A story that won’t go away


There was a lively discussion over at Jesus Creed during the week when Scot McKnight re-posted my last Saturday’s ‘Story of the Week’ on the need for reform within Irish Catholicism. It felt a bit surreal to be put in a fundamentalist camp – with all the associations of that term with Ian Paisley, someone I’ve studied and written about and whose theology I do not share.

So with hesitation I return to the subject again this Saturday. It is a story that just won’t go away.

Father Brian Darcy was on The Late Late with Ryan Tubridy last night telling his own tragic story of being abused by a priest every day for a year when he was 8 years old. He was also calling for an end of hierarchical clericalism and reform of the church to become more Jesus like.

But how?

The intensity of revulsion sparked by Ferns, Ryan and Murphy, coupled with the Church’s instinctive posture of self-protection and concealment, I think is going to permanently reconfigure the already weakened relationship of Catholicism and Irish national identity. But it will also shape a very different looking Irish Catholic Church. What form that takes, remains to be seen but it ain’t looking good.

The word ‘crisis’ no longer captures what is going on. You get the sense of a paradigm shift in the wider culture. Bishops are departing by the week. The Cardinal is thinking about his position. And you don’t need me to tell you of increasing – and serious in every sense of the word – pressure on Pope Benedict’s record of handling sex abuse cases as recently as 1998. The Vatican’s response is predictably defensive.

There is precious little sign of grace and good news. Even yesterday, Cardinal Brady has been asked to withdraw the Church’s legal defence against one of Father Brendan Smyth’s alleged victims – a case that was first brought in 1997.

The Pope’s Pastoral Letter to the Irish Church spoke of how these awful events have ‘obscured the light of the gospel.’ No doubt about that.

What remains unclear is a path forward for the light of the gospel shine clearly. That is really the question I was asking last Saturday. And I don’t know the answer for (and this is a reason I’m not tempted to become a Catholic) it seems to me that there are deep seated structural and theological obstacles to reform.

Scot McKnight says it better than I ever will in a comment on his blog from some time back …

What do you think of what he says here?

I think the RCC and [Eastern Orthodox] EO render authority in the ecclesia instead of in Scripture and in Spirit to make Scripture clear. So far as the church partakes in that Spirit, it has an authoritative message; so far as it doesn’t, it loses its authority … both the RCC and the EO have captured the Spirit in the Church so that Church too often has become Authority. One example, hardly foolproof, illustrates my point: RCCs and EOs talk about Church; Protestants talk about Scripture. It is their emphasis that I like — and I wish each talked more of Spirit.

… I think this way is seen in how Tradition plays itself out in each Church: for each of these communions the Tradition becomes massively authoritative and, in my view, each of these communions has become un-reformable. They read the Bible through Tradition and I believe in reading the Bible with Tradition.

… God spoke in the Bible in ongoingly fresh ways; that reveals the importance of returning to the roots in order to gain fire for the present …  I believe both the RCC and the EO, even with routine observations to the contrary by its adherents, are un-reformable. (I believe the infallibility of the Pope or the magisterium means those statements can never be wrong or changed; time proves that some of what we all know today to be interpretive truth can be wrong in a century. Look at the Church’s backpedaling today on Galileo.)

… I believe in the guidance of the Spirit in the Church, both in theological articulation (Nicea, for example) and in revival (the Reformation, for example). The minute, however, one begins to think that a given moment in the Church or its articulation was timeless truth rather than truthful timeliness one falls prey to elevating Tradition too high.

4 thoughts on “A story that won’t go away

  1. Great article Patrick.

    The RC church could do with some reading from Miroslav Volf’s ‘Exclusion and Embrace’, eh?

    “With no repentance, the full human dignity of the victims will not be restored or the needed social change… most self-confessions come as a mixture of repentance, self-defense, and even some lust for revenge..” Volf.

    I agree, this ‘story’ is FAR past a crisis. Ireland now dwells in a transient window of opportunity for the Gospel, before it moves into a terser post-Chrisitan state.

    Paradoxically, sad and exciting.


  2. Norm, Volf captures the ambiguity and messiness of repentance and forgiveness – and yet its absolute necessity and life-changing power. Maybe the best and most powerful thing anyone can do is pray: for courage for church leaders, for justice and healing for victims and for ‘enemies’ – the abusers that are seen as beyond the grace and forgiveness of God.

  3. Agree: no-one is beyond God’s grace and mercy.

    The truth is in situations like this, often, thinking like God can be impossible.


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