Posted tagged ‘Roman Catholic church’

Handling dissent

April 13, 2012

In 1985, as the opening up of the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was gradually being wound down, the Vatican imposed on the Brazilian priest and liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, a one-year sentence of ‘obsequious silence’. While I adored the term, and have often been tempted to find worthy subjects for such an order, in reality I was horrified by the idea that curiosity, analysis and open-ended thought could be stifled in this way.

And of course this particular approach to theological dissent has not gone away. In recent days the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a vaguely Orwellian sounding body) has newly silenced an Irish priest known for his (relatively) liberal views, Father Tony Flannery, and has restricted the freedom to publish of the editor of a religious magazine, Father Gerard Moloney. Fr Flannery has now also been told to get himself to a monastery to reflect on his unorthodox views and (presumably) come up with something more on-message. The views he is expected to lose include support for married and women priests.

It is tempting, at any rate for me, to find this development appalling.  For anyone who is committed to a search for truth and for open-minded analysis, the idea that a group of elderly (and clearly out of touch) men in Rome could order someone – anyone – to stop all this open thinking is simply abhorrent. The consolation may be that the Vatican’s move seems to have unleashed much wider dissent in the Irish RC church.

But nevertheless, let us for a moment look at it from the perspective of the elderly men in the Vatican. For them, the church never changes. Of course in reality it has changed often and will do so again, but the institutional culture is that absolutely no change can happen or even be discussed until it, well, happens. So for them, the issue is simple enough. Fr Flannery is a Roman Catholic priest, and in that capacity he has signed up to a number of key doctrines, and as priest he needs to represent these to the faithful. The church is not a debating club, and while its members may turn ideas around in their minds, the clergy need to be steadfast.

Nor is the Roman Catholic Church alone in having such issues. A few years ago the then Dean of Clonmacnoise in the Church of Ireland, Andrew Furlong, declared he did not believe Jesus was the son of God, and expressed other views incompatible with the creeds to which Anglicanism and other denominations of Christianity subscribe. He was suspended from his ministry and eventually left the priesthood. The point made then was that you could not expect to be paid as a priest if you disagree with the central tenets that you are supposed to represent.

Perhaps the key to all of this is that while Dean Furlong was pretty far removed from almost any principles of Christianity as commonly held, Fr Flannery is looking to have some organisational rules of the church reinterpreted in the light of spiritual reflection, while holding on to the key doctrines and principles.

Dissent is an important support in any search for the truth. Dissent offered from within the fold, from someone committed to the life and health of the institution, is an asset rather than an impediment. A culture of blind obedience, or of ‘obsequious silence’, is far removed from today’s values. If the church is to thrive in the future, it needs to show an understanding of this. In short, Roman Catholicism needs to rediscover the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

The lost art of unquestioning obedience

September 29, 2010

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.

Catholicism and the spirit of the age

July 21, 2010

There has been a fair amount of news coverage over recent days of the Vatican documentNormae de Gravioribus Delictis, which was actually completed by Pope Benedict on May 21 of this year but has only just been published. Before commenting on the substance, it may be worthwhile pointing out what this document is. It is in essence a series of regulations (or ‘norms’) which list the most serious ‘crimes’ identified by the church. To get a sense of how the Vatican sees the context, one might consider a ‘summary’ of what it’s about issued by Vatican press secretary Fr Federico Lombardi and attached to the document. The key passage in that summary goes like this:

‘The serious crimes to which the regulations referred concerned vital aspects of Church life: the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance, but also sexual abuse committed by a priest against a minor under the age of eighteen. The vast public echo this latter kind of crime has had over recent years has attracted great attention and generated intense debate on the norms and procedures applied by the Church to judge and punish such acts. It is right, then, that there should be complete clarity concerning the regulations currently in force in this field, and that these regulations be presented organically so as to facilitate the work of the people who deal with these matters.’

The rest of the summary then focuses almost entirely on clerical sex abuse, indicating that this is where the Pope’s mind was when finalising the document. And that of course is well and good, except that the ‘norms’ cover all sorts of other stuff also. So for example, article 3(1)(4) refers to ‘concelebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice .. with ministers of ecclesial communities which do not have apostolic succession and do not acknowledge the sacramental dignity of priestly ordination’ as a ‘grave delict’ – meaning that joint celebrations with non-Roman clergy are highly sinful. Actually the terminology used there is perhaps more ambivalent than the Vatican itself may have intended, in that, for example, Anglicans would regard themselves as having ‘apostolic succession’ and recognise the ‘sacramental dignity of priestly ordination’. But that’s by the way; the intention was to brand non-Roman sacramental actions as gravely sinful. In an age where all religion is subjected to a fair amount of scepticism this approach might be considered a tad counter-intuitive, but there you go.

Article 5 has a go at the ‘attempted sacred ordination of a woman’, which it says is a particularly ‘grave delict’.

Article 6 then deals with clerical sex abuse.

The publication of the document was followed by a fair amount of outcry over the perceived status of women’s ordination and concelebration with non-Roman Catholic clergy as being similar in seriousness to clerical sex abuse. The church and its supporters have pointed out that this is not implied at all, but that this is simply a list of things that are grave moral delicts, set out in separate articles. But in the end that justification doesn’t work: it’s all still in the same list, and is decreed as having the same sinful status. And because of that, it presents the church as an organisation that appears to be incapable of understanding the ethical perspective regarding the issues into which it has strayed. Even if it wants to hold on to its opposition to women’s ordination – a position which increasingly its own members don’t accept, and which is bound to become harder and harder to explain to them – listing it in a series of delicts that also includes sex abuse shows at best a naivety which is astounding.

The Roman Catholic Church has adopted a position that holds that the revelations and enlightenments of this (or any) age don’t count, and that its own internal culture needs to be enclosed in normative judgements that were set in a very different age. For it, departing from that culture is gravely sinful, and that sinfulness is no less outrageous than sinfulness associated with crime and abuse.

I actually have a broad sympathy for the church, and a desire for it to prosper; I am myself a catholic Anglican. But the Roman Catholic church won’t do that until it learns to accept that our understanding of the nature of humanity must always evolve as we learn new things, and that this is not incompatible with divine purpose. There is nothing too astounding about this, as the church itself has abandoned all sorts of Old Testament prescriptions, and indeed has quietly abandoned more recent ones when it suited it to do so.

It is time – urgent time – for reform.

Reality has not yet set in: the convulsions in Roman Catholicism

April 4, 2010

One of the key problems facing the Roman Catholic church right now is that many of its senior prelates do not seem to have understood the position they are in and how that is viewed by the wider population, including the catholic faithful. This was illustrated powerfully by Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pope’s personal preacher, who during a Holy Week sermon compared criticism of the Pope and the church over the handling of sex abuse cases with anti-semitism (though claiming that this comparison was offered to him by a Jewish friend). This came a few weeks after an Irish bishop complained about the media focus on the Roman Catholic church when discussing child abuse.

Fr Cantalamessa’s statement shows an extraordinary detachment from reality, and an apparent inability to see that evidence of child abuse would inevitably, and rightly,  prompt some very close and critical analysis of what the church (including the Pope) was doing. To equate such critical analysis, where it relates to the known abuse cases within the church, with anti-semitism (which as we know led to the Holocaust) is breath-taking, both because it suggests an absence of any real understanding of what has happened, and because it is an amazing insult to those who have suffered or died as a result of anti-semitism.

Once again, the statements recently by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, have provided some reassurance that not everyone is so detached from reality or has such an inadequate understanding of the moral issues involved. It is to be hoped that others in the church develop a much better sense of what has happened and do so quickly; time is not on their side. The first thing to do is to grasp that statements that appear to suggest that the church is a victim in this saga will prolong the agony and make recovery less likely. I for one would genuinely regret that.

A future for Irish catholicism?

March 21, 2010

In September 1961 my family moved from Germany to Ireland. My parents were a mixed marriage, with my father a Roman Catholic and my mother a German Lutheran. They had agreed that the first three children (there were four of us, eventually) would be baptised Lutheran, an agreement for which my father (who was actually a very devout catholic) was excommunicated for some years; and so my early childhood was a Protestant one. Taking into account also my father’s position vis-à-vis the Catholic church, I was not very aware of catholicism in any shape or form until we arrived in Ireland.

But in Ireland catholicism was everywhere, as was the local parish priest. I should say right away that the latter, Father Holmes, was a rather wonderful man, a community leader as much as a priest. But for many local people he was much more the government than anyone in Leinster House. So for example, if my father wanted the farm’s employees to work overtime at times of seasonal pressures, this required the permission of the priest (always readily given, however). No staff party could be held without him, and issues of public concern were settled in everyone’s mind only when he had pronounced on them; though after that they were beyond debate. Actually, Father Holmes was a warm and entirely humane individual, and his influence on the community was, as I remember it, benign.

But all over Ireland there were, as we know, hundreds of similar little local rulers, and some of them were autocrats, and some of them were cruel. Some of them knew about, or were involved in, extraordinary abuses of trust and compassion, but abuses that could not be mentioned even in private and that were not recognised or addressed by those in positions of secular authority. As we know from examples such as the letters of Sean MacBride to then Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, society’s leaders for decades were subservient to the church authorities and would not have contemplated criticising or controlling them, regardless of the circumstances or the issues.

If you were to experience all that from a detached position, you would probably always have said that one day this house would come crashing down and when it did the damage would be terrible; and so it has been. It has been hugely aggravated by two things: the revelation of abuse and cover-up, and the sheer inadequacy of the response even now. The latter was brought home to me again when a couple of weeks ago the Bishop of Elphin, Most Rev. Christopher Jones, accused the media of being ‘unfair and unjust’ in focusing on the Catholic Church in the context of child abuse. If he could say that, then he had not understood what was happening to the church; but worse than that, he was speaking at a press conference after the Bishops had met in Maynooth, and he was speaking on their behalf.

It has not been all like that, and one light in this astounding darkness has been the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Rev Diarmuid Martin, a man who has displayed both courage and insight. But he seems to be on his own, indeed literally. I confess I feel a little bit of sympathy for Cardinal Brady, who was doing in 1975 what he could do in 1975 (but no more); but his initial response to the revelations, that he had done nothing wrong and that in any case this had been someone else’s responsibility, was appalling.

It is very hard to see where Irish Roman Catholicism can go from here. It is my view that all churches run the risk of being corrupted if they play with temporal power, or if they become too concerned with institutional dignity, or if their clerics are given the status of local leaders. Add to that the exclusion of women from the clergy, and enforced celibacy, and you create a caste of rulers who lose a sense of perspective as to their role and who do not experience the mission of their founder in their lives. It is hard to see that those who have graduated from this caste – and that includes most of the bishops today – can jump over the shadow of their former self-importance and reach out to their congregations to meet their spiritual needs. And because they will hang around still, the work of renewal cannot properly begin. The Pope’s pastoral letter, while expressing some admirable and welcome sentiments as far as it goes, will not make much of a difference if its messengers are much the same faces as before.

When we settled in Ireland I took what is sometimes described as the via media and became an Anglican (Church of Ireland) by choice, so residing somewhere between my parents’ religious backgrounds. But I have felt a great fondness for some of the catholic inheritance of Anglicanism, including the spirituality, and the sense of poetry and art in its liturgy. I don’t enjoy the current spectacle of catholic decline. I don’t particularly believe that the erosion of religion from public consciousness impoverishes the people, but I regret it nevertheless. I don’t know how much of Ireland’s inherited sense of religion will survive, but I suspect that the religiosity which featured so strongly won’t, or that particular type of piety which was in reality just subservience to power. And if I am right, maybe that will give some space to a real sense of Christianity. At least I hope so.


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