Tag Archives: magisterium

Trusting the Gifts of the Spirit among the People of God

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Doctrine and Life  May/June 2012

FOR WHAT exactly is the Holy Spirit supposed to be waiting, to move the Irish Church into vibrant and visible recovery and renewal? This question seems to me to be critical to any response we might make to the predicament that so many find themselves in just now in Ireland. This is related above all to two problems: frustration with the current governing system of the Church, and a still-appalled reflection on a series of Irish government-led reports on child abuse within the Irish Church, beginning in 2006.

Seeking to guide us in our response to those reports the Holy Father issued a pastoral letter in March 2010, and in April 2012 we received the summary report of the apostolic visitation to Ireland that had followed that pastoral.1Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012

It is largely my frustration with this summary report that leads me to ask the question posed at the start. In a previous article here I offered the conclusion that Catholic authoritarianism had been a key factor in the moral failure of Catholic officials in Irish state and Church to protest most vehemently against the abuse and endangerment of children.2S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010

Elsewhere I later argued that the Church’s governing system has been thoroughly disgraced not just by the scale of the abuse crisis, but by the fact that the initial revelation of this horror had been a product of secular structures and processes arising historically out of the Protestant Reformation and the European ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century.3S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010

I simply cannot get my head fully around the clear fact that my Church was finally moved to protect children not by the watchfulness, love and courage of its own leaders but by policemen, journalists, judges and jury members who often owed no debt of loyalty whatsoever to the Catholic Church. And that this process began in one of the most secularised societies on the planet: the USA.

Why did the church not uncover the problem itself?

The problem now for me is this. The summary report makes no allusion to the failure of the governing system of the Church to reveal to its leaders the scale of the abuse horror, and to act spontaneously long ago as it began to act in Ireland in 1994. Nor does it clearly explain the moral failure of so many Catholic officials, many of them ordained. In its references to the incompatibility of renewal and dissent it also seems me to seek to clamp down on the free expression of honest opinion within the Church in Ireland. So, as I began this article I was not even sure that it could be published.

Praying about all of this has led me somehow back to a reflection on my Confirmation at the age of about ten or eleven in 1953/54, when, as I distinctly remember, I was told the sacrament conferred upon me the dignity of becoming a ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’. That sense of my own dignity within the Church has never completely left me, mainly because it was further reinforced by the mentoring I received at University College Dublin in the 1960s, by clergy heavily influenced by Vatican II. I caught the excitement of the time. The expectation of reform has heavily influenced my life ever since, especially since 1994, when the abuse crisis first emerged.

Learning from Scripture

It is strange how prayerful meditation on what life was like as a child of ten or eleven can somehow recover for us the hopes, dreams and vulnerability of childhood. Doing this in Lent in 2012 led me frequently into tears, and into recovered memory of matters long suppressed, such as my late mother’s strange illness that was not finally named for me until I was in my fifties. It led me also, by a process too circuitous to need tracing here, to a reflection on my early experiences of the Bible.

One of these in particular stands out: the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel.

Briefly, this story tells us that during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, beautiful Susanna was lusted after by two Jewish judge elders. They conspired to tell her that they would publicly allege that they had seen her in adulterous intimacy with a fourth party if she did not satisfy their lust. When Susanna even so resisted their joint intimidation, they proceeded with their plan publicly to accuse her of adultery. As two witnesses were all that were required by Jewish law to satisfy their assembly, their accusation was accepted as true by that assembly. Susanna was being led away to die when she passionately declared her innocence. Then, according to the text, this happened:

The Lord heard her cry and as she was being led away to die, he roused the Holy Spirit in a young boy called Daniel who began to shout, ‘I am innocent of this woman’s death!’ At this all the people turned to him and asked ‘what do you mean by that?’ Standing in the middle of the crowd he replied , ‘ Are you so stupid, children of Israel, as to condemn a daughter of Israel unheard, and without troubling to find out the truth? Go back to the scene of the trial: these men have given false evidence against her. (Daniel 13: 46-49)

We are told then that the other judge elders of the assembly not only acted on the young Daniel’s advice, but asked him to sit with them and advise them further. He suggested separating the two accusers, and questioning them as to the precise circumstances in which they had seen Susanna committing adultery. When this was done the conspirators gave different accounts, proving Susanna’s innocence. (Everyone has seen much the same thing happen today in TV police procedural dramas.)

Rousing the spirit of youth!

Remembering this in the aftermath of the apostolic visitation summary report, I was prompted to explore in my mind precisely what could have been involved in the Lord ‘rousing’ the Holy Spirit in a young boy, to the extent that he could stand alone in an assembly dominated by elderly judges and shout ‘stop’?

Could it be any of these, the virtues that can arise out of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord?4Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
And could it be also be the fruit of the Great Commandment: to love God above all, and our neighbour as ourselves?

My mind fastens particularly on the words ‘fortitude’, ‘understanding’ and ‘love’. Does the Catholic magisterium, and its method of exercising authority, nourish these virtues? Does it allow for the possibility that prayerful young people especially might ever be gifted with an understanding and an insight that might lead them to ask difficult questions, and with the courage to stand up and ask them, no matter what? Especially all of the questions that arise out of the leadership catastrophe we have suffered?

I have to say that my experience of the magisterium since about 1968 is that it seems to have a fearful attitude to the creation of circumstances within the Church that could encourage young people especially, but lay people in general, to ask difficult questions of itself, and of those in ordained ministry. Many of those difficult questions pertain to the issue of sexuality. It is true that individual bishops have been an exception to this rule, and that some have held open and honest forums in the aftermath of the Irish state abuse reports. But there is still no sign that such assemblies will become embedded in the regular and normal life of the Church.

‘Bishops are accountable to the people’

And that brings me back to what I see as the enormous gaps in the summary report:

First, its failure to address the question of widespread moral cowardice among so many Catholic adults, and especially among those who carried the full weight of the magisterium’s expectation that they would be loyal to it, and would avoid scandalous revelations.

Second, its failure to explain why it was that it is to Irish secular agencies that we owe both the revelation of the abuse horror in Ireland, and the momentum that led to Catholic bishops becoming for the first time ostentatious in the cause of child protection.

Third, its failure to predict that the mooted reorganisation of the Irish Church will include structural reforms that will mandate a principle stated by Monsignor Charles Scicluna earlier this year at a clerical child abuse forum in Rome: ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’’5Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.

As the apostolic visitation and its summary report also arose out of a secular process of discovery, I am prompted to ask then also how the Holy Spirit might be moving Irish Catholics today to respond to the crisis that now still weighs on us. Could one of those ways be a questioning why the elimination of dissent among Irish Catholic clergy loyal to Vatican II should be a priority of the magisterium at this time – when it has so many questions still to answer about its own failures? And when there is still no promise of structural reform?

Committed to Justice

I also ask, finally, whether the unwillingness of the magisterium to encourage questioning from lay people at every age from Confirmation on might be a key factor in the continuing inertia of the Irish Church, and especially the departure of young people from it. The forgetting that as early as ten our Church has given to all of us the dignity of being Temples of the Holy Spirit is widespread in Ireland, especially among young men. Isn’t it time to remind all of the Irish three million plus who claim to be Catholics that this privilege is still theirs? And to ask them to pray to the Holy Spirit, above all for the gifts of insight, love, wisdom and fortitude? And to provide church structures as worthy of the People of God as those that allowed the Holy Spirit to prompt an honest young man to ask, in open assembly, life-saving questions of his elders long before the time of Christ?

Apropos the latter, according to the Vatican’s own website, ‘Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna is the “promoter of justice” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.’6Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option
Isn’t justice also a gift of the Holy Spirit? Wasn’t justice precisely what was involved in the case of Daniel and Susanna, and wasn’t it precisely justice that was lacking in so many cases when the parents of victims of clerical abuse came to the administrators of Catholic dioceses and religious congregation? How are we to encourage young Daniels in Ireland, and to ensure that our child protection is not again subverted by clericalism, if our Church structures continue to patronise and exclude all lay people, and especially young people?

I am entirely convinced that the continued holding back on Church structural reform by the magisterium, and in the meantime its encouragement of unjust and covert delating of those who do ask difficult questions, subverts the work of the Holy Spirit and delays the recovery of our Church.

Notes

  1. Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012
  2. S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010
  3. S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
  5. Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.
  6. Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option

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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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Love before Knowledge: The search for portable truth

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Sep 2005

Serving on a Cursillo weekend I was once struck by the attitude of a priest sampling it for the first time. He was himself, he told us, a trained Catechist, who had years of experience of putting on courses. For various reasons he simply wouldn’t do things this way. He had thawed out by the Sunday, but his haughty negativity was a severe challenge while it lasted.

I need to explain here, perhaps, that the Cursillo experience is essentially one of Christian community. Its central message – that each of us is equally and infinitely loved – is conveyed not so much through a sophisticated verbal theology as through the manner in which the largely lay Cursillo team welcome, show compassion for, and entertain the first-timers, the ‘candidates’ – who are often casualties of our intellectually meritocratic culture. The expert priest’s problem was that his greater intellectual sophistication gave him a vantage point from which he felt obliged to be negative about the unsophisticated doctrinal content of the course.

I remember the incident as an illustration of something that I believe to be seriously blocking the development of the church at present: the apparent belief of so many experts, and of much of the hierarchy, that to move lay people into Christian commitment there is a need for the delivery of a very substantial body of knowledge – knowledge that only they can be trusted to determine, package and deliver. As often as not it tends to be a substantial sampling of the Catechism.

What is called Catholic ‘adult education’ tends as a consequence to be a heavy, texty, affair, couched in a heavily Latinated terminology – and costing so much to deliver that only a few people can afford it. Furthermore, it is, in my experience, difficult to see the positive results in terms of the buzzing parishes we would all like to see. Those who receive this experience may know more – but not what to do next.

Already, of course, I need to guard myself against the conclusion that I am anti-intellectual. Quite the contrary: I have been a teacher for most of my adult life, preparing adolescents for higher education, and so have a considerable stake in raising the intellectual horizons of lay people generally. But to do this we need first of all to develop the confidence of the learner, and the present content-heavy method of Catholic instruction very often has the opposite effect. Too often it mistakenly implies that the more that is known of the detailed minutiae of Catholic doctrine, the closer one necessarily comes to a grasp of the whole : that quantity equals quality.

I am now convinced that what the magisterium should do is what every good teacher always does: decide on what belongs at the summit of what it calls the hierarchy of truths, and teach that as a priority, right from the start.

What is it that lies there? What is it above all we must not only know, but keep present in mind at all times, as an encapsulation of all that the Catechism, and the Gospels contain? Knowledge is a diffuse, potentially limitless thing, which we cannot carry in toto as we go through our day. While we think of one thing, a lot of others ‘slip out the back’ – perhaps something vital. So wouldn’t it be useful to state, in the shortest form possible, the one vital thing we must all never forget? Wouldn’t this small burden of truth be portable at all times, a summary of all that lies below it in the hierarchy of truths?

I have thought about this for some considerable time over the past decade, and propose the following:

The most important thing for a Christian to know
Is that the most important thing for her/him to DO
Is NOT to KNOW
But to LOVE.

To establish this, I feel I need only point out what Jesus said four times in the Gospel of John, and what was repeated nine further times in the new Testament. He never emphasised knowing as such – ‘being right’: the instruction is to love, first and always. Knowledge is important, and especially knowledge of the basic story related in the creeds and the Rosary, but it must never be given a greater importance than the obligation to love, and must always be interpreted in the light of that principle.

If quantitative knowledge is given primacy, love and relationship are very likely to be lost – and mere intellectual ostentation to be in the ascendant. The Crusaders, or at least their leaders, knew the creeds, but their primary obligation of love had been tragically left behind in the tabernacles of Europe. The Inquisition – the source of so much continuing alienation from Christianity – was grounded on the same sad foundation.

Further, the primacy given by Jesus to love is a call, not primarily to endless study, but to relationship – especially, first of all (in the teaching context), the relationship of teacher to student. The light burden Jesus gave us – if we can remember it – will establish from the start between student and teacher the great truth they both share: because they are both equally and infinitely loved, they are bound in love to one another – and therefore bound to respect one another also. Knowing what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, the student has already completed the most important part of the course.

Further, from that very first moment the student is called into action also. There is no need to complete the course to discover what its most important application should be – the ‘bottom line’. The primacy of the obligation to love can enlighten, and move, from the first moment it is learnt and experienced.

Take the case of a highly qualified catechist tasked with the delivery of one of those substantial courses we too often see. His professional obligation – to ‘complete the course’ – is quite likely to be oppressive from the very start. Furthermore these times, it is likely that course members will have problems with an obscure terminology – and even with some point of doctrine. Suppose an argument develops, and the catechist stands firm to what he believes the Catechism says. Or, more likely, frustration or boredom set in soon after the initial enthusiasm. And course members walk away, never to return.

Two things have happened here. First, the catechist has actually lost sight of what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths. In the pressures of the ‘big course’ the key truth has indeed ‘dropped out the back’. Second, some of his students may now never find it – even though it was deliverable in the very first minutes of the course. Nothing of any great importance has been taught, when something vital could have been.

Furthermore, this approach would address the problem that lies at the heart of the issue of ‘non reception’ – such a vital issue these days. Lay people tend to feel talked down to – and the sheer heaviness of what is proposed is often very intimidating to them. This is a very bad start to the teacher-student relationship – the so obvious inequality between teacher and student. It is a recipe for trouble, tedium, group shrinkage, even total failure, right from the start.

But if both teacher and student share from the start, and never allow to drop out of sight, what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, there is a continuing basic equality between them. The student has understood the most vital thing a Christian must know, and must not forget, and so has succeeded in establishing his/her competence and intelligence.

I would argue strongly that the failure to lighten and organise Catholic instruction as radically as this lies at the heart of its current problems. We are so worried by the task of ‘passing on the faith’, and so concerned to leave nothing out, that we have often actually dropped that beautiful burden – disguised it, concealed it, lost it – and many children and adults now never receive it. Taking exception to some rebuff or scandal or frustration – or an endless diet of doctrine that seems never to ‘cut to the chase’ – they leave the church and proclaim that it is a tyrannical institution that indoctrinates people.

And so it does if it puts knowledge – especially large quantities of it – before love itself.

I fear that this is precisely what the magisterium has too often unwittingly done. Proclaiming the Catechism as the best answer to all our problems, and failing to privilege love over knowledge, it has privileged quantitative knowledge over love – failing to deliver what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths.

Binding itself also, apparently, to non-accountability and secrecy it has failed to learn that these are the only two parents that scandal needs – severely damaging the bond of love and trust that binds the whole church together. Although scandal after scandal has revealed that the secular implementation of the Christian principle of accountability has given more protection and vindication to injured Catholic children and their families than the hierarchy’s own (still non-accountable) apparatus, it refuses to learn from that experience.

One must ask: if the magisterium has forgotten what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truths, and refuses to learn from every lesson it receives on its own apparent inability to love – and on how it might love better – by what argument can it justify its authority to teach? Doesn’t, for example, the Cursillo, which, at its best, prioritises love, compassion and relationship over knowledge, teach better?

I ask this question especially on behalf of those theologians who have been silenced for supposed heterodoxy – and also on behalf of those committed supporters of orthodoxy who often fear that they are considered merely ‘company men’ because they have not been silenced.

The excuse given for this coercion – that ‘the faithful’ would be endangered by the ideas of powerful intellectuals – is entirely misconceived, even, I suspect, bogus. Those without an interest in fine theological distinctions, but with no shortage of spiritual intelligence, very quickly lose interest in those distinctions – so long as the basic truths of the creeds are not in dispute. Knowing the church of their own local community as a loving institution, they are content to know what the worriers apparently do not: that loving is more important than knowing. Those who love and pray do not give primacy to knowledge or ‘big ideas’ – but to love. And if they suspect that any thinker is challenging their faith in that principle, they typically lose interest also in what he, or she, may have to teach.

Furthermore, such people are now, in parts of Northern Ireland, finding that the same small but beautiful burden is carried by many Christians of the reformed traditions. Knowing and sharing the principle of equal respect they meet and discuss what is shared with surprise and joy. Feeling comfortable they even explore differences with curiosity rather than fear, and often with mutual enrichment.

And this raises another question. Why should relationships between Catholics and other Christian traditions be troubled by the supposed problem of merging and reconciling vast theologies, vast bodies of knowledge? If trust and love are given precedence, what the different church’s theologians may disagree about is relatively insignificant in both relational and ‘truth’ terms. That is a matter for experts – but not for those whose primary goal is friendship and cordiality – the essence of their faith.

Why then is priority given to knowledge over love? I suggest that this has to do with a totally mistaken historical conception of what Christianity is all about. It is not about ‘my truth’, but the obligation to love even those whose truth is different.

My truth is, of course, where I stand – and Christians must know where to stand: but if that place does not include the primary obligation of love even of those who stand elsewhere, it lacks something essential to Christianity. It is not the very best place to stand. Early disputes, and the sad history of Christianity’s connection with the state, misled us all into what can be called ‘competitive knowing’: my truth is greater than your truth, and must therefore prevail. Jesus never said so – he simply lived and died for the beautiful truth – that love cannot coerce anyone – and is the primary obligation of a Christian.

That beautiful truth is now increasingly shared by Christians of other denominations. (I heard Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister, proclaim it movingly in Limavady in early January.) It is now highly desirable that the Catholic magisterium should receive it also – before it embarrasses itself, and the wider church, still further.

If knowledge continues to be prioritised over love and accountability, it will be clear that this can only be for reasons of power, not love. It will be revealed beyond question that the magisterium imitates rather than challenges our meritocratic culture, by deploying knowledge to avoid relinquishing status.

And the most beautiful truth, the summit of the hierarchy of truths, the truth any child can carry – that in God’s eyes we all enjoy the same high status – will have been obscured and lost by those who tell us their primary obligation and intention is to teach and to preserve it.

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