The Vatican’s Fundamental Problem, by Eddie Molloy
When the white smoke went up and a voice announced “Habemus papam, Cardinalem Josephum – – – ” my heart sank because I knew that the next word would be “Ratzinger”. And so did many other hearts sink.
I had come to know of Cardinal Ratzinger as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that in 1985 silenced the Franciscan Leonardo Boff. Boff was a leading figure in Liberation Theology which drew on the Gospels to articulate indignation at the plight of poor, disposed people in South America. He was critical of the role of the Catholic hierarchy in that part of the world because of their affiliation to oppressive regimes and he was a trenchant critic of American foreign policy. He continues today in the same vein as a professor in the fields of theology, ethics and philosophy and author of more than 100 books.
What was most disturbing about the CDF’s attempt to silence Boff was not that it took issue with some of his views, including his support for some Communist regimes and elements of Marxism, but the sheer ruthlessness of the procedures and the disregard for anything approaching due process or respect for basic human rights. So when I read that Fr. Seán Fagan had been silenced up to two years ago on foot of an anonymous complaint about him and with the warning that he would be defrocked if the media reported what had happened, I was shocked. According to Justine McCarthy in the Sunday Times (15th April), all available copies of a theology book written by Fr. Fagan have been bought up by his religious order, the Marists, much to their discredit. He is 84 years of age, partially blind and in poor health and he was told he would stand trial if he did not undertake to stop writing.
Seán Fagan is held in the very highest esteem by many thinking Catholics. A measure of this esteem was the publication in 2005 of a book entitled Quench not the Spirit: Theology and Prophecy for the Church in the Modern World. The book, comprised of fourteen essays by leading theologians and journalists and other lay people, was published, as it said in the introduction, “ – – – to honour a man who, for decades, has been a vox clara in the Catholic Church in Ireland and worldwide”.
The editors of Quench not the Spirit, Angela Hanley and David Smith, set out the context for the book. “ In 2004,after a six-year investigation of his book, Does Morality Change? by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Seán Fagan SM was the subject of a reprimand by the Irish Episcopal Conference for his book. This reprimand is a stain, not on the reputation of Fr. Fagan, who has given a lifetime of dedicated service to the church, local and universal, but on a church leadership who would seem to disdain the prophetic voices that seek to keep the church continually renewed so that it can speak the eternal truth of God’s love to every new generation in a language it understands.”
The reprimand of Fr. Flannery merits the same judgement: it is an indictment of the Pope and the administrators who surround him, together with the members of the recent Apostolic Visitation. Whether or not they disagree with the views of Frs. Flannery and Fagan there is nothing in the life and teaching of Jesus that lends support to the crude, unjust treatment of these priests. At the time of his trial, conducted in secret and with no appearance of this accusers, Boff accused Cardinal Ratziner of “religious terrorism”. How else might one characterise the threat to defrock Fr. Seán Fagan?
We are told ‘ad nauseum’ that the Catholic Church is not a democracy and that if we don’t like its rules of membership then we should leave. People who take issue with the official line from Rome, say on contraception, are framed as “liberals” or “rebels”. The Amarach survey which revealed that up to three quarters of Catholics do not subscribe to the Vatican teaching on contraception was trivialised by David Quinn of the Iona Institute on the grounds that “an opinion poll is not going to change Church doctrine”. Quinn, I’m afraid, misunderstands the place of lay people within the Church.
The definitive test of whether one is a good Catholic or not can never be whether one accepts 100% the teaching of the Church at a particular point in time. There is a long history of the Church changing its views – on everything from the relationship between the sun and our planet to the crazy Syllabus of Errors, a list of 80 condemned propositions issued by Pius IX in the mid 1800’s. Until relatively recently the official view was that the Book of Genesis was an historical record of the foundation of the world. Does the Church still teach that a single act of masturbation by an adolescent condemns the lad to eternal damnation in the fires of hell, as it did when I was young? Incidentally, Fr. Fagan’s own contribution to the above mentioned book published in his honour was entitled Spiritual Abuse. He wrote: “But there is another abuse (other than child sexual abuse) that has not received the same amount of publicity, but affects a much greater number of people. It is a moral disease that has affected the church for centuries. It can rightly be described as spiritual abuse. It is no mere dis-ease leaving people uneasy in one or more areas of their lives, but a deep-down illness which damaged their emotional and spiritual lives, leaving them with huge burdens of un-healthy guilt. So many older Catholics find it hard to experience the joy and hope (Gaudium et Spes) that the Vatican II document on The Church in the Modern World is so excited about.”
Back to the place of lay people in the Church: When Pius IX was pressing to declare the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope, the English Catholic historian Lord Acton, contesting this doctrine, coined the phrase “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Throughout Church history the sensus fidelium” (the mind of the faithful) has been recognised as an integral element of the Church’s search for the truth. Vatican II underscored this position with its definition of the Church as the People of God but, as happened since Vatican II, the centralising impulse in Rome has systematically diminished this role of lay people. We are to be obedient and submit, for example, to the edict that the idea of married priests is not just wrong but undiscussible. There is good reason to take the view that the sensus fidelium (i.e. 75% of Catholics) is correct in disputing official Church teaching on contraception. In the working out of its views on the issue the commission of theologians and lay people appointed by Paul VI concluded after exhaustive study that the Church should change its long-held view, and allow for contraception. However, the Pope’s advisers convinced him that to reverse its teaching could shake people’s faith in the Papacy. As Gary Wills put it, “In what we shall find as a recurring pattern, truth was subordinated to ecclesiastical tactics. To maintain the impression that Popes cannot err, Popes deceive, as if distorting the truth in the present were not worse that mistaking it in the past”.
Wills’ scholarly book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit goes right to the heart of the Church’s difficulty. Church authorities cannot face the “appalling vista” (Ref. Lord Denning regarding admitting to the innocence of the Birmingham Six) that they might be wrong on any issue. For decades up to Vatican II they represented the Church as the “bride of Christ”, sine macula (without stain). This is the same reason why the Irish bishops and the Vatican could never admit to the rampant sexual abuse of children by clerics. It is why ‘mental reservations’, a particular form of deceit, were adopted in an attempt to cover up. About five years ago I sent a copy of Wills’ book, which documents institutionalised deceit regarding the Church’s treatment of Jews and women and several other matters, to Cardinal Seán Brady urging that he and his fellow bishops read the book and set about engaging with the absolutely fundamental issue of the Church’s discomfort with the truth. After all, Jesus said, “I am the truth”. Cardinal Brady returned the book to me, clearly unopened with a polite one-line thank you. So much for engaging with the laity, which the hierarchy repeatedly espouse.
I am not a rebel, a liberal or an ‘a la carte’ Catholic. I am just one other person trying my best to live a life informed by the teachings of Jesus. I may well be wrong in my views but in my search for the truth the minimum I expect from the Vatican is respect for my sincerely held views. What I will not accept as the basis for engagement is the tyranny displayed by the current Pope and the Vatican in its silencing of Frs. Flannery and Fagan. The Irish bishops need to say where they stand!
In conclusion, there have been repeated appeals from the Pope, Cardinal Brady, the Papal Numcio and several bishops for “forgiveness”, “healing”, “suffering that will be necessary to achieve unity”, “listening” and many other Christian values. Either these values, which most people subscribe to, are being invoked by Church authorities as a sincere basis for moving forward or they are being invoked cynically with intention of seducing people into a process designed to contain and ultimately defeat what are seen as dissident voices (such as the 75% of Catholics who disagree with Church teaching on contraception, just for example).Marie Collins went to Rome to a reconciliation event and came home relieved at long last with a sense that finally Church authorities had ‘got it’ in regard to child sexual abuse. Within weeks she was in despair at what she saw as a complete and utter reversal when she heard a Vatican spokesman and Cardinal Brady repeat that the latter had done the right thing at the time of the interview with the boy and that the same process should be followed if it were to happen again today. What this kind of episode reveals is that appeals to our innate desire for reconciliation, peacemaking, etc must be viewed with caution to discern whether they are little more than an attempt to manipulate and enfeeble the dissenting voice rather than an authentic effort at achieving a meeting of minds.
Dr. Eddie Molloy Director, Advanced Organisation Management Consultant to numerous Catholic institutions