The Vatican is a ‘cold house’ for liberal Catholics, writes Kevin Hegarty
It has been ironically said that the three greatest lies in human history are ‘the cheque is in the post’, ‘of course I’ll still love you in the morning’ and ‘we’re from head office, we are here to help you’.
So the Irish Catholic hierarchy must have felt some trepidation akin to that felt by teachers when a whole-school evaluation is in the offing, after Pope Benedict announced in March 2010 that he was sending apostolic visitors to Ireland to examine church institutions. The announcement came in the wake of the publication of the Murphy report in December 2009 after which the Pope had summoned the bishops to Rome to account for their stewardship.
The report was a devastating indictment of the archdiocese of Dublin. It revealed they horrifying extent of the sexual abuse of children by clerics in the diocese and multiple cover-ups by successive superiors. The report was a culmination of over a decade of similar revelations that indicated there was something rotten at the heart of Irish Catholicism.
By 2009 the bishops were shell-shocked beleaguered and divided. The impenetrable façade of public episcopal unanimity that had characterised the Irish hierarchy since the late 19th century had shattered like the scramble for life boats on the ‘Titanic’. It was every man for himself. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the church leader most trusted by abuse victims because of his passionate understanding of their pain seemed isolated by his colleagues.
In the leisurely manner that prevails in the Vatican it took a year for a team of apostolic visitors to be assembled and come to Ireland. They spent several weeks here last year, visiting church institutions and talking to individuals and groups.
Finally their report was published. Well, not really. It is disappointing that all we got is a seven-page summary. It is as if the report of the Mahon Tribunal was confined to an executive summary. The most positive thing the apostolic visitors have to say is their commendation of the stringent guidelines that now govern the protection of children in the Irish Catholic Church. There is however, no acknowledgment of the Vatican’s own role in previous failures. The visitors praise especially the work of the National Board for safeguarding children in the Catholic Church and advises that ‘it should continue to receive sufficient personnel and funding’. For the church in Ireland this has been a steep learning curve whose summit has not yet been fully reached. There are still some clerics who claim privately that the crisis in the main is a creation of the liberal media.
There has however, been significant progress since the 1990s. Then the church’s response to sexual abuse cases was shrouded in secrecy and dominated by the paramount desire to protect the good name of the church. Anyone criticizing this approach was seen as a disloyal fomenter or low morale among the clergy.
The visitors proposal for reform in the Irish church are couched in conservative terms, a return to the spiritual; and theological cartography of the past. This is not surprising. Pope Benedict has a jaundiced view of the insights of the Second Vatican Council which pronounced an open and dialogical church. The visitors were chosen on the basis of orthodoxy rather than imagination.
They propose a return to the rigid and enclosed model of seminary training that existed up to the Second Vatican Council. Contact with the outside world is seen as a kind of contamination. I believe that this is a retrograde step. Students for the priesthood in Ireland are now few in number. They are usually rigidly pious and theologically conservative. I reckon they require regular exposure to secular reality rather than incarceration in a spiritual ghetto even if that is where they prefer to be. Should these students be eventually ordained they will have to minister in a complex world, not an incense-filled cocoon.
The visitors have a cut at liberal Irish Catholics for holding ‘theological opinions at variance with the teaching of the Magisterium’. According to them we are not following the ‘authentic path’ of church renewal. How can they know that? I think it an arrogant assumption. Liberal Catholics, like myself, hope for a church that opens up the priesthood to married men and women, revised the position of contraception in ‘Humanae Vitae’ and that reverses the harsh insensitivity of its teaching on homosexuality. Many of us have come to our views as a result of honest and honourable reflection. The Vatican is a ‘cold house’ for us but we do expect respect for our freedom of conscience.
Sometimes it seems to me that the Vatican’s vision of an ideal Catholic community is an assembly of Rick Santorum lookalikes.