Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Little has changed in the Catholic Church since Daly-Darcy clash (Opinion)

I remember very well the evening of Friday, November 3, 1995. 

How could I possibly forget it? 

For the first and last time, I was a guest on the panel of The Late Late Show – with Gay Byrne then in charge of RTÉ Television’s signature programme. 

The show was devoted exclusively to the position of the Catholic Church in Ireland with the audience jam-packed with the great, the good and the not-so-good of Catholic Ireland.

People may remember it as the night that Fr Brian Darcy and Cardinal Cathal Daly famously clashed with different perspectives on Catholicism in Ireland, each representing different planets as we might say now. 

That was almost 30 years ago but, truth be told, the same discussion now would, I suspect, generate similar orbits.

It wouldn’t happen now, of course – the programme not the planets – because the interest in religion and in Catholicism wouldn’t attract the same audience much less sustain it for a few hours. 

As media people tell us, there’s no compelling interest in religion in Ireland now. 

And if anyone knows, they know. 

As the market research shows, there’s no media audience for religion anymore. The discussion has moved on.

I’ve forgotten what I said on the night but a report on the programme I came across recently reminds me that I remarked that Catholic clergy and laity were "living in two different worlds and speaking two very different, mutually incomprehensible languages". 

Apparently, I also commented that in Irish Catholicism "something would have to die before something new might be born".

I either said nothing else or anything else I said wasn’t worth reporting. And yet, I find myself still singing from an almost identical hymn sheet – different planets, same story, change or decay.

The clash between Daly and Darcy drew the most comment. 

Orchestrated by Gaybo who had an uncanny ability to generate media copy, a row between a cardinal and Ireland’s most popular media priest was too delicious a prospect not to have its embers fanned into a flame. 

Daly was cross-questioned on women in the Church and the celibacy requirement for priests and surrendered several hostages to fortune.

After the dust settled on the Daly-Darcy fracas, what I remember is the anger of some of the women present who took exception to Daly’s defence of Pope John Paul II. 

Daly argued in response to the women’s criticism of the then pope that John Paul had done more in terms of dialogue with women than any other pope in history. 

While it might be said that the level of engagement by popes with the women’s issues wasn’t (in the pre-John-Paul years) set very high and Daly was right, at the same time it wasn’t the most productive line to take.

While fighting grimly not to let the side down is always an admirable strategy, not giving an inch (or even allowing for different opinions) though commendable to loyal supporters is almost always unwise. 

As one report suggested, while Daly was factually correct, he didn’t "acknowledge the exponentially increased expectations on the part of women". 

We can know our history and yet not realise how much has changed.

In 30 years everything seemed to have changed while, for the most part, things have more or less remained the same. 

In the unlikely event of a senior bishop appearing now on The Late Late Show, and being challenged by a group of women enraged by their part-exclusion from their rightful role in the Catholic Church (more than 60 years after the Second Vatican Council), the same drama would be played out. 

The bishop would refuse to give an inch on a settled centuries-long, unchanging and unchangeable tradition on women priests, clerical celibacy and the other hot-button issues of the day – and those who sing from a different hymn sheet – frustrated by a Church that insists (as they would see it) on living in the past – would not be slow to sponsor a different creed.

There are many imponderables at work here. 

Why do bishops on the rare occasions they feature on the media feel the need to parrot an uncompromisingly defensive position that seems forever intent on closing off avenues of obvious and necessary reform for the future of the Church?

Why can they not even admit, as surely they must know, that there is no compelling theological reason why women can’t be ordained? 

Or, even if that was not the case, why they insist on what the Jesuit theologian, Gerry O’Hanlon, calls "an almost pathological, fetish-like refuge in mantras about the impossibility of doctrinal development?" 

It’s not just that this obstructionist approach is so completely at odds with the Church’s history and tradition but that, in a number of key areas that shout to the house-tops for resolution, there is no theological impediment at all. 

And yet, in a Church that accepts that teaching was not handed over by the apostles as "a deposit of faith" but that emerged gradually over the centuries, some church leaders insist on implying that there is an unchanging tradition that is beyond their authority to question.

Do they not know that there is an unholy impatience with trumpeting as progress towards change what are generally regarded as merely token and cosmetic developments – votes at synod for a few nominal women or representational membership of a few Vatican dicasteries – especially when, in more central and compelling developments, there is a reluctance on decidedly specious grounds to release the ball though we’re well over the line.

And do they not know how embarrassing it is to listen to bishops getting themselves in a twist trying to hold a line that most Catholics have already crossed? 

And, in the exchange, compounding the unenvied reputation of the Catholic Church as the only significant institution in Irish society that refuses to accept the equality of women.

It’s a salient reminder that in the 30 years since the Darcy/Daly spat, very little has actually changed.