Whither reform of Irish Catholicism?
SATURDAY STORY OF THE WEEK
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:
- Listening to the word of God
- Listening to the Spirit
- Humbly dealing with the enormous hurt caused by those who have abused and the ‘hopelessly inadequate response of the Church to that abuse.
- 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