Category Archives: Vatican II

St Mary’s, Dunboe on YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I wasn’t ‘entrapped’!

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

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

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

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

Jim quotes Stephen Price as writing that:

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

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

What am I hoping for now?

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll see – as my Mum used to say.

Views: 35

‘A Lost Tribe’ – a story that should not have ended this way

I had the most eerie feeling on first scanning the back-cover blurb of this novel.* Not only would the story’s narrative arc begin in Dublin in 1962 (with seminarians hopefully watching the opening of Vatican II in Rome on a just-arrived TV set): the author is now parish priest of Rathmines, Dublin.

My frisson had to do with the fact that not only was I confirmed (c.1954) in Fr King’s own parish Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners (by none other than the ‘High Command’ of the novel, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid) but that I might have mingled at UCD with some of the seminarians who inspired his fictional protagonists during those years of the Council.

Very much influenced by the Council, and by some of the clerical personalities who taught in, or visited, Earlsfort Terrace at that time, I was immediately agog to discover how the novel would treat of such encounters and then explore the intervening decades.  By what fervent early reformist convictions would his protagonists be gripped, and what would happen to them?  Something obviously had ‘gone wrong’ for that generation of budding Dublin priests – for the story to end in the ignominy of 2009 – but what exactly had that ‘something’ been?  What passionate arguments and dramatic defeats had transpired after 1965 – to compare, perhaps, with the bitter Parnell dispute in Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist‘?  What would the novel have to say of clerical interchange with lay people, during and after the council – to test the boundaries of what was possible en route to implementing the baptismal principle of the equal dignity of all within the church, and the theological truth of the Holy Spirit who blows where God wills?

To ‘cut to the chase’, this novel hints that Vatican II was already doomed in Dublin by the time that generation of clerical students had been ordained.  None of the clerical characters of this novel develops a passionate vision of the potential of the ‘merely-baptised’ – enlivened by the Holy Spirit – to change not only the church but the secular culture of the time.  (One Charles J. Haughey was also an up-and-comer then, and sometimes visible in the environs of Kildare Street, St Stephen’s Green and Earlsfort Terrace.)  One character dismisses the thought of ever ministering to the inhabitants of a Dublin tenement, and there is not a single counterpointing reference to Catholic social teaching by any character at any stage in the story’s arc. Not even in those council years did one of these fictional  students make contact with a lay person of theological bent – and not once afterwards is there an episode of clergy-lay interchange or experiment on what might have transpired for Vatican II by way of hope.

The absence of any slight reference to Lumen Gentium 37 is also deeply poignant.  That article of that Vatican II document predicted for my generation the creation of church structures through which lay people would make their pastoral needs known to their pastors.  It was the complete absence of any such structures that doomed the Dublin archdiocese – and all of the country – to the total disgrace of the Murphy Report over four decades later.

Instead this story is about just three clerical types:  the sharp-eyed and sometimes toadying careerist bent on high academia or Rome; the diffident also-ran, too unsure of himself to rise above the role of dogsbody-to-the-bishop; the refugee-in-waiting for whom ‘change’ meant essentially a hoped-for and never-arriving end to mandatory priestly celibacy.  None of these was ever likely to challenge the High Command’s 1965 dismissal of the relevance of Vatican II for Ireland.

So, although careerism and Rome often get the blame for ‘what happened’ in Ireland after 1965, this novel strongly suggests another possible contributor:  that this 1960s generation of Dublin seminarians – despite what was also happening in Dublin and UCD at that time –  simply never caught – with any life-changing passion – what Vatican II envisioned for the transformation of the role of the ‘merely-baptised’ within the church.

Never in this novel does any of the characters encounter a lay person of the vision and Christian commitment of  the RTE personality Seán McRéamoinn – or even a clerical visionary of the calibre of a Joe Dunn, an Austin Flannery or a Fergal O’Connor.  All four of these men were meeting (re the Council) with some UCD students at that time, where the documentary producer Joe was also chaplain and Fergal a lecturer in philosophy and politics.  Austin, also Dublin-based, was a translator of the Council documents into English and a convenor of ‘Flannery’s Harriers’ – a discussion forum that included, for example, David Thornley, the TCD academic and Kevin O’Kelly of RTE.  None of King’s characters – some of whom travel to UCD in pursuit of degrees in Arts or Philosophy –  falls in with anyone who reminds this 1962-66 UCD alumnus of any of these men or of the deeply committed philosophy student Denys Turner, whom I also knew.  (Denys later became a leading academic in the UK.)

All of the most serious interchanges in this novel are therefore confined to proto- or actual clerics (with the exception of personal interchanges between the central ‘dogsbody’, Galvin, and his female romantic confidantes).  The overall pattern impressed upon the reader is of a hermetically closed clerical world that no one on the inside could or would seriously attempt to open to the wider Irish world, to let the merely-baptised in.   Moreover, neither Galvin nor any other character ever reveals any abiding theological questioning or conviction of his own in the seminary, or any moment of theological or spiritual epiphany thereafter.

The novel is therefore a tale that could have only one possible ending.  The careerists toe the Humanae Vitae line after 1968, themselves helping to end all prospect of ‘change from the top’.  The academics do the same in hope of a diocese – or else languish in seminaries and colleges.  The dogsbodies keep their noses to a pre-shaped grindstone and then go to seed or to dementia in rural parishes – or succumb to (or get the blame for) clerical child abuse (or the ‘cover up’).  The refugees take flight, sooner more often than later, and disappear without trace.  That fictional seminary of “St Paul’s” left no one in this novel with a fire-in-the belly that was sufficient to the challenge of staying put and fighting seriously for Vatican II.  That would certainly have been a losing fight, but no theological passion ever even surfaces in this story to precipitate a confrontation over Vatican II: we are always dismally distant from any prospect of an Irish Pentecost.

Perhaps, of course, William King has written – or has still to write – another novel, about a true Vatican II ‘rebel’ of that era – someone for whom a seed of Christian commitment and passion survived the deadening influence of the ‘clerical club’?  I was impressed enough by this novel to want to find that out.  This one was instead for me at different times amusing, moving, bitterly disappointing and deeply tragic in roughly equal parts.  I learned from it that I need to be more sympathetic (and prayerful) for what remains of that 60s ‘club – but I am left feeling that I was deeply naive in leaving Dublin in 1966 with the firm conviction that radical change would come inevitably in my own lifetime.   If this particular novel is historically representative and reliable, that Catholic clerical club in Dublin in 1962-65 was doomed from the start to remain an unhappy simulacrum of the ‘rat race’ it might instead have been ready to change for the better – until that shut-out external world ran out of any interest in maintaining it.  A true Christian communion of all of the baptised was never on any fervent clerical agenda in 1960s “St Paul’s”.

Sean O’Conaill, 3rd Nov., 2017

Views: 10

The Spirit of Vatican II

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  September 2012

What exactly was ‘the spirit of Vatican II’? Ignorant voices are sometimes raised these times to misrepresent it merely as the spirit of 1960s secular liberalism. This trend has led to an even more dangerous and unjust one: to blame ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ and those who speak of it for ‘all that has gone wrong’ since.

This Catholic did his Leaving Cert in 1960, and was at UCD when news of the council broke. I remember vividly what the spirit of Vatican II meant to me. In essence it was the spirit of confidence, love and hope that led Pope John XXIII to call the council in the first place. It was also the spirit led him to support the movement among so many bishops to abandon a quite contrary spirit – the spirit of fear, chauvinism and triumphalism, of anathemas and overbearing paternalism, that had tended to dominate the governance of the church in the nineteenth century. It was also the spirit that led Pope John XXIII to visit a Roman prison and speak off the cuff about the equal compassion of God for all of us.

It was never a spirit of heady conformity to 1960s hedonism. I never associated ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ with the so-called ‘sexual revolution’, or with the naivety of ‘all you need is love’. It was a spirit that called me instead to discipleship, and therefore to discipline also. It was a call to maturity, to responsibility, to holiness (i.e. to prayer, goodness and kindness), to joy, and to learning. And it was a call to every baptised Catholic.

I felt confident in the world Catholic magisterium of that time, despite the obvious fact that so many Irish bishops harked back to the fearful and controlling paternalism of the pre-conciliar period. As a young teacher after the council I felt sure that the spirit of the council would soon prevail in Ireland also, especially through dialogical and collegial church structures that would arise inevitably out of Lumen Gentium Article 37.

And so I am certain that ‘all that has gone wrong since’ is a result of the failure of the Catholic magisterium to maintain the spirit of Vatican II – that spirit of hope and confidence and equal dignity in the church. Above all it was the result of a betrayal by the magisterium of not just the spirit but the letter of Lumen Gentium.

One illustration will suffice. According to Lumen Gentium 37 (1965) Catholic lay people would be “empowered to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church” …. “through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose”.

Let’s suppose that had actually happened in Ireland, say in the 1970s. If there had existed in Ireland truly representative and open diocesan and parish forums from the early 1970s, would the parents of Irish clerical abuse victims of the late 70s and 80s and 90s have had to rely from then on only on the integrity of secretive Catholic bishops and their underlings to protect other Catholic children? Could, for example, Brendan Smyth have continued to run rampant through Ireland until 1993 – if Irish Catholic lay people had learned much earlier the confidence to question their bishops openly on administrative matters, ‘through structures established for that purpose’?

Now in 2012, the CDF’s “promoter of justice” Mgr Charles Scicluna tells us that in this matter of child protection ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’ None of us would have needed telling of this if the magisterium had held on to the spirit of Vatican II, and implemented its letter also.

Yet the summary report of the Vatican visitators to Ireland makes no mention of Irish bishops being accountable to their people! The magisterium’s clock is still stuck in 1965, still stuck in Curial fear of any Catholic assembly it cannot control and manipulate. What an ocean of tears has been shed in consequence!

And the letter of Lumen Gentium remains unhonoured to this day. Whatever spirit has determined that, it isn’t the spirit of Vatican II. It isn’t the Holy Spirit either.

Views: 6

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: VIII – Division in the Church

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

“Where in the Gospels does the Lord say: ‘Thou shalt be right?'”
Fr Richard Rohr O.F.M.

When I was going through Catholic secondary school in Dublin in the 1950s I was never taught that there could be serious disagreement within our Church. The notion that there could be different schools of thought in an infallible institution never surfaced.

The often-repeated phrase ‘the church teaches’ implied that it could speak with only one voice – on everything.

The intention behind this ‘single voice’ theory of the church was to reinforce for us young people the church’s authority. Our teachers thought back then that if the church was believed to have just one voice – on everything – we would then know exactly what to believe. The church was a rock – and all the atoms in a rock move together, like well-trained soldiers. There was a fear that if we all started thinking for ourselves the rock would crumble into dust.

However, the effect of this kind of education was to send my mind to sleep. If all of the most important questions had already been answered by theologians and philosophers long dead – and those answers were now as fixed and final as the multiplication tables – then what could I ever hope to discover for myself? I went to university in the early 1960s expecting, with no great enthusiasm, to have the dull certitudes of secondary school reinforced.

Instead I found people of my own age arguing over virtually everything – and my mind woke up.

And then I learned that in a great council of the Catholic church taking place at that very time in Rome, there was deep disagreement between conservative and liberal church leaders and theologians. I became totally fascinated by those disagreements, and tended to take the liberal side.

I have never since lost that fascination, and never stopped thinking about the great questions the council raised. Had I gone on supposing that Catholicism was all about everyone thinking the same about everything, I would certainly have abandoned it long ago – because asking questions is obviously what our minds are for. And finding the answers – or at least some of them – for oneself – is by far the most exciting thing anyone can ever do.

I became a liberal then because I believed in freedom, especially the freedom to think my own thoughts. My main subject was history – and I loved the story of my own era – the story of the triumph of freedom and democracy. I was appalled that Catholic church leaders could ever have sided with the cause of an unequal society, ruled by aristocrats who inherited wealth and power. The God who freed the Jews from the Egyptians must surely be the same God who was at that very moment, through Martin Luther King, teaching African Americans to sing  Let My People Go and We Shall Overcome.

So I was deeply disappointed when Irish church leaders, led by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin, took a negative view of the council and told us that it should not disturb “the tranquillity of our Christian lives”. For me no pope since John XXIII has come close to matching his confidence that the Holy Spirit is busy renewing the church.

Yet now I find myself arguing vigorously with Christian liberals who go too far towards an accommodation with modern secular ideas, belittling the faith of past eras, and especially the faith of the earliest Christians. My questioning, and the deepest experiences of my life, have led me to the conviction that the fundamental statements made in the creeds are essentially true and need to be upheld: Christian identity and freedom depend upon them.

What is it that divides liberals and conservatives in the church?

The best answer I can come up with goes as follows. Conservatives hold to the notion of an unchanging church – a church that has always been the same. Changing anything means tampering with what we have received – and that is to endanger what God has given us.

Liberals insist the church must change if it is to survive. The worldview of the early Christians included beliefs that have been scientifically disproved (for example that the earth was fixed centrally in the universe, and everything else, including the sun, revolved around it). To hold to that worldview is to invite the ridicule of educated people, the liberals insist – so our Christianity must change to include what science teaches.

How Christians react to the word progress can often tell us which camp they belong to. Liberals have no problem with it, often terming themselves progressives. Conservatives, however, often associate progress with the abandonment of what they wish to retain. It is almost the equivalent of apostasy – the rejection of their faith.

Another key phrase to which liberals and conservatives usually react differently is ‘the modern world’. Conservatives want no accommodation with the modern world, because this too smacks of an abandonment of what the church has always been – a critic of the world. Liberals, on the other hand insist that if it is to survive in the modern world the church must adapt itself to that world – otherwise it will not be taken seriously.

I am now convinced that conservatives are quite right to complain about the modern world – and that liberals are perfectly correct to say we must adapt to it. Let me explain.

When Jesus said I have overcome the world I believe he meant that he had resisted the temptation to be a success as success was defined in that world: in military, political and religious terms. He was not to be just another David who would declare a new independent Jewish kingdom, and precipitate another war with Rome. He was a messiah sent to lead us – all of us – to a peaceful world that lies beyond any we can imagine – because our understanding of success is the acclaim of our own era , and our era – led by the media – will acclaim virtually anything.

To adapt our faith to our own era I believe that we must see the potential that contemporary culture presents for raising questions about the meaning of success today – understood especially as the acquisition of wealth and celebrity.

We must also do what true Christians have always done: challenge contemporary culture by identifying the human flaw of mere mindless conformity – and choose to be different.

We are at a moment in time when true freedom – Gospel freedom – is both possible and needed by the world. It is a moment when the minds of many people are open and searching. We must seize that moment.

One example of seizing the moment lies in the language of secularism itself. For example, many educated people today have been influenced by the ideas of a great psychologist called Abraham Maslow. His work on human motivation suggests that beyond the satisfaction of material human needs, and even the need for success, lies the need for self-actualization – the full realization of one’s personal gifts and potential.

There is absolutely no reason why Christians should not define this need in Christian terms. We need above all to become our true selves – the persons that God wants us to be – making full use of the talents he has given us.

In Christian spirituality, human gifts are not simply the possession of the one who has been gifted: they belong to the community also. To fully realize our gifts, and to become truly free, we must understand the freedom that lies in voluntary service.

And conservatives are right to insist that the church can never change: it must be centred on its founder. Yet liberals are also right to insist that the church must learn to speak to the modern world in a language that it understands – because Jesus would have done that too.

He would not have said “forget self-actualisation and seek salvation instead”. He would instead have asked: Can you truly fulfil all of your gifts without seeking first the greatest of all – the gift of love?

By a remarkable coincidence the word salvation is very close in meaning to the word salutary meaning conducive to health. And the word holy is very close to the word whole . We cannot be whole – self-actualised – or healthy , or saved , until we are centred upon the source of all love and all truth: the being we Christians know as God.

And while conservatives are right to insist that there can be no progress in moving away from the truth, liberals are right to say that we can make progress towards understanding and expressing that truth more clearly.

Stupid Christian evangelism – the kind that talks about being saved as though the meaning of that word had not been almost bankrupted by mere repetition – has done enormous damage to Christianity by failing to connect its convictions with the language, and thought, of our time.

How many saved people have we met who have a clear idea of what they mean by the word? They usually remind us of nothing more clearly than those daft young Chinese fanatics who waved the little red book of Mao Zedong during the cultural revolution in the 1960s.

I spent the first ten days of June 2004 in the close company of someone who has a completely different take on Vatican II – Tom Lennon, founder of United Christian Aid. Just a few years younger than I, he reacted strongly against the liturgical changes introduced after the council, and decided it was part of a vast Masonic conspiracy to overthrow the church.

I am quite convinced, on the other hand, that the theory of a global Masonic anti-Christian conspiracy began with elitist Catholic clerics who opposed democratic ideas – especially the idea of human equality – at the time of the French Revolution. To see Vatican II as part of a Masonic plot is, I believe, deeply mistaken, even perverse.

So I sometimes found Tom uncomfortable company. Yet I deeply respect him for something that we liberals too often lack – a commitment to helping people who do not have the luxury of being able to discuss great questions on the Internet or anywhere else – the poor of Eastern Europe. He founded a charity for that purpose, and gave me the priceless gift of an experience of that work.

Because I have spent time with Tom I now know why he did it. He believes that God is a pure spirit of love who wishes to rebuild the world on that principle. That, for me, is a Vatican II principle – so Tom and I can work together on that shared principle. All our disagreements are secondary to it

That, I believe, is why Jesus made loving, not knowing, the highest priority for all of us. He never told us to be right – to spend our lives amassing so much knowledge that we can tell everyone else where they are wrong.

Life is a pilgrimage that will end only when we die. An essential element of that pilgrimage is the road our minds travel, asking and re-asking the great questions. We must never suppose that we have understood everything, and must be constantly open to the questions and answers of others. To suppose that the point we have now reached is our final position – an exalted platform from which we can now criticize the ideas of everyone else – is to declare our pilgrimage at an end prematurely. There is always something more to learn – so intellectual arrogance is always unwise.

It is time we liberals and conservatives learned to continue our disagreements while we travel together as pilgrims, doing our utmost as we travel to lift the burdens that lie so heavily on others – co-operating for that purpose. It is time to put Christian love above everything else – even the need to be right.

Catholic conservatives and liberals will both be right if we obey the great commandment of the Lord – to love one another. We will all be wrong if we don’t.

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Defining Clericalism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Oct 2002

Betty is a widow in her eighties, living alone in a rural parish in the north of Ireland.  Contacting me after reading some of my work she tells me of her bewilderment with a succession of local clergy who have passed through her life since Vatican II.  One anecdote stands out.

Sometime about 1975 her young local curate came to call, with a visiting curate friend of the same age.  Her own priest drew the visitor’s attention to a picture of the Sacred Heart sitting in an alcove in her living room wall.

“Very nice,” said the visiting priest, turning to Betty “but if I were you I would take that picture out and put in a clock!”

What kind of mindset, I ask myself, would consider that a spiritually defensible sally – somehow reconcilable with basic courtesy and this man’s own pastoral responsibility?  What did it say about his attitude to women per se, especially older women?  What did it reveal about the reasons for the suspicion many lay Catholics had, and have, towards the changes that followed – and didn’t follow – Vatican II?

There is certainly behind it a presumption of the priest’s role as one of expert adviser in all matters of religion, as well as a presumption of Betty’s incompetence in such matters.  The relationship it was intended to establish was one of knowledgeable teacher to backward pupil – despite the difference in ages.  Humour, doubtless, was intended also.  This man was, perhaps, on the crest of his own conception of the new wave that had emerged out of Vatican II – and saw this particular devotion as one of the old wineskins that could not carry the new wine that he now carried.  Whatever that was, Betty has, understandably, no recollection.

For Betty remembers this sally for what it was – a gratuitous insult delivered by a priest in her own home.  Knowing as I do what the Sacred Heart on the wall symbolised for Catholic families of her generation and place – the gracious presence in the humblest home of God’s personal love  – I was totally at a loss to express what I felt.  Especially about the misrepresentation of what Vatican II had to offer people like Betty in terms of self-respect and spiritual affirmation.   The story will always remain for me a classic example of how the disease of clericalism could seek to exploit even all that was good and liberating in Vatican II, and, by emphasising the unassailable superiority of the priest’s own role, keep the Irish Church in a state of spiritual and intellectual paralysis.

I tell this story because another of my articles provoked an irate anonymous letter from another priest, who explained that my writing was an expression of nothing more than an irrational ‘spasm of anger’ working its way through the Church at this time.  Clericalism, ‘whatever that may be’, was not the problem.

Convinced that clericalism is the essence of all of the problems that now face us, I have wondered since exactly how I would define it.  Tentatively, and for wider consideration, I suggest this:  The abuse of priestly expertise and authority to maintain clerical dominance of the people of God, by maintaining the dependence and inertia of laity.

Betty also helps me map at least one of the typical stratagems used in this cause.  Called by all the hierarchy at one of the many peaks of violence in NI  to devise a public service for peace in the town, a good proportion of her parish assembled to hear the parish priest expatiate on this.  It soon became clear that he didn’t want such a service, for his address consisted mainly of the same simple sentence repeated at least thrice for emphasis:  “We pray in for peace, we don’t pray out.”

The crassness of the example helps to reveal the rhetorical stratagem:  the assertion of a logical antithesis where none exists – in this case between private and public prayer.  We can call this the use of false antithesis to undermine a project one dislikes.  Who will dare to question such an antithesis if a parish priest – with years of seminary training behind him – feels ready to place all of his authority behind it?

Betty, unwisely, dared.  “Why can’t we do both?”

The response was uncompromising and angry: “Mrs Doherty, you are naïve.”

The assembled laity didn’t agree, and said so.  They elected a committee that included Betty to devise such a public service, respectfully appointing the parish priest to convene this committee.  He never did so.  On one occasion, spotting Betty waiting to ask him why, he retraced his steps and left the parish church by another route.   No peace service was held in the parish on that occasion.

I do not need to emphasise the demoralising – the antispiritual – effects of behaviour such as this.  Intended to raise up, spiritual authority was used to do precisely the reverse – to deny the competence of laity even in so simple and innocuous a matter, and to blast the earliest shoots of lay initiative and maturity on the vine.

“Naïve” was an especially destructive term – aimed, Betty thought, at her own lack of the kind of education that had allowed the priest to arrive at the false antithesis he had so confidently stated.  So some years later when her diocese organised a course in Catholic adult education she eagerly signed up, attending weekly lectures over two years.

Then she took stock, wondering what use she might make of her new knowledge.  Anxious not to venture into controversial areas where she might conflict with the views of a new parish priest, she drew up a written summary of the more interesting things she had learned – including the archaic autonomy of individual bishops – and added some supplementary questions of her own.  She passed this on to the parish priest, asking for his confirmation or rebuttal of its contents.

He never either returned it or discussed it with her, eventually simply apologising, without explanation, for his inability to do so.  His attitude was one that told her that she was really a bit of an eccentric for bothering her head about such matters.

This story perfectly illustrates the bind that laity are in at present.  Anxious not to be disrespectful towards clergy, they find that their deference is pocketed as the priest’s traditional due – without reciprocal respect.  Yet if they challenge this, they instinctively feel sure that this challenge will be interpreted as disrespectful.  This is the root source of the deep anger that many laity now feel and express to one another – the fact that they are faced with a stark choice between their traditional infantile role of deference to clergy, and complete alienation from the church.  And this in turn reveals another element of clericalism – its tendency to regard the priest as the personification of the church, and the layperson as necessarily deficient and dependent – essentially a second class Catholic, and certainly not worth listening to.

These three stories outline the reasons for Betty’s present bewilderment.  What is her role in the Church?  How is she to confidently express her own faith, in her own environment?  What is the point of lay personal education if clergy cannot acknowledge it?

While incidents such as these occurred close at hand, Betty was meanwhile collecting press cuttings that mapped the national and international controversies of Catholicism, beginning about 1968 with Humanae Vitae.  She was sure that God was calling her to develop her own comprehension of her own role as a Catholic lay woman in her own parish, but bewildered by the failure of her local church and clergy to offer any scope for discovering this.  She wondered, and still wonders, why this was.

I would ask the hierarchical and clerical church the very same question.  As part of the high stone wall they have erected against any change, they sometimes poignantly depict the simplicity of traditional untutored Irish faith, and the danger of disturbing it.  Betty, in her eighties, is far more deeply disturbed by something else:  about being patronised and insulted by clergy whose whole concept of their own role was one that simply did not allow for the ‘radical equality’ the Church says it is in business to uphold.

Having had an often very different experience of clergy I can only empathise with her, and ask again for the revolution in secular clerical attitudes towards laity the whole church needs in Ireland if our churches are not to decay into discos and bingo halls.

At the core of such a revolution is basic integrity.  If the purpose of the Church is to raise the entire human race to an understanding of its spiritual dignity, why is this dignity not available now to lay people who have been Catholic all their lives, and who wish to gather together to discuss – with clergy – the radical problems facing their church?  Especially the prospect of radical discontinuity of the faith in the lifetime of their own children?

If there is a genuine fear of theological heterodoxy or even schism emerging from any such process, where is the faith of the clergy?  Those lay people I know who are most anxious to be active as Catholics have no driving interest in theological controversy.  They simply want the freedom to express their own grasp of the creed – that it declares that no-one is outside the love and compassion of God.  They greatly respect those priests who greatly respect them, but find the rest insufferable, whatever theological flag they travel under.

Another lay acquaintance from an urban setting describes a parish situation in which two priests are in constant rivalry with one another, but totally unaware of this as a spiritual failing.  Rivalry, arrogance and ambition are clearly as great a temptation for a priest as for anyone else – but this seems not to have been part of the training of secular clergy in Ireland.  Instead the bottom line seems to be: keep control – as though that was ever part of the Gospels.

Which means that many committed Irish Catholics cannot now confidently affirm the integrity of their own leaders.  Reconciled to a process of decay that must eventually deprive those leaders of the clerical power they still cling to, they wonder how long this will take.

Betty Doherty (not her real name, of course) has paid a high price for Father’s amour propre – her own diminishment and disillusionment.  I am sure there are many such in Ireland – many women especially.  They deserve documentation, as they too are the poor in spirit whose humiliation is the price of the egotism of the world.

Clericalism in the end is simply priestly worldliness – the priest’s use of his office and expertise to flatter and empower himself.  Our church will never be free of it – or healthy and renascent – until it is faced, acknowledged, and repudiated by clergy themselves as a distortion and diminishment of their ministry.

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“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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