Crisis in the Irish Catholic Church – A Look from Afar: Guest Post by Fr Michael Bennett

Fr Michael Bennett, a priest with the St Patrick’s Missionary Society based in Wicklow (Kiltegan Fathers), has contributed a guest post for this blog on the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church. The first instalment follows below.

Fr Michael is currently serving in South Africa. He also has worked in Zimbabwe and Kenya. Fr Michael is a graduate of my School’s Master’s in Reconciliation Studies, and officiated – along with Rev Dr Johnston McMaster of the Methodist Church in Ireland – at my wedding!

He has written a great deal that is relevant and insightful, and I will post his reflections in instalments over the coming week.

A Look from Afar: Part One – Understandings of the ‘Church’

In recent weeks I have spent many hours trawling through the Murphy Report and am left feeling shocked and saddened at its revelations. It is tragic that it has taken the paedophile crisis – the horrors done to the most vulnerable and most innocent – to reveal the extent to which a culture of control and secrecy has dominated a section of the church.

I have also been reading in recent days some of the many articles and comments related to this and other issues on Gladys’ progressive website. I hope that this article – written from a Catholic perspective and from outside the country – will contribute something to the discussion.

From the outset let me clarify my understanding of church. There are a number of layers and each layer awakens images and thoughts:

1. The church as institution: the hierarchy; the senior clerics that represent the institution in the public domain; the link between the local church and the universal church. The clerical and controlling face of the hierarchy seems to linger on the Irish church.

2. The church as ‘people of God’: the ordinary people on their knees each Sunday morning, many of whom are hurt, lost and confused at the present time. Understandably some of this group have recently left the pews; the vast majority remain, struggle on, seek guidance and grace.

3. The prophetic church which offers a counter-cultural perspective. Wherever a culture of power, control, status, materialism and greed exists, a counter-cultural perspective is provided by those in church (and society) who stand for justice, human rights, human dignity and the integrity of creation. Some write about these issues and in this context Glady’s web-site assumes its niche. In particular, I have been impressed by the number of her book/article reviews, challenged by the insightful writing of Fintan O’Toole (see O’Toole’s most recent analysis of the crisis in the church in this weekend’s Irish Times) and the material produced by Social Justice Ireland (SJI).

4. The ecumenical church: the legacy of historical acrimony and doctrinal difference does not easily recede, despite the huge theological and pastoral efforts made in recent decades. Ecumenical barriers today reflect an historical mindset which is as much emotional as doctrinal. Changing mindsets involves changing hearts. What Christians hold in common is much greater than their differences: a common sacrament of baptism, a common creed, a common prayer (the Lord’s Prayer), a common commitment to Christ. Where greater understanding and reconciliation are sought between the different denominations, a more authentic engagement between Christianity and other religions, and with the secular world, will be possible.

Putting these four layers side by side does not mean that there is no overlapping between them. Prophets are found in pews, just as some bishops are committed ecumenists. At this time of crisis, however, it is the first layer that is being castigated. Where a culture of control, secrecy and denial continues to exist it must be exposed and removed. This seems to be happening at an extraordinary and necessary speed in Ireland.

Some of the articles/comments on the web-site seem to be saying that change/repentance is too late, that it is more notional than real, that it makes no difference if more senior clerics resign, that the ‘horse has already bolted from the stable’. My contention is that there is need for horses in the stable but the stable needs to be thoroughly cleansed, all the dung removed, new straw and bedding placed. The more this happens now – however painful it may be – the greater the hope for the future.

A number of bishops have resigned; lingering practices of pomp and splendour are severely critiqued; kissing of rings is ridiculed. The latter is about sociology, not theology. Regalia seems so distant from the one who humbled himself to death on the cross. The need for radical change is obvious.

A vision for ‘cleansing the stable’ is provided by Jesus himself. Jesus the layman had little truck with layer 1 of his time. He constantly speaks about the ‘Law of Moses’ (‘as Moses says’) – which refers to the social organisation of the Jewish people found in Deuteronomy – rather than the ‘Law of the Lord’ which is associated with the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priests were temple functionaries; Jesus was certainly not one of them.

Instead Jesus seems to be in regular conflict with the leaders of institutional religion, the scribes and the Pharisees. His parables suggest as much. It is the temple priests (layer 1) who pass by the wounded man while the Good Samaritan (layer 2 or 3) cares for him. Jesus provides a visual example of what cleansing looks like by assuming the position of a house-slave and washing his disciples feet. ‘You must do the same … copy me’. His command is clear.

Paul reminds us that Jesus ‘emptied himself’, ‘gave himself’, ‘humbled himself’. This ‘self-giving in love’ is a recipe for disciples of Jesus in any age, but an embarrassment to those who wish to be comfortable members of a ‘Christian club’. Discipleship always means reaching out to the discomforting edge rather that settling for mediocrity at the comfortable centre. Jesus did choose a group of apostles who would occupy layer 1, but being first meant being last and a servant of all, especially the most marginal and vulnerable.

Can one look to the future and see a humbled and renewed serving church?

Is the legacy of the past so overwhelming that there is no way forward?

I have no easy answers and my geographical location (writing in South Africa) does not help as I am emotionally separated from the pulse of the Irish scene. However, separation also provides some space for reflection. A number of points come to mind as to a possible way forward.

(Stay tuned for further posts on the way forward)

(Photo of Glendalough sourced from flickr photosharing, by grandardblue)

One Response to Crisis in the Irish Catholic Church – A Look from Afar: Guest Post by Fr Michael Bennett

  1. Michelle Moloney April 18, 2010 at 5:52 pm #

    Thank you Michael for a clear and considered article however, if the past events within the Catholic church are anything to go by power is the central issue rather than the teachings of Jesus or the pain of the innocents.

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