Category Archives: Sexuality

A Reckoning on Catholic Clerical Abuse? Seriously?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When and Why did Secrecy Begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Views: 198

Sexuality, Nature and Justice

How should we Catholics react to the presence of anyone involved in a same-sex marriage in any role of ministry in our church congregation?  Here I presented a very personal view.

Activist ‘forced’ lesbian couple to leave roles in church choir. So reported Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times on September 9th 2016. Less than five hours later, this headline had been replaced with Lesbian couple to retake church roles they were ‘forced’ to leave.

As such brief reports typically summarise and over-simplify a great deal of complexity, and I have no means of verifying the factual statements made in that report, I will refrain from attributing any of the reported ‘facts’ to any named individual. My purpose here is not factual reportage but personal reflection and comment upon a situation which we can regard as entirely hypothetical, as follows:

Person A, described as an ‘activist’, takes exception to the participation in a Catholic church choir, and in Eucharistic ministry, of Persons B and C – on the grounds that their gay civil marriage is contrary to Catholic teaching. Person A makes known this opposition in such a way that Persons B and C at first feel obliged to relinquish their membership of the choir. Sometime later they reverse this decision – influenced, it appears, by an unknown number of other members of the same church community who do not share Person A’s position.

The story is of interest to Catholics generally for the obvious reason that this situation could occur anywhere, posing (possibly) a clear challenge. We will all naturally ask ourselves ‘how would / will I respond in that same situation?’

Asking myself that same question, I place myself in the situation firstly of Person A, who becomes aware of the personal relationship of Persons B and C and their membership of the church choir in my own local church. What, if anything, do I feel compelled to do about this circumstance?

Yes, Persons B and C do appear to be in breach of a disciplinary position advised to us by the official leadership of the church – but is it not possible, even likely, that other members of the same congregation (and perhaps even I myself) are in breach of one or more other rules of the church, and that these other infractions could well be known to others present? As it is most unusual for anyone to take express exception to the presence of someone else in a church gathering, for whatever reason – even if that person is in some kind of ‘leadership’ role  – is this particular circumstance exceptional to a degree that obliges me to behave in an exceptional way?

On balance I strongly think not. For one thing, the official leadership of my church in Ireland has signally failed even to try to convince me that it has understood human sexuality as fully as this particular situation requires. No one yet has convinced me that the church’s ‘take’ on ‘natural law’ requirements regarding sexuality and marriage is binding in conscience – and none has ever entered into dialogue with me or anyone I know on the matter. (At 73, I have been a Mass-goer in Ireland all of my life.)

Furthermore, when it came to church management of other issues of sexual morality in the church – specifically clerical sexual abuse of children – huge injustices followed that have not yet been fully explained or healed. Had the principles of natural justice been followed in those circumstances, rather than the comparatively trivial matter of protecting popular trust in priestly celibacy, thousands of Catholic families throughout the Catholic world would have been saved from long-lasting trauma.

So the central question for me now in regard to all issues of sexual relationships is: ‘what are the requirements of justice here?’ Until the Catholic episcopal magisterium has also systematically addressed issues of sexuality and marriage under that criterion I will remain unconvinced by ‘natural law’ argumentation on matters of sex. (Instead, a US Catholic theologian who has systematically pursued that very line of inquiry has been censured – without any discussion, as usual – by the Holy See. That is in no way convincing either. * )

And knowing that the same bishops allowed priests guilty of clerical child abuse to continue to celebrate the Eucharist – without ever warning even the parents of those children who served on the altar – on what grounds would I feel compelled to complain about the presence of anyone in a same-sex marriage in the choir or in the role of a Eucharistic minister? How, in justice, could I do that? The question answers itself.

So, next, how would I react if someone else in my church community took such an action, leading to a decision by others to resign from any ministry open to lay people?

I honestly hope I would have reacted as others appear to have done in the case cited above: taken the trouble, firstly, to express disagreement with the action of Person A, and, secondly, to show solidarity with Persons B and C – for the reasons given above. I hope I would also take the opportunity to protest the total lack of opportunity to discuss such issues with clergy during the whole of my adult life – and to point out that this clear moratorium on dialogue has done untold damage to the faith and trust of so many families in Ireland, as well as to confidence in the said magisterium. For me, no ‘New Evangelisation’ can be effective in Ireland until that truly disastrous dialogical deficit is remedied.

Finally, I hope I would also take the trouble to oppose any move to ostracise or pressurise Person A into leaving my church community either, and to make known that opposition to Person A. When it comes to celebrating our central Eucharistic and penitential rite, all of us deeply need to embrace fully the principles of both mercy and inclusion – and to seize such ‘learning moments’ as a God-sent opportunity to begin the deep discussion that has been so disastrously delayed for so long. Person A also needs a hearing, and compassion – and this Year of Mercy surely requires of all of us a supreme effort to bear with one another as imperfect beings who are called, above all, to love.

* Margaret A Farley: ‘Just Love: A Framework for Sexual Ethics’ (Continuum, NY, 2006)

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Honour and Shame – and Ireland’s ‘Culture War’

“Galway historian finds 800 babies in septic tank grave”, reported the Boston Globe in early June, 2014. As it happened I was in Boston when this story broke, and was soon reading of the necessary corrections by the historian concerned, Catherine Corless.

Yes, close to 800 babies had died in a Tuam mother-and-baby home between 1925 and 1961, but only some remains had been observed by two boys as long ago as 1975, in an area that had once enclosed a sewage tank. The precise location of the rest of those remains is today unknown. Before we can assess as Catholics the full import of these events we must wait for the report of an Irish state-sponsored investigation of this and other similar establishments in the same era.

‘Culture War’?

The phrase ‘culture war’ originated in the United States – to describe especially the battle over the legalisation of abortion and the promotion of gay legal rights. Socially conservative Christians determined to exert pressure on the state to apply its coercive power against the principle of ‘choice’ in these areas are deeply embattled against those who believe the state should have no such role.

In Ireland over recent years an analogous ‘culture war’ has developed – focused especially on the responsibility of the Catholic Church for Ireland’s 20th century miseries. In Ireland too there are ongoing political battles over abortion and gay rights, and inevitably Catholicism is often scapegoated for all that was unjust in the recent past – as a means of undermining any residual hold it might have upon the present and future.

Resentful of this trend, and deeply hurt by over two decades of church scandals, some Irish Catholics are now inclined to hit back with equal vigour. ‘Blood libel’ is one Catholic commentator’s characterisation of the worst of the ‘Tuam Babies’ stories.

However, there is a real danger of a loss of balance here, and of a failure to recognise the genuine shortcomings of Catholic culture and practice in Ireland in the last century. This can very easily lead to a failure to recognise similar shortcomings in the present.

Why did Irish Catholic clergy collaborate in shaming women?

Why in particular was there no effective opposition by Catholic clergy in the last century to the social shaming of pregnant and unmarried women? Clergy then were far from slow in naming a wide range of moral defects, especially those in any way concerning the 6th commandment – so why the failure to indict a clear breach of the Great Commandment – ‘Thou shalt Love’ – in the treatment of those seen as failing in that area of sexuality? Why was the compassion so often shown by God in the Bible for the shamed woman not exemplified, vociferously and generally, by our clergy?

In the stories of Hagar the slave girl, of Susanna and the Elders, of the Samaritan woman at the Well and of the woman rescued by Jesus in the Temple, the inalienable dignity of the less fortunate woman is affirmed – so why was this never a major theme of Catholic evangelisation in Ireland? Why instead was there complete Catholic toleration, if not positive encouragement, of the shaming and scapegoating of unfortunate women?

And why was the generic evil of all shaming and shunning, so clearly identified in the Gospels, never strongly targeted in Irish Catholic clerical moralism? Why was it never noticed that the passion of Jesus is centrally about such shaming, expulsion and marginalisation – that the mocking of Jesus with a crown of thorns, and with crucifixion itself, is a divine exposure of the self-righteousness and lack of compassion, and deep injustice, that is present in all such practices?

Snobbery never a sin?

Recently in the Derry Journal Bishop Donal McKeown identified ‘greed and snobbery’ as the two human qualities he least admires. It was above all Irish middle-class Catholic snobbery – a ‘looking down’ on others – that lay at the root of the ostracisation of the unmarried and pregnant female. It is almost certainly today a continuing factor in the problem of abortion also – so why is snobbery never (in my long experience at least) a target of the homily?

The answer must surely lie in the clerical church’s too long alignment with social elites, in a deficient theological preparation for Catholic ministry, and in the male monopoly of the pulpit.

There is a treasure to be regained by recovering a theological understanding of the dimension that runs between social honour and social shame, so well revealed in the whole of scripture, and especially in the New Testament. It was especially the contemporary brokers of honour and shame in Jesus’ time – the Herods and the Caesars – who were to be exposed and overthrown by the wisdom and humility of Jesus, as promised in Mary’s prophesy, the Magnificat. By implication, all social presumption in the whole of human history is indicted and destined for overthrow.

Centuries of clerical alignment with social elites

The fault underlying all Catholic shaming of the unfortunate surely began with the church’s association with social elites, sealed in the fourth century by the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine. Only slowly, as Catholicism loses all privilege, are we separating ourselves from that mindset. We should surely now see the ongoing revelation of the shortcomings of so much of the Catholic culture of the recent past not as cause for resentment or animosity towards those who revel in it, but as an opportunity to identify the generic problem of social elitism, and to separate ourselves totally from it.

The worst mistake would be to focus solely on the injustices of the anti-Catholic campaign that is indeed being waged. There are indeed new brokers of honour and shame in 21st century Ireland, many clamouring unjustly on this medium, the Internet. There is indeed a tendency now among some to scapegoat Catholic clergy and religious for all that was wrong with Ireland in the last century and even this one. However, to fail to recognise the benefits of the loss of social power and prestige that has overtaken the church in this transition would be another disastrous Catholic ‘own goal’.

Social disempowerment was the role deliberately chosen by the church’s founder.  The church in Ireland will only begin to recover when it realises that disempowerment is a necessary condition of Christian wisdom. We will not be seeing the world as God sees it unless we can see it through the eyes of those today who still suffer social exclusion and marginalisation (for example, asylum seekers). That should be our primary learning from this most recent event, not the need for a new offensive in the culture wars.

Good riddance to Christendom

The recovery of Christianity in the West generally cannot begin until we fully absorb the lessons in humility that all scandals provide. What’s ongoing in Ireland is also ongoing throughout the West – the necessary demise of Christendom – that attitude of arrogant power that is the fount of all Christian scandal. Loss of all social power and vanity is the very necessary prelude to the recovery of what is truly greatest in our Christian tradition.

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Keeping it in the Family

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News  21 Nov 2013

Most unfortunately the verb ‘to teach’ is ambiguous.  The Oxford dictionary assures us that it can mean either merely to propose an idea or practice to someone, or, in contrast, to succeed in persuading someone to adopt that idea or practice.

The importance of this distinction for someone ‘teaching’ civil engineering will be obvious.  Here the teacher’s success will be judged not on mere presentation, but by whether the bridges and other structures designed by his students can be relied upon not to collapse.

So when Catholic church documents speak of ‘Church teaching’, which meaning of the word is intended?  Irish Catholics pondering the preparatory document for upcoming synods may well reflect on this conundrum, especially in the context of question 7a:

“What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood?”

For people of my generation the major ‘teaching’ of Humanae Vitae is fairly well known. It proposed that use of the contraceptive pill for the purpose of regulating births is gravely sinful and therefore to be abjured.  That much I certainly know.  However, do I know that this ‘teaching’ was sincerely and consistently supposed by Irish Catholic bishops to be capable of convincing Irish Catholics that they must actually adopt it in their conjugal lives, under pain of possible damnation if they did not?

On considered reflection, as a parent of four children conceived in Ireland after 1968,  I must answer definitely not.

This conclusion is not based primarily upon my own view of the inherent persuasiveness of Humanae Vitae itself.  It derives from the complete failure of the Irish Catholic magisterium, in the decades after 1968, to commune directly with their married flock, to convince us of the moral danger of ignoring it.

Had Irish bridges and other such structures been routinely collapsing in those decades, the teachers of civil engineering in our universities would surely have been vastly upset.  A national engineering emergency must then have been declared – and all failing engineers convened for intensive remedial education.  The highest engineering magisterium would surely have sat down directly with former students and patiently asked: “What was it exactly about not doing x, y and z that  you didn’t understand”.

In contrast, though knowing well for decades that their priests were not even attempting to convince us of the moral and eternal dangers of ignoring Humanae Vitae, our Irish bishops  preserved an astonishing and persuasive calm.  Very soon, even though everyone knew that they had been appointed partly for their own assent to Humanae Vitae, they conspicuously lost all interest in interfacing directly with their people on that issue (or on any other that might trigger awkward questions!)

It followed inevitably not only that their ‘teaching’ on Humanae Vitae came to appear merely  theoretical, but that their aloofness on all other issues could be understood in that light also.  True, some of them muttered darkly about ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ but they also continued to play bridge and golf, and to take foreign holidays.  If the supposed threat to our eternal salvation was causing them sleepless nights they kept this to themselves.

In 1994 our education in the authority of magisterial teaching on the family became complete.  In that year we learned for the very first time from infuriated Belfast families of the havoc wrought by clerical sexual abuse of children. Our bishops subsequently told us they had been on a ‘learning curve’ in dealing with it. Why this ‘learning curve’ should have been continuing since the Council of Elvira in the early fourth century – without bishops ever learning that this abuse is deeply dangerous to children, or ever getting around to warning us about the problem themselves – has never been explained.

That most Catholic parents have grown increasingly concerned about the remoteness of their bishops since 1968, about the radical transformation of our society during those decades, and about the virtually complete absence of opportunities for learning together as Catholic adults how to cope with all that, goes without saying.    That the separation between priests and people caused by that same remoteness now imperils the survival of the Irish priesthood and thereby the future of the Irish church itself, also troubles us all.

So now that we are – at last – consulted on how much Catholic magisterial ‘teaching’ on the family since 1968 has gotten through to us, some of us are as taken aback as those shepherds surely were by the appearance of angels in the heavens at the first Christmas in Bethlehem.  ‘How’, we ask, ‘can this be?  Were we supposed to be taking e.g. Humanae Vitae seriously all along?’

The essence of my response will simply be that our Irish magisterium has assiduously been teaching us since 1968 to rely for moral guidance more on prayer, on the Gospels, and on truly honest priests, than on themselves.  By their own studied behaviour they have made themselves as persuasive and indispensable as that long forgotten brotherhood, the Keepers of the King’s Whippets.

However, if, on the other hand, I am now to understand that Catholic bishops are not only ready to receive this news, but to challenge this state of affairs, I can assure them that they still have enormous latent power to do that.  All they need do is exorcise their own petrifying fear of learning about  these matters directly from their married flock – and realise that God, having designed us all to be sexual, does not become remotely as paralytic and incoherent as they do when we conscientiously exercise that privilege.

My honest recollection is that we stopped freely discussing everything together in about 1968, the year of Humanae Vitae.   Who knows, if the upcoming synods can change that we may soon be able to attend to what our bishops say they want to teach us with all the unaccustomed fascination of those ancient ancestors who once sat on grassy banks to listen, for the first time, to St Patrick.

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Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irish Civil Service Revolt of 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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Goodbye and Good Riddance to Irish Catholic Serfdom

Sean O’Conaill Doctrine and Life  October 2009

“And the darkness could not overwhelm the light.”

I now bless the hours I once spent memorising the prologue to the Gospel of John.  To sleep soundly these days, and to rise willingly, I need to remind myself constantly that many past generations of Christians have felt deeply oppressed by the crowding evils of their own times,  and faced the day armed only with scriptural grounds for hope.

All other grounds have surely has been taken from us now.  The tranquillity of Catholic Ireland, which Archbishop McQuaid insisted must not be disturbed on his return from the second Vatican Council in 1965, has been shattered forever by the Ryan report.  I was exactly one third of my present age in that year, 1965, and already convinced that the archbishop’s response to Vatican II was deeply mistaken.  But I had truly no idea of the scale of the living nightmare that so many children were living through in Ireland at that moment, under the care of the church.  It was a nightmare that our church had also surely the social doctrine, the moral obligation and the power to end at least as early as the 1960s, but did not.

Why not?  That must surely be one of the questions we must face.

Another question, equally challenging, is why it took a process external to the church’s own processes, to bring the scale of this disaster to light.  “Who will guard the guards themselves?” asked the poet Juvenal long ago.   ‘Catholic Ireland’ most surely ran on the premise that Ireland’s Catholic guardians needed no prompting from anyone to know their Christian duty of moral leadership, and to perform it fearlessly.  That confidence is now starkly revealed as hubris, the pride that comes before a fall.  And what a fall there has been.

What are we to do now, beyond praying?  That’s another question.   How many of us are left that still want to call ourselves Catholic anyway?  There’s another.

Convinced only that those who are left need to begin a quiet conversation about all of these questions, I offer for the purposes of self-orientation the following brief account of the historical sequence that led to the cataclysm we have all just experienced.  Like all such accounts it must be subject to challenge and revision, if others are so minded.

First, the role of the United States was surely crucial in this denouement.  It was there in the 1980s that the phenomenon of clerical child sex abuse was first made subject to discussion by the popular media.  That public revelation shattered the taboo that had always cast this phenomenon into the shadows.  It also gave a name to experiences that had been unnamed and hidden in Ireland.  Unprecedented criminal  prosecutions began (significantly first in Northern Ireland) which led to the first great scandal of 1994, involving the sexual predator Brendan Smyth of the Norbertine order.  It was but a few small steps then to the chain of events that led to the Ryan Report of May 2009.

And by the time news of the Ryan Report hit, for example, Australia, the fact that Catholic clergy and religious could sexually abuse children was already old news there as well – because the revelations of the 1980s in the US had led to mirroring revelations of the same phenomenon in many (probably most) other nations to which Catholicism had spread.

We now know that this phenomenon was recognised as a problem by the clerical church at least as early as 309 (the Council of Elvira).  So why did the chain of events that led to its public recognition begin only in the 1980s, in the United States?  Why had the taboo on even recognising the problem in public discourse been first broken there?

The answer lies surely in the unique society that had developed in the US as a consequence of the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1700s.  The Reformation had created in the North American colonies a religiously plural society at ease with its own plurality, and had therefore necessitated also a separation of church and state in the minds of those who gave the US a constitution in the 1780s.  Those circumstances had combined with the Enlightenment to produce in turn a separation of state powers, a free press, a deep belief in the value of freedom, and a conviction that every phenomenon, even the darkest, must be subject to scientific study and open discussion.  Only in such a climate of freedom, curiosity and confidence, could something as ugly as sexual abuse be forced into the light of day.

We Irish Catholics might now do no more than reluctantly acknowledge the world that the Enlightenment and the Reformation have created – a world that forces us to face matters we might prefer had remained hidden.  We might merely lament the passing of tranquil Catholic Ireland – that distant land of dreams, hidden pain and monstrous illusions – and ask no more of God than to comfort us in our twilight years, and to protect us from all other possible future shocks.

Or we might realise that it was never really healthy, or truly Christian, to live in an illusionary world –  and rejoice at our liberation.

Liberation above all from the falsehood that someone ‘above us’ always knows better than we do, and that if we are ever troubled in conscience about something in our society, we should sit still and be quiet and let someone else deal with it – someone who must surely know better than we do.

Cardinal Conway once suggested that Catholic clerical paternalism might be a problem in Ireland.  Tragically he did not pursue that thought and explain fully what he meant.  We have now surely been delivered from that comfortable scourge – for who will not question now the culture of mute mass acceptance of the always superior wisdom of Ireland’s Catholic guardians?  Having adjured us never to worry, and left us fearful to do anything church-related on our own initiative, they have left us now with no possible grounds for believing we should continue in that mode of being.

Was it actually sinful to believe that Catholic loyalty required above all our passivity and silence, our conviction that only in this way could the foundations of our church and our society be secured?  Something like that attitude surely paralysed the agencies of a free Irish state when children’s safety and happiness were at stake in the residential institutions.  “So Catholic they forgot to be Christian!” that’s one commentator’s summation.  We must now surely identify what it was in our Irish Catholic culture that prevented us from being truly Christian – and repudiate it as not truly Catholic either.

That despicable thing was, I believe, the obsequious residue of medieval serfdom – the habit of obligatory self-subjection to another human being, by virtue of his supposed rank.    For centuries under conquest and colonisation, survival was so dependent upon this habit of deference to those who wielded power in Ireland that it became almost instinctual – communicated to children by body-language alone.  Searching for influence and status under the late 18th century ascendancy it was logical, if not truly Christian, for an unrecognised Catholic hierarchy to expect the same deference from their laity.  And to rejoice in the foundation of Maynooth in 1795 as a bastion of resistance to egalitarian modernity.  The social leverage thus gained was tenaciously guarded throughout the following two centuries, and even buttressed by theological paranoia.  “Never question or criticise a priest!”  That was the essence of my teacher grandmother’s admonitions to my mother’s generation in Donegal in the first decade of freedom  – so how many would question Dr McQuaid’s advice to us all to remain tranquil in 1965?  Tranquil and docile we mostly remained, and disastrously in the dark.

Catholic clerical paternalism, and the moral serfdom it demanded, subtly deprived us Irish Catholics of ownership of our own consciences.  Conscience, we were constantly reminded, must always be fully informed before it acts.  That was the role of the bishop – to fully inform our consciences.  In this way Catholic loyalty, even Catholic conscience, became identified with self-subjection to clerical authority and the clerical point-of-view .  Matters of doctrine and matters of practical social obligation became fused together in our minds, insisting that any dissent, or even any questioning,  was necessarily disobedient and disloyal.   The almost total absence of regular opportunities for adult discussion and discernment within the church sent the same message.  With our consciences held in trust by men determined to maintain a cloak of secrecy over everything that might discredit clergy, we became morally paralysed and deliberately not-knowing as a people – and complicit in the degradation of disadvantaged children.  Moral serfdom became the highest duty of the Irish Catholic laity – and mute deference to clergy as solemn a duty as Easter confession.

And the ecclesiastical hierarchical system that was defended as God-given must as surely have powerless and degraded humans at its base as it had unduly exalted humans at its summit.

To his credit, Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor has publicly acknowledged that all the causes of the catastrophe revealed by the Ryan report need to be exhaustively and openly studied.    Although the Irish Bishops’ Conference has not yet explicitly supported that position, we can take comfort that such an investigation and discussion will take place anyway.  Irish Catholic paternalism, and Irish Catholic serfdom, have so thoroughly disgraced themselves that they can surely no longer prevail.

Now we must all surely  set ourselves to the task of discovering if there can be an Irish Catholicism that is purged of both, and truly worthy of the Lord of light, compassion, equal dignity, truth and freedom.   Thankfully there are many exemplars of true Christian service in our Irish Catholic tradition also,  for voluntary loving service and childish servitude are two entirely different things.  If we can all now pray sincerely for the wisdom to discern the difference, and cast off the historical fear of speaking our minds, Irish Catholicism can regenerate.

Views: 4

Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

“So why don’t we focus on this huge issue for a while, devise policies to deal with it and leave aside tangential issues for the moment?”

This was Vincent Brown in the Irish Times in April 20081Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08.  To his great credit his ‘huge issue’ was the awful problem of all forms of sexual violence, as quantified by the SAVI report of 20022The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.  If its figures are correct, about 1.2 million Irish people are victims – and, as Brown keeps reminding us,  we can’t really suppose that the scale of the problem has diminished significantly since 2002.

But it was the word ‘policies’ that caught my attention, because it seemed totally inadequate to describe what’s needed to get a grip of not just this but a whole series of related problems in Irish life.  A policy is something debated (often endlessly) by pundits and politicians, then promoted to win support,  and then (if adopted) resourced out of taxation.  Given the many claims on the latter in a ‘flat’ economy, given the low-tax climate that a healthy economy supposedly demands, and given the cost of, for example, intensive counselling and psychotherapy, no foreseeable state-sponsored policy on sexual abuse seems remotely capable of addressing the scale of what confronts us in Ireland, even if we isolate just this one problem.

And given the common connection between sexual abuse and the abuse of alcohol and other substances, it’s equally clear that any effective policy on the former would need to address the latter.  And given the connection between substance abuse and the low personal morale often caused by economic insecurity and relationship issues, can we really propose to solve any one such ‘huge issue’ in isolation?

Moreover, what about the moral momentum required to completely change an abusive lifestyle?  How can a policy devised at the state level reach the deepest core of an individual who is experiencing so radical and subterranean a challenge?  Effective state policies can indeed change our external environment for the better, but what about inner, deep-seated dysfunction that so often occurs within the privacy of the home?

In an earlier era in Ireland there would have been a very different kind of response to a crisis of the scale described in the SAVI report – and it would have originated with the church (understanding that term in the widest sense).  The nineteenth century temperance movement is a good example.  It is another reflection of the depth of our current social crisis that we have now apparently no alternative to secular policy to change our society radically for the better  – and that the churches seem incapable of providing that alternative.  (Especially if we focus these days on sexual abuse.)

But in fact political secularism – the atomisation,  rationalisation and politicisation of every problem – is very much part of the fix we are in – because it tends to disempower the ordinary individual in his own space.  Teaching us to delegate everything upwards to politicians and professional experts, it has virtually no power to engage individual citizens in a deep, voluntary commitment to behave honourably, and to join with others spontaneously in doing good, in their own space.  The recent debate on what to do about alcohol abuse and other forms of addiction in Irish life proves this conclusively, because we have not moved one step forward on that issue either.

What is required, then, to mobilise the moral idealism of a society, and especially of its youth?

The problem with the moral programme of the church as we have commonly understood it is twofold.  First, we have not fully grasped the compelling human and community reasons for the most important behavioural boundaries prescribed by our Christian tradition (e.g. the taboo against serious intoxication).  As a result we tend to resent God for making rules that don’t make sense.  We tend to suppose these rules exist for God’s sake rather than for ours – mainly because we mistakenly suppose that God shares our own basic tendency to be self-absorbed.

Secondly, because of this, we have not understood the connection between these boundaries and the church’s basic positive law – the law of love.

To resolve these problems we need to do two things.  The first is to wake up to what our daily news bulletins are telling us:  that all dysfunctional behaviour is abusive of others and of ourselves, and to recognise (i.e. to know anew) all of the most important moral boundaries in those terms.  St Thomas Aquinas’ profoundest observation – that God is not offended until we hurt ourselves – applies to all sin, including sexual sin.  Our society is radically self-harming, and  we urgently need to reconfigure our understanding of sin in those terms .

The second vital connection is to understand why people self-harm.  Congenitally unsure of our own value, we become seriously dysfunctional if our society tells us we don’t have any.  And that is the message we receive daily when the media remind us that we are not important enough to be the source of the images we see.  The teenage girl who cuts herself or starves herself in anger at her inability to fit the ideal media-prescribed body shape unwittingly explains all self-harm.  Secular society (‘the world’) rewards the seeking of attention over the giving of it – and that is precisely why social respect, and self-respect – are so scarce.

And that in turn is why the Christian ‘prime directive’ is to love God first of all – the only reliable source of self-respect – allowing us then to love both ourselves and our neighbours, unconditionally, and to build a mutually respectful community.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that Jesus’ love for the poor was in fact a deep respect for them, as they are.  In teaching us the reverse of that – that respect can only be acquired by upward mobility, by changing ourselves in some way to win the approval of others – secularism both deceives and condemns us to endless frustration and self-harm.

It also disempowers us in our own space by telling us to wait for experts, delegated politicians and their civil servants to come up with a policy that will change everything that ails us.  This is the shell game of secular democracy:  ‘give us power so that we can solve all your problems, and meanwhile wait inertly for us to do so’.  We could wait forever.

To tell someone the reverse of that: that they already have the power, and the obligation, to love themselves and others, now and always, in their own space – and by so doing to change that space radically for themselves and others – is true empowerment of the individual.  And that is essentially what the Gospel is telling us.

Our inability to value ourselves as we are – to love ourselves – lies at the root of every one of the huge problems that secular politics patently cannot solve:

  • Addiction: (This is usually rooted in fear of failure, or in self-hatred or shame, and is best addressed by e.g. the twelve-step programme which restores a realistic and robust sense of self-worth.)
  • Environmental collapse: (The global pursuit of an unsustainable lifestyle is also driven by media-induced shame at not having what the wealthiest have.)
  • Depression: (The challenges of life in an individualistic culture can lead to a critical loss of hope and self-belief– because individualism also leads to a loss of supportive and affirming family and community relationships);
  • Inequality and injustice: (All desire to be superior arises out of a fear of being considered inferior.)
  • Violence: (This is also mostly rooted in competition for dominance out of a fear of inferiority.  Even the violence that arises out of addiction usually has its origins in shame and fear of failure, because that is where most addiction begins.)
  • Abuse: (Self-absorption and lack of empathy also originate in lack of self-love – often due to a serious deficit in early nurturing.  The person who deeply respects himself is most unlikely to disrespect others.  The person who has been deeply loved as a child is most unlikely ever to abuse children.)

There is therefore absolutely no reason for the hesitancy that has overtaken the preaching of the Gospel in Ireland in recent decades, for the common feeling that faith is socially irrelevant, or for the assumption that the future lies with secularism.  There is instead a dire need to seize the initiative by arguing that religious faith, accompanied by reason, can supply the only binding and compelling power available to us to deal directly with the problems of our own local environment as our crisis grows.

We are hindered in doing this presently only by our own inability to connect the Gospels with the problems of our own time and to realise the danger of a force every bit as dangerous as undisciplined sexuality.  This is vanity – the seeking of admiration.  It arises out of our natural inability to value ourselves as we are, and it lies at the root of the widest variety of evils, from rampant careerism (even in the church) to workplace bullying, and consumerism.   It also destroys community and family by leading us into individualism, social climbing and dysfunction.

It is the inability to make these connections that leads to the present chasm between church and society in Ireland.  Clericalism, including lay clericalism, deepens this chasm by fixating on the behaviour that the priest regulates in church, and by disregarding what is equally important – the individual lay person’s role in, and understanding of, the secular world.   We have almost lost the connection between a healthy spirituality and a healthy community, and Catholic education and parish life too often fail to restore that connection when we most need it – when we are adults.

Sadly, although love is not lacking in the church, and many Sunday homilists do indeed convey the importance of love, few ever explore the pervasive pursuit of celebrity in modern culture, or the reasons for it.  I have yet to hear a good homily on the problem of vanity, as revealed in, for example, the debates among the apostles on which of them was the greatest, and in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  No one ever notices the particular problem of the second son (he supposes he will never have the status his father enjoys while he stays at home).  And invariably the reluctance of the rich young man to follow Jesus is supposed to be all about loss of money and security, never about loss of the social status that wealth always provides.

Almost certainly this strange inability to ‘get’ such a constant theme in the Gospels  has to do with the fact that the church is still emerging from a long period of clerical social pre-eminence.  But, now that this period is at an end in the West, why is institutional Catholicism still very much a status pyramid, despite the insistence of Lumen Gentium and Canon Law that we are all equal in dignity?  Do our seminaries fail to ask this question (and to point out that the Gospel answers it) because they too are status pyramids of a kind?

It is time we all understood what was going on in the Gospel when the apostles competed for status – and almost came to blows.  And noticed also that spiritual health always involves a deep consciousness of one’s own dignity and a loss of fear of what others may think. Only when we have understood the vital community role of spiritual health, and of spiritual insight into what is wrong with us – and then commissioned our laity to rebuild their own local communities by loving one another – can we revive our church, and our society.

Notes

  1. ‘Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08
  2. The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.

Views: 11

After Ferns: Clericalism Must Go!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Jan 2006

“Bishops placed the interest of the church ahead of children …”
(The Ferns Report, Page 256)

Although everyone knows what Judge Murphy and his colleagues meant by this verdict on two former bishops of Ferns, there is something strange and contradictory – even outrageous – about it also.

First, those children, and their parents, were also full members of the church – so the church itself, as a society of human beings, was grievously harmed by what those bishops did, or failed to do.

Second, the Irish Catholic church, as a community of faith, has never been so grievously hurt – not even by the Cromwellian persecution. If we cannot trust that our bishops – whose banner is ‘the faith’ – will put the basic law of the church before everything else – the law of love – then our faith too will be deeply challenged. Had those bishops deliberately set out to injure ‘the faith’ they could not have been more effective.

So, if it wasn’t ‘the church’, what interest exactly was it that those bishops placed ahead of children?

It cannot have been Catholic teaching, because the church has always taught that the family is the basic social unit. For over four decades now it has also taught that all are equal in dignity. In favouring erring priests before children, those bishops were denying, not upholding, strict Catholic teaching.

What interest was it, then, that they placed ahead of children?

We discover what it was by reflecting that it had to do not with revealing the truth, but with concealing it. What was it that was concealed?

We all know what it was now – because the Ferns report reveals it beyond question.

Catholic ordination – the distinctive badge of Catholic clergy – does not guarantee sinlessness or virtue in those who receive it.

Most importantly, ordination does not guarantee sexual abstinence – true celibacy – to those who receive it. It is clear now, in fact, that some of our clergy have sought ordination precisely because it has allowed them to prey upon children, sexually.

It is clear also that, faced with this reality, bishops have, far more often than not, sought to conceal that truth from the wider church – as though it was diametrically opposed to faith itself.

Yet nowhere does the church officially teach that the sacrament of ordination is a guarantee of virtue, or even celibacy. That odd notion has always been contradicted by experience anyway. Yet, for some strange reason, bishops have nevertheless felt obliged to preserve it – at the expense of children.

The reason is clericalism – the felt obligation, transmitted for centuries in the culture of the church, to uphold the myth of the moral and intellectual superiority of clergy.

Clericalism is the root of the Catholic clerical child abuse scandal – for three reasons.

First, clericalism empowers the abusive priest and disempowers his victims. This is proven by many of the stories told in the Ferns report, reflected in the summation on page 261:

“Frequently it is the respect in which the abuser is held which affords the opportunity of perpetrating the crime….”

The unquestioning respect in which clergy have been held in Ireland rests squarely on clericalism – taught to children by the attitudes and behaviour of their parents and teachers. Put simply, the priest was the man of God, the one closest to God whom the child should trust implicitly to give access to grace, the gift of God.

Clericalism deliberately cultivates an attitude of deference to clergy. Deference – the habit of submission and compliance – gave abusive clergy virtually total power over their child victims.

Second, clericalism gave abusive priests power also over the families of those children. Irish mothers especially have tended to feel honoured that any priest would “take an interest in our Johnny” – even if ‘Johnny’ was asked to stay in the care of the priest overnight. It could not enter parents’ heads that the priest could do any harm – illustrated in the poignant story of a mother who denied to the Ferns inquiry that an abusive priest could have molested her daughter, even though he sometimes occupied the same bed!

Why could it not enter their heads? Because Irish Catholicism has so far not properly distinguished between faith in God and faith in clergy. For far too many Irish Catholics, to doubt the priest was as grave a sin as to doubt God – and our church leaders have found it all too convenient to leave this confusion intact. It is the root of Catholic deference – and deference is – or rather was – the root of much of the social power of the clerical church in Ireland.

Third, it was clericalism also that presented the bishop with the opportunity, and the obligation, to protect the myth of clerical sinlessness. It gave him that opportunity because it always counselled lay people to give the priest – and the bishop – the benefit of any doubt. It gave him the obligation to do so, because the power to which the bishop believed himself to be above all accountable – the papacy – is clericalist also – intent on ruling the church through clergy, and on protecting the myth of clerical sinlessness.

Nothing else can fully explain the virtually universal failure of Catholic bishops throughout the world to deal effectively with clerical child sexual abuse. Or the failure of the Vatican to deal with it also. Or the failure of both to give lay people the structures they have needed for forty years to develop their own role and mission in their own church.

Yet so far, regrettably, no Catholic bishop has identified clericalism as a primary factor in the problem – as the reason for the lack of integrity in our leadership. This is the real measure of the failure of the leaders of our church to grasp the nettle.

It is also the measure of the challenge facing the current papacy on this issue. It is of first importance for the recovery of the church that the myth of clergy be expressly contradicted in church teaching. We need, as a matter of great urgency, an encyclical against clericalism – an encyclical that will emphasise that faith in God does not require faith in clergy also – or deference either.

But there is the problem. The power of the church in the developing world is largely based upon clericalism also. Clericalism flourishes wherever there is a clear educational gap between the priest and the bulk of his congregation. And Rome tends to point to the developing world as evidence of the continuing health of the church – even to the extent of proposing that the priest shortage in the west could be supplied from Africa!

So it seems unlikely that clericalism will be tackled as a problem by the church leadership soon.

But meanwhile in Ireland, as elsewhere, we must develop a church culture that is safe for children. This surely must involve the warning of every child, at an early age, that no adult is to be deferred to when personal boundaries are at stake. To make sure the child is clear on what ‘no adult’ means, we must deliberately and expressly abandon the Irish Catholic habit of automatic deference to clergy.

Can our bishops rise to the challenge of telling us this? Will they be allowed to?

Who can say? Given the extraordinary slowness with which our bishops have learned anything in recent decades, it seems likely that there will be continuing tension between the needs of child protection, and the clericalist bias that has so endangered our children since Vatican II.

Catholic adults – lay and clerical – will need to pray hard to negotiate this minefield without further pain and grief.

However, there is great comfort to be gained in the realisation that although ordination does not guarantee virtue, most of our priests are virtuous anyway.

The reason is that they do obey the basic law of the church – the law of love. And pray hard for that virtue of virtues. That is why they are, mostly, genuinely loved by their people also.

Clericalism will not be needed to hold the Irish church together if we let truth and love, and prayer, and the sacraments, do so instead. If our bishops cannot rise to the challenge of teaching us this, we – priests and people – must rise to the challenge of teaching it to them.

For, whatever else may happen, the death of Catholic clericalism in Ireland is now assured. Our Irish Catholic church will either survive – and flourish – without it, or perish with it.

Views: 3

‘Towards Healing’ (2005): A promise that must be kept

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2005

[This article related to a short document published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in 2005.  This proposed that the whole Irish people of God would together address the many problems posed by all varieties of sexual abuse of children.  This proposal was never followed through.  It wasn’t even ever discussed with the Irish Catholic people, apparently falling victim to the abiding terror of their hierarchy and clergy about discussing anything relating to sexuality.  So the challenge posed by this problem in wider Irish society remains unmet by the largest denomination on the island.  The promise implicit in ‘Towards Healing’ (2005) still remains hollow in 2014.  SOC]

The Document Towards Healing, from the Irish bishops’ conference, arrived at an important moment. As a Lenten reflection it struck a welcome and conciliatory note of repentance. It included also a powerful appeal for the pooling of the resources and compassion of the whole church community to address the plight of all who have suffered abuse in Irish society.

Moreover, it stated the intention of the bishops’ conference ‘to publish further reflections on other aspects of this painful and complex reality’. It would therefore be both uncharitable and unwise to dismiss the document on the grounds of incompleteness. Far better to place oneself in the same Lenten spirit of repentance and humility, and respond from there – with a view to informing whatever future documents lie in store.

In that spirit we all need to accept fully that the vast majority of those who have been abused on this island have not been abused by Catholic clergy or religious. The scale of the problem of abuse generally, and many of the most lurid media-reported instances, tell us emphatically that power over others is misused by a depressing proportion of all who exercise it – including parents, employers, work colleagues – and adults generally in relation to children.

Moreover, in Ireland’s ‘culture wars’, instances of clerical child abuse have been placed on a special plane of obloquy by commentators anxious to denigrate the Catholic Church as a body, and to deny due respect to the many selfless clerics and religious whose lives are entirely exemplary. The fond and naïve theory that if we can but banish all Catholic belief and personnel from Irish society, all evils will be banished also, has driven many a tendentious media event in recent years.

At the same time, however, it would be an inadequate response to the specific issues of Catholic clerical child abuse, and of the hierarchy’s too frequent administrative failings in dealing with it, if we were not, as church members, to address the fact that abuses of power have occurred in our church also – and to do all in our power to understand and to prevent these.

It is regrettable, therefore, that this document does not repair the failure of all Catholic church pronouncements on this issue so far to state the most important facts about Catholic clerical child abuse. (By ‘important’ here I mean in the context of dealing most effectively with the problem, and of making Catholic children as safe as they should be.)

First, the power exercised by the abusing priest is too often connected with the special status of the priest in relation to the Catholic family, by virtue of the clerical church’s own typical representation of the priest as an iconic moral exemplar. To put this more simply, the child or young person has typically been taught to see the priest as an unquestionable moral authority – as, indeed, the final authority on right and wrong. The Catholic child’s, and young person’s, special vulnerability in relation to the priest has therefore been inseparable from the priesthood of the priest – and acknowledgement of this is long overdue. It is vitally important that Catholic children are taught, for their own protection, that Catholic clergy must not be thought of, or represented to children as, incapable of abusing power and trust, and that all adults must observe the same boundaries in relation to children.

As our most streetwise teenagers now know this anyway, it is foolish of our hierarchy to stop short of saying it. Surely they should explicitly advise that this practical wisdom be systematically taught in Catholic schools, and by parents to their children – in the context of separating due respect for clergy from the malady known as clericalism.

Second, while Towards Healing applauds the media for ‘bringing the sexual abuse of children into the public arena’ it does not seize the opportunity to acknowledge fully the hierarchical church’s own historical tendency to do the very opposite – systematically, and even as a matter of principle, to conceal the phenomenon, often at the expense of other children who might otherwise have escaped life-challenging injury. True repentance requires a full acknowledgement of error, and future documents on this issue must surely fully address this particular error – the error and sin of secrecy in the church.

It is difficult to see how the church leadership can do this without acknowledging the reason that lay Catholics must still typically look to the secular media, and to other secular institutions, for a full revelation of the abuse problem within the church. This is the absence of structures of accountability within the church itself, of personnel empowered and employed to represent solely the interests of those to whom clerical power will inevitably sometimes represent a danger – that is, the Catholic laity, and, especially, Catholic children.

In light of the four-decade failure of the church leadership to implement what was clearly implied by the documents of Vatican II, this is an especially serious shortcoming in Towards Healing.

To establish this we need only quote Lumen Gentium Article 37:

Like all Christians, the laity have the right to receive in abundance the help of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially that of the word of God and the sacraments from the pastors. To the latter the laity should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ. 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. If the occasion should arise this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose and always with truth, courage and prudence and with reverence and charity towards those who, by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ.

Mustn’t the repentance of our hierarchy fully address a failure that has turned out to be a critical factor in the development of all Irish church scandals since 1992: the absence of non-clerical agencies within the church that could have fully and effectively represented the interests of lay people and their children? Wasn’t it essentially the absence of such structures that ensured that it was solely to external secular structures that Catholic laity could look – and must still look – to seek full disclosure and redress?

There is another overpowering reason for making this point now. The call from our bishops in Towards Healing for a massive effort from the whole church community on behalf of the abused represents an enormous organisational challenge. What is the scale of the problem of all kinds of abuse in every diocese? How are we to determine this? What resources are already available? What will be the implications of a continuing decline in numbers of ordained clergy in addressing the issue? What new skills and aptitudes will be required? What educational resources will need to be deployed? How should this impact upon Catholic education and culture generally? Who is to co-ordinate all of this?

These and many other questions now demand attention. The absence of church fora in which these, and other issues could be discussed by ‘the whole church community’, is a stark inhibiting circumstance right now. The arguments for permanent diocesan and national synods or conferences are now more than compelling – they are irresistible.

Hopefully, a new administration in Rome will take the opportunity to address this problem immediately. Pope John Paul II’s call in September 2004 to American bishops to establish “better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility” should be seen as a green light in Ireland also, where relations between laity and hierarchy have suffered an almost equal shock over the very same issue – the maladministration of clerical child abuse.

To continue to ignore or deny the need for radical organisational change in the church would be to raise the most serious questions about the sincerity of the so-welcome spirit of repentance in Towards Healing. It would be another disaster if the document turned out to be nothing more than a diversionary stratagem, designed to blur and fudge the issues with which it deals, and to postpone addressing the issue of accountability within the church. Disillusionment over that too would be an even greater tragedy than everything that has happened so far.

To obviate any suggestion that Towards Healing seeks to distract the focus of Catholic concern away from clerical child abuse, the Catholic hierarchy must surely also make a far greater effort to show their concern for those whom it has alienated, especially victims of such abuse. It is not reassuring that when in February of this year I asked the Catholic Communications Office if Irish bishops had any idea of the scale of that alienation, or the proportion of those abused who had been reconciled with the church, I was given an answer that implied that the victims’ need for privacy precluded any such assessment, and paralyses even our ability to poll our own members. Future documents on this theme, and the proposed whole church response to abuse in Irish society, must surely address the need to convince the ‘whole church community’ that we care deeply about , and hope someday to be reconciled with, our alienated brothers and sisters. At present it would be difficult to find conclusive evidence that our church leadership has not simply preferred to forget them.

It is not reassuring either that Irish bishops still appear unable to discuss such issues freely with their people. For over a decade now no Irish bishop has felt able to come before a representative gathering of his flock to answer questions on these issues. A shepherd who is patently wary of his flock cannot inspire confidence and trust – and this inevitably impacts upon his authority also.

It follows inevitably that while Towards Healing must be welcomed as setting a new direction for the Irish church, many lay people remain to be convinced that Irish bishops generally possess the corporate will, and the clarity of thought, that are needed to lead us emphatically out of the present wilderness. It will take more than a single aspirational document to move the Irish church out of its present, dangerous, inertia.

However, the coincidence of Towards Healing with a change of pope presents an unprecedented opportunity to address all of these issues – and especially to accord to Irish lay people the dignity of full partnership in restoring the moral prestige of the Irish Catholic Church. It is an opportunity that must not be wasted.

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: IX – Catholicism and Sexuality

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

A great crisis is also a great opportunity: this truth has been well expressed by many of those who have responded to this series of articles.

And although the issue of sexuality lies close to the centre of the present crisis of Irish Catholicism, there is an unprecedented opportunity here also for a new beginning.

This assertion will surprise those who insist that Catholicism is fundamentally loopy on sex. They will point to the clerical sex abuse scandals, and to the fact that the Catholic leadership still seems totally bogged down with that issue. They will point also to the virtually total collapse of interest in the celibate priestly vocation among young Irish males.

But something else has happened in Ireland in the past decade – something the media do not highlight as they should. Ireland has also discovered the hollowness of the promises of the sexual revolution – the theory that easy sex is the high road to human happiness. Far from delivering a healthy society, the removal of all restraint from sexual behaviour has proven itself to be far more dangerous to the physical, psychological and social health of Ireland than ‘Catholic guilt’ ever was.

The evidence for this is all around us. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase, threatening the sexual lives and future happiness of thousands of young people. Family dysfunction and breakdown are also increasing, with incalculable future consequences for the children of unhappy and broken homes. The commercialisation of sexuality (redefining it as a mere recreational activity), threatens its power to bind us together in dedicated relationships of mutual service and trust. And the loneliness and misery that flow from all of this are feeding the epidemics of addiction and depression sweeping across the island.

Yet, in the midst of all that, many Irish families have remained strong – raising healthy, happy and balanced young people. And if we look closely, these families are often living proof of the power of Christian, and Catholic, faith, to create a context within which human sexuality completely fulfils its potential to draw people closer to one another, and to God.

Fundamental to most of those relationships is the fact that the church provides a public context in which sexual partners can make a solemn, lifetime commitment to one another. It provides also a continuing external support for their romantic attachment. The liturgy of the wedding mass often makes a deep and lasting impression, convincing the couple that God has blessed their union, wishes it to prosper, and will help to heal whatever tensions may follow.

Such couples often disprove in their own lives the theory that Catholic spirituality and sexuality are incompatible. They prove the very opposite – that the high valuation the church places upon sacramental marriage, lifelong fidelity and family stability, are perfectly in tune with the deepest natural impulse of the human heart.

For however much popular culture may have undermined the stability of sexual relationships, it has left untouched the romantic ideal of sexual partners finding complete personal fulfilment in a permanent, mutually dedicated and fruitful relationship. That romantic ideal remains the bedrock of popular literature, TV and cinema – however difficult it may be to attain in practice.

Placing this relationship within a context of Christian values and spiritual support makes more sense with every day that passes – especially now that we know that informal relationships are statistically far more likely to fail, far less likely to realise the romantic impulse, and far less protective of children’s need for a stable home.

It is within a permanent, dedicated relationship also that sexuality flowers most fully in its capacity for assisting full self-revelation, personal growth and intimacy. Without fully honest and open relationships the human soul can shrivel – because we cannot grow to full self-discovery and understanding on our own. To put it very simply, many, many Irish Catholic couples know that sexual desire can only be fully satisfied within a context of deep mutual love and commitment.

Many married Catholics have discovered that fact through their own relationships, and therefore possess the essential wisdom needed to counter the exploitation of mere sexual expression as an end in itself – the ‘do it now’ imperative that so threatens our younger generations. The tragedy is that, so far, the clerical church has made so little use of the wisdom gained by lay people in this so-important realm.

One perfect illustration of this is the extraordinary fact that no married Irish Catholic can deliver a Sunday homily on the Gospel story of the wedding feast at Cana, or on marriage itself. Thus, although Jesus so often chose the relationship of man and wife as a metaphor for his own relationship with his followers, Catholic married men and their wives are so far deliberately excluded from the most important Catholic ministerial functions, and therefore from the task of re-evangelisation of an over-sexualised culture. There is something fundamentally wrong, even ridiculous, about this.

It is wrong and ridiculous for many reasons. First, it puts celibate priests in the dangerous position of determining the Church’s rules on sexuality. We do not have to look any further for the root source of the scandals that now beset us, or for the alienation from the sacraments caused by Humanae Vitae. Scandal begins at the point where the personal life of a spokesperson for a cause falls short of the principles he urges upon others – and it is inevitable that this will happen a minority of clergy in the area of sexuality.

Humanae Vitae, which became the touchstone for promotion in the clerical church, has weakened the moral authority of the Church also – because it did not arise out of the sensus fidelium – the faith of the whole church. Allowing married Catholics to make use of Mathematics to regulate births, it inexplicably denied them the freedom to use Chemistry or Physics to do so – and this was never persuasive. If there is a medical case for such a policy (now that we know more of the dangers of specific chemical regimes), very few lay people were ever persuaded by the Church’s insistence that God would approve the use of a temporal barrier to conception (the infertile period), but send us to hell for employing a physical or chemical barrier. That argument made God himself appear to be a prudish nitpicker – like the tortured and unrepresentative clerics who imposed this decision on Pope Paul VI.

The separation between ministry and sexuality is wrong and ridiculous also because it exposes the whole church as a community to public ridicule when clerical sexual scandals occur. Irish Catholic bishops have still to measure fully the depth of embarrassment they have caused lay Catholics on the issue of sexuality – for example by appearing at times to argue that God would prefer a married Catholic male (perhaps made HIV positive by an infected blood transfusion), to infect his wife with Aids than to save her life by using a condom.

But the separation of ministry and sexuality is wrong and ridiculous above all because it prevents the Church from bearing powerful witness to the compatibility of Christian spirituality with a full sexual relationship. It virtually defines spirituality as asexual, and implies that sex is essentially sinful. This, I am convinced, is the root source of the alienation of so many Irish males from the Church, and the chief reason the clerical church has made itself a laughing-stock in Ireland on the issue of sexuality.

It follows from all of this that a full healing of relationships in the Irish Catholic Church – and a recovery in the public prestige of the church – must involve a revolution in the status of married Catholics – men and women – within it. Only then can the graces that have been given to many married Irish Catholics be put to work to revitalise the whole Church

Already the bishops of England and Wales have begun to realise this by beginning a process of consultation with Catholic families – to help them develop their own ministry. A similar initiative is long overdue in Ireland – but perhaps this is a good thing. Far too many so-called consultative processes in Ireland in the recent past have been mere cosmetic exercises, leading nowhere.

They led nowhere because the Irish Catholic laity have been deliberately deprived of a corporate structure and voice – a permanent structure of empowerment in, and ownership of, their Church which would have expressed fully the dignity of their lay vocation, and exploited the wisdom they have acquired by living it. Although we have a regular conference of Irish bishops, and another of Irish priests, there has never been a conference of the Irish laity. In the present context, where we have a highly educated, mobile – and often alienated – laity, that is disastrous and inexcusable.

And this is why many commentators in the secular media are supposing that with the extinction of the Irish clergy, the Irish Catholic Church will soon disappear altogether.

This is a mistake. The Irish Catholic family has always been the hidden backbone of the Irish Church. Over the next generation it will emerge to revitalise the whole church.

The agenda for such a movement is already becoming clear. Over the past forty years Irish people have virtually lost control of their own culture, due to media invasion. As a consequence the pace of change is being set by the fastest – those who mimic the lifestyle and mores of other cultures where commercial interests predominate. This threatens the Irish Catholic family to a degree that no-one can now fail to recognise.

It is time to begin a national movement to embody the strong desire that many lay people have to redefine their own values in Christian terms, and to reclaim their own culture – for example by setting together wise and balanced boundaries for teenage behaviour. No section of society has more to gain, or to lose, than Irish Catholic parents.

It is high time, obviously, for the Irish hierarchy to sponsor and support such a development. If they don’t, it will happen anyway – if only because there will soon be no reactionary clerical interest powerful enough to prevent it.

Views: 38