This article was triggered by some interesting occasional reading about the Irish Catholic Church, the prolonged state of the deepening decline in practice and enthusiasm, along with the seemingly inept and ineffective efforts to stem the determined and ubiquitous tide.
Three quotations have been selected for their relevance and challenge, coupled with their potential to see into the heart of the matter, provide food for thought and action.
“It is only when it is purified and transformed that the church will be able to devise a strategy to respond to the spiritual needs of the age,” wrote Noel Barber SJ in Christianity in Ireland: Revisiting the Story.
What is unknown here is where on the scale of one to 10 the crisis currently exists. Clearly major work is required to fashion a new and renewed church.
How to purify and transform the church? At a minimum, these processes necessitate a root-and-branch application, energised by a vision for the quotidian and the morrow.
The work of purifying and transforming ranks among the most challenging and elusive objectives in any enterprise.
Given the nature, configuration, scope and multi-layered nature of the church – inner city, remote rural, large urban parish, episcopate, papal nuncio and Rome – achieving those objectives would be a daunting exercise.
Still, the task, however burdensome, is to be undertaken and completed.
In some instances the guiding light might not be shining from Rome. If the church is truly universal, new strategies can emerge and be devised from any corner of its multi-faceted arena.
“Indeed, a thorough-going repudiation of clericalism in its various non-spiritual dimensions would seem to be a necessary requirement for an effective re-positioning of the institutional Catholic Church in Ireland at the beginning of the new millennium,” James S Donnelly Jr in Christianity in Ireland: Revisiting the Story.
Single-mindedly, with candid equipoise, Donnelly sets out his stall and courageously names a glaring problem, all in a single sentence. No doubt he is aided by his international standing as a historian, coupled with his well-honed specialisation in Irish history.
The goal as stated is to unseat and erase clericalism and, as a consequence, facilitate the emergence of a revitalised institution.
In any organisation, if a core group takes over decision-making, dominates all discussion and appropriates to itself the final word, their hold becomes too tight and can strangle the organisation.
“What distinguishes ‘new’ Catholics is that they do not feel bound by tenets of Catholicism as laid down by the official Church teaching. They have re-defined Catholicism to meet their needs and accommodate their life situations,” writes Louise Fuller in Irish and Catholic? Towards an understanding of identity.
“It is high time for the Catholic Church to re-interpret its role in modern Ireland. But engaging with this has been highly problematical for the universal Church over centuries,” she writes.
“At the local level, it represents the central challenge for the Irish Catholic Church if Catholicism is to reclaim its historic place in Irish identity.”
These are clear, unequivocal statements grounded in research findings, underlining the “new” Catholics who have “a liberal attitude to sexual matters. They question the Church’s right to speak with absolute authority in matters of personal morality.”
It will be interesting to see how the church will deal with the “new Catholics” in any new configuration of church life, religious practice and moral code.
The views of these three writers are interlaced and speak to a large body of research, thinking and writing. If a new vision of church is to emerge, these voices must be heard, discussed and understood by laity, priests and bishops.
And too, among the many people who have left the Catholic church, there quite possibly could be those who went out of sheer frustration, disappointment, burn-out and dissatisfaction.
Their voices, and those of the theologians, thinkers and writers who articulate and inform their understanding, have not been heard. Instead Rome is known to silence and issue bans.
When all voices in “the troubled, contemporary Irish Catholic Church” (as one writer put it) are represented at the forum, then and only then will we find the beginnings of a new paradigm and praxis.
Dr Mícheál W Ó Murchú has lectured in education at UCC, TCD and the University of Missouri, Kansas City. His writings have been published in Ireland and by Unesco.