Saturday, August 28, 2010

Martin is losing his battle to reform Irish church

Martin is losing his battle to reform Irish church
ARCHBISHOP Diarmuid Martin's speech in Italy on Tuesday went a long way towards confirming what so many of us had suspected: that he is losing the battle for reform of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and that he knows it.

It is nothing short of tragic that a man of such human and intellectual qualities should confess to discouragement. Tragic not only for him, but for a country that has lost faith in its institutions. All institutions need constant reform and renewal, and the alternative to reform is not the preservation of the old system but its inevitable decline.

One may say, with much truth, that the church has brought its woes upon itself, and that the rot set in a very long time ago. No need to look back over the history of two centuries and more -- one modern example will suffice.

One of the archbishop's most famous predecessors, John Charles McQuaid, came home from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and assured his people that nothing much had happened and they could rest secure in the tranquillity of their "Christian lives". He himself rested secure in the belief that nothing had happened to disturb the ambitions to which he had devoted his life -- thought control and the dumbing down, often outright suppression, of debate.

Looked at -- as I by natural inclination tend to do -- in political terms, this was decidedly inaccurate.

Politically speaking, the Catholic Church worldwide has undergone a revolution and a counter-revolution. Admittedly the revolution never came to very much, but the establishment of the principle of "collegiality" could have diminished the overwhelming power of the papacy and the medieval-style court that surrounds every pope. Since then, we have gone back to the Middle Ages with a vengeance.

The church entered the 21st century, and has continued under the papacy of Benedict XVI, in a mode which some would call conservative and others would deem reactionary. This manifests itself supremely in its relations with other churches, especially the Anglican churches, and casts shadows over the Pope's forthcoming visit to England.

Rome refuses to recognise Anglican orders. Evidently, it fails to see how offensive it is to tell Anglican clergy that they are "not real priests". Real or not, many of these priests have defected to Rome, largely because of their opposition to ordaining women. They are permitted to retain their wives, although marriage is banned for the remainder. Catholic clergy and laity, meanwhile, are forbidden even to discuss the ordination of women.

Archbishop Martin deplores the wretched standard of religious discourse in Ireland. Of course he is right. It matches the dismal level of discourse on other topics, notably politics. But how could it be otherwise when the Catholic Church sets out to prevent it from taking place?

Most Irish people have no interest in serious discussion of religion. What turned the church's difficulties into a crisis was the clerical sex abuse scandal -- though not so much the scandal itself as the cover-ups, the denials, the inadequacies of the response.

We have seen something rather similar this week in the aftermath of the disclosures about the IRA priest Father James Chesney. The church, in the person of then Cardinal William Conway, colluded with the police and the then Northern Ireland Secretary William Whitelaw, to finesse the problem by transferring Fr Chesney to a different diocese.

That was both morally wrong and illegal. But it was defensible. To arrest Fr Chesney and put him on trial could have had catastrophic consequences. Not an easy case to argue, but the truth of the matter.

Interviewed on the subject, Cardinal Sean Brady appeared baffled, both in relation to the facts and how he should approach them. Bishop Edward Daly seemed to be 'in denial', admitting Fr Chesney's IRA sympathies while refusing to accept that he could have committed his alleged crimes.

One cannot withhold sympathy from decent men caught in a maze. But, at a time of crisis, the church -- like many other institutions and most of all like the political system -- needs leadership. Diarmuid Martin came to Dublin to offer leadership. He has been frustrated, and not only by his brother bishops.

Right-wing lay Catholic organisations are still a power in the land. They are much more clever than their counterparts in former times. And they have political sympathisers. Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach denounced "aggressive secularism", a phenomenon of whose existence I was previously unaware.

Who are their sympathisers now? Somebody is holding up the referendum on children's rights. There may be a simple explanation: that the Government wants to postpone an electoral contest of any kind for as long as possible. But I doubt it. I think it is significant that nobody seems to know, much less discuss, the issues. Fianna Fail TD Mary O'Rourke, a staunch supporter of the referendum, says that she doesn't know what the problem is.

And there is a bigger issue, on which debate has barely started: control of education.

It is bigger for us all because it raises so many other questions, especially social questions. It is bigger for the Catholic Church because its traditional control of education has so manifestly failed. The evidence is in Archbishop Martin's own phrase "theological illiterates".

Not all of this is the fault of the church. The education system as a whole needs reform, if not revolution. But the church is guilty of hammering doctrine into children's heads over the generations, only for the doctrine -- along with the principles underlying it -- to flit from their heads once they encountered mundane life. So long as that remains the case, we cannot have the elevated discourse Diarmuid Martin wants. We will not have a debate between traditionalists and secularists, only a leaderless confrontation between the committed and the indifferent.

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