The by now usual horrific details of abuse and cover-up, followed by the inadequate responses of church leaders with power, all contribute to a picture of the Catholic Church as unrepentant and un-reformable.
Most readers of this blog will know the details revealed on Tuesday’s BBC ‘This World’ programme:
In 1975, Cardinal Brady was given the names and addresses of children being abused by Fr Smyth. He did not pass on those details to either the police or the parents of those children, allowing Smyth to continue abusing children for 13 more, long years.
As then, Brady remains resistant to the calls to resign – the most recent of which comes from Irish Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. Fr Brian D’Arcy and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are among the Northern voices criticising Brady’s stance – not to mention the many ‘ordinary’ Catholics and citizens who have voiced their opinions on chat shows and in the blogosphere. Amnesty International has said the PSNI should start a criminal investigation.
But as well all know, the Catholic Church is not a democracy and it seems like those in its upper levels of leadership will remain impervious to the anger and outrage articulated by Ireland’s Catholics.
That outrage has been exacerbated by coming on the heels of the news that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith is censoring D’Arcy, as well as other Irish priests who have dared to criticise the church.
To paraphrase what Marie Collins, a clerical sexual abuse survivor, said on Wednesday morning on BBC Radio Ulster:
the Catholic Church is swift to move to silence someone who voices dissent, but did not move at all when it had the chance to protect children from abusing priests.
This all contributes to the growing feeling that the Catholic Church is all but un-reformable at the highest levels, the levels where the greatest responsibility for the continuation of the abuse of children should lie.
I think there are plenty of lay Catholics and good priests out there with a vital, active faith, who love Jesus, and who believe with all their hearts that the justice that is at the centre of the Christian message will ultimately win the day.
With or without one particular man’s leadership, those Catholics can shape the future of their church.
But with each passing day, the leaders of the Irish Catholic Church lose a little bit more of their flock’s respect.
For Irish Christians who are seriously interested in renewal in the Catholic Church, Monday 7 May (the bank holiday) is the date scheduled for a meeting titled: ‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church.’
Organised by the Association of Catholic Priests, it will be held in Dublin’s Regency Hotel from 10.15-4.30. The schedule of speakers and conversation topics is available here.
The idea of an Assembly is described in more detail – and with more hope for the church than I have expressed in this blog post – by Fr Gerry O’Hanlon, writing in the Furrow:
Above all, it makes sense that at a time of crisis we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all the baptised faithful. People care, they want their voices to be heard. It will help if this is done in public and is well communicated, so that people in Kerry know what people in Belfast are thinking and saying, so that we all have a better sense of the way forward. In this context it would seem that leadership ‘from the top’, no matter how enlightened, is less important than a servant leadership which empowers and facilitates the voice of the faithful. Initiatives by priests and lay people ought not to be seen as divisive or in opposition to Bishops: it is the one Spirit who inspires us all and blows where it wills.
The event envisaged by the ACP, in cooperation with the small number of religious and lay people who are helping to organize it, is ‘Towards an Assembly…’ A real National Assembly would need to be planned over a long period, at parish and diocesan levels, with Episcopal involvement from the start. Ideally it would not simply be a ‘one-off’ event, but would become part of the normal culture of Church life, as it is in many of our sister Christian churches, from whom we have much to learn. The ACP event is rather a ‘priming of the pump’, a first small attempt to model what a National Assembly would look like and a spur towards that end. The event is open to all who are interested, including the committed and the alienated. The bishops will be invited. Interestingly, it takes place on a Bank Holiday Monday – the organizers were faced with the request of lay people to hold it on a week-end (since many are working during the week) and by priests to hold it during the week (since they are not so easily free on weekends): the Bank Holiday Monday was the best we could do in the circumstances, a first learning experience in the complexities of bringing the People of God together!
The event will hope to name some of the realities of being a Catholic in Ireland today, to look to the future inspired by the vision of Vatican II and in response to our own ‘signs of the times’, and to call for the kind of action required. It is hoped that, in particular, a stronger lay organizational grouping might emerge from the process. It will be conducted in a spirit of prayer and discernment, conscious that our own efforts remain as gifted response to the much greater call of God’s Holy Spirit, trusting in the ‘Gamaliel principle’ outlined in Acts 5, 38-39: ‘If this plan or this undertaking is of humans only, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!’ Again, the ‘discernment of spirits’ takes time and skill, and above all we must not ‘stifle the Spirit’ (1 Thess. 5, 19).
We need signs of hope in our Catholic Church. In the current climate of crisis informal conversation about the Church is peppered by phrases such as : ‘let the whole thing come crashing down’; ‘things will never change’; ‘it’s easier to change the world than to change the Church’; ‘they just don’t get it’; ‘the bishops themselves are the problem’; ‘it’s the brick wall syndrome’; and, in reference to the introduction of the New Missal, one woman quotes a female friend – ‘it’s like putting up new curtains when there’s a hole in the roof and the whole house is collapsing about our ears!’. We need to channel this kind of criticism and this kind of energy constructively. Otherwise it will end up in simple alienation and indifference.
We need to create the fora where this kind of conversation can happen, to relearn what Dermot Lane, in another context, refers to as ‘the art of good conversation’ in our church. And this conversation needs to be more than a managerial exercise in ‘listening’, but a real contribution to Pope Benedict’s call for laity to exercise ‘co-responsibility’ in the Catholic Church – it needs, in other words, to lead to decisions and action. The event on May 7th is another step towards such a structure and culture in our church. As critics on the side-line, ‘hurlers on the ditch’, we remain open to the charge of being co-dependents in a manifestly dysfunctional structure. Often, indeed, we are genuinely at a loss to know what to do, what concrete step to take. It would be wonderful if the baptised from all over Ireland, young and old, women and men, clerical and lay, committed and alienated, could take this opportunity on May 7th to let their voice be heard.