaching, and their children too – and my own children. And Northern Ireland’s own special darkness seemed endless also, as people who were in fact brothers and sisters in Christ persisted in a fratricidal war.

And then in that year, 1994, the clerical child abuse catastrophe erupted in Ireland for the first time.

Already I was deeply frustrated by the failure of the Irish Catholic church leadership to realise the promise of Vatican II. A closed Irish clerical structure had failed the challenge of dialogue with laity that had been issued by the council. So it had also failed to develop the far too passive role of lay people. And so it had also failed to give the children I was teaching a clear notion of their mission within this deteriorating world.

The celebrated and charismatic Pope John Paul II seemed unaware of this problem. And oblivious also to the dangers of the cult of celebrity that enveloped himself – its tendency to make media ‘icons’ of a chosen few and to convince billions of others of their own unimportance.

Waving papal flags was just about OK in 1979 for the first ever papal visit to Ireland, but no more challenging or creative role was discovered by the church leadership for the Irish people of God in the years that followed.

And now in 1994 we learned for the first time that an Irish priest could devastate the lives of children. Worse – although his superiors had been made aware of it, his abuse had continued for decades in his abbey in Cavan and wherever else he roamed in Ireland – and as far abroad as Providence, Rhode Island, USA. Irish church leader had known of this behaviour decades earlier – and failed to stop it in its tracks.

That was not the first major Irish church sex scandal, of course. Two years earlier in 1992 Bishop Eamon Casey had fled from Ireland to escape a media storm following the news that he had fathered a child in 1974. That had been disturbing enough, because Bishop Casey had been one of the most prominent Church leaders in Ireland. But the Brendan Smyth affair was even more disturbing because it revealed a far deeper failure of church leadership than anyone could have suspected. How could the protection of children ever have slipped from the top of any church leader’s agenda?

Trained to suppose that all problems had to be solved in the head, by the rational, logical mind, I was processing all of this depressing data at an increasing rate – and working myself dangerously hard. What exactly was wrong? Why were we so beset by such a multitude of evils? More important, how were we to tackle them?

Yes of course I had always been warned of the problem of evil in the world, but what exactly was the mainspring of that evil? What was the deepest root of our human problem?

Then one evening in the midst of all that my youngest son, aged fourteen, came to see me in my study and said:

“I don’t believe in all this Jesus stuff – and I don’t think anyone else in my class does either!”

That really shook me – because I found myself then unable to explain to my own son why I believed that the biggest mistake we could make in the midst of a gathering world crisis was to let go of our Christian faith.

Always through these years I had been an attentive Sunday Mass goer. The first thing I would do in chapel would be to lift the missalette to scan the scripture readings, especially the Gospel. There was something about that experience that rested the mind and restored the soul. I surely believed that somewhere in that strange, dusty, ancient Palestinian world – and in the words and ceremonies that had emerged from it – lay a treasure and a secret that the world must not lose.

But what was it exactly – what was the relevance of those words and ceremonies to all that was oppressing us in 1994? What did my Sunday have to do with my Monday and the rest of my working week? If I couldn’t put my finger on that, I couldn’t even really do my job – to encourage and maintain the faith and optimism of the children I was teaching – and of my own children too.

So I did then something I should have done much earlier. I began to pray really seriously about all that was worrying me.

This time I didn’t say set, memorised prayers. I took seriously what my church (despite all its faults) had always taught – that there is a spiritual resource or presence that never leaves us, a presence that can be addressed directly. And I did that quietly in my room – confessing my own inability to see any light in the gathering darkness. And I simply asked for help with all that.

In the weeks that followed my life began to change in mysterious ways. Most importantly, I began to notice a pattern in the news stories I was processing for the children I was teaching. One human failing suddenly seemed to me to underlie problems as diverse as global warming, indifference towards 3rd world suffering, the corruption of politicians, the explosion of the cosmetics industry, and injustice of every kind – and even the failure of bishops to protect children.

My first description of this human failing was simply this: people climb!

I meant by this that we humans suffer from a chronic tendency to be dissatisfied with ourselves, and to seek satisfaction by impressing other people. To impress others we need to be noticed by them, and this leads us to climb endlessly – to attract notice.

And it suddenly seemed to me that this was the solution to an historical problem that had always baffled me – the emergence in every human society in every era of some kind of social pyramid. It is our tendency to climb that produces this also – and the snobbery of those who must look down on others. Even the United States, founded on the principle of equality, had become by 1994 just another social pyramid, with most of the graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton looking down on the poor with aristocratic disdain.

And then I realised what had always attracted me to the Gospels. Jesus was the great exception to this historical rule of thumb, that “everybody climbs!” He had done the exact opposite.

I became convinced I had finally managed to connect Sunday with every weekday, and to connect the Bible with my own time. Our God – especially through the Lord of the Gospels – is constantly challenging the pyramids of the world, by challenging first of all our tendency to build them.

Everything I have written since then is based upon that conviction.

Why the Show mustn’t go on

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Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2008

I still vividly remember my first experience of live Shakespeare.  Sometime in the late 1950s Anew McMaster took note of the reappearance of Macbeth on the Irish Leaving Cert English Syllabus – and produced the Scottish play in the old Olympia theatre in Dublin, with himself in the title role.

Never can that renowned actor have been more challenged by a defiant refusal to suspend disbelief than on the day I attended.  Hungry for every histrionic slip, hundreds of us teenage Shakespeare detesters had been crammed by school decree into an already dingy theatre.  McMaster gave us early encouragement by pausing to remove wads of very heavy red beard that were impeding his vocal freedom.  Our joy became complete when, at a later stage, a youthful bearer of bad tidings rushed on a little too enthusiastically, slipped in coming to a necessary halt, and crashed to the floor in a perfect pratfall at the feet of the king.

Our sincere applause resounded far longer than the same baleful king thought warranted.  We wanted an encore, and were deeply disappointed when we didn’t get it.  Macbeth’s final ordeal at Birnam Wood was almost matched in its horror by our indifference to this honest actor’s unstinted efforts to re-create it. We thought, with all the savagery of adolescence, that he thoroughly deserved both his quietus and our cheers of relief when the whole performance was finally over.

I recall this theatrical debacle just now because I have a strong sense that I am observing another :  the collapse of the theatre of Catholic clericalism in Ireland.  Here we have another show that becomes far more embarrassing the longer it goes on.

I hope I am not being cruel here also.  I know humble men aplenty struggling to maintain the integrity of the church, and giving splendid Christian service in so doing.  But they too have a need for the truth to be spoken.  A way of being Church that has always had far too much too much to do with maintaining an illusion has been exposed as unsustainable, and needs to be given a decent and explicit burial.   So long as we were never fully conscious of its illusionary nature we could not strictly be accused of hypocrisy.  Made conscious of it recently, we are all now open to that charge.

I finally reached this conclusion when watching the recent documentary film ‘The Holy Show’.  This detailed the private life of the late Fr Michael Cleary.  While maintaining a public persona of exemplary rectitude, this nationally celebrated priest seduced a very vulnerable young woman who had come to him for spiritual support.  He then ‘married’ her in an entirely secret ceremony, and conceived a son by her whom he could never publicly acknowledge.

Meanwhile, with monumental irony, he had become a troubleshooter in great demand by the hierarchy to defend on national media the church’s sexual code – exemplified by the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He climaxed this career by welcoming Pope John Paul II to a televised  outdoor spectacle in Galway in 1979.  (The fact that another of that day’s personalities, Bishop Eamon Casey, was exposed in 1992 for also having secretly fathered a son will always be remembered in connection with that day.)

The Holy Show  clearly identified Cleary’s central weakness:  his very celebrity was the greatest obstacle to his owning up to his own fallibility – and his wife and child suffered the worst of the consequences of that failure.  The more celebrated he became the more reputation he had to lose.  His greatest sin was therefore his vanity – his inability to lose public admiration by admitting his sexual indiscretion.

Inevitably I will be accused of generalising from these particular instances to indict clergy generally – but that is not in fact my drift.  Knowing clerics who live lives of exemplary humility I point only to the danger of the illusion of clericalism, which rests upon a myth.  This is the myth that ordination somehow magically confers virtue upon those who receive it.  That many, many Irish Catholics had bought heavily into that myth was proven by the shock of the truth, a shock that still reverberates and has still not been fully absorbed.

The very architecture of Catholicism, focused upon a liturgical space designed for priestly ritual, facilitates myth and illusion in relation to clergy.  Andrew Madden recounts in his autobiography ‘Altar Boy’ the impression made on his young mind by the appearance of the priest in the sanctuary of a Dublin church:  “The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important…”. This explained Andrew’s own early desire to be a priest – the very desire that made him vulnerable to his priest abuser in a Dublin parish.  “Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close.  I felt good.”

Historians interested in explaining extraordinary Mass attendance in Ireland as late as the 1970s, and our full seminaries then, should reflect upon the fact that most of Ireland was relatively starved of public spectacle before the coming of national TV in 1961.  The parish church filled this gap for many people, providing the stage for the man who was usually the most important local celebrity – the priest.

And what most differentiated the lifestyle of the priest was the fact that he was celibate.  And that he had an officially recognized role in identifying, decrying (and relieving the eternal consequences of) sexual sin.  Every adolescent learned that this was the sin most offensive to God, and the sin that the priest had somehow, apparently, overcome.  No one told us that the public role of the priest could be a temptation to another sin entirely:  the actor’s sin, the sin of vanity, the coveting of public admiration.  Needless to say, we were therefore unaware of its dangers for us also.

TV provided a far vaster national stage, and the story of Ireland since about 1961 is largely the story of how that electronic stage has replaced liturgical space as the dominant Irish theatre. It has also become the dominant temptation to our vanity.  That in turn explains how Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary became national celebrities.  From 1961 – entirely innocent of the dangers of the first of the deadly sins – the Irish church was sleepwalking towards the PR disasters that have traumatized it since 1992.

What happened to Andrew Madden well illustrates another of those PR disasters – the revelation not just of clerical child abuse but of the typical cover up of that abuse by bishops and other clergy.  (The most serious charge levelled against Michael Cleary is the allegation by Mary Raftery that he turned a blind eye to the brutal abuse by a fellow curate in Ballyfermot, Tony Walsh, of young boys.)

The papal visit to the US in April 2008 has made important progress in recognizing the seriousness of the evil of clerical sex abuse but has failed completely to grapple with the reason for the cover up:  the perceived need of bishops and other clergy to maintain the clerical myth – the myth of clerical immunity to sexual sin.  With this clericalist myth, vanity has become virtually institutionalized in our church – the reason it still cannot be named as the root cause of every scandal that has befallen us since 1992.

For scandal is not just the revelation of human sinfulness.  Sin itself is mundane. The archetypal religious scandal is the story of David, the divinely anointed Jewish national hero who covertly murdered Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, the woman he had seduced – to prevent it becoming known that he, David, had impregnated her.  Scandal has always to do with a fall from grace by those in high places, and clericalism is essentially an unwarranted claim of entitlement to grace and social prestige.  Until that has been fully recognized and acknowledged by those who lead the church, we will not be able to learn from what has happened to us.   We will also remain troubled by periodic clerical scandal, especially if the mandatory celibacy rule for all priests is retained.

These days the Irish church is deeply divided between those who have lost the illusions of clericalism and those who believe that Catholic loyalty requires them to restore those illusions as rapidly as possible.  The latter make that mistake because our leadership has not yet clearly differentiated Catholicism and clericalism.  We will remain stuck in the ditch, spinning our wheels, until that changes.

In an earlier article here I pointed out that the ritual of the first Eucharist derived its solemnity and liturgical meaning only from the fact that it was followed by an actual self-sacrifice1.  We must never forget that all ritual is, to use a contemporary idiom, virtual reality – just like theatre.  The integrity of the ceremony rests upon the integrity of those who celebrate it – priests and people.  Clearly, ordination in itself cannot guarantee that integrity.  This too needs now to be fully acknowledged – as does the fact that the public role of the cleric can entangle him deeply in the sin of vanity, the greatest threat to all integrity.   On the credit side, the self-effacing and dutiful priest, and those married couples who fulfil all the obligations of a sexual partnership, restore the credibility of the church.

So, instead of lamenting the loss of an illusion we need to rejoice at it, and to notice that the vanity that led to it lies also at the root of the greatest evils that threaten everyone’s future.  Vanity arises out of an inability to value ourselves without validation from others.  That is why we seek attributed value through public admiration, and pursue the latter through exhibitionism, the cult of celebrity and ostentatious consumerism.  This latter source of the environmental crisis is also the root of competition and conflict – and lack of a secure self-esteem lies also at the root of addiction.

‘Hard’ secularism – the kind that thinks that suppressing all religion will create a perfect society – doesn’t understand any of this.  This is why it can’t explain the failure of untrammeled secularism (e.g, in the Soviet Union) to put an end to personality cults and to produce a perfect society.  Meeting the challenge of secularism requires us to recognize fully the deadliest of the sins as it tempts ourselves in our own time.  If we don’t do that now we will be guilty of something else – of choosing to learn nothing from the hardest and most helpful lessons we ourselves have recently received.

Notes:

  1. The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-Sacrifice?Doctrine and Life, Sep 2007