Jennifer Sleeman Mass Boycott: A Lasting Legacy?

If we can believe the reports of the Catholic Communications Office and other media outlets, Jennifer Sleeman’s call for the women of Ireland to boycott mass yesterday did not prompt a widespread ‘stay away’ movement.

As this report from RTE television shows, some parishioners felt annoyed or offended by the suggestion while others – such as a theologian from my School, Prof. Linda Hogan – argued that given the circumstances the Irish Church finds itself in, a one day boycott could be justified.

Some women and men chose to attend mass but support the boycott by wearing green armbands. I didn’t hear about the green armband option until later on in the day on RTE. My Catholic husband and I went to a Quaker meeting, at his suggestion.

In hindsight, the green armband might have been a more effective mechanism of protest than a stay away boycott. As Sleeman told the Irish Times when asked about the expected success of the campaign,

“I have no way of measuring it. I loved a letter in The Irish Times where someone said, the boycott will be a failure because so many people will go to church to see how many people didn’t go – I thought that was lovely.

“I actually think the boycott itself now is irrelevant, the message is out there so loud and clear so that whether people go to Mass or not, I don’t think really matters very much now – I don’t think it really matters in terms of numbers.”

Sleeman’s comments point us to more important questions, such as:

  • Will the mass boycott of Sunday September 26, 2010 have any lasting legacy in the Irish Catholic Church?
  • Will the publicity, airing of views, and debate prompted by the mass boycott help kick-start a constructive dialogue around change in the Irish Catholic Church?
  • Will laypeople – both women and men – feel fully empowered to participate in that dialogue?

Writing in the Irish Independent, Garry O’Sullivan also hopes for meaningful engagement between hierarchy and laity,

If Ms Sleeman really wanted to rock the Irish hierarchy she would have steered clear of the emotionally and spiritually sensitive subject of the Mass and organised 100,000 signatures calling for a Synod in the Irish national church. Canon law makes it clear that the Irish bishops cannot appeal to Rome on this, they have to make the decision themselves and an overwhelming call for debate and discussion would inevitably rollercoaster into some form of engagement with the laity.

… Irish society and the Irish Church are stuck in an adolescent ‘either or’ approach to religious debate. It is time that the Catholic hierarchy stopped running and actually engaged with people in the here and now.

What Jennifer Sleeman has done is raise a flag, however ineffectually, to show that Irish people are not prepared to lie down like croppies and take orders from above.

Some comments on my own blog about the mass boycott, and in other media outlets, support O’Sullivan’s observation about an ‘either/or’ mentality. Such comments reveal a great deal of polarisation in the Irish Catholic Church. Maybe it’s the nature of blogs and the media, which thrive on the soundbite. But those who are speaking up either seem vehemently opposed to what Sleeman proposed, or passionately supportive.

My fear is that rather than stimulate a debate that can heal and empower the laity – and lead to reform in the church – Catholics might become more alienated from each other than before.

If that happens, I think it becomes easier for the hierarchy to ignore the laypeople who disagree with them. These laypeople (and even some priests, I would wager!) do not accept ‘official’ Catholic teaching on every issue but believe that they too are guided by the Holy Spirit and have something important to say to the Church of which they are a part.

6 Responses to Jennifer Sleeman Mass Boycott: A Lasting Legacy?

  1. Grace O'Dea September 27, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

    I salute Jennifer. She has dared to put her head above the parapet – what a way to celebrate POSITIVE AGEING WEEK 2010!
    The Bishops chose to issue a statement – alleluia.
    Things will be different – the Spirit is moving but God alone knows how long before there will be any real change.
    But I have to hope that the church will be more inclusive for my grand daughters – who are not born yet!

  2. Vera September 27, 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    Jennifer Sleeman’s boycott is inspired and I wholly support her. The catholic church will die on it’s feet if it does not give women a far greater say in the day to day running of the church. It is in the dark ages and needs to wake up to the reality of it’s demise. well done Jennifer!

  3. Mark 55 September 28, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    This is all quite silly. Pope John Paul II declared, and it was confirmed by the CDF as belonging to the Deposit of Faith, that the Church has no authority whatsoever to ordain women priests. This is like so not going to happen. I will start giving birth to live kittens before the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church starts ordaining women. By the way, I am a 28 year old male. Read Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

  4. Mark 55 September 28, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    This is all quite silly. Pope John Paul II declared, and it was confirmed by the CDF as belonging to the Deposit of Faith, that the Church has no authority whatsoever to ordain women priests. This is like so not going to happen. I will start giving birth to live kittens before the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church starts ordaining women. By the way, I am a 28 year old male. Read Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

  5. Laughing Peasant September 28, 2010 at 11:29 pm #

    I asked around at my Legion meeting last night as to how the boycott had gone down in the various churches. High attendance, everybody said. Why, I asked? They put it down to the end of the summer and no-one away on holidays. Not irritation at Jennifer Sleeman? They did’nt think so. They all thought she was a nice woman, well spoken, good manners, that sort of thing. They’d no more listen to her than their forebears listened to Cromwell, but `she had lovely clear diction on the radio`, said one. That member is slightly deaf, so appreciates clarity.
    Maybe boycott enthusiasts should get to know a bit more about the laypeople before planning their next outing. You know you wont ever get to know your fellow Catholics by reading the letters page of the Irish Times.

  6. Gerard September 30, 2010 at 4:47 pm #

    What I find interesting is the lack of understanding of the issues involved here. This woman has urged Catholics to commit mortal sin and thinks she is doing the Church a favour. I think she needs to re read the Penny Catechism. Given the fact that the Bishops in this country are robbing every child in their care of the Faith through the imposition of a criminal RE syllabus it is not much wonder that most Catholics are so ignorant.

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