Some Irish media commentators love their Church ‘not wisely but too well’
Shortly after Pope Francis, in his now famous interview, drew the attention of Catholics to the need for balance in the presentation of the Catholic faith, the American Supreme Court Judge, Antonin Scalia, launched what he called an ‘independent search committee’ to select a new Pope. Scalia said that he had no other alternative after hearing Pope Francis say that ‘abortion, homosexuality and contraception’ did not represent the fullness of Catholicism and that we needed more of a balance than an obsessive focus on specific issues.
Scalia isn’t the only one who’s unhappy with the sudden change of direction for Catholicism that Pope Francis represents. In fact, his ‘independent search committee’ for a new pope could attract some predictable followers. Among them those who designate themselves as traditional or right-wing Catholics – and those who are but like to pretend they’re not.
The commentator David Gibson puts it like this: ‘Just when Pope Benedict XVI had reassured traditionalist Catholics that his reform of the reform would overturn the Second Vatican Council and make it safe for them to stay out of the sanctuary and yield it to the clerical culture card-holders who, backs turned to the faithful, could make the Mass mysterious again by mumbling it in Latin, along comes Pope Francis who, to traditionalists’ horror and discomfort, is recalling the church to Vatican II and emphasizing its themes’.
Among the nay-sayers are churchmen, like Philadelphia’s arch-conservative archbishop, Charles Chaput (who spoke at a conference in Ballaghaderreen a few years ago) and Cardinal Raymond Burke who travels the world saying Latin Masses with the full panoply of medieval vestments, including a 50-foot purple train.
Chaput said recently that Catholics on ‘the right wing of the Church, have not been really happy about (Francis’) election’, but that Francis wil have to take care of them too ‘so it will be interesting to see how things turn out’. Burke has reassured Catholics that Pope Francis’ liturgical practices – his preference for simplicity, for example – are really in perfect conformity with those of Benedict XVI, (which is stretching it more than a bit!)
This is a pope who is sending signals, left right and centre, and when he washed the feet of a few women in the traditional foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday, some ultra-traditional Catholics went into a panic. But they quickly recovered themselves to conclude, against all the odds, that the men’s-feet-only rule remains officially in place – even though it’s ignored throughout the entire Catholic world.
A more sophisticated ‘putting-Francis-in-his-place’ approach was evident in a recent column written by Breda O’Brien in The Irish Times. O’Brien who travels the country addressing priests’ conferences, novenas etc concluded that ‘a quiet momentum’ was building in the Irish Church and that there were ‘green shoots of renewed faith’ all around us.
Disconcertingly O’Brien lists as evidence of this a number of staged events – from last year’s Eucharistic Congress to the recent launching of the Down and Connor diocese’s ‘Living Church’ initiative to an annual meeting of Parish Councils in Tuam diocese – all of which she attended.
This kind of potted, personal and anecdotal research based on a survey count of one does not represent the reality of church life in parishes in Ireland today. And it ill serves the Catholic Church to imagine or pretend that such public staged occasions are somehow representative of ‘green shoots’. They’re not. Rather they are often little more than boxes being ticked to give the impression that something is actually happening.
O’Brien comments on how impressed she was with a faith festival at the Waterfront in Belfast with the equivalent of 1,600 first-year secondary students. She should know, as a secondary school teacher, that all you need to effect that kind of ‘festival’ is someone to organise a fleet of buses. It has nothing to do with ‘green shoots of religion’.
Just as she should know that the Eucharistic Congress was a similarly staged event that added little to the renewal of church life in Ireland. Or that gathering Parish Councils for a talk once a year is no guarantee that Parish Councils are effective, or even that they exist.
While people loyal to the Church and people who participate in staged events (like conferences, etc) feel compelled to give the impression that things are much better than they are, those working in parishes experience know exactly what’s happening.
Ask anyone in parishes about the promise of green shoots in the Irish Church and they will struggle to locate them. After a while they may point to the only green shoot on the horizon, Pope Francis and the extraordinary lift that he has given to our Church through his conviction that, as the Second Vatican Council represented 50 years ago, the Catholic Church should be open to (and listening to) the world.
What’s remarkable about O’Brien’s assessment is the very minor role she attributes to Pope Francis. Effectively she dismisses what’s called ‘the Francis bounce’ and suggests that ‘bonus’ rather than ‘bounce’ would better describe his impact. Can she possibly be serious? Where has she been this past six months? Two questions: one, why is it that the most popular person in the world today is the pope? And, two, who would have predicted, a year ago, that such would be the case?
Or is this more evidence of a campaign to minimise ‘the Francis bounce’ and to somehow present his approach as in continuity with that of his predecessor, when we know it isn’t. As a bishop said recently, Francis may be playing with the same Catholic ball but he’s kicking it in a different direction.
Recently the Catholic commentator, David Quinn, pondered the curious point that Francis is receiving more attention than Benedict for ‘flexibility’. Is this for real? I know commentators like O’Brien and Quinn who lauded Benedict’s conservatism must wonder what’s happening to the secure ultra-Catholic world he represented and in which they acted as enthusiastic cheerleaders.
I’m not suggesting that O’Brien or Quinn will join Judge Scalia’s ‘independent search committee’ for a new pope but like other conservative Irish Catholics who lionised his predecessor they need to be more real about the situation on the ground in Irish parishes today.
And they need to give Pope Francis a fair wind. It’s one thing to imagine, as O’Brien writes, that something Benedict said in 2009 about lay people sharing responsibility for the future of the Church has given an impetus to the ‘green shoots’. Really? It takes even greater imagination to present Pope Francis as somehow a marginal presence. Sometimes we can love our Church not wisely but too well.