One of the most striking features of the current crisis in the Irish Catholic Church is the huge disconnect between high-ranking clergy and laypeople. As stunned laypeople struggle to come to grips with the scale of clerical sexual abuse and its subsequent cover-up, the clergy have by and large defended the church’s actions – showing more love for the church institution than for the people who actually comprise it.
Comedian Ardal O’Hanlon – well-known for his role as Fr Dougal McGuire in the sitcom Father Ted, aptly summed up those strained relationships in a stand-up show I attended last week in Belfast: ‘It’s even tough now being a fictional priest.’
But Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s speech on the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland to the Knights of Columbanus in Dublin on Monday night has provided some hope that real leadership on the crisis might emerge – surprisingly it might be said – from within the ranks of the Irish hierarchy.
Patsy McGarry, the Irish Times’ religion correspondent, writes that Martin’s address is characterised by ‘grim frustration.’ Martin’s frustrations are indeed many, as he said:
“There are still strong forces which would prefer that the truth did not emerge”. There was “subconscious denial on the part of many” and “other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened”.
Martin also lambasted a clerical and seminary culture that had ‘produced both those who abused and those who mismanaged the abuse.’ He hinted that the norms and regulations for safeguarding children are not being implemented fully. This led McGarry to ask,
Is this a foretaste of what is to come from the audit of Catholic dioceses and institutions, soon to be published by the church’s own watchdog, the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC)? If it is, then such an eventuality is unforgivable. That, following the Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports, there are institutions which do not implement child-protection norms “with the rigour required” seems unbelievable.
It has been rare for remarks from within the Irish hierarchy to be welcomed by laypeople (including victims and survivors), but that has been the case with Martin’s address. This merely demonstrates that a little compassion, sense of responsibility, and ability to see the flaws of one’s own institution can go a long way in starting to repair relationships between clergy and laypeople.
Martin also talked about a ‘crisis of faith’ in Ireland. He indicates that this crisis goes deeper than the abuse scandals. Martin’s diagnosis is different from what the Pope said in his pastoral letter to Ireland. One reading of the Pope’s letter is that he seemed to blame lay Irish Catholics for causing the scandals engulfing the church – saying that they did not have enough faith.
Martin, on the other hand, points out that
… Irish Catholic schools had educated young people who were "among the most catechised in Europe, but among the least evangelised."
In my ongoing interviews with Catholics participating in my School’s current research project, they have expressed a similar frustration with Irish Catholicism. Some have likened it to a superficial, Father Ted type of faith that emphasises rote routines but lacks genuine spirituality.
What’s significant here is the Martin locates some of the blame for that within the Catholic schools. Martin also indicated that the centre of renewal for the church should be the parish, which McGarry ‘may yet have implications for the schools debate.’
Be that as it may, what excites me is the way Martin has located the impetus for renewal among people in the parishes. I think it’s still up in the air as to whether many of the high-level church leadership will be able to join that process with any sort of credibility intact.