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.