The lost art of unquestioning obedience

Maybe I should just emphasise up front that, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met Father Tom Ingoldsby. Maybe he is a thoughtful clergyman and a kind man. I’m sure he is. But on the other hand, if he wants to serve the Roman Catholic Church, in which he is ordained priest, most effectively he might contemplate a period of silence.

You may not know what I am talking about here, so let me explain briefly. Fr Ingoldsby is a priest attached to the Salesian Secondary School in Pallaskenry, Co Limerick. Over the years he has developed something of a reputation in Ireland as being ready to come forward at every opportunity with a strong public defence of whatever he thinks is the most orthodox and traditional position of the church. He is no stranger to the media. He has shared his views on all sorts of things with the rest of us, for example including stem cell research and civil partnerships between gay people.

His most recent excursion into the public arena took place today in the letters page of the Irish Times. His chosen topic was last Sunday’s attempt to organise a boycott of Masses across Ireland in protest at the Roman Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women to the priesthood. Fr Ingoldsby really cannot understand why this should be a topic of discussion anywhere, never mind a cause for boycotting the Mass. He takes this view because, in a 1994 Apostolic Letter, the then Pope John Paul II announced that ‘I declare that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful.’

As far as Fr Ingoldsby is concerned, that’s the end of the matter. He suggests in his letter to the Irish Times editor:

‘This statement, that the church has no power to change in this matter will be accepted by all loyal Catholics.’

In reality of course, as we know from all sorts of polls and other evidence, loyal Catholics are not accepting this at all; indeed some polls suggest that significant numbers of priests don’t. But I don’t want to get into the issue of women’s ordination here, I am more interested in the frame of mind suggested by Fr Ingoldsby’s statement that I quote above. It is based on the principle of absolute and unquestioning obedience: ‘the Pope has said it can’t be done, so why are we even discussing this?’ I just wish Fr Ingoldsby, and others who still think like him, might reflect a little on what has got the church into the mess it’s in. They might also think about how the church can connect with a new generation of people, many of whom still have spiritual and religious needs but who will not relate to the frame of reference that puts obedience before all else. And they might remember that the sustainability of a democratic society depends upon the ability and willingness of people to engage in critical analysis of received wisdom or orthodoxy.

I am not in any way hostile to the church, in its broader mission. But I am fearful for it. And it is views like those expressed by Fr Ingoldsby that make me so.

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6 Comments on “The lost art of unquestioning obedience”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    Ferdinand – do the words ‘banging’, ‘head’ ‘brick’ and ‘wall’ not come to mind?

  2. BrendanH Says:

    The trouble is, Ingoldsby is right. The Church is not a democracy, it is not involved in a popularity contest, it is not even involved in being effective or just in any recognisable secular sense. It is an explicitly top-down voluntary association, and draws its notions of truth and goodness from supernatural revelation (supposedly; empirically that is indistinguishable from pulling it from their rear ends). Accepting this is a condition of membership. If you don’t like it, your only choice is to knuckle under or leave.

    (PS: This is a stronger position than I could really stand by as a professional sociologist. For rhetorical purposes, it takes religion a little more seriously in its own terms than is justified.)

  3. wendymr Says:

    Definitely a poster child for the old saying about friends and enemies!

    Also in the people you don’t want on your side category today, have you seen the story of the Michigan assistant district attorney’s cyber-harassment of the gay student president at the University of Michigan?

  4. Vincent Says:

    There is a bit of a difference between Faith and submission to a discipline. Had we copped on to this many a kid might have something nearing a childhood and not as a vessel for some scumbags thoughts and actions on sexual, class and social domination.

  5. Brian Says:

    You either believe in the invisible man in the sky and that the Pope is his representative on Earth or you don’t. The idea that you can cherry pick the parts of religion to suit your desires is laughable. Do you actually believe there exists an all knowing-all powerful (and quite vengeful) god, and that _you_ can decide whether he’s correct in his proclamations?

    Tom represents what Catholicism stands for. If you don’t agree with what he says, perhaps it is time you stuck your flag into a different fairy tale.

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