Irish Catholic Bishops in Rome: So What?

image Bishops of the Irish Catholic Church are in Rome, and will meet the Pope on Monday and Tuesday to discuss the state of the Irish Catholic Church and its response to clerical sexual abuse. So What? Will what happens in Rome really matter to Catholics on this island?

The Irish Times reports that Bishop Joseph Duffy, the Chairman of the Communications Commission of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, told a press conference today that

he and his fellow bishops would “be keeping survivors (of abuse) at the top of the list of priorities” in addressing the Pope and the Curial Cardinals. Each bishop had been invited “to account directly to the Holy Father,” he said, and referred to “the failure of all of us, including bishops, for not doing what we were expected to do.”

These remarks follow rumours of yet another disturbing development among some within the Irish Catholic leadership. In late January, an appeal by retired Dublin auxiliary bishop Dr Dermot O’Mahony was published in the Irish Catholic, recommending that priests question the findings of the Murphy Report. This was echoed by retired Dublin priest Fr Padraign McCarthy in the latest issue of The Furrow.

Catholic lay activist Brendan Butler, speaking to the Irish Independent, interprets this as a personal attack on Archbishop Diarmuid Martin – and even an attempt to oust him.

"It seems there is now a systematic move within the hierarchy to oust Archbishop Martin because he wholeheartedly accepted the findings of the Murphy report."

On the other hand, some clerics critiqued the Irish Catholic Church last week. On Tuesday I wrote about Fr Derek Smyth, a psychotherapist and a priest in Foxrock parish, Co. Dublin, whose article in the Irish Times was a scathing analysis of ‘clerical culture’. Smyth said that an appropriate response to the scandals would be for all the priests of his generation to resign – not just the bishops who covered up the abuse.

Also writing in The Furrow, Fr Gerry O’Hanlon, a former Jesuit provincial, recommended a national synod of the Catholic Church in Ireland. He said,

“It will not do any more for priests, bishops, cardinals, the pope to simply tell us what to think, what to do. People rightly want to have a say.”

“Now would also seem to be a good time to call into question the reality that certain narrow grounds of orthodoxy are a sine qua non of Episcopal appointments at present, and to call for more transparent, representative and accountable local, including lay, participation in the appointment of bishops.”

What are lay Catholics and other members of the general public making of all this?

On the one hand, it seems there are at least some within the hierarchy still desperately grasping for the power and authority once vested in the Irish Catholic Church, blinded by the clerical culture that Smyth diagnosed.

On the other hand, those like O’Hanlon urge more lay involvement, and a move towards a more genuinely participative church at all levels.

The results of my School’s survey of laypeople in Ireland indicated that Irish Catholics are already much less interested in (and obedient to) the views of their clerical leaders. In fact, Irish Catholics were less likely than people from the three largest Protestant denominations to say that they were influenced by their local, national, and international leaders.

In light of this, the question I ask again is ‘so what?’ Will any fine words from the Pope or the bishops really make a difference? I suspect that there will be a lot of words, but little that is meaningful in terms of practical action to help the victims or ritual practices (such as public repentance or penance) to heal their wounds. I hope I’m wrong about this, but sadly I am not expecting something radical or prophetic to emerge from these meetings.

Further, is O’Hanlon’s call for more lay involvement a case of spotting a trend that is already developing and getting the institutions of the church in on the act before the leadership realises that its people have moved on without them? I certainly don’t want to sound like I am criticizing O’Hanlon here, not least because I agree with him.

But the defining question for the Irish Catholic Church in this century may very well be: does it have the resources – among its laypeople – to move on and build a new Irish spirituality? If the Irish Catholic Church is to survive that is what must happen, regardless of what occurs over the next two days in Rome.

(Photo of the Pope from the BBC website)

6 thoughts on “Irish Catholic Bishops in Rome: So What?”

  1. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Irish Catholic laypeople have the resources to build a new spirituality – the question is whether they feel able to do so within the existing structures of the church. The discouragements are both external, in the protective conservatism of the hierarchy and internal, in an unwillingness to align oneself with a system that has caused, and continues to cause, such suffering to others. I have no idea what the answer is – personally I’m aware that I’m avoiding the question by effectively placing my Catholicism on hold for the duration of my stay in Ireland and retreating into a kind of quietist piety and ecumenical activity.

  2. On reading your observation of the declining influence of clergy over local members in the Irish Catholic church, the phrase “repressive tolerance” came to mind. Is this too harsh a term to apply to the lastest appeals for more lay involvement in Catholic church decision making (and the reactionas agains them)?

    The results of the Irish School of Ecumenics’s survey seem to echo what Breda O’Brien wrote in this weekend’s Irish Times (13 Feb):
    “Like most Catholics, my faith is nourished at local level, and in many ways, what the bishops do or don’t do is irrelevant”.

    O’Brien also refers to the polycracy caused by the lack of “centralised leadership” in the Catholic Church, where bishops are and only answerable to the Pope himself, and are not “line managed” by the regional archbishop or by a ministerial committee, which many Protestant denominations have in some shape or form.

    Reflecting on the experience of lay governance and decision making in Protestant denominations, including my own personal experience, this leads to questions about how effective lay involvement might be in the Catholic church.
    How much decision power would it delegate from the priesthood to the laity?
    How democratic would it be without being divisive?
    How accountable will lay (or ordained) decision-makers be; will one supposedly oppressive power structure be replaced by another?
    Will lay officials have the right knowledge and skill set to serve their remit, or will lay involvement end up as a soapbox for attention seekers?
    Can doctrines and canon law on ecclesiastical authority and governance be altered, or has the Catholic church doctrinally cornered itself against further lay involvement?

    Maybe that new Irish Catholic movement will become more necessary than we currently envisage.

  3. Thanks Tim and Tanya, you bring some valuable perspectives and raise new questions. Breda O’Brien’s piece also brings another vantage point.

    Tim, you raise some good points about some of the difficulties with lay leadership that have developed within Protestantism. Tanya, your perspective of retreat, as a Catholic, is also interesting. I am really curious – especially as I work on my School’s research project — about the sort of strategies Catholics are adopting. I also wonder what Catholics under age 35 are up to? Is there anything out there that parallels the ’emerging church’ movement that is developing, largely among under 35’s, out of Protestantism?

  4. ” the question is whether they feel able to do so within the existing structures of the church”

    If any Catholic is not in COMUNNION wiht the ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC and APOSTOLIC church he/she cease to be catholic.

    As a Latino i can not understand how white people almost always think the answer is to brake communion with the succesor of the apostles.

    17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
    Saint Matthew 16, 17-20

  5. Thank you for your comment, Tony, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t clearer. I am a Catholic, and don’t want to cease to be so, or to break my communion with the Church. It’s precisely because I believe it to be one, holy, apostolic and catholic – a visible sign of the people of God spread across the world and the ages – that I feel so frustrated and torn by its local limitations.

    I’m also aware, of course, that my partial withdrawal (I attend Mass, albeit not weekly and though am involved in ecumenical activity, don’t play any active role in my local parish) does nothing to rectify those limitations. I’m also aware that part of my ambiguity is the perennial discomfort of the English Catholic (particularly the convert) in Ireland, an awkwardness experienced by the saintly (Newman and Hopkins) as well as by the merely lazy and irritated such as myself.

    By ‘the existing structures of the church’ I meant just that; the temporal and temporary patterns of administration that have grown up out of convenience, apathy and power-broking, not the half-hidden rock of the universal church, holy, just and merciful, against which, as you rightly say, the gates of hell would shatter as nothing.

    I don’t know much about what younger Catholics are doing, Gladys, though there is a young adult prayer group, Anam Cara, at the Graan monastery nearby, which may be worth investigating. Incidentally, I just tried to visit the Partenia site, which was fine a couple of weeks ago when I linked to it from my blog, and find that it is now marked ‘Forbidden’. I’m as liable to indulge in paranoia as any other mild anti-clerical, but let’s assume that it’s a technical error…

  6. Thanks for the tips, Tanya. I couldn’t get on the Partenia site either!

    Your concerns about the existing structures of the church, I think, are shared by a great many in Ireland and further afield. The ’emerging church’ movement, which seems to me to be largely emanating from the Protestant traditions, has really been subjecting the structures of their institutional churches to intense scrutiny. I am interested in finding out more about if or how similar processes are taking place within Irish and/or global Catholicism …

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