Wednesday, March 28, 2012

David Quinn: Bishops must pay heed to visitation's crucial conclusions

As some people have it, the only two choices for the Catholic Church are between a model that is 'closed', 'conservative' and 'authoritarian', and one that is 'open', 'liberal' and 'inclusive'.

But the real choice is between a church that has the courage of its convictions in the face of an often very hostile culture, and one which panders to that culture.

The summary report of the papal inspection team -- the Apostolic Visitation as it is properly called -- published this last week, points us firmly in the direction of authentic renewal through encouraging the church in Ireland to have the courage of its convictions.

The visitation was prompted mostly by the abuse scandals, but the Pope also wanted his representatives to have a look at the state of the church here in general. 

Under Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York it took a particularly close look at our seminaries.

One recommendation attracted a lot of media attention, namely that "seminary buildings be exclusively for seminarians".

A cartoon in 'The Irish Times' pictured the seminarians entering what amounted to a prison.

In fact, they will still spend the bulk of their days in contact with the outside world, which is as it should be.

Another recommendation is that those in charge of our seminaries ensure that what is taught in them "is in full conformity with the church's magisterium".

It's a sign of the times that a lot of people don't even know what that word means any more. 

It simply means the teaching authority of the church.

More accurately, it means that the church has the power to pronounce authoritatively on certain vital points of theological dispute.

The problem is that many Catholics today now believe that the magisterium of the church is simply one voice among others and that it does not have the authority to settle vital and fundamental theological questions.

But if you reduce the magisterium to one voice among others, the unity of the church is ultimately destroyed because there would no longer be a court of final appeal in the church. 

The Catholic Church would become, in effect, another Protestant church and given the cultural forces currently at work, it would quickly become a liberal Protestant church.

Now, the various Protestant churches often have great strengths, but lacking a court of final appeal on matters of theological dispute, they also tend to keep on splitting into ever more churches.

Of course, it will be claimed that the Catholic Church is already split into factions. However, what allows us to say that Faction A is authentically Catholic and Faction B is not, is the fact that Faction A agrees with the magisterium of the church.

So agreement with the magisterium on points such as the divinity of the Christ, or the truth and meaning of human sexuality, is absolutely vital to the unity of the church and that is why the visitators' report wants our seminaries to produce priests who agree with the magisterium, understand why it teaches what it teaches and can explain this convincingly.

It is also why the report draws attention to the fact that there is "fairly widespread" dissent in Ireland from the teachings of the magisterium, and that "this serious situation requires particular attention".

It should be self-evident that a divided church is in no position to properly teach the Gospel and the more the leaders of the church in Ireland tolerate dissent from fundamental teachings of the church, the more that ability to properly witness and teach is compromised.

It should also be noted, as a simple matter of sociological fact, that the most liberal churches also tend to be the ones that have suffered the greatest loss in numbers.

Quite apart from the scandals, what has critically weakened the Catholic Church in Ireland, and religion generally, is a basic crisis of faith.

Only a church that is united to the greatest extent possible, whose members accept the fundamental teachings of the church and know how to explain them to the wider society, has any possibility of addressing this crisis of faith and renewing itself.

A church that can't even agree on what it is has no hope of doing so.

That is why the report issued this week is correct to emphasise the importance of loyalty to the magisterium. 

Now the job of our bishops is to act on the report's recommendations. 

Have they the courage to do it?