Whither reform of Irish Catholicism?


This has been another traumatic week for the Catholic Church in Ireland – made worse by the incredibly ill-advised comments of Monsignor Maurice Dooley that the Church was not obliged to pass on details of abuse to the authorities of the state. He has been quickly silenced.

On top of this came the revelation from Derry of £12,000 compensation pay out in 2000 to the family of a girl who had been abused for over 10 years from the age of 8. The abuser had evaded culpability and a confidentiality agreement had been signed. Many questions now face Bishop Seamus Hegarty that I suspect won’t go away quickly.

On St Patrick’s Day, Pope Benedict had issued a statement saying

“As you know, in recent months the Church in Ireland has been severely shaken as a result of the child abuse crisis. As a sign of my deep concern I have written a pastoral letter dealing with this painful situation”

This letter is due to be published as I post this. But its mere existence is a telling sign of the depth of the crisis facing the Church.  Never before has a Pope written such a letter and under such public scrutiny. Even the Pope himself is not exempt. On Thursday no less a figure than Hans Kung issued this challenge to the former Cardinal Ratzinger,

Is it not time for Pope Benedict XVI himself to acknowledge his share of responsibility, instead of whining about a campaign against his person? No other person in the Church has had to deal with so many cases of abuse crossing his desk. Honesty demands that Joseph Ratzinger himself, the man who for decades has been principally responsible for the worldwide cover-up, at last pronounce his own “mea culpa”.

In his 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from around the world, all cases of grave sexual offences by clerics had to be reported, under strictest secrecy (“secretum pontificum”), to his curial office, which was exclusively responsible for dealing with them. Ratzinger himself, in a letter on “grave sexual crimes” addressed to all the bishops under the date of 18 May, 2001, warned the bishops, under threat of ecclesiastical punishment, to observe “papal secrecy” in such cases.

Few believe that the Pope’s letter will do much to improve the crisis of authenticity and integrity facing the Irish Church.

These fresh stories all added to the pressure already mounting on Cardinal Sean Brady, Ireland’s leading prelate. His own St Patrick’s Day apology that he had not “not always upheld the values that I profess and believe in” did little to alleviate that pressure. His homily that day rather hopefully said

For the sake of survivors, for the sake of all the Catholic faithful as well as the religious and priests of this country, we have to stop the drip, drip, drip of revelations of failure.

Yet it is impossible to imagine any other scenario than further damaging stories emerging as the past’s pervasive culture of secrecy continues to unravel. And let’s not forget that this process has been going on for 15 years at least and shows no sign of waning – the opposite in fact.

So what is the future of Catholicism in Ireland?

And this raises the question of ‘How can reform come to any church?’

[and again let me say here I am not wanting to ‘bash’ the Catholic Church when it is ‘down’. Nor am I implying that evangelical or Protestant churches have everything right – far from it. I believe the gospel is good news and that churches need to be good news – whatever brand they are]

Cardinal Brady also spoke of the desperate need for a ‘new beginning’ and mentioned at least four sources of that renewal:

  1. Listening to the word of God
  2. Listening to the Spirit
  3. Humbly dealing with the enormous hurt caused by those who have abused and the ‘hopelessly inadequate response of the Church to that abuse.
  4. A ‘sincere, wholehearted and truthful acknowledgement of our sinfulness.’

[Revealingly, he openly asked whether there would be a place for ‘those who have made mistakes in their past to have a part in shaping the future?’ and added that he would be ‘reflecting carefully’ over Easter. I may be wrong of course but I suspect he will resign.]

Few can argue with those four sources of renewal. The challenge is acting on them in an authentic way – a way that will bring structural and spiritual change.

In regard to 3 and 4 it is deeply ironic that a Church which champions confession as a sacrament has not only been determinedly resistant to confession of sin but has systematically hidden the truth at the expense of vulnerable and hurt people under its care. It has been a painful process watching the Church’s leaders largely failing [with the exception of Archbishop Dairmuid Martin] to grasp the depth of the need for transparency, confession, honesty and radical action to match words.

In regard to 1 and 2, I have to wonder what Cardinal Brady means by listening to the Word and the Spirit. In my humble opinion, there are profound theological and spiritual reasons for the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland – mixed in with the end of Christendom that is impacting the West as a whole.

Too often the Word has been sidelined by tradition, ritualism and sacramentalism.

Too often the Spirit has been marginalised by hierarchy, human power and institutionalism.

Hans Kung asks why does the Pope not overturn the practice of enforced celibacy given its unbiblical foundation, its huge unpopularity and its probable link to child sex abuse by clergy.

I would go further and say that if the Catholic Church is to listen to the Word and the Spirit, this will mean nothing less than a new reformation.

A reformation where Jesus the Word and the Holy Spirit are given their rightful and central place of supreme authority.

A reformation that sublimates the magisterium and papal power under the Word of God.

A reformation that follows the Spirit’s emphasis on equality and giftedness in the body of Christ and thus undermines the unaccountable power of the priesthood & hierarchy.

A reformation that reconfigures the relationship between church and gospel so that the latter is clearly articulated, taught and lived out in a community of faith


15 thoughts on “Whither reform of Irish Catholicism?

  1. Dear Professor, Your words have some wisdom. Your reliance on Fr. Kung as an authority however reveal a bias and take away from your own words and argument. Dr. Kung does not seek Truth. He is interesting but his information is wrong and is more about petty professional jealousy than truth. Being an academic myself, it is all the more recognizeable. All the cases of child sex abuse did not come before the CDF in Ratzinger’s 24 years – they would have gone to other congregations. That 2001 document everybody says is about secrecy was a part of a series of documents empowering the CDF to handle the cases. And, even then, only the serious cases. The Word of God is not the word of Hans Kung.

  2. Patrick, I appreciate the Evangelical Alliance (I’m an American who lived in Ireland for a few summers). However, I think you’re way off base here.

    If the “solution” for reform of the Catholic Church in Ireland or anywhere else is (a) to misrepresent what it means to be Catholic; (b) mangle Catholic theology; and then (c) tell the Catholic Church stop being “Catholic” as so defined, then this is a pointless exercise of spitting into the wind.

    I mean, really:

    “A reformation where Jesus the Word and the Holy Spirit are given their rightful and central place of supreme authority.

    A reformation that sublimates the magisterium and papal power under the Word of God.”

    Did Vatican II pass you by, Patrick? Have you ever actually read anything by John Paul II or Benedict, like, say, Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth?” Or any other contemporary Catholic theology — say Richard John Neuhaus?

    I’m sorry, but this seems to me the same-old same-old calumny that has divided the body of Christ for centuries.

    Obviously there’s corruption in the Catholic Church in Ireland. The sexual abuse issue is a massive scandal and house needs to be cleaned. But to say as some Protestants do that the scandal is caused by basic Catholicicity is absurd; and to say as some left-wing Catholics do that the solution is radical feminist theology, is equally absurd.

  3. Evil was done by men, not by the Church. The Church is still made up of the Mystical Body of Christ, meaning: His believers. I think you need to get past this classic Anti-Catholic/Anti-Papist rhetoric, that is as old as Martin Luther himself.

    All that needs to be said to hammer this point home is that the Church must demonstrate its willingness to be contrite and humble through its actions, not just its words. That remains to be seen. We can only pray for healing of hearts and hope the church turns the perpetrators of these heinous acts over for temporal punishment.

  4. doperbeck, no one has mentioned radical feminist theology, and with respect, Dr. Mitchel has not said that the systematic sex abuse cover-up was caused by Catholic understanding of the magisterium.

    More pressingly, many of us Irish Christians actually have read the documents of Vatican II and in each of the four constitutions the traditional claims to Petrine primacy, supremacy of the magesterium and the authority of the word are helpfully and in many cases beautiful clarified. But they remain true to the traditional interpretations. There is no need here for a narrative of rupture around the theology of Vatican II.

    As a result of this, Dr. Mitchel (and I agree with him) thinks that a true reform of the church in the light of this truly sickening debacle must be grounded in a radical reinterpretation of authority… it is ultimately a viewpoint shared in love and humility and not in any way meant as an attack, never mind the “same-old same-old calumny that has divided the body of Christ for centuries.” Such language seems in fact to me to lack the generosity implicit in the true spirit of Catholicity.

    PJ, I am not sure you if you are fully appraised of the scale of the problem but there is not solution that can begin with “all that needs to be said is…” Especially if what needs to be said is that we should do instead of speak!!

    There is no anti-Catholic rhetoric here. There is a sincere grieving with brothers and sisters across the churches in Ireland. There is no evangelical triumphalism- rather we long to pray and work together to glorify God. That doesn’t mean pretending we’re all the same and nor does it mean demanding everyone become evangelical. There is no hint of anti-Papist language in the post.

  5. Dopderbeck,

    Well, first it feels a bit peculiar to be accused of same old calumy that has divided the church for centuries. Yes I have read the Pope’s excellent book on Jesus. Our local church actively seeks to build bridges with the local Catholic church. I’m part of a evangelical-Catholic dialogue group and have been blessed by the fellowship and theological discussions we’ve had there as we’ve explored our differences and commonalities in a spirit of respect.

    I’m not naively or ignorantly just wishing Catholics were Protestants. You’d have to live here to get a sense of the depth of the crisis facing Irish Catholicsm. This is not, as some have suggested, a media created story. Words can’t capture how devastating a series of recent Govt reports and their fall out have been – all on top of 15 years of terrible revelations.

    There is much talk of how the church got to this position and how reform and renewal can come. Many many Catholics are saying that there is a desperate need for the Word and the Spirit to become more central in the actual life and experience of the church. Cardinal Brady was saying the same thing.

    I don’t think it is mangling Catholic theology to say that sadly the actual practice of Catholicism in Ireland has not had a central place for Word and Spirit in the lived life of believers. My comments are borne out of a sense, shared by many from all perspectives, that talk of renewal has not really begun to go deep enough.

    In last Saturday’s Pastoral Letter to the Irish Church from Pope Benedict in light of sex-abuse (apparently a unique letter of its kind in the history of the Papacy), the Pope talked of how these awful events “have obscured the light of the Gospel”

    That’s what I’m getting at – how can reform come to an institutional church where the gospel has been obscured? As Cardinal Brady rightly says it must begin with Word and Spirit. So what needs to happen for Word and Spirit to bring spiritual reform?

    PS and on my blog I made clear that while these comments were in light of the crisis facing Catholicism in no way were they suggesting that evangelicals / Protestants have it all ‘right’. Protestantism in Ireland has its own need for spiritual reform.

  6. Patrick and Kevin — I suppose I’m having some trouble with phrases like “an institutional church where the gospel has been obscured.” They sound so, so much like the bleatings of fundamentalist churches I grew up in in North America, which were convinced that Catholics in general were heading for Hell. Have you ever read a Chick Tract? I understand you’re not saying the same thing, but you should understand how your message sounds to my North American ears.

    I spent parts of three summers in Galway. I visited the Galway Cathedral for Mass. The Gospel wasn’t obscured at all — what is the Mass but a proclamation of the Gospel? I also was surprised to hear some religious programming on RTE radio as I drove around the countryside.

    I do appreciate, of course, the unique and odd mix of history, culture, economics and religion that have led to today’s secularized Ireland. I live in the NY City Metropolitan area, and when I went to Galway I felt in many ways like I was back in New York, only with Irish accents and more charming pubs. I suppose it’s always been little hard for me to understand some of the navel-gazing about that in Irish Christian circles. What do you expect? We live in a post-Christendom world and need to adjust our sense of mission to it.

  7. Dopderbeck

    In our dialogue group we’ve debated and discussed the real and substantive differences that remain between us. That has taken time and trust. I’ve learnt lots in the process. But I’ve said the same thing there as here – and you might find it a fundamentalist attitude – I think that there are aspects of Catholic theology that tend to obscure the gospel. Again, that’s not saying there aren’t many weaknesses in Protestantism / evangelicalism too that are well aired on this site all the time. But as some theologian said, Protestants need to have good reasons why they are not part of mother Church.

  8. Doperdeck, reading the Irish evangelical church through the light of your experience in your homeland is…
    a) fair
    b) reasonable
    c) none of the above
    d) not at all what you are trying to do.

    (I’m trying to phrase my challenge in a way that you Americans with your love of multiple choice can appreciate!)

  9. Kevin — I have no idea what you’re getting at with the multiple choice.

    Obviously what all true followers of Jesus desire here is healing, reconciliation, and renewal. I am not trying to downplay the scope or evil of this tragedy in Ireland (or Germany, or the U.S.). Like you, I’m regularly engaged in protestant/evangelical-Catholic dialogue as well as ecumenical outreach. From my vantage point, this is not a time to highlight again the wounds of the Sixteenth Century, which it seems to me is the only fair way to read Patrick’s post. Would that it could somehow even be used of God to bring the Church together!

  10. Patrick didn’t mention the 16th Century. He mentioned the Gospel. Those two things have no necessary collusion. Seriously, your assumptions are ginormous and distorting, as I tried (and failed) to jokingly portray in my previous comment.

  11. Kevin (#36) — he listed five basic points for a “new reformation” that may as well have been lifted out of the Westminster Confession. I don’t see how else to read that. This is much more than “the Gospel,” it is equating gospel with a particular ecclesiology. And that is precisely my problem here (it is also my problem with Tridentine Catholicism, but as I’ve noted, they at least moved forward at Vatican II..).

  12. But look, maybe you’re right, maybe I’ve over-reacted and misunderstood Patrick’s post (I’ve been known to do that kind of thing from time to time….). I can’t really comment on the ground-level reality of your ministry context in Ireland with its multifarious challenges. At least when I was there it was still the Celtic Tiger.

    All I can tell you is how this particular bit of rhetoric strikes me. I personally think, as Mark Noll put it, that the Reformation is basically over, and that it’s generally a big missional mistake to try to use the Catholic sex abuse scandals in Ireland or elsewhere to highlight old theological differences. I can’t help it, that’s the lens through which I read Patrick’s comments, and therefore in my own context (which happens to be North American) I don’t find them helpful.

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