Category Archives: Church Sacraments

The Story of the West: III – The Origins of Freedom

Views: 46

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Dec 2007

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ” (US Declaration of Independence 1776)

Everywhere in the world in the time of Christ, slavery existed – in countries as far apart as Ireland and China. Two thousand years later the right to personal freedom is inscribed in the world’s great documents, and protected by most of the world’s governments.

The scourge of enslavement still exists for far too many, of course – but there is a global consensus that slavery is not only morally wrong but economically indefensible. While the ancient Greeks and Romans considered slavery essential to their success, the educated world now knows that slavery makes people unproductive – that we are most industrious when we are personally free.

Where did the idea of freedom come from? Most languages do not even have a word for the idea. It arose in one civilisation only – western Europe, in the Middle Ages. Catholic Europe, that is.

Here again, those who see Christianity as the root of all evil will deny that the Catholic Church could have had anything to do with the ending of slavery. They will point out that Jesus did not directly condemn it, that St Paul taught slaves to be obedient, that popes owned galley slaves as late as 1796, and that it was not until the 1800s that the papacy came finally to declare slavery immoral.

All of this is true – but the historical record is nevertheless clear: all effective anti-slavery movements were deeply influenced by another idea – an idea that developed in Catholic Europe alone, long before the Protestant Reformation: the idea that everyone is essentially equal in dignity.

That idea could not have come from Plato or Aristotle, the great philosophers of ancient Greece. Both believed that some peoples were superior to others, and that the slavery of many was essential to the prosperity and power of the Greek city state. Plato personally owned slaves. The ‘democracy’ of Athens was not based on the principle of ‘one man one vote’, but on the superiority of ethnic Greeks, all of them free to own slaves, who could not vote. In Plato’s ideal ‘Republic’ this elitism would have been retained.

The seed for the overthrow of slavery is to be found in the New Testament alone. St Paul did indeed teach slaves to be obedient, but he also taught masters to treat slaves well “knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him”. In other words, in the eyes of God we are all equal: “In Christ Jesus …there is neither slave nor free”.

It was for this very reason that slaves too were to receive the sacrament of baptism. Sacramental equality inevitably slowly undermined civil inequality. After an exhaustive study of the sources the agnostic secular sociologist Rodney Stark insists:

“Slavery ended in medieval (i.e. Catholic) Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians.”

By the third century the church had a pope, Callistus (d. 236) who had himself been a slave. With the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, the pressure to end slavery increased. Priests began to urge the freeing of slaves as an “infinitely commendable act”. By the late 700s Charlemagne opposed slavery. By the 800s slavery was declared by some theologians to be “against divine law”.

Another scandalous era of slavery opened in the West with the voyages of exploration of the 1400s that gave European ships access to black Africa, and the incentive to ship slaves to imperial territories in north and south America. This too the papacy was far too slow to condemn unequivocally, yet even in the 1500s, some popes angrily condemned slavery in the Americas.

By now many Christians held that slavery was positively sinful. Here again we see the possibility for progress in Christian theology – as St Augustine had predicted. And it was this conviction that provided most fuel for the victories of the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s.

Uniquely among the world’s Religions, Christianity had not simply argued that all were equal in the sight of God, but provided most of the political momentum for the eventual overthrow of slavery. While the church is often pilloried for the slow progress of freedom in Europe, few secularist intellectuals have faced the reality that elsewhere in the world there was no progress at all. This was true especially of Islam. It was true even of China – often held up by secularists as a more advanced civilisation because its intelligentsia was irreligious.

And it was from these Christian principles of human dignity and human equality that another key modern principle emerged also: the principle of equal human rights.

Secularist opponents of Christianity will deny this, of course. They will argue that the principle of human rights was the child of the Enlightenment, an anti-Christian movement of the 1600s and 1700s.

But we now know that the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 owed its theory of human rights to the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). And that Locke frankly admitted his own debt to Catholic moral theologians of the Middle Ages who had developed the Christian principle of equal human dignity. If all are equal in dignity, it followed that Christians have binding obligations to all other humans. From these binding obligations, and from no other source, proceeds the principle that all humans are owed – i.e.have a right to – e.g. freedom

A further embarrassment for those who want to see the Enlightenment as the original source of freedom and human rights is the fact that the great Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the considerable profits of his own writings in the 18th century French slave trade, based at Nantes.

It was a vast tragedy for the Catholic church that the Christian origins of freedom became hidden even from the papacy in the period after the Enlightenment. Fearing the rise of democracy and the principle of religious freedom, Catholic bishops and popes, usually the sons of aristocratic Catholic families, mistakenly often condemned these. The belief that “error has no rights” was adhered to by Catholic churchmen well into the lifetime of many of us.

It was also a great tragedy for Catholicism in Ireland that when our church did eventually embrace the principle of religious freedom at Vatican II in 1965, our most powerful churchman was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin. He too believed that error had no rights, and that it was perfectly legitimate for him and his fellow bishops to seek to control the Irish state directly. His extraordinary determination to control every aspect of Irish life until his resignation in 1971 earned for Irish Catholicism a reputation for clericalism and authoritarianism that virtually guaranteed the victory of secularism in the generation that followed.

Archbishop McQuaid mistakenly obliged every Catholic in his diocese to define Catholic loyalty in terms of unquestioning obedience and intellectual deference to him personally. This clericalist spirit still pervaded Catholic Ireland in the era of the council, and sabotaged its liberating potential here. Forced to choose between the role of ‘lackey to the bishop’ and the supposedly secular principle of freedom, many, many Irish people felt obliged, even in conscience, to choose the latter and to reject Catholic belief.

This is one of the most important reasons for the growth of Irish secularism and anticlericalism in recent decades. It explains why our media constantly exploit church scandals and why it is now so difficult for Irish Catholic churchmen to get a fair public hearing, especially in matters like stem cell research.

Catholic authoritarianism has always played into the hands of those who want to argue that the greater freedom of western culture is an entirely secular achievement, and that religion and freedom must always be opposed. And this in turn has led to a situation in Ireland where secularism is now so powerful that many Catholics feel ashamed to identify themselves as Catholics in public.

The solution is not to seek to restore the ‘Catholic Ireland’ of Archbishop McQuaid but to understand the Catholic roots of western freedom and to take pride, publicly, in that fact. We need to make ourselves entirely at home in neutral secular space and to educate ourselves to the facts of western history – refusing to take for granted secularist propaganda aimed at shaming us and driving Catholicism out of the public square entirely.

In particular we need to point out to secularists that the Catholic roots of western civilisation are far more than a matter of Catholic opinion. They are now confirmed by globally renowned scholars who are not even Christian. One of the most important is Rodney Stark, the ground-breaking American sociologist. I have used his recent book Victory of Reason as my most important source for these articles. Written with great clarity and honesty, it should be read by every educated Catholic.

Another is the German atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Disturbed by various decadent tendencies in western society, and by the growing threat of terrorism since 9/11, he made the following declaration in a 2004 essay A Time of Transition:

“Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilisation. To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is post-modern chatter.”

Armed with this same knowledge, Irish Catholics of tomorrow will have no need to feel defensive about their faith or ashamed to proclaim it as the source of their own idealism in the secular world.

Claiming our own place in pluralist Irish secular society we must now also be unafraid to ask anti-Catholic secularists if they really know the origins of the values, and especially the freedom, they hold sacred.

After Ferns: Clericalism Must Go!

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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.

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

Views: 67

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.

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.

Restoring the Authority of the Church

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Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The full twenty-volume Oxford dictionary distinguishes two basic meanings of ‘authority’: first, the power to enforce obedience;  second the power to influence action, opinion or belief.

It is clear that two entirely different forms of power are involved here.  The first is linked clearly with enforcement.  A military commander has this kind of authority, as he can deploy actual force to arrest and sequester a rebellious officer.  So long as any agency can deploy some kind of decisive sanction against anyone, it possesses the ability to enforce its ‘authority’.  This authority may not be loved – may in fact be detested – but its coercive clout gives it a weight it would not otherwise possess.

But there is another entirely different kind of authoritative power – one that emerges out of the freely-given respect of one person for another.  Once that respect has been earned, the one who has earned it enjoys a power of influence that does not rest upon coercive capability.

It is perfectly clear that the Catholic Church in the West presently stands at a point in time when its leadership no longer possesses either kind of authority to the degree that it did even a century ago.  No longer in a position to direct the state anywhere in the northern hemisphere, that leadership cannot deploy coercive power – unless perhaps against its own direct or indirect employees.  And having lost the trust and confidence of most Catholic lay people, that leadership has lost the power of influence also.

It is against this backdrop that we presently conduct a debate on ‘the moral authority of the Church’.   Far too often this debate focuses upon the authority of the hierarchy – as though ‘the Church’ as a whole is still to be identified in some crucial sense with its leadership.  But the fact is that the authority of the church is a matter for the whole church – and it would be a profound mistake to work towards any restoration of hierarchical authority that would provide it once again with any degree of coercive power.

Recovery by the hierarchy of the power of moral influence is another matter – but this rests entirely with the success of the hierarchy in recovering its own integrity.  To the degree that it remains many steps behind the process of media exposure of its own secretive maladministration it currently lacks a visible corporate integrity  – whatever about the personal integrity of its individual members.  It will take some years – at least a decade – for the hierarchy as a body to persuade the wider church that its love of truth, and its love of its own laity, are once more beyond question.  And as this must depend also upon profound changes in Rome it is far from certain to occur even in that timescale.

But even that desirable eventuality would not give the church the authority to which it now needs to aspire.  We live in an era when appeals to the authority of another party are absolutely worthless, and even ludicrous, in any discourse about faith with anyone of a different mindset.  To say “the Pope (or the magisterium) teaches x” will immediately invite the response “But what do you believe, and why?” from anyone who disagrees.  To respond to this with “I believe what the Church teaches, because it tells me I must” is to invite incredulity or scorn.  Such an assertion lacks, in a word, authority – because the free personal, reasoned commitment of the witness is lacking – the persuasive evidence of a personal comprehension of, and free personal commitment to, whatever is being upheld.

This is so not just because our Church leadership currently lacks visible integrity, but because the same process of erosion of faith in institutions is endemic in the secular world also.  Deluged as we are by palpably false commercial information, we are not impressed when politicians employ focus groups to determine their manifestoes, and spin doctors to package presentation.  Because most information comes at us now in an exploitative stream, all truth claims are diverted into a long mental queue that we label ‘only possibly true’ – and may never reach the mental desk at which personal life decisions are made.

It is this above all that those who currently exalt the authority of ‘the magisterium’ need to understand.  Catholicism is currently getting a drubbing in the secular media not simply for being dysfunctional on matters of sexuality, but for brainwashing people – and especially children.  The exaltation of the authority of the magisterium – explained in simplistic terms as the bishops—sets every Catholic child up as conclusive proof that this is true, because it demands of that child intellectual deference to patriarchy as a badge of loyalty – as a virtual definition of what a Catholic actually is.

That this process does not prepare Catholic children for the egalitarian cut-and-thrust of third level education, or for the harsher secular marketplace, is surely plain for all to see.  The virtual collapse of Catholic identity at the age of eighteen shows that a whole new approach is needed in the understanding of authority.  A patriarchal definition simply doesn’t cut it any more – and it never did.

When we hear in the Gospels that Jesus taught with authority, we cannot suppose that this authority rested on reference to what others may have taught him.  It is clear, certainly, that he knew his Hebrew sources – but that is clearly not why people came to listen.  The truth he carried was patently also carrying him – it had been freely embraced and integrated at the deepest personal level.  What he believed was patently what he believed – not simply what he had been taught to believe.  No other explanation is possible of how he could, when his life was at stake, say ‘I am the truth’.

It should be clear to all by now that there is all the difference in the world between a faith that is inherited, and a faith that is freely and deliberately embraced.  In the first case the individual is enveloped in a specific culture which creates a powerful incentive merely to conform.  Conformity rather than integrity becomes the highest virtue taught.  So enveloped, the individual is essentially passive – like the infant upon whom the water of baptism is poured.  In the second case it is the individual who, as an autonomous adult, freely chooses a given faith from a range of alternatives.  In that case it is the chosen church that becomes the passive object towards which the adult believer consciously moves.

It is crucially important for the church as a body to understand that the first kind of faith, which we may call received faith, is a most delicate and fragile plant – very unlikely to withstand an unfavourable climate.  It is only the second kind – chosen faith – that is likely ever to amount to an authoritative faith – one that can confidently engage in adult discourse.  Received faith may eventually mature into chosen faith – but one of the biggest problems in our church is that it tends to behave as though no such transition is necessary for the lay person – or as though received faith is or at some point automatically becomes chosen faith.

Such an assumption is highly dangerous not only because it is fundamentally mistaken but because it underlies what is probably the single most important point of difference between the lay person and the cleric or religious.   For the latter, faith is far more likely to be chosen, and therefore more informed and authoritative.  Most important, that adult commitment is liturgically celebrated in a ceremony of ordination or free commitment to vows. Here we find the essential weakness of Irish Catholicism – the essential reason for the diffidence and passivity – and lack of authority – of the typical Irish Catholic lay person.  For if we laity do not need a chosen faith – if our received faith is considered forever sufficient – we are never actually invited into Christian adulthood, and may forever remain spiritual children.

Indeed, given that this has all been fairly obvious for some decades, there is good reason to believe that the permanent  spiritual childhood of the laity is something that is actually preferred by Catholic paternalism at the summit of the church.  Clericalism rests upon the need of laity for a ‘Yes, Father’ relationship – one in which the priest will remain the autocratic and dominant – and thinking – force.  Far better then, that laity should never move beyond a childish dependency and a school-based understanding.  Nothing else can fully explain the lack of commitment to adult education by the self-described magisterium, and the failure to provide the structures for upward communication and adult participation required for full implementation of Vatican II.

The continued dogged adherence to the bestowal of all three sacraments of initiation before puberty, and to the complete absence of any liturgical expectation or celebration of adult lay commitment, leaves Irish Catholicism especially firmly in Craggy Island territory.  This is precisely why the sudden loss of authority by the Catholic hierarchy has been so devastating.  In a decade it is as though the Irish Catholic Church has actually disappeared from the national landscape – with secularist media commentators going so far as to suggest that it is currently undergoing its ‘last rites’.  Soon enough we will experience in Ireland what has already happened in Italy – a demand that the Church records the free decision of Irish Catholics to repudiate their baptisms – in the same way that it recorded their involuntary baptism after birth.

It seems to me that if we Irish Catholics-by-choice wish to make ourselves, and our children, authoritative as Catholics – fully committed and confident carriers of our saving truths – we need either a postponement of the sacrament of Confirmation, or a new sacramental/liturgical event which might be called Affirmation.  Either way, Confirmation or Affirmation should celebrate the free and deliberate decision of  mature adults to commit entirely to the truths of the faith.  And all teaching prior to this should emphasize the crucial importance of that moment for the person concerned – of the necessity of complete freedom as the only context in which any adult faith commitment can be made.

At present we make the appalling mistake of supposing that of necessity what has been taught and apparently received has also been freely chosen – that committed Catholics will emerge inevitably from a process of catechesis controlled by the catechist.  They cannot, because to say ‘I believe’ implies a complete freedom not to say it – and that context of freedom we never provide.  “We were taken for granted!” This is one young student’s damning verdict on this process – a verdict seemingly repeated by the majority, to judge by the total indifference of the vast majority of baptized students in Irish universities to the ministry of their chaplains.  And it is confirmed by all we have recently learned about the collapse of sacramental observance among those in the age range 18-30.

On the other hand, to hear a young adult say, with full confidence and in complete freedom ‘I believe’, restores in an instant the authority that has been lost by the church – for at that moment the faith has found another free adherent.

So in the end, authority and freedom are inseparable – and the authority of the church is inseparable from the mature freedom of its members.  It is no coincidence that the authority of Catholicism should have reached its nadir in the West under a ‘magisterium’ that is so needlessly afraid of freedom, so determined to preserve at all costs the fiction of a morally inerrant clergy, and the absurd contention that loyalty and deference are the same thing.

To restore the authority of the Church it is now of paramount importance that laity be invited liturgically into chosen adult faith – and organizationally and intellectually into parity of esteem.  The authority of the hierarchy in the wider secular world will rest ultimately on the integrity of its contention that our church, from summit to base, offers enhanced and equal personal dignity to all – and only we Catholic laity will be in a position to vouch for this from personal experience.

At present we truly cannot – because to do so would be to speak against the truth of our own experience.