Monday, August 29, 2011

Coulm Kenny: It is the truly faithful who are aghast at the Church

Bishop Philip Boyce of Raphoe sees the Catholic Church "attacked from the outside by the arrows of a secular and godless culture: rocked from the inside by the sins and crimes of priests and consecrated people".

Missing from his blame equation last week were non-criminal acts and omissions of the hierarchy and other Church authorities. These have contributed mightily to the decline of the Irish Catholic Church and to the despair of its faithful.

Bishop Boyce was speaking at Knock, Ireland's major shrine for the traditionally devout. It is a place where the truly afflicted go for comfort.

Yet Bishop Boyce seemed to equate their personal problems with those of the institutional Church that is itself largely to blame for its own current troubles.

Last week too, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dermot Clifford, tried again to distance himself from the handling of child abuse complaints in Cloyne. 

But mere words will not redress the harm done for decades by a hierarchy that was unable or unwilling to change its Church's thinking and structures to meet modern needs.

Bishop Boyce did not identify those who are firing arrows at his Church. Is it the thoughtful people who want integrated education? Feminists who are exercised by the role of women? A few gay activists who disagree with the Pope on homosexuality? Lazy comedians who find easy targets in Maynooth or the Vatican?

And how does Bishop Boyce know who is godless?

In fact, Irish Catholic bishops face indifference and contempt more than active secular hostility. Their Church no longer seems relevant to many, except as a barrier to reform, and their words sound hollow even to those in their dwindling congregations.

Irish people are stunned. 

Betrayed by leaders of Church and State, they have been left to pick up the pieces as best they can and to pay for years of arrogance, abuse and neglect. 

Those in power made a mockery of the political and religious principles on which this independent Irish State was founded. 

The consequences of that social and economic collapse will blight our future.

In the past, the Catholic Church was a source of strength in trouble, both at home and among emigrants. 

But the Eucharistic Congress planned for Ireland next year looks like the response of someone in denial. It simply does not connect with where most people now are.

If there is some kind of a threat to Christian values from "a secular and godless culture", it is not this that brought the Irish Catholic Church low. 

Some of the sharpest critics were internal reformers and the spiritually alive, people lay and cleric who were sometimes cruelly driven out. They left the institution in the hands of men who did not get, or did not want to get, the need for radical reform.

"In some ways," said Bishop Boyce at Knock last week, "the worse our condition, the nearer is God's help."

Such words can bring comfort to the ill when they evidently come from Christ. But one could be forgiven for reading Bishop Boyce's whole speech, and other utterances of his fellow bishops, as self-pitying efforts to place their institutional troubles on the same level as that of victims of illness or other eternal woes.

Knock can be a very moving place. I was there on the day in 1979 when Pope John Paul II eventually visited. Many thousands waited patiently as Bishop Eamonn Casey and Fr Micheal Cleary delayed the pontiff at Galway racecourse. 

The duo were (in the words of the current Galway Races website) "a terrific double act, entertaining the huge crowd" of unsuspecting young people that turned out to see the pontiff.

As RTE's only live television commentator at Knock, I was expected to go with the flow as I found things to say to fill airtime.

RTE had advised me not to refer to the apparition of Mary at Knock as "alleged" or as otherwise doubtful, and I was scolded for being "morbid" when I spoke about ill pilgrims whom I had earlier met in the basilica and who could be seen in panning shots of its interior.

Bishop Boyce proclaimed last week, "When we enter into any kind of suffering and distress, it is the Lord who allows us to experience our own weakness and inadequacy."

Is he suggesting that God or Jesus somehow want people like those at Knock to suffer, perhaps even cause things like cancer or the child abuse scandal in order to teach us a lesson?

This sounds to some believing ears to be closer to blasphemy than to theology, yet it is a mode of absorbing criticism that is not new within the Irish hierarchy.

But it was Church authorities, and not Jesus, that left Irish children and young women exposed to experience their "weakness and inadequacy".

Those who subscribe to entirely "secular and godless" cultural values are not the most disappointed by current Church scandals, for they expected no more from the Catholic Church.

It is the truly faithful who are aghast. 

The truly faithful include not only those who are most unquestioning and conservative. They also include some whose living faith does not fit comfortably into outmoded structures and rigid ways of thinking.

It is startling now to read what Mark in his Gospel wrote of Jesus, because Christ's action then seems so far removed from what any Irish bishop could do at present and is a terrible reminder of what Irish bishops have failed to do: "And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said to them, 'Whosoever shall receive one such child in my name, receives me: and whosoever shall receive me, receives not me, but him that sent me.'"

Without humble reform, without changes in the power structures of their Church, the bishops' Eucharistic Congress next year threatens to be a pastiche of the famous Eucharistic Congress of 1932. It will be no real communion of people, not even of Catholics, but an assertion of authority dressed up in ceremony.

Penance has long been regarded as a prerequisite for communion. What the Irish Church needs before any Eucharistic Congress is a long period of penance, evidenced by real actions such as the stepping down of bishops en masse before Rome imposes a shameful reform on the Irish hierarchy.

Not all of the bishops are responsible for what happened, even if most have personally benefited from the sort of Catholic Church that we have today. 

But such a sign of repentance would at least indicate that they had begun to grasp the gravity of their collective failures. 

And it would be an admission that all of the secular arrows in the world cannot hurt Christians as much as their own sins do.