Category Archives: Separation of Power

Is unaccountable leadership worthy of the public’s respect?

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News, Belfast   Jan 13th 2011

As the Apostolic Visitation to Armagh ordered by Pope Benedict XVI begins, Sean O’Conaill wonders if it will examine why it took state inquiries to expose deep problems within the Church.

It can be a fascinating exercise to trace the remote origins of current events, and this is especially true of the ongoing apostolic visitation, headed in Ulster by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

At first sight the cause of this visitation is recent and obvious.  In his pastoral letter of March of last year Pope Benedict XVI promised such a visit ‘to assist the local Church on her path of renewal’. However, that pastoral letter was itself an unprecedented event, originating in the greatest public relations disaster the Catholic church has ever suffered in Ireland.  That disaster climaxed in 2009 with what are now known as the Ryan and Murphy reports – the results of exhaustive Irish state inquiries into the criminal abuse of children by Catholic clergy in recent times.  The detail of those reports shocked us all to the core. Certainly the Irish church is in need of renewal, but it is far less certain that this visitation can begin that process.

The central question crying out for an answer by all Catholic churchmen is why it required two Irish state inquiries to identify and describe such deep seated problems within the church.  Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor will leave Ireland under-informed if he does not hear that many of us are asking this question – and asking also why he and his brother cardinals show so far no inclination to address it.  Renewal of the Irish church, and of the western church generally is already being seriously delayed by the total failure of the Catholic church hierarchy to recognise the biggest elephant in the living room: our church is no longer self-regulating.  It obviously now requires secular state supervision and media vigilance to discipline errant bishops who have shown themselves totally  incapable of investigating and disciplining one another.

The reason for this is very simply.  Since the eighteenth century no pope has done what the brightest of earlier popes knew they were obliged to do – to take notice of advances in the understanding of administration and government in the secular world, and to adapt these to the church’s own needs.

In particular, modern popes have ignored a principle that is now part of the basic wisdom of secular administration:  to ensure that no individual is unaccountable, no individual should exercise undivided power.

That principle was observed in the Roman republic of ancient times.  It was overthrown to the detriment of Rome in Caesarian and imperial times.  It languished in the middle ages, but reappeared in the eighteenth century when it became known as the principle of the separation of powers.  It was most influentially propagated then by the French intellectual the Baron de Montesquieu, whose most brilliant works were placed on the Roman index in 1751.  Ironically they were avidly read in colonial America, and the principle of the separation of powers became the bedrock of the US constitution in 1787.

The irony lies in the fact that it was in the US in the 1980s that the revelation began of the universal policy of concealment of clerical child sex abuse by Catholic bishops.  To this day lawyers defending the papacy from litigation in US courts have been unable to point to a single instance of a Catholic bishop initiating a criminal investigation of a clerical abuser.  In all cases, perpetrators were first ‘outed’ by victims who took advantage of the fact that US secular courts were not under church control.

There is a further irony.  To the extent that Catholic children are now better protected from clerical predators, this is also entirely due to the secular principle of the separation of powers.  In Ireland as in the US and Britain, the Catholic hierarchy implemented no child-safeguarding measures until after the phenomenon of clerical child sex abuse had been revealed by secular processes.  The Irish hierarchy actually sought insurance protection from liability for injury caused by clerical sexual abuse in 1987 – a full eight years before they produced the first set of child protection guidelines in 1995.  And it was obviously the public revelation of the activities of Brendan Smyth in 1994 that finally precipitated these.  To this day there has been no acknowledgement or explanation of this astonishing and appalling sequence.

Nor has there been any acknowledgement that the ongoing visitation was precipitated also by the superiority of secular institutions.   The papal pastoral of March 2010 even partially attributed the abuse disaster to the ‘secularization of Irish society’ – without once mentioning that Catholic children were now safer because of events that had begun in secular courts.  There was no mention whatsoever of a fact that every educated person in Ireland now knows:  that the leadership of the church still operates a system of church government that did nothing to protect Catholic children until secular revelations left it no alternative.

Without an acknowledgement of this kind, the visitation seems short of both honesty and credibility.  How especially can the families of victims believe that these visiting bishops have some exalted expertise in child protection, when not one of them has had the candour and courage to acknowledge that Catholic bishops did not begin to prioritise child safety until secular processes had revealed that everywhere those bishops were doing the very opposite?

And how can Irish Catholics generally respect leaders who maintain without question the same archaic, self-indulgent and  unaccountable system of church government that has brought us global disgrace?

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The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism

© Sean O’Conaill 2010

(This article was first published in ‘The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?’, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010)

Concentrations of power are not divinely mandated or divinely supported.

This is the single most important lesson to be drawn from the catastrophe that overtook the Catholic clerical system in Ireland in the period 1992-2010. Far from being a catastrophe for the Catholic Church, this revelation will liberate and reshape all that is best in Catholicism, including Irish Catholicism, during the rest of this century.

As late as January 2010 no Irish Catholic bishop had publicly recognised why it is that the Catholic Church in Ireland has been exposed as deficient in its care for children not by any internal church mechanism but by two Irish state inquiries.  This is simply the fact that power in western secular society is not concentrated but distributed. Media, courts, government all wield considerable power, but none has the absolute power of a monarch. And it was monarchy, and monarchism, that was finally disgraced in Ireland in 2009. It became clear to everyone in that year that in the end only the secular media and the secular state could make an Irish Catholic bishop minimally accountable for the crime of endangering children.

True, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and retiring Bishop Willie Walsh have acknowledged that the present church system presents problems of accountability for bishops. However, no Catholic bishop has yet acknowledged that the Ryan and Murphy reports have clearly revealed that concentrations of power actually corrupt all institutions that adhere to them. This lack of recognition, especially from the papacy, of something that any bright teenager can see, means that the Irish church, and Catholicism generally, lacks authoritative leadership from its hierarchy at this time.

It was the French Enlightenment philosopher, the Baron de Montesquieu, who first noticed that human liberty is best protected by a separation rather than a concentration of power. For intellectuals threatened with imprisonment by the vagaries of monarchical absolutism in early 18th century France, England was a haven. The long drawn out 17th century contest between monarchy and parliament had ended in stalemate in England, creating a rough balance of power. Unable to impose religious uniformity, the aristocratic and mercantile establishment in England had even granted a wide liberty to the press.

Very impressed, Montesquieu developed from this insight the principle of the separation of state power – a principle which became the bedrock of the US constitution of 1787. It was a principle that proved its durability in the lifetime of many of us, enabling the US Congress, supported by the Supreme Court, to force the resignation of the corrupt President Richard Nixon in 1974. Had Nixon been an absolute monarch, or a military dictator, this could not have happened.

It was essentially the same principle that enabled Catholic families harmed by clerical sexual abuse to launch the first civil suits against the Catholic clerical system in the United States in the 1980s, and to provoke the first criminal prosecutions for this crime. And it was the freedom of the press under that system that made sexual abuse a discussable subject by all news media in the West. Ireland’s liberation, beginning in the 1990s, began under a state system very different from its own.

Montesquieu’s work had, of course, been placed upon the Roman index in 1751. It is deeply scandalous to the Catholic clerical system that the eventual vindication of Irish Catholic children should be partially a fruit of Montesquieu’s insight. There is another deeper scandal, however. The historical sequence that had led to the freedoms that Montesquieu had noticed in early 18th century England had begun with the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. It was the religious fragmentation that followed the Reformation that had induced the creators of the US constitution to separate church and state – another key reason that the crime of Catholic clerical sexual abuse could first be uncovered and prosecuted in the United States.

The conclusion is inescapable. The poorest Irish children in the first seven decades of the life of an independent Ireland were severely penalised by the collusion of the Irish state with the monarchical Catholic clerical system – wedded as the latter was to paternalism, authoritarianism, clericalism and secrecy. The forces unleashed by greater access to international media in the 1960s eventually brought us into the Western intellectual mainstream – subject to the winds of change initiated by both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. It was no accident that the first prosecutions for clerical sexual abuse in Ireland were brought by the RUC. Or that many of the most forceful Irish journalists who uncovered the Irish scandal had already been themselves liberated from deference to Irish Catholic clericalism.

It is almost certainly this historical scandal – the origins of the liberation of Catholic children in forces hostile to monarchical Catholicism – that prevents the papacy from doing what Bishop Geoffrey Robinson requested it to do in 2002 – to undertake a church-wide investigation of the causes of the clerical child abuse catastrophe. This failure also is fast eroding the dwindling credibility of the system, and reinforcing the perception of many ordinary Catholics that most of their current bishops, and the pope also, are on an endless learning curve.

It was, after all, the Catholic historian Lord Acton who formulated the axiom of 1887 that every educated person knows by heart: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are still awaiting a papal encyclical that will notice this principle at work in the church, and in the corruption of bishops. The fact that we are still waiting is proof of that system’s continued denial of what history is revealing to it. So is the fact that we have never had an encyclical that will rise to the challenge of another sentence in that very same passage from Acton’s letters:

“There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Here Acton was clearly indicting both Catholic clericalism and the monarchical principle – the notion that either kings or clerics are sanctified – made holy – by the offices they hold. This axiom is of supreme importance in the context of clerical child sexual abuse, because part of the abused child’s disempowerment was the contrasting supreme power assumed by the cleric by virtue of his office. (Was he not another Christ?) It was essentially this heresy that prevented one mother in Ferns from suspecting any danger in a priest sharing a bed with her own daughter.

The same heresy underlay the preference given by bishops in Ferns, Cloyne and Dublin to clergy over abused children. It underlay also the disgraceful deference shown by officials in the Department of education to those who dominated the dreadful Catholic institutions indicted in the Ryan report.

This latter connection is most deeply damaging to Catholic clericalism. Defining Catholic loyalty always in terms of deference to clerical authority it brought us in 2009 to an inescapable conclusion: the roots of the moral cowardice that prevented Irish civil servants from protecting Irish children from the most grotesque abuse in the residential institutions – and from reforming that system – lay in Catholic clerical authoritarianism. And so did the supine attitude of too many Gardai when confronted with clerical sexual abuse of children.

It was therefore deeply troubling for every thoughtful Irish Catholic to hear Pope Benedict XVI enthusiastically echoing in June 2009 the spiritualised rhetoric of the Curé d’Ars when he inaugurated a Year for Priests, with the words “After God the priest is everything!” Of course the morale of Catholic priests is a matter for concern at this most difficult time, but could there have been a better year for the pope to say instead: “After God the child is everything”? How are we now to believe that this pope has ever come close to empathising with the powerlessness of a Catholic child at the hands of a clerical sexual predator? Or to grasping the spiritual damage done by that offence – precisely because the child had typically been taught that ‘after god the priest is everything’?

Such rhetoric is therefore deeply offensive to the survivors of clerical sexual abuse, and an insuperable barrier to their reconciliation with the Catholic clerical system. Their lives will be long over before the slow learning curve betrayed by such an utterance will have been completed.

This brings us to another reality: many conscientious Irish Catholics now feel an overwhelming obligation of solidarity with the victims of the Catholic clerical system, and deep anger at that system still stuck on its learning curve. They have a consequent deep need to discover a tradition of Catholic conscience that is not the clerical authoritarian one: “your conscience ceases to be Catholic if it does not accord with your bishop’s”.

This ‘take’ on conscience was always driven by a need for control. Its rationale was, of course, that without strict obedience ‘the church’ would fall apart and its core teachings would be lost. But just look at the state of the church in Ireland after four decades of authoritarianism following Vatican II. It is as far as it could be from a heaven of peace, harmony and unity.

The reason it is in fact a shambles was brought home to me soon after I had begun to make contact with some of those who had suffered most from clericalism – survivors of abuse and of the ecclesiastical mishandling of abuse. This had led members of VOTF in Derry to report our bishop, Seamus Hegarty, to Rome in 2006. The factuality of that report has never once been contested, but nevertheless I was faced one day with the following indignant question from someone who would consider himself the staunchest of Catholics:

“Who told you to do what you are doing?”

It had obviously never occurred to this person that the primary obligation of a Christian, the obligation of love, might ever require him to act decisively on his own initiative – in opposition to a bishop whose policy and practice were in conflict with that obligation. If we reflect for a moment on what might have prevented those Department of Education officials from taking a Christian initiative in relation to the residential institutions, or on what led Gardai in the Archdiocese of Dublin to turn a blind eye to the criminal activities of abusive clerics, we will be led inexorably to the conclusion that they lived in total dread of the very same question:

“Who told you to do what you are doing?”

To be paralysed by fear of that question is to be guilty of moral cowardice. To what extent is the social conscience of Irish Catholicism still paralysed by that fear?

The axiom that lies behind this question must run something like this: Catholic identity is to be defined solely in terms of total obedience and deference to Catholic clerical authority. Unquestioning adherence to that axiom is the root source of the disgrace we have all suffered in 2009. If we do not grasp that fact, and abandon that conviction, we will have learned nothing from what could be the most traumatic, and important, year in Irish Catholic history.

To help us to abandon that conviction we need only reflect on an event that took place in October 2007. On the 26th of that month, in Linz, Austria, our church beatified Franz Jägerstätter. He had been guillotined by the Nazis in 1942 for refusing to serve in the German army on the eastern front. He had taken this decision in opposition to the pleading of his own bishop who, in common with all of the Austrian hierarchy, had supported Hitler’s war.

The conclusion to be drawn is starkly obvious. Although the Catholic magisterium will insist upon obedience in all eras, and will insist that a properly informed conscience cannot be disobedient, it may end up with no alternative but to honour a Catholic for disobedience in cases where it has itself been morally deficient.

To rescue ourselves from the moral and ecclesiastical cul de sac into which we were led by clerical authoritarianism we need to recognise that the authoritarian take on conscience (which emphasises obedience above every other consideration) has always been counterbalanced by what could be called the ‘divine spark’ tradition which accords to the individual the dignity of discernment and judgement, both likely consequences of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of wisdom within the individual. Exponents of this tradition include St Jerome, Meister Eckhart and Cardinal Newman.

The Catholic Catechism itself expresses this richness by its reference to Newman alongside its emphasis upon the role of the magisterium in forming conscience. The conscience of the individual is also, in Newmans’ words ‘the aboriginal Vicar of Christ’.

Let us suppose for a moment that the following fantastical sequence of events had occurred in Ireland in the aftermath of Vatican II.

Disturbed by the situation in Ireland’s residential institutions for children, a small group of civil servants in Ireland’s Department of Education discovered one day in 1966 the references in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium to the ‘just freedom which belongs to everyone in this earthly city’. After further thought and prayer, and meditation on Cardinal Newman’s teachings on conscience, this ‘LG37’ group decided to conduct a surprise inspection of a sample of the institutions, and then immediately to leak their findings to the media. These caused a sensation and a crisis of church and state. Popular outrage led to a more thorough study, which broadly vindicated the original findings and led to a thorough reform of the system in the decade that followed.

Given the climate of the time, this would, of course, have been an almost miraculous occurrence – but so was Franz Jägerstätter ‘s exercise of his own Catholic conscience in Austria in 1942. Had this actually happened, would such an ‘LG37’ group now be vilified as disobedient Irish Catholics who had acted in defiance of the church’s teachings on obedience and conscience? Or would they be regarded as having vindicated their church when it was in serious danger of being totally disgraced?

The case I am making is the case made by Joe Dunn in 1994 in “No Lions in the Hierarchy”1Joseph Dunn,“No Lions in the Hierarchy:  An Anthology of Sorts”, Columba Press, Dublin, 1994 – for the toleration by the magisterium of a loyal opposition within the church. That case has conclusively been made by the events of 2009 – because we have all been totally disgraced by the absence of that very thing. Most of the scandals of the past sixteen years could have been avoided if the Irish church had developed after Vatican II a structural tolerance for serious differences of opinion among the people of God.

Of course there is a need to be concerned that ‘the deposit of faith’ is not fractured, dissipated and lost. But what ‘deposit of faith’ was occupying the minds and hearts of all of those who turned a blind eye to the intense suffering of children in Catholic institutions within living memory? Or the Archbishops of Dublin who imperilled children? Or the Gardai who also failed to react decisively against criminal behaviour by clerics?

There is a crucial distinction to be made between core Catholic belief, and the living out of that belief in the real world. It is now clear that the most senior members of the magisterium can make appalling mistakes in the practical application of their faith and in the administration of the church. An overweening concern to maintain a monolithic church by penalising any kind of dissent has given us the global and Irish Catholic catastrophes of this era. The equation of independence of mind with disloyalty is a mistake we must recognise and rectify, with the greatest urgency.

Just now in January 2010 it seems extremely unlikely that the pastoral letter promised by Pope Benedict XVI to Ireland for the spring of 2010 will rise to these challenges. Given the fact that Catholic bishops have protected abusers in at least twenty-five other countries, the confinement of a church reorganisation to Ireland is entirely indefensible and reeks of the deadly disease of damage limitation. If there is a sweeping change in personnel at the summit of the Irish church as a result of this pastoral it will then fall to this new generation of Irish bishops to prove it has learned something from the total failure of the church system we have inherited.

But whatever happens, the exposure of the total moral failure of Catholic ecclesiastical monarchism will not be lost on future generations of intelligent Irish children. They have already established a tradition of waving goodbye to that system in their teens. There is a good case for arguing that the better part of the Irish Catholic church has already escaped from it, and waits only to be reconvened by a papacy and hierarchy that will at some stage in the future have completed its learning curve, recovered its intellectual integrity and finally woken up to the moral superiority of distributed power.

Catholicism has no other viable future in Ireland, or anywhere else.

Notes

  1. Joseph Dunn, “No Lions in the Hierarchy:  An Anthology of Sorts”, Columba Press, Dublin, 1994

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Goodbye and Good Riddance to Irish Catholic Serfdom

Sean O’Conaill Doctrine and Life  October 2009

“And the darkness could not overwhelm the light.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unaccountability, Patronage and Corruption

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Feb 2006

As a teacher of history I had often to explain to pre-university students how different the world was when it was governed by an unquestionable hereditary nobility who monopolised wealth, power and privilege. If I was still teaching I would probably now point to our own Catholic Church as the last remaining vestige of that system.

However, Catholic teachers in Catholic schools are unhappily still only too fearful of the consequences of doing any such thing.

Those students found it very difficult to get a real grip of a world in which the fortunes of individuals were far less dependent upon their abilities than upon the vagaries of patronage. Accountable to no one, in a world where public examinations didn’t exist, people of power had absolute discretion in employing and promoting their own favourites – and the obsequiousness required of an applicant was often corrupting and bitterly resented. Not even the towering genius of a Mozart gave immunity. His loss of the favour of one patron – the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg – led to him being kicked down a flight of stairs by this worthy’s servant.

Sometimes good movies help explain the situation – and none is more helpful than A Man for All Seasons. The opening sequences show Lord Chancellor Thomas More, disillusioned by the corruption at the court of Henry VIII, dealing with the overtures of a young graduate, Richard Rich, who wants to find his way to that court, as a member of More’s retinue. Suspecting that Rich will be all too easily corruptible, More suggests that he become a teacher instead. But Rich’s eyes are fixed too firmly upon a court appointment. When More turns him down, Rich turns to another rising star at court, Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell prevails upon Rich to give false testimony against More on the matter of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. More goes to the block while Rich becomes Attorney General of Wales.

While the actual history of this matter is probably not so clear cut, the real connection between unaccountability, patronage and corruption is made crystal clear in that film. How many Catholic churchmen are aware that their own unaccountability, allied to their own power of patronage, is a deeply corrupting circumstance in their own Church?

Take the simple fact that a bishop has virtually absolute discretion in the matter of clerical appointments, and very considerable leverage in the matter of appointments in most Catholic schools. Can this encourage independence of mind and intellectual and moral integrity in present circumstances in the Catholic educational system? My own experience and recent observation strongly indicate the contrary.

The Ledwith Case

Take, for example, what is now known as the Ledwith affair. The Ferns Report concluded that the bishop trustees of Maynooth had been seriously mistaken in their reaction to the reporting by Maynooth Dean Gerard McGinnity in 1984 of inappropriate behaviour by Monsignor Ledwith in relation to young seminarians. While Fr McGinnity had been sacked for his effrontery, Ledwith had been promoted to the presidency of the college – but had later been compelled to resign.

The McCullough Report into that affair had also discovered that Ledwith was believed to have ‘too much interest in a few’ of the Maynooth seminarians. It also declared that the investigation undertaken by some of the bishop trustees of Maynooth into McGinnity’s report had been inadequate. Ledwith’s rapid rise, and the trustees’ brusque treatment of McGinnity, suggest also that whereas Ledwith was a firm favourite of those bishops in 1984, McGinnity most definitely was not.

Favouritism and patronage are close cousins. The power of an academic in a university to help or hinder a student is notoriously prone to corruptive exploitation. So, visibly, is the power of a bishop trustee of Maynooth to help or hinder a member of the Maynooth staff by promotion or the contrary. That bishop trustees are not accountable to the Church community they serve is now a circumstance deeply troubling to that Church community. The People of God should not need to be beholden to secular institutions to regulate the leaders they themselves finance. Many are already asking why their Church contributions should be less effective in making their bishops accountable than their state taxes and their television licence fees.

Is a trustee who has bankrupted the trust required by his office still, de facto, a trustee?

The unaccountability of bishops means, of course, that they can safely dodge that question. But the tendency of so many of those charged with educating the Church, to dodge the Church’s questions – now well established after more than a decade – is in itself an abdication of leadership, a challenge to faith, and a corrupting circumstance for those below them in the chain of command. If a bishop cannot face direct questions from his people, how can he persuasively ask a subordinate to do so? And how, in the wake of the Ledwith affair, and in the absence, so far, of any significant reparation to Fr McGinnity, can he argue that integrity is a virtue favoured by the Catholic educational system overall – especially at its pinnacle?

Students

Since retiring from teaching in Catholic schools in 1996 I have maintained contact with colleagues. Without exception they confirm my own strong suspicion: for a teacher to express serious criticism of Irish Catholic Church leadership is still considered, by most teachers, to be probably fatal to any prospect of promotion. Rightly or wrongly, Catholic teachers believe that it is fatal to get ‘on the wrong side of the bishops’ – and ambitious career teachers will edit their verbal utterances accordingly.

That fear is in itself an obvious source of corruption. But the corrupting influence does not stop there. Faced with the reality that school authorities in Northern Ireland write references for them as part of the university entrance system, many Catholic students in my time tended to be utterly conformist in every respect until the end of final school term; and then to express their indifference to (and some times resentment of) their Church by abandoning all contact with it at that point – forever. This can be confirmed simply by interrogating Catholic university chaplains on the numbers of Catholic students who make any kind of contact with them, and by scanning Church congregations for young people in the age-range eighteen to thirty-five.

As the power of patronage, especially when accompanied by lack of accountability, is so clearly a corrupting influence on our Church, the case for making accountable those who dispense patronage is now overwhelming. The problem is, of course, that, being unaccountable, these dispensers of patronage do not need to agree.

Indeed, if we study Boston, the signs are that Church leaders are still determined to prove that those who speak out with integrity will not prosper. Priests who did so against Cardinal Archbishop Bernard Law of Boston in 2002, forcing his resignation, have found themselves penalised in the transfer process by his successor. And supporters of Fr Gerard McGinnity who protested on his behalf at Armagh cathedral in late 2005 have been approached by senior clergy with the intention of doing further damage to his reputation. No sign of reparation, or remorse, there. But then the promotion of Cardinal Law to a prominent role in Rome by the late pope – even more prominent since the death of John Paul II – sends the very same message.

Seeking Integrity

The struggle for integrity is probably an endless one, especially for the Christian. How sad that most of the appointed leaders of our Church, in Ireland and elsewhere, have still not visibly committed themselves to it, or been able to read the signs of the times.

For example, how many Irish bishops have recognised generously the public service provided by the media in opening our eyes to the series of scandals that have overwhelmed the Irish Catholic Church since 1994? How many are moved to contrast the freedom of the secular press and other media with the Byzantine secrecy with which the clerical Catholic Church conducts its business? From the UTV documentary on Brendan Smyth in November 1994, to the BBC documentary Suing the Pope in 2002, all forward progress in the Church’s handling of the issue of clerical child sex abuse has been driven by secular media revelation. Nevertheless, there are still senior Irish bishops who blame the secular media for all of the bad news they publish – as though most of that bad news had not in fact been created by the clerical Church’s own deceitful denial of justice to those it has wronged, and denial of transparency to the wider Church.

Why does information travel faster in secular culture than in the culture of the Church? Why are secular journalists free to inform us lay Catholics of our Church’s internal shortcomings, while clergy feel obliged to tell us nothing and to toe the party line? Here again the reason is the corrupting effects of an unaccountable patronage system. To put the situation in the bluntest terms, the best journalists are paid to educate their readers, while Catholic clergy are rewarded only for being loyal to bishops whose notion of education is mostly closer to that of mushroom farmers: we lay people are to be kept totally in the dark because the unaccountable patronage system (which they mistakenly call ‘the Church’) has to be protected at all costs.

The tendency for this system to surround a bishop with servant sycophants who simply cannot give their superior a ‘reality check’ is now notorious in Ireland. It favours the deep-seated culture of denial that prevents the hierarchy from getting a real grip of the situation. It also causes deep fissures in the fraternal relations of clergy.

Learning basic Christianity

Secular culture is therefore now teaching basic Christianity to a ‘slow learner’ hierarchy – and that is the most profound reason for the rapid secularisation of this island. Twenty years ago most people in Ireland supposed religion to be the source of all morality. Our hierarchy have now persuaded many of us that religion is just as likely to be the enemy of morality – when it denies us the truth, and often justice as well.

It is not as though the Ferns Report is completely unchallengeable either. The Report comes badly unstuck when it says (p. 256) ‘bishops put the interests of the church ahead of children’. Those children were also – all – equal members of the Church, and the Church as a spiritual community has been deeply injured by the action of those bishops, so this is strictly nonsense. However, we cannot expect an Irish bishop to say so. The reason is that what was actually put before children was the closed clerical system that is so clearly misgoverning the Church – which every bishop is nevertheless oath-bound to protect as though it was the Church.

It needs to be said clearly: a secular culture in which power is dispersed has been shown to be more likely to permit the reign of truth and the growth to adulthood of the Catholic laity – and to prevent abuses of power that the current Church system did nothing to prevent. It is therefore superior, in terms of Christian morality and education, to a medieval system in which the power and status of an unaccountable oligarchy has been prioritised as though it was the will of God – even after that system has been clearly shown, to the whole world, to be dangerous to the bodies and souls of children.

To put an end to a corrupt and corrupting system, unaccountable control of Church patronage must therefore be ended as rapidly as possible by those who actually fund it – the Catholic laity. Until full accountability has been institutionalised in our Church, we fund the present system at peril to the very survival of the truths and values that are our foundation. At present we are actually participants in corruption, because we give free rein to those who control the patronage system of the Church, who remain unaccountable, who wield that patronage still to maintain their ‘authority’, and who have (mostly) learned too few of the most important lessons of the past eleven years.

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Consecrating the World?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

In resisting the ‘clericalisation’ of the laity, Pope John Paul II has insisted in Christifideles Laici upon the quite separate and unique lay role of ‘consecrating the world to God’. In so doing he reiterated a central theme of Lumen Gentium. Dismissed by many as a mere stratagem for maintaining the clerical monopoly of power in the church, this verbal reinforcement of Vatican II needs to be taken far more seriously as an opportunity for freeing the Holy Spirit to enlighten and encourage both clergy and laity at a critical time.

But ‘the consecration of the world to God’ is a formula that needs teasing out. If we understand it simply as a ‘churching’ of the world, a matter of ‘ outdoor worship’ – of ostentatious religiosity in the form of mass processions and other grand liturgical events designed for media coverage – we are attempting something else, the recreation of that public power the clerical Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere sought to express in the pre-Vatican II era. Christendom and Christianity were never the same thing – and the distinction is critical if we are to communicate to lay people their own crucial and indispensable role in worldly consecration.

Nor can the consecration of the world be achieved by subterfuge, by inducting laity into clerically inspired and controlled pseudo-lay movements that seek to ‘infiltrate’ secular space. Conspiratorial Catholicism is one of the most powerful de-Christianising forces in history, because it proposes to seize by stealth what Christ aimed to transform by nothing more, or less, than unconditional and universal love. By now every Catholic – from Pope to first communicant – should know the fundamental equation proved by recent events: secrecy is – in itself – scandalous.

The fundamental values of the Gospel are not specifically Catholic, or in need of secret stratagems or movements, or alien to the secularised world, or out of place in any human relationship. They are the inalienable sacredness of every human person, and therefore also the sacredness of every human space – and the right of all persons to know and cherish their own dignity and freedom as dearly beloved of God. They have to do, centrally, with unconditional respect for one another, and for ourselves.

It follows that instead of lamenting the half-emptiness of the glass of secularisation, Catholicism should be celebrating its half-fullness – the fact that it emphasises some rights that are implicit in the Gospels, and provides a peaceful neutral space in which all can freely discuss their own spiritual journeys and dilemmas. Victimisation and oppression are also anathema to ideological secularism – and this is a victory for the cross as well, even though we must point to the obvious anomaly of abortion and the drift towards a degrading separation of sexuality from binding relationships.

We Catholics cherish our sacraments as signs of divine love – but we have also forcibly baptised conquered peoples, and therefore made baptism also – for some – a contradictory sign of oppression. Religious freedom was a goal of secularism before it was a principle of our Church – so secularism is for many a more convincing sign of their own liberation, and therefore, to that extent, in that respect – and for those people – more sacramental than the church.

It follows inexorably that there are secular sacraments as well as Catholic ones – sacraments that point nevertheless to the same truths. It follows that they too are worthy of Catholic respect. This discovery was fundamental to the work of Fr John Courtney Murray whose respect for separation of church and state in his own country guided the Vatican II affirmation of the principle of religious liberty.

Which means in turn that we must believe that whenever the Church fails in its assigned role of mediating liberation and salvation to the world, God will find other means. We must therefore learn to recognise them – rather than to condemn them because they are not Catholic. Karl Rahner’s ‘anonymous Christians’ are no mere theoretical possibility: they exist wherever human beings idealise human equality and freedom – even if they mis-recognise Christ as a God of oppression through our fault.

This perspective is very different to the one currently taught in our schools. Although we have abandoned the formula ‘no salvation outside the Church’ we have nevertheless supposed and taught that somehow sometime our Church will be vindicated as the central vehicle of human salvation, and that divine grace must sometime be mediated to all through its sacraments. We are also taught to fear secularism, rather than to celebrate the freedoms it provides.

The lives of people such as Nelson Mandela, Andrey Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and George Mitchell prove that our God is always greater than we are, and has other strings to his bow. And that he does not wait for our Church to get its act together.

What the Gospels centrally reveal is the existence of a divine force for good, concerned for the fulfilment of every human person. That does not mean that we must suppose God wants everyone to be like us.

In fact, to be truly Catholic, we must be ready to acknowledge that many are Godly who are very unlike us – and celebrate that difference. As Richard Rohr and Ronald Rohlheiser have emphasised, Jesus never told us to be right, to be sure of our own religious and intellectual superiority. Becoming wise is a matter of letting go the need to be right – and it is far more important for the Church to be wise than dominant.

If this seems to be a capitulation to ‘ relativism’, the mistake is in supposing that our God is confined to revealing himself through us. We write and speak of a hierarchy of truth, and so oblige ourselves to identify what lies at the summit of that hierarchy. We need to be very sure that we do not place ourselves there, by deifying our Church.

For me the summit of that hierarchy is the inalienable dignity of every person – including those who differ from me. Their right to differ is therefore in itself sacred – so that I cannot claim the last word. This seems to me to be at the centre of the Word I worship.

And that is very close to the Enlightenment principle of intellectual freedom – one of the keystones of secular modernism.

It follows inexorably that Catholicism needs to re-evaluate its performance vis-a-vis the Enlightenment and Christendom – and this amounts to a revolution in Catholic thought. To consecrate the world to God we are called to co-operate with – rather than to convert – all who centre themselves upon principles of equality, freedom, community and inclusion.

Just as the domination of the secular world today cannot be considered the manifest destiny of any secular superpower, neither can the spiritual domination of the world be considered the manifest destiny of Catholicism. To be truly a great sacrament of human spiritual liberation it must let go of the need to be recognised by all as right, while maintaining its own right to adhere to its own faith. If its mandate is to liberate the world – the central meaning of salvation – it must unequivocally affirm that its own core values include the right of others to remain forever outside.

It follows from all of this that the role of laity in consecrating the world to God must not be seen as one of simply following the instructions of the clerical church, or of reversing secularisation. Clerical paternalism has already placed faithful Catholic laity in the obnoxious position of appearing to be simply forelock-tugging ‘yes’ people with no intellectual autonomy, a kind of ‘Catholic Mafia’ still wedded to the cause of re-clericalising secular space.

We Catholics must all become far more aware of the degree to which fundamental Christian and Catholic values are already out there in the world, informing the best of secular culture. Previous articles on the Harry Potter and Star Wars phenomena have pointed to the central Christian ideas of self-sacrifice for the good of others, and there are many more examples of the same. The very real example that now dominates the imagination of the west was that of the policemen and firemen who raced into terrifying danger, with no violent intent, on September 11th 2001.

What made the priesthood of Christ quite unique was that it had both a secular and a religious significance. Traditional priestly animal sacrifice was essentially the deflection onto a non-human creature of violence that must otherwise fall upon the sacrificing community, or upon at least one of its members. There was, on the part of the priest, an inevitable element of substitution and evasion. Sacred violence in the ancient world was therefore inevitably morally compromised – the fundamental reason for the obsession with ritual cleanliness. Furthermore, the spheres of the sacred and the profane were inevitably divorced and almost antagonistic to one another, as the priest had to be apart from the rest of men.

This evasion and separation was obliterated by the cross. Jesus sacrificed himself alone for the cause of a forgiving and peaceful world. As Paul noted in Ephesians, every Christian can emulate this sacrifice of Christ in his own body, to some degree, for the benefit of others. This real self-sacrifice incarnates the mercy of God, and the sacrifice of Christ, in a manner that is in no way inferior to the liturgical sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, to the degree that sacrifice remains a merely liturgical phenomenon, Catholicism has failed.

Which means in turn that there should not be any difference in dignity between the lay Catholic and the Catholic priest in the church’s own internal structures. I have remarked here before on the fact that lay Catholics recently wronged by their clergy have found in secular structures a personal dignity and a vindication they could not discover in their Church. This is a scandal that must be righted urgently if the Church superstructure is to recover any of the prestige it once had in secular Ireland, and among its own laity.

Autonomy is an essential sign of dignity, and the lack of autonomy that lay people suffer in the church is the essential cause of the spiritual diffidence, resentment and intellectual immaturity that characterise so many of us. The ‘consecration of the world to God’ requires therefore the creation of autonomous lay structures within which lay men and women can develop their own special and irreplaceable vocations.

These structures are needed not for radical theological innovation, but for the empowering of laity to incarnate the values of the gospel that belong especially to lay people – the values of sacrifice and service that presently lie largely dormant because the Church remains an essentially clerical apparatus. For centuries that apparatus has called laity to worship without freeing laity to serve – for fear of losing clerical control. It still hangs fearfully unready to free the Holy Spirit that now calls so many lay people. It is that fear above all that now retards the development of the whole church as an instrument of worldly consecration.

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The Greatest Scandal

Sean O’Conaill © Reality June 2002

How do Irish Catholic bishops understand the Catholic Church?  As the whole people of God under their care, or as essentially the ordained ministry, whose public prestige must be paramount?

This question lies at the root not just of the recent resignation of Bishop Comiskey, but of the settled deportment of the leadership of the Irish Church since the onset of a series of scandals a decade ago.  All of these scandals have had a common theme: the discovery and investigation by secular institutions – police, courts and media – of abuses of power and trust within the clerical Church.  This common theme – and the sufferings of hundreds of ordinary Catholic young people at the hands of their own clergy – points to an obvious dysfunction in the Church itself – its inability to give its own most vulnerable members the protection, care, attention and justice they must then seek from the secular state and the media.  Scandalously it declares the moral superiority – even from a Christian perspective, and at a time when some of the bishops have been lamenting the secularisation of Ireland – of secularism itself.

For a Church now being called by the papacy to re-evangelise the West this surely must be the greatest scandal of all.

Modern secularism originated in the ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century, when intellectuals dazzled by Newtonian science jumped to the conclusion that science, rather than faith, was the only reliable source of knowledge and social improvement.  Their scorning of the intellectual claims of Christian clergy put the Catholic clergy in opposition to modernity – a posture that the Irish church especially relished.  This opposition now haunts the church, as its own internal shortcomings continue to feed the incessant hunger of the secular media.

Freedom of the press was a primary principle of the Enlightenment, and of the secular liberalism the hierarchical Church came to detest.  So was the principle of a separation of state powers.  The US constitution, in which power is distributed between the Presidency, Congress and Supreme Court, was the great triumph of the Enlightenment, as US constitution makers in the period after 1783 borrowed freely from the ideas of Montesquieu and other Enlightenment thinkers.  While Montesquieu’s principle made US presidents accountable to Congress and the Supreme Court, the Catholic Church put Montesquieu’s works on its list of demonic literature, the Roman Index.

The reason this happened was that the Catholic hierarchy of the time was dominated by the younger sons of the European landed aristocracy, whose older brothers were most threatened by democratic principles.  Attributing the democratic wave, the French revolution and secular liberalism to Freemasonry, the hierarchical Church went onto the defensive against modernity.  The Church, we were assured, is not a democracy.  And this meant that in an era of growing accountability for all institutions, the Church became unique in preventing the accountability of its own leadership.

The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s might well have ended this anomaly, defining the church as it did – as the whole people of God.  Yet Humanae Vitae of 1968, representing the priority of the principle of papal absolutism in the Church, put an end to this hope.  Support for Humanae Vitae became the litmus test of loyalty and a sine qua non for episcopal appointment and promotion in the long papacy of John Paul II.  This in turn guaranteed that the Irish church would remain a heavily paternalistic and secretive institution at its summit, increasingly out of touch with a rapidly modernising society.  Accountability of clergy to the people of God was never on the programme, and this is an entirely sufficient explanation for the state of affairs we now have.

And this is the greatest scandal now facing the Church in Ireland – that it still cannot prove itself to be an open and caring and adult institution, fully capable of protecting its own weakest members without external pressure.  Where the church in the Middle Ages could be seen as a sanctuary that would protect the lay person from secular violence and injustice, Irish victims of clerical violation today flee in the opposite direction –  to find sanctuary instead in secular institutions – while Irish bishops allow secular lawyers to determine their pastoral response to these victims.  As I write, the survivors of Fr Sean Fortune’s depredations are calling for a public enquiry into the handling of the abuse issue in the diocese of Ferns.  Such an enquiry would represent in Ireland the final  victory of secularism over Catholicism in the matter of vindicating the Church’s own victims.  No greater disgrace could befall our church leadership.

When the Brendan Smyth case hit the news in 1994 I felt sure that this scandal must finally establish principles of openness and accountability for the Irish church, and called for this in an article in Studies.  It never crossed my mind that eight years later we would still be suffering the scandal of paternalistic non-accountability, media pressure – and a serious shortfall in the matter of basic justice to violated young people.

Those wasted eight years will remain the most visible historical monument of the Church’s present leadership – unless they make an unprecedented effort to grasp the meaning of what is happening.  Why should Irish Catholics respect their own leaders, or their own church, if they must look to a state enquiry to explain what went wrong in Ferns – rather than to an enquiry freely and openly initiated by the Church itself?  What would prevent this – other than the failed policy of indicting secularism for all that is wrong with Ireland now?  If it is true that the state cannot constitutionally inquire into the manner in which the church conducts its own disciplinary business, the church leadership must be in no doubt that as members of the church, with families to protect,  Irish lay Catholics (and especially those damaged by this appalling tragedy) are owed such an investigation.

Secularism alone cannot, in fact, heal the wounds in the Irish church.  But the full truth could begin to do so, especially if the Church leadership were to seize this moment for a total revealing of what went wrong – open to full public and expert independent legal scrutiny.  There is at least one precedent for this.   Following the revelation of child abuse in Newfoundland in 1988 the Winter Commission, established by the Catholic Church, investigated abuse at Mount Cashel orphanage in the Newfoundland diocese of St John’s.  Chaired by a highly respected and independent former Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland, the Winter Commission proceeded with such scrupulous concern for the truth that its findings won almost universal acceptance when published in 1990.  (Ironically, these included the conclusions that the traditional non-accountability of Catholic clergy, and the emphasis placed upon the unquestionable authority of clergy, placed Catholic children at unacceptable risk.)

Must Irish Catholics wait yet again for our Church leadership to catch up, in terms of structural reform, with the times, with the demands of elementary justice to our own children, and with the pastoral needs of the church at a time of collapsing vocations to the ordained ministry?

This would make us all complicit in scandal.  Oddly enough, the full meaning of that word – scandal – is ‘stumbling block’, something that trips us up, something we would prefer to remain hidden.  That secular institutions should be still in advance of the church leadership in bringing to light matters of injustice within the church – eight years after the first such revelations – is itself a scandal too far for Irish Catholicism.  It is still within the power of our Church leaders to put an end to it, but their time is rapidly running out.

In the longer term Breda O’Brien’s idea of a Church ombudsman would be a step in the right direction, but given the other major problems of the Church just now, nothing less than a comprehensive structural reform of the church is likely to meet the situation, involving some kind of separation of administrative and pastoral functions.  The safety of Catholic children, and even the continuity of the faith, also demand formal and permanent lay parish structures, together with rights of regular assembly for all the faithful, at parish, diocesan and (eventually) national level.

Will this generation of Church leaders be able to forgive themselves if this opportunity too is missed, and the Irish Catholic Church remains a prime target for secular sensation and criticism?  Dr Comiskey’s resignation turns the media spotlight on the rest of the Irish conference of bishops.  They have little time left to prove they really do believe that the church is the whole people of God, and that they can run the Irish church justly and competently, without the supervision and pressure of the secular media and the secular state.

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April Epiphanies

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life  June 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rejecting the poison chalice of church-state unity

Sean O’Conaill ©The Irish Times 2000

There is no question that the papacy of John Paul II will be best remembered for its attitude of penitence about disastrous historical errors of ecclesiastical praxis.

The document Memory and Reconciliation is unprecedented in its acknowledgment of these. It will probably remain as the best evidence of the necessary continuation at the millennium of a process of descent from the hubristic insanities of Christendom.

It comes close to the terminus of an arc of spiritual inflation that began with the persecution of the Donatists at the end of the 4th century, reached its appalling zenith with the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099 and began a rapid and salutary descent in the 17th century with the scientific revolution.

However, that arc remains to be completed, for Memory and Reconciliation – although aiming at the purification of memory – chooses to forget, or ignore, crucial errors of doctrine and praxis which lie ready for repetition were the church again to be offered the poison chalice of church-state unity.  It is clear that Catholicism still contains a chauvinist rump, not at all happy with any kind of apology, and this must at all costs be deprived of the means of disgracing the church again.

Chief among these doctrinal time-bombs is Augustine of Hippo’s appalling exegesis of Luke 14:16-23. This is the parable in which the rich man, whose friends won’t attend a marriage feast, instructs his servants to search the by-ways for strangers, and “compel them to come in”. It is clear from the context that the “compulsion” approved by Jesus here would be no more than that required to overcome the natural hesitation of a tramp invited out of the blue to feast with his social superiors.  Augustine, principally in the letter to Donatus, stretched this to a justification of the use of state coercion to suppress the Donatist movement in north Africa, compelling all to accept his brand of orthodoxy.

In The Letter to Donatus, Augustine addressed the argument for toleration used by a Donatist correspondent. This was to the effect that Jesus’s question “Will you, too, go away?” to the disciples following the eucharistic teaching (John 6:45-47) was an acknowledgment of their full right to do exactly that.

Augustine contrasted Jesus’s humility on his way to the cross with the divinely-ordained and new-found power acquired by the post-resurrection church, from Emperors Constantine and Theodosius. This gift, he argued, was in itself proof that the church did have the authority to compel whom it wished into conformity.

“Compel them to come in” became the fundamental text of Christian intolerance for 1,500 years. It has still not been challenged or repudiated by the teaching church, even though a contrary teaching was adopted by Vatican II (that “the truth may convey itself solely by virtue of its own truth”.)

It is clear also that the genesis of this Vatican II teaching came via the 18th-century Enlightenment, rather than via the church’s own theology. The fact remains that the church has still to provide a scriptural foundation for the principle of religious freedom.

On the other hand, the corruptive effects of the church-state alliance are absolutely clear, and this is the second major omission from the Memory and Reconciliation document. Although it alludes to the church-state link as the context within which mistakes were made, it does so in order to exonerate the church from full responsibility. This simply will not do.  As we witness here in Ireland the cost to the prestige of the church that has flowed from its period of secular power following independence, we must insist upon the perennial truth that power corrupts – specifically the coercive power of the state.

The truth is that Christendom itself replaced Christ’s self-sacrifice with coercion as the major argument for Christian conversion. We are still lumbered with explanations of the crucifixion that misrepresent the Christian deity as so wedded to self-satisfaction as to require the son’s payment of a debt his Father would not cancel.

This is so contradictory and nonsensical as to make the whole idea of atonement, and of a Trinity founded upon love, totally opaque. On the other hand, the cross for many today has become symbolic of divine solidarity with their victimisation, an entirely contrary perspective.

Which interpretation does the church now officially hold?  Behind virtually all of the errors admitted by the church in Memory and Reconciliation – the persecution of heretics, of Jews, the Inquisition, the toleration of slavery, the rape of cultures in the New World – lies the spectre of the church’s alliance with the state, the ultimate source and locus of coercive power.  Until that has been acknowledged fully, the church’s memory will remain partial, and a resumption of Catholic coercion a future option.

Let us purify the church’s memory perfectly, and secure its future credibility by highlighting the basic source of its historical mistakes.  Jesus’s separation of church and state – unique among religious leaders in the ancient world – was betrayed by the church, with terrifying consequences.

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