Monday, November 30, 2009

Crisis Of Faith

'I am here today to tell you that I have decided to leave the priesthood... Since being ordained in 1985 I have found my experience of priesthood to be very meaningful and spiritually uplifting.

"However, as you are aware, celibacy is an integral part of the commitment to priesthood. In my personal life, I am in a relationship. The nature of this relationship is such that the rule of celibacy does not allow me to continue in priesthood and to be in this relationship at the same time."

These words, delivered by prominent Derry priest Fr Seán McKenna to his congregation in the parish of Ballymagroarty earlier this month, were greeted by a standing ovation from the congregation at the Holy Family church.

The 51-year-old had been a hugely popular member of the local Catholic clergy for over 20 years.

He said he had taken the decision to leave after embarking on a "loving" and "beautiful" relationship.

McKenna's resignation is the latest example of how members of the clergy – many of whom might have a profound commitment to their vocation – struggle with the celibacy rule.

Within hours of his resignation speech being reported, bookmaker Paddy Power was offering odds on the possibility of the Catholic church dropping the vow of celibacy.

At 12/1, the bookmaker believed the odds are against Pope Benedict XVI reforming the church and dropping the vow of celibacy by 2010 or sooner.

It offered a "far more likely" 5/4 that it would be another decade before any consideration is given to a change in canon law.

The outspoken Enniskillen-based priest Fr Brian D'Arcy, in an interview with Seán O'Rourke on RTÉ's News at One, argued that there must be a place for married men within the priesthood.

D'Arcy has previously noted that an estimated 110,000 priests have left the priesthood worldwide – the vast majority simply because they fell in love.

"It was absolutely lovely to hear somebody [McKenna's parishioners] speak so well about a priest and in such lovely human terms. And it's exactly that kind of priest that you would want to build the future of the church on," he said.

Fr Paddy Rushe, the church's national coordinator for diocesan vocations, agrees the departure of good priests such as McKenna is a regrettable loss to the church.

"I think celibacy is a factor in potential candidates deciding not to become a priest. We all know guys who want to be in the church but don't feel they can make the commitment to celibacy," he said.

Despite this, he views the issue of celibacy differently to D'Arcy, underlining that it is part of a "long-established church tradition".

This is the best time ever for lay people to play a significant role in the church, he says. As an example, he cites the introduction of the permanent diaconate structure, whereby married men can become permanent deacons of the church.

"There is a real value to celibacy. For example, there is a character to it in terms of witness and sacrifice," he adds.

The church faces other looming problems, not least of which is the age profile of its priests, and the not unrelated issue of whether women should be ordained.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin indicated in stark terms the extent of his own archdiocese's manpower crisis during a recent homily at the Pro Cathedral in Dublin.

"We have 46 priests over 80 and only two less than 35 years of age. In a very short time we will just have the bare number of priests to have one active priest for each of our 199 parishes," he told those present.

The average age of priests in the Dublin archdiocese is growing, he said, and it is a trend mirrored in dioceses all over the country.

"This will require very different ways in which priests will have to exercise their ministry and interact with each other. The future will require different structures and different planning. Parishes will have to work more closely with each other and share facilities. The number of masses will have to be rationalised. Some of these changes will cause pain."

Church leaders have sought to reflect this new reality in a pragmatic way, with one of the most notable illustrations being an increased willingness to hand over the running of schools to the state.

Martin, whose archdiocese is the focus of last week's report, has been to the forefront in recognising the difficulties a lack of manpower can present to a church which controls over 92% of primary schools – 3,000 of the total of 3,200 in the state.

Over the past 18 months, he has repeatedly signalled his willingness to let go of schools in areas where the church is over-represented.

The elephant in the vocations' room is the fact that, far from recognising the potential for women to become priests, thereby increasing numbers, Pope Benedict has taken a continuously hardline approach to the issue.

The Vatican recently established an initiative to allow Anglicans, many of whom are uncomfortable with the Church of England's ordination of female clergy, to become Catholics while at the same time retaining parts of their previous spiritual heritage.

It could hardly be a clearer indication of Pope Benedict's determination to identify his Catholic church as a source of refuge for those with whom the idea of modernising does not sit well.

Yet he does so at a time when the number of priests at diocesan level in Ireland has plummeted, prompting suggestions it may be forced to increasingly seek priests from the developing world to keep up with demand.

There were a total of 3,841 diocesan priests in 1989, a figure which had fallen by around 300 to 3,524 in 2004.

In the space of five years, this number has fallen by over 400 to 3,091.

As the age profile of priests continues to increase – and despite the fact there were 36 new seminarians this year compared to just 20 in 2008 and 19 in 2005 – retirements and deaths will see the number of priests fall further both at diocesan level and within religious congregations.

SO where now for the church? If it wishes to reconnect with the public, it needs to make itself relevant to the people whose spiritual interests it hopes to serve.

Key to any such re-engagement is the approach of modernisers such as Diarmuid Martin, who will have watched the public reaction to last week's report with apprehension.

Maeve Lewis, executive director of victims' group One In Four, says Martin is "light years" ahead of many others in the Catholic church when it comes to encouraging transparency.

She notes his comments earlier this year where he criticised the lack of adherence by Irish Catholic bishops to implementation of the church's child protection guidelines.

Yet the actions of modernisers such as Martin, while welcome in seeking to ensure clerical abuse can no longer go unreported, do not go far enough, Lewis says.

His reforms, she says, are a form of "limited revolution", which seek to maintain the existing power structures of the church.

"I do believe Diarmuid Martin has embraced and understands the dynamics under which sexual abuse cases occur. But Diarmuid Martin doesn't have the authority to impose changes on the Catholic church... Each bishop has utter authority in their own diocese, and the only person who has authority to order them is the pope," Lewis says.

"There is a need for root-and-branch reform of the structures of the church. History will tell you that major change never happens from the top. People in authority have, by nature of their positions, committed themselves to these structures."

A failure to question and reform the current hierarchical structures within the church has had another, albeit more subtle, impact on the survivors of abuse who have already been through so much and shy away from the church's counsel.

"In my experience, most survivors would actually no longer be practising Catholics. It is quite presumptive of the religious to assume they can be part of the healing process," Lewis says.

"As a psychotherapist, I am aware that our spirituality is a very core aspect of our lives. For many people who have been sexually abused within the church, one of the big wounds is the cutting off of that spirituality. So they look for it from other sources, by developing other belief systems."

This can include other forms of spirituality, but can also include the development of destructive coping mech­anisms such as alcohol or drug abuse.

The challenges facing the Catholic church in Ireland come at a time when people, faced with the collapse of the economy, have begun to embrace religion once more.

This has led some to argue that the faith many placed in the Celtic Tiger and its money-obsessed culture has been replaced by a deeper realisation of the need for spirituality in their lives.

According to one recent poll conducted by the Iona Institute, two-thirds of Irish people go to church at least once a month, compared with an ESRI poll conducted early last year which had the figure at 54%. This suggests that, in a time of social trauma, some people are reverting to the Catholic church for comfort and succour, in spite of its failings.

But others argue these figures, while encouraging for the hierarchy, should not mask the pressing need for a wider questioning of its structures.

In their announcement last week that they will be donating €34m as reparation for past abuses, as well as transferring land valued at a further €127m to joint ownership of the government and the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, the Christian Brothers said their decisions recognised their "moral obligation to survivors of abuse and to the people of Ireland".

"[It] will be one sign of our willingness to collaborate fully in creating a new reality for the care of children in Ireland," it said.

"We will continue to examine how best religious life can contribute to the needs of a changed and changing society in the 21st century."

As Irish society continues to digest the findings of the Dublin archdiocese report, the day when such a renewed role for the religious in Ireland might be a realistic possibility seems further away than ever.

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