Category Archives: Bishops

Is Archbishop Diarmuid Martin failing Dublin?

I could spend all my time being concerned about the people who come to church, but they’re — you know I don’t want to be nasty — but they’re a dying breed. … The situation is changing, but Irish Catholicism hasn’t changed with it.

Attributed to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, this quote from an article in the New York Times on December 2nd 2017, came in for strong pushback from the Irish Catholic on December 7th.  In an article headed Archbishop accused of demoralising effect on priests the paper quoted copiously from the psychiatric criticism of Professor Patricia Casey of UCD.  She argued that the reference to observant Catholics as a ‘dying breed’ was both negative and unlikely to spark the interest of young people – whose absence from so many of his churches was observed by the Archbishop as early as 2006.

Archbishop Martin has justly won international praise for his handling of the acute crisis that faced the Dublin Archdiocese in 2003 when he was named as coadjuter to Archbishop Desmond Connell, then under siege.  For victims of clerical sexual abuse in the archdiocese he represented a distinctly ‘new broom’.  Adept in responding to the media storm in the years that followed, he is credited by some with the following admission by the Irish Bishops’ Conference in December 2009, in the wake of the Murphy Report:

“We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness.” 

This marked a substantial shift in the readiness of Irish bishops to admit the term ‘cover up’ in their handling of allegations of abuse, and must never be forgotten in any assessment of Archbishop Martin’s term in Dublin.

However, if ‘Irish Catholicism hasn’t changed’ in the fourteen years of that term, can he himself be completely exonerated?  Granted, his strong performance on the Murphy Report was certain to alienate at least some of the Dublin clergy, and this in turn was likely to impede the lively development of parish pastoral councils, which he also strongly promoted.

However, why does the diocese still lack a forum for whole-diocese deliberation on its pastoral needs – if the archbishop is so strongly in favour of change?  And why is the capital of Ireland leaving it to e.g. Limerick diocese to experiment with a diocesan synod, when Archbishop Connell was known to have one planned for Dublin at the end of his term?

Time and again in the intervening period Archbishop Martin has asserted that the central problem of the Irish church is not structural but a matter of insufficient faith.  As early as 2005 he said the following:

“My primary interest … is in seeing that as many Irish men and women as possible in 2030 will be allowing themselves to be daily “surprised by the Gospel” and will be attempting to make that leap of faith and then shaping their lives coherently according to consequences of their belief.

” Whether that happens or not will be determined by the style and the pastoral structures of the Church today.   I believe, for example, that many in our society fail to make the leap to faith, because we, as Church, as an institution and as a community of believers, have never made that leap to the full.  We have never fully abandoned ourselves to the God who can make us free, but still cling on to the things we falsely feel can bring us security.  Faith is always a leap in the dark, but in the confidence that Jesus has not left us orphans.  We will never be able to lead others into the depths of faith and the joy of our hope if we remain entrapped in the limitedness of our current world vision.”  

Elsewhere the Archbishop has lamented the lack of an educated and vociferous Irish laity who could effectively stem the tide of secularism, as in his Würzburg address earlier this year:  “The Church in Ireland is very lacking precisely in ‘keen intellects and prolific pens addressing the pressing subjects of the day’”.

If the archbishop is so keen to encourage ‘keen intellects and prolific pens’ what efforts has he made to seek out and develop such talents in his own archdiocese?  Did he ever consider doing what Pope Francis has done – the creation of an entirely new personal advisory team, consisting of both lay men and women and forward-looking clergy?

And what of the apparent failure of Catholic Social Teaching to penetrate the minds of Dublin’s political intelligentsia – in relation to the problem of homelessness, for example?  Did it never occur to him to seek resourcing for a regular annual Dublin conference centred on that very fount of Catholic wisdom – as a means of addressing the very intellectual deficit he so often complains about?

Too glibly dismissed as ‘Blessed Martin of Tours’ by some Dublin clergy for his distant lectures on the state of the Irish church, the Archbishop must nevertheless bear some responsibility for the undeveloped state of what should be Ireland’s flagship diocese – especially when it comes to the obvious structural and dialogical deficit.  Was he himself over-inhibited by fear of a ‘leap in the dark’ when it came to faith in his own people?  And over-inclined to believe that he should accept a distant invitation to lecture abroad, rather than take that travelling and speaking time to listen at home instead?  Why can he not understand that the absence of regular, structured opportunities to listen to his own people is a clear barrier to the change he professes to support – and a scandalous barrier to faith also?

Given Archbishop Martin’s own age (72 this year), merely to dismiss observant Catholics as a ‘dying breed’ comes across to me as a combination of both arrogance and presumptuous ignorance – not to mention lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to grant insight to any of the baptised.  Has he somehow concluded that only he could be a conduit of graced wisdom in his own diocese?

Too long out of Dublin to be sure of my own grasp of the detail of that whole situation I can only raise these questions here.  I am glad of Archbishop Martin’s frank courage on the abuse issue – but frankly disappointed that my own native city is not visibly much further advanced in developing the ‘role of the laity’ since I left it in in 1966.

Views: 7

The ‘war’ against Pope Francis: where do Irish bishops stand?

“The central dispute is between Catholics who believe that the church should set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church.”

So wrote Andrew Brown in the Manchester Guardian on Friday October 27th, 2017 – in an extended attempt to explain what he calls ‘The war against Pope Francis’. Brown calls the first of these camps the ‘introverts’, and the second the ‘extroverts’. Placing, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke in the first camp, and Pope Francis in the second, Brown implies that the pope believes that the world must set the agenda for the church. Though Brown appears to be sympathetic to the pope, no description of the situation could better serve the cause of Cardinal Burke.  For that school of thought ‘the world’ is the church’s greatest threat – an advocate of ‘anything goes’ rather than the teachings of Jesus.  Cardinal Burke’s most outrageous supporters see Francis as a heretic because they too believe that ‘the world’ has taken him over.

What does Christian leadership require today?

Of course it is true that the usual ‘conservative v liberal’ analysis of Catholic differences is trite and misleading. So is ‘reformers v traditionalists’ – by implying that only those who oppose reform are true to the church’s oldest traditions. However, ‘introvert v extrovert’ is worse still, especially as it could imply that Pope Francis, as an ‘extrovert’, is a shallow populist bent on changing everything to please the masses, whereas Cardinal Burke is a stern and deeply thoughtful disciplinarian who stands for timeless truths. This is to turn the real difference on its head. It is the pope who has thought hardest about what timeless truths require of Christian bishops in the present era – and it is the pope who is most truly ‘counter-cultural’.

The central dispute in the church is over the exercise of power and teaching authority, specifically the papal office. As the papacy is a model for all bishops, this dispute has implications for the role of Catholic bishops everywhere.

As revealed by both his behaviour and his writings, Pope Francis believes that Christian leadership has primarily to do with loving accompaniment of always fallible people on their journeys towards ‘the kingdom of God’. For Cardinal Burke on the other hand it is clear that the primary role of the Christian leader is verbally to define Christian obligations and to insist upon adherence to certain of those obligations as a condition of full access to the church’s central sacrament, the Eucharist. For Burke the accompaniment of the sinner can have only secondary importance.

In a sense the dispute is over the proper relationship between ‘teaching’, ‘ruling’ and ‘sanctifying – the three most important duties of a bishop.

Remembering that the word ‘companion’ is derived from the practice of sharing bread together, it would therefore be fairer to both parties in this dispute to describe them as idealising either a ‘companioning’ or ‘rule-making’ relationship with those they wish to lead to the living truth, Jesus the Christ.

How is conscience ‘formed’?

The difference is most clearly stated in article 37 of Amoris Laetitia, where Francis writes:

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

Formers of conscience rather than replacers of conscience. That is the fork in the road for Francis, and, by implication, for all bishops. To seek simply to legislate, to make up the minds of others by mere magisterial declaration, is, by implication, not necessarily to form conscience – and the Pope and the bishops must – according to the present pope – seek to do the latter.

To spend even half-an-hour contemplating the implications of this teaching is to realise the profound silliness of describing this manner of leading the church as a mere ‘style’. Pope Francis is instead advocating and leading an abandonment by Catholic bishops of the role of sequestered and elevated legalist, imposing rules from above – to take up the role of companion of struggling Everyman, a companion who begins by discerning the drama of that struggle before speaking to it of the risen Lord. Only in that way, he insists, can consciences be formed.

A Change of Era

For Pope Francis “we are not living an era of change but a change of era.” Another way of saying that is: “this is a different time“. Cardinal Burke’s liking for the full panoply of the cardinal’s attire – including the page-borne fifteen-foot silken cloak, the cappa magna, tells us that he tends to idealise the era when cardinals had the social and civil status of the highest nobles at the court of the king. That fits perfectly with his apparent tendency to think that to rule is also to teach and to sanctify.

For the pope, clearly, sanctity demands humility – and bishops should model the latter as well if they are to teach. Companioning was an essential aspect of Jesus’s ‘teaching style’ – he was both persuasive and edifying. Pope Francis’ teaching style therefore represents a return to the earliest teaching tradition of the church – centuries before bishops became aristocrats. Few people today take handed-down edicts – declarations of law – as effective teaching. They simply tune out.

The Irish Experience

It will take just another half-hour to realise that nowhere in the world has the truth of this conclusion been more clearly demonstrated than in Ireland. As distant rule-makers since 1968 Irish bishops have steadily lost the attention of the large majority of Irish people who describe themselves as Catholic. Never persistently trying to convince their people directly of the wisdom of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical banning contraception, they relied on the equivalent of a recorded message to convey this ruling and were proven ineffectual – as they have been on every similar stand taken since.

We are standing in the midst of the ruins that this ‘style’ of leadership has created – especially the bewilderment of unaccompanied younger generations and their incomprehension of key Catholic terms such as ‘sin’, ‘grace’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘priest’. Caught between that elevated legalism and a rapidly changing society, the generation of Irish clergy that welcomed Vatican II was left stranded, disappointed, tongue-tied and hobbled. Already, with congregations dwindling by the week, the closure of some Irish Catholic churches is under discussion.

To be companioned by a convinced Christian like Pope Francis is to be given both a glimpse and a promise of the ‘kingdom of God’ – that kingdom in which rivalry for status has been replaced by mutual love and support – true ‘family’. That is the choice that Francis is presenting to Irish bishops too, especially by his promise to attend the World Meeting of Families next year. Will our bishops be ‘up’ for companioning rather than aloof rule-stating – for the forming rather than the replacing of consciences? The near future of the Irish Church will depend upon their response. Megaphone Irish Catholic leadership, a leadership that considered regular dialogue unnecessary, has had its day. The Irish church is facing extinction because it has been deprived for half-a-century of a true communion of clergy and people.

As for the more distant future, the global popularity of the present pope is surely due to a recognition that his leadership is more closely modelled on that of the church’s founder than on the distant imperial bishops of the medieval church – and that no other ‘style’ can now bear timeless fruit.

Views: 222

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: 25

What went wrong? Do Irish bishops want to know?

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.

Views: 7

“No donations without representation!”

Following the sex abuse scandals that broke out in the Archdiocese of Boston earlier this year (2002), a movement called Voice of the Faithful was founded to campaign for a real say for lay people in governing and guiding the church. Sean O’Conaill looks at a movement that attracted more than 4000 people to its first major conference in July, 2002, and interviews founding member, Dr Jim Muller.

Voice of the Irish faithful raised in Boston

Reilly, Sweeney, Burke, Coakley, Conley, Keating – a litany of Irish names rolls out in the story of Boston attorneys and judges who earlier this year compelled the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to hand over to civil legal authorities all of its files on the handling of clerical child abuse over four decades.

As ordinary Bostonians read the correspondence on the handling of cases involving three priests in particular who were abusing children into the 1990s, a storm of anger broke in the only major US city with a Catholic majority.

Although US bishops had adopted guidelines in the mid-1980s which should have protected all Catholic children, these seemed not to have been observed in the Boston archdiocese – the most important in the US – with grim consequences for some Catholic families.

Abused victims then came forward to report the indifference of the archdiocesan office to their plight. In one case, a victim had been given to understand that he could not be received by a diocesan official in case he, the victim, tried to seduce the official as he had earlier allegedly seduced Fr Paul Shanley – a Priest abuser who had publicly advocated ‘man-boy love’ decades earlier.

Stories such as these shocked Boston Catholics into a realisation that their trust in their Archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, had left children vulnerable to shameful abuse. Generations of deferential certainty that church leaders would give the highest priority to the protection of Catholic children were suddenly part of the past. In at least one case, Cardinal Law had written encouragingly to an abusing priest, while aiding his transfer without forewarning to another diocese in which other children were then abused.

Crisis of faith

Jim Muller, a medic whose mother was a Courtney from Cork, found himself in a personal crisis of faith. The church had always been part of his life, yet one Sunday in January this year he found he could not go to Mass. After a painful day, he decided that he could not leave his church without trying to better it.

Next Sunday, he saw a long-time friend and his wife, and they discussed the problem. The three of them then spoke with the pastor of St. John the Evangelist church in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Jim suggested there was a need for the laity to have their own meeting during the week to discuss their reactions to the crisis. Father Powers consulted with other parishioners, and suggested that in addition to the lay meeting, it would be good to let the people speak in church after each mass, with a lay facilitator. This was done for two consecutive Sundays. More than 600 spoke from the pews of their love of the church, and their anguish over the crimes and cover-up. They soon found they had a simple programme: to change the church they loved while keeping the faith they shared.

This became the banner of ‘Voice of the Faithful’ (VOTF), a grassroots parish-based movement that was soon using the Internet to spread its simple objectives throughout the state of Massachusetts, and beyond. They stated their mission: “To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church.” They set themselves three goals: to support those who had been abused; to support priests of integrity; and to shape structural change within the church.

Misgivings allayed

Early misgivings among some about their authority to act in this way were soon allayed by church legal and theological experts. Church Canon No. 215 declares that, “The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes.” None was in any doubt that they had indeed been called by the Holy Spirit to help renew church structures that had failed to protect Catholic children, and that had shamed their church throughout the United States.

Furthermore, the lay obligation stated by Canon 222 – to promote social justice – seemed likely to be frustrated by the mounting financial claims of those who had been abused through the negligence of pastors.

Theologians reminded VOTF members of Lumen Gentium, the great Vatican II document on the church. Article 37 declares the obligation of the laity “to disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ.” It continues: “By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have, the laity are empowered – indeed sometimes obliged to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church.” Thus reassured, VOTF discussions proceeded apace.

The danger of fragmentation through the setting of specific goals sought by left and right in the church – such as the ordination of women or the exclusion from ministry of anyone of homosexual orientation – was avoided by sticking to the simple programme already agreed. The details of structural reform could be discussed and debated as part of the process of self-education, while the movement widened its base across the broad centre ground of the church.

First major conference

By July 2002 – just five months after the movement had started – it was possible for VOTF to hold its first major conference in Boston. Four thousand two hundred people from 36 US states and seven countries enjoyed a day of prayer, education and organisation centred on honouring those who had either suffered abuse or who had tried at an early stage to mobilise the church leadership against it.

Chief among the latter was Fr Tom Doyle, who had been joint author of a report on the child abuse problem in the mid-1980s, and who had tried to warn the US hierarchy of the catastrophe that would inevitably follow any failure to deal with it. They had not heeded the warning. Now, however, Fr Tom’s efforts were recognised by Voice of the Faithful as he became the first recipient of their `Priest of Integrity’ award.

Attendees also signed a VOTF pledge upholding their duties and responsibilities as lay people as defined in Vatican II, and asking the Pope to “hold accountable any bishop who reassigned an abusive priest or concealed his crimes.” This pledge and request will be sent to Rome.

The point of the request is that despite acknowledging publicly his own failures in the handling of abusive priests – failures which had proved catastrophic for further victims – Cardinal Law has refused to resign from his post as Archbishop of Boston. This decision is believed to have the support of the Vatican, which is anxious to resist the impression that media pressure can determine the fate of those it has appointed to high office.

But Cardinal Law’s continuance in office is now hurting donations to the various Catholic charities in the archdiocese, normally channelled through the Archbishop’s office, as lay people use the only sanction left to them – the withdrawal of financial support. To help offset the losses to these charities, VOTF has established a separate charitable fund, called “Voice of Compassion”, now fully operational. Donations from this fund will be available for the archdiocese to channel to the charities worst hit by the crisis, although Cardinal Law is so far resisting this offer.

Interview with President of ‘Voice of the Faithful’, Jim Muller

You’re already a joint Nobel Peace Prize winner. How did that come about?

With influence from Thomas Merton’s writings, the University of Notre Dame, and Pacem in Terris, I used my experience as a medical exchange student in Russia to build a movement of Russian, American and other physicians against nuclear weapons. It was a grass roots movement of 150,000 that expressed the will of the people against the power of the governments. It was not unlike Voice of the Faithful in giving a collective expression to the wishes of many. The group, International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (ippnw.org) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

“Keep the Faith: Change the Church” – that’s the VOTF slogan. Mightn’t you destroy the faith by dividing the church?

At present the church has terrible divisions between the faithful and the hierarchy in many areas, and between traditional and progressive activists. We hope to contribute to unity between the progressive, moderate and liberal laity, and between the laity and the hierarchy. This can happen when the laity have a forum to discuss their differences, and then present their areas of agreement to the hierarchy.

How would you answer those who say that the church will split apart if lay people start `advising’ priests and bishops on how to run it?

Our goal is that laity and hierarchy work together for the good of the church. The hierarchy should have a predominant role in preservation of the core dogma of the church. The laity, on the other hand, have more experience in many areas of the life of the church in the world that can help the church.

Clearly many of those at the summit of the church miscalculated the impact this scandal would have on laity. Could this be because they are not themselves parents with children to look out for?

Yes.

Why haven’t you put a married clergy at the top of your programme?

We have not taken stands on any specific issues other than a voice for the laity. Once that forum is established, we expect that married clergy will be discussed, as will many other issues. I will introduce a resolution calling for more Gregorian chant in services. In U. S. political terms, we are creating the equivalent of a Congress for the Catholic laity, not the Democratic or Republican party, nor are we starting to promote individual issues before we have built a World organisation.

‘Voice of the Faithful’ started up because there were priests in parishes who trusted laity to use their anger constructively when they met to discuss this crisis. What do laity do in parishes where priests are afraid that things might get out of hand if they allow such meetings?

They went to other parishes, and they continued dialogue with their reluctant pastor. Many pastors who were reluctant at first are now cooperative. Collections are up in parishes with Voice of the Faithful activity.

Are there places where VOTF parish groups are running without the approval of parish clergy?

Such groups are meeting in libraries and catacombs. (The last comment is a weak attempt to prove I’m Irish!)

You argue that VOTF is a genuine grassroots movement. Is that because it’s based upon parish groups that have formed themselves?

It started with the laity, and it springs up in the parish.

At the VOTF conference you were cheered when you declared the principle: “No donations without representation!” How would you answer those who might say that looking for some kind of control of church finance is an attempt to blackmail the leadership?

This is a leadership that has demonstrated the danger of absolute power. We do not seek to dominate the hierarchy – we seek to have a collaborative relationship in which both sides have influence and power.

What about the argument that since democracy is all about politics, it has no place in the church, which should be all about prayer, worship and the sacraments?

The church is primarily prayer, worship and sacraments, but it also interacts with the world in many ways that are not fixed by scripture, tradition, and the teaching of Christ. The laity have great knowledge of these issues. They need a democracy for themselves in order to express that knowledge in a collective manner, and to fulfil the mandates of Vatican II.

Many Bostonians – yourself included – are ethnically Irish. Is this significant in explaining the rise of VOTF in Catholic Boston?

Yes, the spirit of Ireland in resisting oppression has helped us all.

What role do you think lay Catholics in Ireland should be looking to play in the development of the church?

We hope that VOTF will have a chapter in every parish in the world. At present, I do not believe we have a single chapter in Ireland, nor did we have a representative from Ireland at our conference (I may be wrong since there was much chaos). My hope is that the people of Ireland will decide that VOTF might give them a way to revive the Irish Catholic Church, and contribute to the world growth of VOTF.

How do you personally keep a balance between the spiritual side of being a Catholic, and this new activism?

The new activism has introduced me to the most wonderful group of Catholics I have ever met. In itself it has been a spiritual experience.

Let’s look ahead maybe 10 years from now. What needs to happen between now and then to allow you to say “VOTF has had a good decade”?

Ten years from now, when I’m 69, I hope that VOTF has a chapter in every parish, a council in each diocese, a council for each nation, and a world council. I hope these lay organisations have thoroughly debated most of the relevant issues, and made the lay view known to their partners in the hierarchy, who have responded appropriately. I hope that the church is stronger, has a more powerful spiritual voice in a world that needs it, and that I will be able to give thanks for these wonderful changes while playing golf in Ireland.

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April Epiphanies

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life  June 2002

April 2002 was another riveting month in the gathering crisis of our Church. At Maynooth and Rome high level conferences occurred whose subject matter was the problem of clerical child abuse. In the statements that emerged from both there were abject apologies and firm assurances that leaders who had been remiss in the past would do better in future.

Unmentioned in these was a far greater scandal that future church historians must record. It was not the pain of sexual abuse itself that had prompted these conferences – for this had occurred long before – but media exposure of subsequent administrative abuse by bishops – abuse which had caused additional, unnecessary and even graver suffering.

Church historians must therefore record also that in April 2002 the leaderships of the Irish and American churches – and even the Papacy itself – lost their moral authority. For if it is to the secular media we must look to make our leaders even partially accountable, what does this say about their own unforced sense of moral obligation to their own flock? What does it say also about the church system under which these leaders have received and exercise their responsibilities, and to which they still resist any change?

The point needs to be made with absolute clarity. In April 2002 the whole population of this planet saw the highest leaders of the Catholic Church respond not to the accumulated wrongs of Catholic lambs – but to secular media exposure of these.

All of the facts the media revealed were already known to at least some of the highest administrators in the Irish and US churches: it was public presentation of those facts – sometimes by the victims themselves – that precipitated public expressions of remorse and atonement from those bishops, and galvanised the papacy. Their public remorse, scandalously, did not precede their public exposure. It followed it, and was therefore wholly unconvincing. Further, that exposure was achieved not by some internal Catholic checking mechanism, but by the BBC and the Boston Globe, entirely secular agencies.

Until those facts are recorded and addressed by the church at the highest level it follows inexorably that we Catholics must expect to continue to see our church’s accumulated dirty linen washed periodically in the full glare of the global media. Eight years ago, following another BBC documentary on Brendan Smyth, another Irish churchman resigned, the Abbot of Kilnacrott, Kevin Smyth. In that case too it was the secular world that had belatedly taught basic Christianity to leaders of the Irish church – but that fact and its significance went unrecorded by the Irish hierarchy. If it passes unobserved this time we Catholics can expect to see, by about 2010, the next great Irish Catholic embarrassment.

No improved set of rules and guidelines on any specific issue can affect this, because the basic flaw of the system that pertained in 1994 is still there today, and still has not been even mentioned by the leadership – that to the bishop alone all responsibility for following any guidelines on any matter are still entrusted. Every bishop remains his own sole guardian, so a flawed bishop still has the very same power to be unjust – and the only recourse of the lay person for protection and vindication in that event will be to secular agencies still. The Church as a community can still guarantee the wronged lay person no protection or vindication by his own church: we must look still to the secular world for these.

It follows from this in turn that the sense of our church as a moral community has been dealt a damaging blow by the current church leadership. For if secular structures are a better guarantee of justice from one’s own church – and its leadership shows no sign of noticing this – how is it possible to argue that God walks with them, guiding and advising them?

Another deeply counter-evangelical conclusion has been drawn from April’s events by many supposedly unsophisticated Catholics: that the status and dignity of the lay person in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy generally is inferior to the status the lay person enjoys as a member of his secular community. And there is very good reason for this conclusion.

Why otherwise would Marie Collins have had to wait for a media furore in April 2002 to win for her the apology she was clearly due years earlier, and certainly no later than 2001, when she had presented the very same facts? Why otherwise would Colm O’Gorman and the other young men whose story precipitated the BBC program of March 2002 have had to wait until then for the resignation of the Bishop of Ferns, and for the Maynooth conference that followed? Why else would the rest of the Irish Catholic laity still lack an opportunity to put, as members of the same church community, their own questions about this and other vital matters to their own bishops?

To put it bluntly, why must an Irish Catholic, in almost all dioceses in Ireland, become a media person to put a public question to a Catholic bishop?

The answer seems to be that many of our bishops see us as persons of equal dignity only after the media have established that status for us. Until then we are simply ‘the simple faithful’ whose obligation is silent loyalty – mere faces in the applauding crowd.

Convinced as I am that my church does indeed stand for the equal dignity of all – and that it must say so not just verbally, but in the way it administers itself, I say, again, that the aristocratic structures and style of the hierarchy, which allow no internal check against hierarchical malfeasance and arrogance, must change. Pope, cardinals and bishops must stop and ask themselves why it is that the secularism many of them detest offers a better prospect of justice, and dignity, to a Catholic lay person than the structures of the church itself.

It would be entirely naïve to suppose that this has anything to do with a higher secular morality. It results from the simple fact that power in the secular world is distributed, not concentrated. Although secular Ireland is, in fact, very corrupt (as we were also reminded in April by a report from the British Rowntree Foundation), there are mechanisms for discovering this, and media independent of government flourish by this discovery. As we also saw in April, a politician who trespasses on the independence of a judge can be called to account, publicly, by the judge in question, with final consequences for his career.

But no such separation, and no such freedom of information, is possible in a church whose hierarchical culture still owes most to the European ancien regime, very little to the Gospels, and nothing at all to the past three centuries of administrative and political science. Even after the Vatican conference of April it was clear that the Pope considers renewed holiness to be the only solution to clerical malfeasance. But if divine grace did not prevent the most appalling injustice being done by priests and bishops in the past, and if the small justice eventually done is owed to the separation of powers in the secular world, hasn’t God now clearly spoken? Mustn’t there be a separation of powers (which does not mean a separation of doctrine also) – and freedom of information – in the Catholic Church?

How this might be arranged without imperilling the unity of the church is a matter for serious thought and prayer by the whole church. At the very least it demands the existence in every diocese of an independent body, with lay membership elected by and therefore answerable only to, the laity. This body’s remit should include the posing of questions for the bishop from any member of the laity, and, where appropriate, the publication of those answers to the whole diocese. It should include also oversight of clerical appointments and financial administration. Its membership should include also people of expertise in matters such as education, law and psychology, co-opted by the elected membership, in an advisory role for the whole diocese.

To argue that any such arrangement would damage the church is to close one’s eyes completely to the appalling damage already done by the concentration of power and responsibility in the hands of one person. The church’s present system of governance is a global scandal that makes the very idea of an apostolic succession seem ridiculous. True, we do not yet know what the findings of the state inquiry into the events in Ferns will be. However, there is already more than enough evidence from events throughout the world to convince any balanced observer that the day of the aristocratic bishop, monarch of what little he now surveys, must pass into history.

Catholic self-respect, justice, communication, participation and renewal, now demand that responsibility in the church be shared by, and discussed by, the whole church – including those entrusted by Lumen Gentium with the consecration of the secular world to God – the laity. Otherwise the proposal that our church can play any part in re-evangelising Ireland and the West will continue to receive, and to deserve, a hollow laugh – not just from the secular world, but from all Catholics also.

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