Tag Archives: Lumen Gentium

The Spirit of Vatican II

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  September 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Endless Deference or Integrity?

Sean O’Conaill   Blog   April 2012

In preparation for Confirmation around the age  of ten, Catholic children are taught that this sacrament will confer on them the dignity ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’. Are they taught how to recognise the Holy Spirit moving within them then?  If their hearts were then to burn strongly for other Temples of the Holy Spirit who were violated in the past, or they were to feel a just anger against bishops who knowingly allowed that to happen, or they were to shed tears for the mothers so cruelly betrayed – would any of those manifestations of moral indignation signify to them that the Holy Spirit was now at work within themselves?

I ask this question because of the stunning failure of the apostolic visitation to Ireland to address two other questions:

First, why Irish Catholic church administrators, politicians, civil servants and police officers – all also Temples of the Holy Spirit – were not moved to moral outrage and effective action by the cruelties revealed by the series of state reports into abuse:  in Ferns, Dublin, the Catholic residential institutions and Cloyne.

Second, why it was that the church’s clerical system did not become ostentatious in the cause of child protection until secular courts, media and state forced it to act?

The apostolic visitation to Ireland was itself the result of secular revelation but its summary report shows absolutely no sign of an honest acknowledgement of this.  Are Ireland’s young Temples supposed to be forever unable to notice this, and forever unprompted by courage, honesty and love, to ask why?

Did the visitators even ask these questions of themselves?  If not, how can they convince us Irish Catholics that the visitation was not in the main just another holy show, primarily designed to distract attention from those questions, and from the fact that the concealment of abuse within the church is a global and not just an Irish problem?

As a Catholic educated in the era of Vatican II, and subsequently by the Catholic children I taught for thirty years, I can say with the deepest conviction that those young hearts do indeed burn, feel anger and weep for all cruelty and injustice.  But while the Holy Spirit is indeed moving those children in this way they are simultaneously being taught something quite contrary by the Catholic magisterium: deference to itself, and mute obedience to its minute theological formulae as the sine qua non of Catholic loyalty.

And this is still the obsession of the magisterium, as revealed by the passage  in the summary report that insists that renewal of the church forbids dissent.

What this means is that the magisterium is still not paying attention to the effect of the prioritisation of obedience to itself above moral outrage.  What this teaches is not honesty, initiative, courage and love, but subterfuge, irresponsibility, fear and malice.  We need look no further for the moral inertia of Irish Catholic officials who were forever afraid to act rightly on behalf of the weakest of our children.

I respectfully challenge here and now the Catholic magisterium to refute this, and to explain why the  revelation and the tackling of the grotesque evil of abuse within the church had to come from the secular world.  The sacraments are one thing, but the church’s governing system is something else entirely – something that frustrates the brilliant work of Catholic teachers.  They too must be wondering now whether the magisterium will ever, like good Catholic children, sit up, wake up, and pay full attention.

For example to the obvious fact that Catholic children have been far better served by the principle of the separation of executive, legislative and judicial power in secular society than by the church’s own vertical power system in which there are no checks on the power of the most powerful, and insufficient protection for the weakest.

And this is obviously because the magisterium has forgotten article 32 of Lumen Gentium: “Although by Christ’s will some are appointed teachers, dispensers of the mysteries and pastors for the others, yet all the faithful enjoy a true equality with regard to the dignity and the activity which they share in the building up of the body of Christ!'” 

The Irish church still has absolutely no structures to vindicate this principle, and no Irish lay person has a structured right to question a bishop on obvious derelictions of duty.  And the summary report of the apostolic visitation ignores this problem also.

To this day there has been no response to the historical argument presented in 2010, and again here on this site, that the rescuing of Catholic children from the most depraved evil owes far more to the Protestant Reformation and the ‘Enlightenment’ than to the Catholic magisterium.   (See The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism)

So again I ask: how exactly is the Holy Spirit supposed to be moving the young Catholics of Ireland and globally ‘to renew the face of the earth’?  I’ve been saying the prayer ‘Come Holy Spirit’ all my life, and the fact is that I’ve learnt far more about how that could actually happen from Catholic clergy loyal to Vatican II (now again under covert intimidation in Ireland) and from Charles Dickens, than I have from the Catholic magisterium since 1968.

If it is argued that Irish Catholic lay people need to be protected from priests who would want to explore controversial issues, has the magisterium considered the impact of this upon our morale – through the inferences that the Holy See apparently believes the Holy Spirit denies the Irish people the gift of discernment and that we are not even to be allowed to suppose that an Irish priest could actually be speaking his own mind?

Our own bishops can’t even have the courage to demand that the Holy Spirit be freed to enable them to determine the language of the Mass for us.  What kind of leadership is this?  And what kind of theology?

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Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like all Christians, the laity have the right to receive in abundance the help of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially that of the word of God and the sacraments from the pastors. To the latter the laity should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ. By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have the laity are empowered-indeed sometimes obliged-to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church. If the occasion should arise this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose and always with truth, courage and prudence and with reverence and charity towards those who, by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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