Monday, February 22, 2010

There’s no Roman solution to Irish clerical problems (Contribution)

Both the build-up and the reaction to the Irish bishops’ visit to Rome last week missed the point: we must solve our own problems, and looking to others to do it for us simply hinders the process.

On February 28,1979, during a debate on a health bill, the late Charles Haughey, then minister for health, coined the phrase ‘‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’’.

Since then, the phrase has become a synonym for compromise and evasion.

Perhaps, it is now time to examine whether a more positive construction cannot be put on Haughey’s words.

The visit to Rome by the Irish Catholic bishops may provide us with just such an opportunity.

There is no denying the historic significance of the bishops’ Roman visit. It is rare indeed for an entire episcopal conference to be summoned to the Vatican in this fashion. It need hardly be said that such invitations rarely presage occasions of joy.

The Irish Bishops were there because of what was termed, in the final statement following the meeting, ‘‘the failure of Irish Church authorities for many years to act effectively in dealing with cases involving the sexual abuse of young people by some Irish clergy and religious’’.

The pedestrian prose does little to disguise the impact of the overall statement, if one gives it a moment’s sober consideration: the Irish bishops were read out from the global pulpit, singled out for condemnation from the ranks of the Church.

Both this fact and its meaning were largely missed in much of the immediate post factum commentary.

It should be said that the anger and frustration in the air - palpable especially in the reactions made by victims to the Vatican statement - is fully understandable.

There is seldom anything but the coldest of comfort to be found in agreed press statements.

Indeed, there is an inbuilt indelicacy in even the attempt to deal with personal tragedy in this fashion.

Words are not enough and any suspicion that words have been crafted with diplomatic precision to avoid constructive and remedial action will rouse people’s - and not just victims’ - ire.

However, to make real progress, to be really constructive if you will, we must get beyond anger - and get beyond Rome.

Great expectations

It was of more than passing interest to observe the dynamic of the news cycle in the lead-up to the bishops’ visit. Hype is an entirely appropriate term to capture the mood and conduct of the preamble. After hype, as night follows day, comes letdown.

This is not to condemn media coverage of a major news event, but simply to observe that the level and the tone of the coverage led, inevitably, to unreal expectations.

How many of us have made a habit of reading Vatican statements on a regular basis? A small enough sample would suffice to manage any expectation of such an utterance becoming a life transforming event.

There are also, however, deeper things at play in our build-up and reaction to the events of last week.

What is it about us that we tend to look elsewhere for our salvation? Or, if not quite salvation, why do we project such an unrealistic level of expectation onto a single meeting 1,000 miles away that we come away feeling so let down?

There was never likely to be a different outcome to the visit than the one that transpired. What was played out was a ritual of reprimand, albeit in performance and prose so subtle the point was largely missed.

Moreover, there has scarcely ever been a time in the history of Irish Catholicism when the influence of Rome on Irish episcopal appointments has been as marked as in the past three decades.

As has been the case worldwide, the Vatican has utilised the appointment of bishops more as an instrument of policy and, regrettably, less as a means of serving the people.

Many have now forgotten the great debates around the nature of the Church that took place at Vatican II, which crystallised around the question of whether the Church was primarily a hierarchical institution or was better understood as, at its most fundamental, ‘the people of God’.

The council documents, of course, left us with the classic ‘both-and’ formulation.

Subsequent Vatican policy and practice, particularly since the late 1970s, have had only one emphasis.

What now?

The real imperative for the Irish bishops, individually and collectively - and it will be at least as difficult and certainly more protracted than any visit - is to cast off their Roman clothes and to assume the mantle of leaders of the people of God in Ireland.

This new form of leadership will need to go far beyond any institutionally based focus on damage limitation; it will need to be characterised by risk-taking on an unprecedented scale.

To get specific, the Irish people need to see both profound repentance and a firm purpose of amendment from their episcopal leaders.

The bishops should declare, without further delay, a time-bound intention to review and reform all relevant ecclesial structures and systems.

This should be done both to minimise the risk of repetition of past events and, on the broader scale, to rebuild the faith and morale of their shattered communities.

The process should be a transparent one, open to the widest possible public discussion and input.

It should be led by a small representative group with a clearly identified and appropriately skilled spokesman.

Its recommendations should be agreed publicly by all Irish bishops and implemented, again in a timed and measured fashion, in all dioceses.

To give a concrete example, any complaint of clerical sex abuse involves an adjudication, an application of power, even if that power is exercised only to implement a set of guidelines. Given what has occurred, there should now simply be no situation where such adjudication is made by the clergy acting alone.

There is no theological or canonical reason why this should be so; God knows, to use a theological phrase, there is an abundance of signs of the times why it should be the contrary.

And yet there are signs of hope. Taoiseach Brian Cowen himself said as much in his response to last week’s visit when he acknowledged the progress the Church has made in safeguarding children. The pity is that so much of this progress is happening behind closed doors, in away that unconsciously and damagingly echoes the clericalist secrecy of the past.

While respecting the sensitivities involved in these grave matters, one might hope for a better balance in future, one weighted that bit more towards letting us know what’s happening and removing any grounds for lingering suspicion.

At the Ash Wednesday Mass at UCD last week, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin spoke movingly of human ingenuity as the most profound gift of creation.

His words contain a challenge to himself and his fellow bishops to deploy that same ingenuity to address in a meaningful and non-evasive way the challenge of our past, to develop a real Irish solution to our Irish problem.

This - and not another Roman circus around the forthcoming Papal letter - is where real healing and resolution lie.

If we cannot draw inspiration from the season of Lent and Easter to make at least a start on this, then maybe that would be grounds for resignation?

**Dr Pádraic Conway is director of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies and a vice-president of the university. He is currently directing the government-funded project John Henry Newman: Global and Local Theologian**

No responsibility or liability shall attach itself to us or to the blogspot ‘Clerical Whispers’ for any or all of the articles placed here.

The placing of an article hereupon does not necessarily imply that we agree or accept the contents of the article as being necessarily factual in theology, dogma or otherwise.


No comments: