Wednesday, March 28, 2012

James Downey: Church can't stem the tide of change (Comment)

APOSTOLIC Visitation. 

It sounds impressive, and more than a little mysterious. 

In reality, it turned out to be less impressive and less mysterious than it might appear.

At one time, it would have been a very big event. 

In the 19th Century, serious tensions, bordering sometimes on outright confrontations, occurred between the Holy See and the Irish Catholic bishops. 

To an extent, they survived independence. 

The bishops, for example, were uneasy about the appointment of a papal nuncio, fearing that his presence would diminish their own power.

They need not have worried. 

In independent Ireland their power grew, reaching its peak under the dictatorship of John Charles McQuaid. 

The "faith of the people", as measured by the servility of most politicians, became legendary.

It took the best part of a century for the dam to burst. 

A conservative Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, criticised not only the bishops but the Holy See itself for their role in the cover-ups of the clerical sex abuse scandals. 

In response, Pope Benedict dispatched four awesomely eminent churchmen to Ireland to carry out the "apostolic visitation". 

To what purpose?

They produced a report, of which we have seen only a summary. 

Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the 'Irish Catholic', reduced its message to less than one sentence in this newspaper on Wednesday: "In the Vatican's view, authentic renewal of the church in Ireland will be brought about not by liberal reforms but by a return to traditional Catholic teaching."

Roma locuta est, causa finita est. Rome has spoken, the case is ended. 

Is there anything more to be said?

There is indeed. 

The report essentially falls into two parts. One deals with the sex abuse scandals. It gives, to use the most polite word available, an incomplete account of the scandals and the role of the Vatican. That was predictable. The second part is more interesting.

The eminent visitors want seminarians to be segregated from their lay fellow students. John Charles McQuaid would surely have approved. St Thomas Aquinas might well have approved. 

But they lived long ago; in the case of Aquinas, a very long time ago. To us that view seems simply astonishing.

These seminarians are presumably destined to become parish clergy. They will work in an indifferent, often hostile society. They will encounter difficulties barely imaginable to young men from comfortable backgrounds. They will be dismayed by the flood of sin and suffering of which they learn. Surely the more they mix with their fellow students and the wider society, the better prepared they will be?

A hint, however, of the thinking behind the proposal is also contained in the report.

It complains about what it calls "a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium".

Like most people, I am not qualified to enter into argument about theological opinions. I'm not even sure what our eminent visitors have in mind. 

Do they mean the kind of disputation, lasting for centuries and involving some of the great minds of their age, that led to the Protestant Reformation? 

Or the questions posed to all religions by our ever-increasing knowledge of the origins of the universe? 

Or the fierce criticism of the Catholic Church for its stand on such issues as contraception and in-vitro fertilisation?

They must know that one of the biggest arguments, for priests possibly the biggest of all, is the one about celibacy, something that has nothing to do with "theological opinions".

In England, the Catholic Church has gained a spectacular increase in power and influence. 

But many clergy and laity are perturbed by its decision to ordain married Anglican priests who have crossed over, and to allow them to remain married. 

They ask, reasonably, why a supposedly immutable law does not apply in this case. 

And they have taken note of the usual reason for the defections: ordination of women in the Church of England.

Many Roman Catholics, in England and everywhere, want their own women priests, and they want married priests. 

These are the kind of people who want to do their own thinking. 

They are still outnumbered, in Ireland at any rate, by "traditional Catholics" who are content to let the church do their thinking for them. But that cannot last much longer.

The peoples of most Western societies have come to terms with secularism. Ireland is different, because the Catholic Church has formed a huge part of the glue that holds our society together. 

Now institutions are at best weak, at worst collapsing, and the church faces relegation to minority status. 

Like other countries, we have to come to terms with that. 

We have to develop, not just a secular society, but a secular morality: we cannot throw moral principle out of the window. 

The report of the Apostolic Visitation offers no guidance. 

We will have to manage for ourselves.