Category Archives: Sexuality

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: II – Clericalism

Views: 53

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

Jean Vanier1This article was written sixteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. tells the story of a young woman whose radiant happiness caught the attention of a visitor to the L’Arche community that was her home. The visitor asked Vanier why she was always so joyful. He explained that upon her arrival she had been assured that God loved her for herself. She had believed this immediately, and had never lost that belief. Like most L’Arche residents, she was intellectually disadvantaged but was nevertheless capable of lifting the spirits of everyone she met.

I suspect that most Irish Catholics who have weathered the shocks of the past decade will have done so for similar reasons. Their church gave them from the start a sense of their own dignity as beloved children of God and it is into this sheltering reality they retreat when the disasters of life threaten to overwhelm them. That shelter is maintained above all by those who have given themselves completely to its service – especially our priests.

Because the circumstances call for constructive criticism, I need to affirm here first of all my own unrepayable debt to the Irish Catholic priesthood. They did far more than provide me with a basic education. At key moments of my life individual priests have helped me to rise to severe challenges to faith and self-belief, and helped me grow way beyond my expectations. A few instances of clerical severity and pomposity have been far outnumbered by instances of care and encouragement.

Above all, these men bore witness to the presence of God in the world this world that now increasingly finds God an inconvenience. Strikingly, many intelligent people who have tried hard to live without God are now looking for spirituality as though this can exist entirely without any religious faith. My own spirituality is grounded firmly upon the truths I was taught by priests: that there is indeed a personal God, a spiritual being with whom I can communicate through prayer and sacrament. I would not have believed this if I had not experienced the freely-given support and compassion of priests in my own deepest crises.

However, these same priests have conveyed to me an understanding of the equality of dignity conveyed by baptism, as well as the responsibility this imparts. This understanding, and this sense of personal responsibility, has been increasingly challenged over the past three decades by a church system that privileges clergy above laity, and leaves the latter with no clearly defined or dignified role as laity. That system sees lay people principally as needy clients of an expert professional elite, rather than as recipients of the same gifts of the Holy Spirit including, often, wisdom. Because the business of the priest is salvation (i.e. spiritual healing and enlightenment) the system tends to impose upon him an impossible demand – to appear to be never in need of healing or enlightenment himself.

It is this unequal expert-client relationship that lies at the root of the major problems we now face in Ireland – simply because it demands too much of clergy, and (more important) far too little of laity. It is essentially this problem of clericalism – the myth of the priest as a super-Catholic and super-Christian – that has exposed the church to the public humiliations of the period since 1992.

To begin with, there would not have been any major scandals in the Irish Church over the period 1992-2003 if clergy had not been expected to be (because the system represented them as) superior icons of Christ – especially in the area of sexual morality. It was this that made Bishop Casey’s exposure such a sensation in 1992 that he could not face the media consequences.

It was also the status of the priest as an unquestionable authority that gave a small minority of predatory priests unbounded access to children. Trained never to question the priest, parents simply could not allow themselves any reservations about handing over teenage children to impromptu clerical care – even overnight. And children who suffered the consequences could not then, for the very same reason, find any way of communicating what had happened. (“Me mother would have murdered me if I had said that about the priest!”)

In his autobiography Altar Boy, Andrew Madden, a victim of clerical abuse, writes of his early experience of church:

“The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important!”

That was why Andrew, even while he was being abused, was glad to be an altar boy:

“Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close. I felt good.”

Clearly, for Andrew, priests were in every respect superior to lay people. He could not separate in his mind the importance of the priest’s role from the human person who filled that role. His abuser exploited this naivety mercilessly.

Furthermore, we now know that bishops could not have erred in secretly protecting and shuffling errant priests had they not felt compelled to avoid scandal at almost any cost. Occasional priestly moral failure is, we also now know, both an historical reality and a future inevitability. It is especially scandalous only because of the myth (and theological error) of clerical infallibility and triumph over sin. It will be scandalous in future only if that myth (and error) continues to be upheld.

It is time that our bishops emphasised that ordination does not make priests sinless or asexual – or intellectually infallible. Ireland would be a far healthier place today if this had been emphasised long before 1992, when it began to become obvious. Many pastoral letters have been written on far less important matters.

There are other reasons this myth needs to be abandoned forever at this time. Especially this: it is the fundamental reason for the alienation of so many Irish males from the church.

To put it as simply as possible, we males can’t stand being talked down to weekly by other males who often seem to claim not only an exclusive expertise in interpreting the gospels for our own times, but unlimited licence to use them against us. Now that the area of sexuality has become unsafe, we notice that some priests have moved on to other fields of complaint, for example materialism. As the excess consumption of material goods is driven above all by the desire for social status, the typical parish priest’s consciousness of his own social status – expressed eloquently in modes of accommodation and transport – tends to deprive his message of moral impact. We have all heard the lesson of the mote and the beam too often to be unable to apply it ourselves. Unconvinced and alienated by this kind of unthinking moralism, we males tend to opt out, leaving religion to the priest and the wife.

On the other hand, most lay people respond immediately to priestly humility, and recognise it for what it is – a sign of a deeper spirituality. Far from weakening the bond between clergy and laity, such an attitude is in itself the most important homily a priest can deliver at this time.

I began my teaching career in a school whose oldest teacher, an elderly nun, had a most unusual way of dealing with an unresponsive French class. She would read a short passage of French, pause uncertainly, and then knit her brows and mutter to herself:  “I wonder what that means!”  She did this so convincingly that she immediately deprived the class of any sense of inferiority, creating an atmosphere in which someone would venture a suggestion. It mightn’t be correct, but the barriers to collaboration – the basis of all successful teaching and learning – would then be down, and the class could proceed.

It is for this reason that the myth of the all-knowing and sinless priest is a fundamental barrier to the development of the church, and especially to the development of lay competence and responsibility within it. People learn and develop most quickly for vocational reasons – to empower themselves to fill a responsible and clearly understood role. A church that trains its priests to be in control in all essential matters of faith is effectively training its laity to be dependent, incompetent, intellectually lazy and childish because only that passive and needy role will fully satisfy the priest’s expectation that he both can, and must, be dominant.

And so we get the exasperating myth of the priest as church superman – theologian, manager, accountant, philosopher, historian, catechist, liturgist, celebrant, confessor, ecclesiologist, evangelist, entertainer, canon lawyer, moral paragon, facilitator – and unfailing pulpit authority on everything under the sun, from Aromatherapy to Zoroaster.

The title ‘Father’ is hallowed by centuries of use, but to many lay people it now seems to define their own unchangeable status in the church – as children who must never dare to grow up – especially in understanding and expressing their faith. So we waver between deference and resentment – unable to distinguish deference from genuine respect. We will express our exasperation over this freely to one another – but hesitate to express a critical opinion directly to a priest.

As a teacher of history for thirty years I am firmly convinced that this problem arises out of an inability at the summit of the church to escape from an idealistic vision of the relationship between priest and people that developed after the Council of Trent (1545-63). In that vision an educated and disciplined clerical elite would train laity above all in obedience. The clerical-lay pyramid would mimic the social pyramid, dominated by an educated and aristocratic landowning elite. Bishops would be spiritual grandees, priests would share in their social and spiritual eminence, and lay people would defer to them as such – all the more necessary because of their lack of education.

It is out of this vision of church that clericalism emerges. A priest acquaintance once expressed it to me as follows: “We priests are the last of the landed gentry!” He meant that many priests had never accommodated themselves fully to the principle of social equality, and lived sheltered lives at the expense of underlings. The anticlericalism of many, many Irish lay people today arises out of this perception that many clergy – including some bishops – still expect the kind of deference that landed gentry expected from the peasant masses in the eighteenth century.

But Ireland’s progress in less than two centuries from the abject horrors of the Famine to the heady rewards of the Celtic Tiger has made this vision of church a critical liability in confronting secularism – the belief that religion is essentially a barrier to human development. Our media commentators have mostly fallen in line with this worldview although often educated in Catholic schools. They have done so because – fatally – they perceived that secularism gave them more dignity and intellectual respect than their own church, and because clergy could preserve the myth of their own superiority only through aloofness and secrecy. Nothing more was required to set the stage for the media disasters we have seen.

But secularism doesn’t understand that the competition it encourages leaves many people even more exposed to danger and exclusion. It doesn’t understand either that social inequality arises out of the competitive impulse itself – our unfailing desire to be greater than one another, despite all our talk about equality. It is this desire that is the chief target of the Gospels, and the source of all victimisation. It is also the source of the appalling lack of respect that Irish media people increasingly show for one another, and of the violence that threatens us all.

As Pope John Paul II himself said in 1980, the secular ideals of 1789 – liberty, equality and fraternity – are basically and originally Christian ideals. We Catholics will move our country towards them only by rediscovering together the spiritual wisdom and humility of the Gospels, priests and laypeople together. Without that, as voting figures and youth cynicism increasingly show, Irish democracy itself will fail.

And especially we need to learn what that young woman learned in L’Arche: that the consciousness of being loved by God can transform all of us from seekers of status to beacons of welcome and inspiration. Almost all we lay people need is the lay faith of Jean Vanier – the faith that led him to provide shelter for the ones that a Godless science would prefer us to abandon even before birth.

Deeply torn by the undeserved humiliation of most of our priests, we lay people await only a signal to grow into a new role – as collaborators in a wide variety of ministries. Some of these will care for all the victims of a shallow secularism, from the depressed to the aimlessly addicted. Collaborating easily with people of other faiths in building a society based upon mutual respect, we lay people will be Catholics, and proud of it – but not subordinates – because Jesus called us into brotherhood and sisterhood, not servility, resentment and passivity.

Most of our priests are now more than ready for this relationship too.

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: I – Crisis

Views: 47

Sean O’Conaill © Copyright Reality 2004

“Let’s face it – the Catholic Church is on its way out wherever economic progress and universal education take hold. It is a relic of the distant past when uneducated people needed to believe in a superior being up in the sky and priests to do their thinking for them. It has no place in the twenty-first century. In Ireland, where the power of clergy has finally been broken, it will soon be a distant memory.”

This seems to be the shared opinion of most of Ireland’s media pundits these days. Resentful of the power of clergy to dominate the educational system, and even to control politicians as late as the 1980s, Ireland’s mostly anticlerical intellectuals were delighted to see Irish Catholic bishops score a series of devastating own goals in the 1990s. This process continued into the third millennium. In September 2003 Fintan O’Toole declared in the Irish Times that the struggle he and other liberal and leftist intellectuals had waged since the 1960s against the influence of the Irish Catholic hierarchy was virtually over, with victory going to his side of the argument.

Now lay Catholics themselves can list a hatful of critical problems that together seem destined to sideline their church, making it even less influential here than the Church of England next door. Here are ten that seem to me to be of special importance.

First, a series of media scandals has undermined the moral authority of Catholic bishops, the supreme teachers in the Church. The policy of concealment of the sexual abuse of Irish Catholic children by some priests, coupled with the frequent absence of Christian love in the treatment of victims and their families – has shocked the Catholic laity far more deeply than the abuse itself. In the absence of any other explanation by the bishops, laity are forced to conclude that the first priority of Catholic leadership was, in too many cases, to preserve the public image and prestige of clergy generally, rather than to protect the innocence of children and to obey the great command of the Gospels – the law of love. This has shattered the bond of trust that led laity to respect Catholic teaching on, for example, the importance of the family, the dignity of every human being, and sexual matters generally. It’s not clear what the bishop’s crosier symbolises anymore, if it doesn’t mean that children will always come first.

Second, the ability of the Catholic clergy to attract young men into their ranks, already weakening in the early 1990s, has collapsed altogether in the wake of these scandals. This now affects all the religious orders, as well as the diocesan clergy. Moreover, the rapid economic growth of the 1990s has made the career of a celibate priest increasingly less attractive especially when priests themselves complain about poor leadership and too little room for initiative. As clergy have – at least in the experience of everyone now alive – always run the church, how can it survive if there aren’t any?

Third, older clergy often seem ill equipped to explain how Catholic belief is relevant to the needs and questions of lay people today. The Creeds were written over fifteen hundred years ago. What do they mean in a world of mobile phones and universal education? What do they have to do with the problems of raising teenagers whose minds are tuned in to Hollywood, science fiction and the music industry? How do they help in grappling with problems such as addiction, depression and suicide? A generally aging clergy seem more and more out of touch with the minds of rising generations. Too often they don’t either like or understand youth culture, and can’t seem to get through. Too often they complain about the modern world and seem to want to live in the past. That’s often why so many teenagers can’t stick weekly Mass anymore: they find it boring and meaningless.

Fourth, despite the hierarchy’s verbal emphasis on human dignity, lay people are not equally respected in their own church. They are talked at, not listened to. The wisdom and concerns of women especially get no hearing. Parents have not been invited to discuss with clergy the growing problem of influencing young people who are now targeted by culture-changing and alien commercial influences. Most bishops avoid occasions where they will be questioned by lay people, or obliged to listen to them. This makes it impossible for parents to defend Catholic teaching effectively. It seems to prove also that secular culture – where the intelligence of lay people is equally respected – is superior, even in Christian terms.

Fifth, clergy generally are either unhealthily hung up on sex, or unwilling or unable to talk about it. The sexual scandals, and the problems that many priests obviously have with celibacy, have seriously undermined the credibility of the official policy on, for example, birth control – which very few lay people can understand. When teenagers are taught that cohabitation offends God as much as genocide they fall about laughing. This makes many of them wonder about abortion too, and whether their Church is really committed to fighting Aids. The Church has lost its persuasiveness on sexual issues at the very time when clear, balanced sensible teaching is really needed.

Sixth, this clerical hang-up on sex has tended to create a false popular impression that Catholicism has more to do with sexual repression than liberation of the spirit and enlightenment of the mind. This is partly why the growing secular interest in spirituality has led many to suppose that the Bible is a less useful source than oriental mysticism. Furthermore, lay people often get the impression that they are considered spiritually second rate by clerics because they are not celibate. A recent beatification reinforced this impression by emphasizing that the beatified couple had slept separately for decades before death. Such events make Catholicism more the butt of crude TV humour than an object of curiosity and respect. More seriously, they erode the dignity and morale of Catholic parents who have every reason to believe that spirituality and a full sexual relationship are as complementary and compatible now as they were in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Seventh, the secular world allows lay people to look together freely for solutions to the great problems of today – depression and addiction, for example. It has even empowered young people whom the church has harmed and then tried to forget about. It gives them the freedom to organise and to support one another. The clerical church, on the other hand, seems afraid of freedom, of letting lay people organize freely. Laity anxious to be active in their church far too often find that, if they try to take some initiative, someone will soon tell them the priest or the bishop won’t like it. (To be fair, it is too often another lay person who tells them that.)

Eighth, even where effective priests get lay people working together in parishes discussing the Bible, say, that priest can be changed by the bishop without asking anyone, and his replacement may well decide he doesn’t want that group to continue. It folds up straight away. This makes lay people despair. Parishes need some kind of permanent structure that will give lay people an enduring role and provide continuity in parish life – but there’s no sign of this yet.

Ninth, despite generations of Catholic control of education, Catholic thought has now virtually no prestige in secular Ireland. Worse still, most of those in whom the Church invested its greatest educational efforts – the children of the middle classes – have shown virtually no commitment as adults to social justice. They now support a political culture that privileges themselves at the expense of the poorest underclass in western Europe. Although often nominally Catholic still, most take little part in church life, and are content to complain from the sidelines. Irish Catholic education requires a complete reappraisal on these grounds alone.

Another argument for this is that a Catholic formation that ended for most adults in their teens is inadequate to carry them through life, especially in a rapidly changing culture. Now, as adults, with much more experience of life, they have new questions, and a need to update their ideas. However, Catholic adult education is in very short supply and even where it exists it too often works on the old one-way pattern, with people being handed the Catechism, for example, and told to learn that. Parents can’t be expected simply to parrot answers when young people will ask: “What do [you] really believe?” We need far better adult education, focused upon real problems and involving completely free discussion. There’s no sign of that happening either.

Reconsideration of the Irish church’s entire educational effort is especially important in light of the specific mission given to the laity by Vatican II: to consecrate the world to God . If laity are to understand this mission and begin to carry it out together, they need to be called together to discern and discuss its many implications, and their own role. Many educated and once-committed lay people have lost hope that this will ever happen. Many have also abandoned the church as a consequence.

Tenth, the church generally seems deeply divided between ‘liberals’ who want more change, and ‘conservatives’ who think that change has already gone too far. These differences are so wide it’s sometimes difficult to see how the church can hold together.

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No doubt, some of you will disagree with this list of problems, or the way they are described – and others may see other problems I have missed. If so, why not pitch in with your point of view?

I will be approaching these problems not as an expert theologian but as a layman with a lay perspective. What I have to say will be both challenging and in need of challenge, because none of us has a monopoly of wisdom. We inherit a great tradition, but have difficulty in discerning what it is asking of us in a rapidly changing world. The mind and insight and enthusiasm of the whole people of God need somehow to be engaged if we are to rise to the enormous problems that now face us all.

Scandals in the Church

Views: 14

Sean O’Conaill : Studies 1995

I was a schoolboy in the 1950s, when Fr Brendan Smyth’s clerical and poisonous career began, and have been trying since October 1994 to absorb the meaning of recent events. Unnameable, incomprehensible sexual predilections and practices now have a name that even children know, and are now therefore far less dangerous. Things that could not be discussed may now be discussed, and must be discussed. They are a matter of public record, and they implicate a small minority of Catholic clergy in a sphere of moral evil which, in the 1950s, was still top of the clerical agenda – sexual evil. (This was, after all, the decade when ‘mixed bathing’ at Salthill was the subject, for a time, of episcopal disfavour!)

Three questions, it seems to me, are most important now. First, how did it happen that these matters could, over such a long period, remain both known about and secret? Second, how exactly did it come about that this long, diseased silence was broken? Third, what can we learn from this about the essential features of a healthy church – one which identifies its own imperfections, makes them openly a matter of record, and resolves them with least injury to all concerned?

The long silence

Paedophilia did not originate in the 1950s, or in the church. It is, we know, part of the broad spectrum of human sexual behaviour, and was practised openly by the ancient Greeks. It is therefore likely that throughout human history, and the history of the Church, it has occurred. Presumably, historians of moral theology will now uncover literature extending back into the middle ages which mentions these practices as morally dangerous for the practitioners, if not emotionally and psychologically dangerous for the victims, and devastating for the Church. Given the indefatigable nature of moral theologians, and their long-standing fixation with sexual morality, it is not remotely likely that paedophilia is a vice new to the Church. Since Latin and Greek have been part of a clerical education since the middle ages, it cannot be alleged that the Church has lacked a vocabulary for discussing paedophilia. Why then has the phenomenon not been part of the overt moral education of all Catholics, a matter they would be both explicitly warned about, and prepared to speak about?

That it wasn’t in the 1950s I can bear witness. Like many of my classmates in one school I was subjected to mild tactile intimacies by a cleric which did me absolutely no harm, but this still remains vividly in my memory as part of the folklore attaching to the cleric and the school concerned. The most vivid memories of my religious education then are that (a) ‘Catholic apologetics has nothing to do with apologising to anybody’ (RE class), (b) that a past pupil had recently been spotted going into a communist meeting in Dublin (consigning himself inexorably to Hell) and (c) the most effective Christian educators were those (the majority) who showed an innate kindliness and humanity, when they weren’t even trying. Had RE class ever mentioned events like those which occurred when this erring cleric was present, I would remember it just as vividly.

Why, then, this reticence? I believe it has to do with two interlocking problems. First, clerical celibacy, and second, clerical authority. They interlock simply because, in our church, authority is exercised exclusively by celibate clerics. Whatever blessings celibacy may give the church, an ability to talk about sex without embarrassment has not been one of them. And since it is the same celibates who control the Church’s explicit educational program, this embarrassment has been an essential feature of Catholic education on sexuality. Clerics do not communicate well about sex, and so, as a consequence Catholic parents do not communicate well about it either.

I am a product of Irish Catholic schools and a very Irish Catholic home, and am now stuck with the same tongue-tied head-scratching embarrassment as an Irish Catholic parent. Ben Elton has probably taught my children more about sex than I have. At the age of fifty- one, I am still learning that an inability to talk openly about this matter is actually a greater evil than sexual sins themselves – and the Smyth affair confirms this. Had the children first exposed to Fr Smyth known what was happening to them, and belonged to a family culture in which the proper reactions had been rehearsed, that name would long ago have been erased from Ireland’s clerical directory, and would not even have caused a scandal at the time. Most important, the deep, intimate psychological harm to the victims would have been externalised and removed from that internal balance sheet we all keep on our own behaviour and experience – while the children concerned were still children, and could still be assured, lovingly, that the wrong was not theirs.

Instead, the evil to which the child (if not the priest) could give no name, continued – the Catholic priest, the primary source of moral authority, was also the perpetrator, so this behaviour had to be suffered and suppressed. This became a psychological time bomb under the individuals concerned, and a devastating depth-charge under the clerical Church. This secret sin was known at first only to the perpetrator and the victim, and the perpetrator was consciously empowered by the fact that the child was disempowered by a lack of knowledge and the absence of an open family culture on sexuality. This matter would not be spoken about to the child as part of the child’s education. It therefore would not necessarily have to be accounted for. If it did, sure one would only have to account for it to another priest – and the church would be far too scared of the publicity to make a song and dance about it! Whatever happened, the thing would not become public. It would be contained within the professional culture of which the perpetrator was a part.

We do not yet know precisely when the first accounting of this kind took place. We do, however, know that Abbot Kevin Smith was aware that Smyth had a problem before some of the families deeply affected by his behaviour had even been formed. It is at this point that the link between celibacy and authority again prevented the reaction which now seems so necessary. Yes, ignorance about the psychological harm for the victim played a part, but the sense of inviolability which Fr Brendan Smyth could feel must also have helped to paralyse the Abbot morally. The family, or families concerned, would probably not make the matter public, neither would Brendan Smyth, so why should the Abbot either? What good would it do?

What good would it do? We will probably never know how many people asked themselves this question in the years that followed. Yet we are all now convinced that the matter should have been, and could have been confronted then, both for the sake of the children and of the Church, for the very best of Christian reasons. And it wasn’t confronted not just because of the lack of knowledge of the psychiatric harm to the victims, but because those who held this knowledge would not be required to share it – because the clergy do not have to account for their stewardship to the faithful.

The Revelation

Whatever else may be obscure about the Brendan Smyth affair, one thing isn’t. Its revelation was an achievement of the secular world, not of the church. When I was a student in the 1960s the clerical church was turning its baleful gaze away from communism and mixed bathing in Salthill to that dreadful moral Cyclops, Television, and, of course, to what would happen if we accepted the Permissive Society that TV would inevitably reveal. How strange and salutary it now is to reflect that it is to these awful manifestations of a broader evil, secularism, that we owe our deliverance from the Brendan Smyths and the culture of secrecy (at least in this area)!

Freud has also played a part, of course. Without him, the sciences of psychology and psychiatry would be even more primitive than they still are. Clerics on the defensive now often join in a refrain of ‘but nobody knew about paedophiles and the damage they could do until just recently’. Do they understand how devastatingly damaging this is for a clerical Church which claimed, until this event, that it knew everything, especially about sex and the human soul? The universe of knowledge has throughout our lives been divided into two spheres – on one side the things the church knew about and approved of, and (far larger) the things, including Freud, it knew about and disapproved of. My head is stuffed full still of ‘isms’ from liberalism to ‘naturalism’ and communism and materialism and modernism that the church condemned, and only one it fully approved of – Catholicism.

Secularism was a kind of hold-all for all the world’s evil ‘isms’. It would turn your gaze away from the next world to this one, damning your eternal soul. With eyes focussed firmly on the next world, the eyes of the church were closed to the secular world, and to Brendan Smyth. Until the secular world revealed him.

Secularism as an ideology originated in the eighteenth century. The French philosophes were agreed on very little, but did agree upon at least two things – freedom of expression and anti-clericalism. Fixated by the success of Newton in discovering universal natural laws (e.g. the laws of gravitation) they believed that science, without the church, could create a perfect world. One of them, Montesquieu, studied the contemporary British constitution, admired the intellectual freedom it provided, and reached the conclusion that power must be divided to protect the citizen, with no single agency controlling legislative, executive and judicial power. This central idea of the enlightenment – the separation of powers – is a cornerstone of modern liberal and secular society.

It was these principles – the separation of powers and the freedom of information, together with a corollary of both – separation of church and state – which brought an end to the shameful career of Fr Brendan Smyth after thirty years of complicity within the clerical church. Probably the principle of intellectual freedom was most important. Although the media were beset from the 1960s by a clerical campaign to ban sexual matters from public discourse, the problem of where exactly to draw the line baffled and divided and ridiculed the censors (c.c. discussion of honeymoon nighties on the Late Late Show), so that by the 1980s the broad range of human sexual practice became a matter of public knowledge and even popular childish humour.

It was, I am certain, the new freedom this gave to discourse on such matters that allowed the children concerned, now young adults, to speak out, and their parents to act on that knowledge. The enlightenment and the permissive society had finally rounded upon its clerical critics and proved them bankrupt of wisdom and, it seems, in some cases, of integrity as well. The appeal to voluntary lay Catholic agencies followed, and from there the matter moved inexorably within the ambit of the secular state. Insofar as justice has been done, belatedly, to these children, and a process of healing initiated, this has been done therefore by secularists, not by the church.

In the context of the clergy’s long-expressed idealisation of the family as the most vital social unit, the revelation that these families were not protected by the church, were instead its victims, has been shattering. Far more than the Bishop Casey1Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, Ireland, who resigned in 1992 on the revelation that he had fathered a child 17 years before. scandal it has damaged visibly the moral integrity of the church as an institution.

The Lessons

Thus the clerical church must now record for all time that it has no monopoly of wisdom, still less of integrity. Always in its own mind the guardian of the faithful from the most appalling evils, particularly sexual ones, it always found those evils meticulously and ridiculously outside its own ranks, and outside its own control. It has now discovered that it has both harboured the greatest evil its children could suffer within its own ranks, and made it impossible for them to break free by its own clerically-dominated culture – until they were delivered by those evil agencies the clerical church had been attacking all along! The irony is total, and the lesson is inescapable.

Many questions about this matter remain unanswered. I am certain that all can be answered truthfully in ways which do far less damage to the church than the present embargo on the truth. Secrecy about matters of grave public concern is destroying the church, because it has only one final justification, the concealment of information that should be known. It fuels only the wildest rumours and is therefore the father and mother of scandal and despair. It vitiates the whole of Catholic education, because for a child an ocean of theology will drain through a fault in the integrity of those who deliver it. The facts adduced above are a matter of public record, part of a vast reservoir of scorn for the world’s secular media, as well as another scandal to the laity.

Doesn’t this affair prove that the secular principle of freedom of information is merely a corollary of the older principle of the sacredness of truth? There could not be a better time for revelation and healing. If the bishops want to know why the church lacks credibility, why so many young people are disillusioned with it, why so many of its educated members, clerical and lay, are despondent, let them reflect on issues such as these.

And when (and if) the church looks at models for radical structural reform, it should examine the political and administrative science of the past three hundred years with minds as open as those now focused upon modern psychology – another fruit of the enlightenment. It could learn from the separation of powers, and realise that even without the current scandals a church exclusively controlled by an oligarchy of male celibates is doomed. Starkly revealed as less effective than secular agencies in delivering justice to its most innocent and vulnerable members – its children – what claim does the church have left on the loyalty of any Catholic family if it does not commit itself to radical institutional change?

At last – An Open Church?

These recent scandals in the church come from a culture of secrecy and oligarchy which lies also at the heart of the Church’s failure to appeal to a modern, secular society. They involve the exercise of power in a way which harms individuals, and so raise the question of how power and authority in the Church should be exercised. For that reason, although they create enormous shock and suffering for the Church, they create also an opportunity for reshaping its culture. For the church’s authority in the world springs not from Popes, bishops and priests but from its response as an entire community to a moral challenge laid down by Jesus Christ. Insofar as the church becomes identified with any minority within it, such as the clergy, (and more especially the hierarchy and central bureaucracy), its witness is compromised if their witness is inadequate.

Furthermore, any such identification reduces the dignity of the broad mass of believers, makes their witness less important, and focuses the attention of the media upon spectacular failure, rather than upon undramatic, but far more frequent, success. This is why the Church today is on the defensive, its enormous potential for good half paralysed by scandal and structural weaknesses. But our salvation as always lies ready to hand. There is in the gospels still a crystal clear moral vision, and also a vision of ideal relationships. Those relationships are characterised by a discourse which is, to use a modern idiom, entirely ‘up front’ and informal. Jesus never in his life had to write a single pastoral letter – his text and his agenda were decided by the world in which he lived, and the people, friend or foe, whom he met. He responded magnificently, without recourse to canon law, but with total integrity. Could we all now, me included, aspire to the same thing?

And since most secular liberals aspire to that also, could we maybe stop regarding them as agents of perdition? In rejecting the church they are rejecting especially all empty sanctimony.

But, lastly, let it be said I am conscious of a vast personal debt to the priests who have helped to shape my own mind and heart, and beyond that of a debt owed by our Irish society in general to their entire corps. Had I no affection or respect for the priesthood, or the church, I would not have been half so indignant over these events: I would merely have joined the many cynics in asking ‘what else do you expect?’. In truth the betrayal of innocence has been inflicted upon most of the priesthood too by these recent catastrophic failures of our closed authority system. It is their pain also that now cries out for an open church.

Notes:

  1. Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, Ireland, who resigned in 1992 on the revelation that he had fathered a child 17 years before.

(© Studies 1995)