10May 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

23 Responses

  1. Eamonn Keane

    Dr. Molloy’s comments on the theology of Leonardo Boff glosses over the deep-seated anti-Catholic aspect of his writings.

    In the late 1980s, Boff wrote a Theological Reflection On Socialism in which he said: “The Socialist Revolution of 1917 marked something new in the history of humanity. The revolution was not alien to the Holy Ghost, in spite of all the contradictions the revolution encompassed.” This Reflection On Socialism was first published in the November-December 1988 issue of the Brazilian Catholic Journal Vozes. The Journal is operated by the Franciscan Order and at the time Boff was himself an editor. In 1991, Boff’s Franciscan Superiors removed him as editor of Vozes and ordered him to stop publicising his views for one year. This move to censure Fr. Boff was supported by Cardinal Nicolas Lopez Rodriquez who was President of the Latin American Bishops’ Council. Some time after this happened, Boff left the priesthood.

    A characteristic of Boff’s work is that he often uses conventional theological language but empties it of its doctrinal content. He develops a model of the Church which he says is based on a “Communitarian Christianity” and places it in opposition to the hierarchically structured Church founded by Christ. In his book Good News to the Poor, Orbis Books, 1992), Boff claims the ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church cannot be traced back any further than the third century. Finally, in terms of the theory of class struggle, he casts the “Roman Catholic Church” in the role of an oppressor.

    Boff’s theology is a mishmash of Marxist theory and a defective Christology which was influenced by the ideas of Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Rahner under whom he studied in Munich. In describing Boff’s Christology, Hans Urs von Balthasar said:

    “Boff seems to develop a Christology strongly influenced by Bultmann, with whom he suggests that we know very little about the historical Jesus. However, he believes that we can interpret the primary intention of Jesus as that of someone who understood himself in his role as liberator of the poor and oppressed…The liberation – the ‘Kingdom of God’ – which Jesus expected to result from it – had failed to come about, as expressed by the authentic cry on the Cross: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ The doctrine of substitution is rejected by Boff as well as by Rahner. It is up to us present-day Christians to adopt and execute what Jesus had wished and begun” (Test Everything: Hold Fast To What Is Good. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1989, pp. 41-42)

    In his book From Death To Life, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, O.P. places Boff in the company of scholars such as Reimarus, Reuss, Schweitzer and Loisy – all of whom propagated the error that Jesus’ disciples – and even Jesus himself – lived in an eschatological “high tension” expecting the imminent eruption of the kingdom of God and the overthrowing of this world. This error reached its high point in the writings of Rudolf Bultmann who equated the Kingdom of God with the end of the world. Cardinal Schonborn points out that Boff assumed the correctness of Bultmann’s theory.

    Fr. Rodger Charles, S.J., one of the most highly regarded authorities on the Church’s social teaching in the English-speaking world, has stated that Boff’s brand of liberation theology amounted to nothing less than “a total rejection of [the Catholic Church’s] self-understanding through the centuries down to and through the Second Vatican Council” (Christian Social Witness and Teaching: The Catholic Tradition from Genesis to Centesimus Annus, vol. 2, From Biblical Times to the late Nineteenth Century, Gracewing, Leominster, 1998, p.312)

    Eamonn Keane

  2. JeannieDunphyGuzman

    In your article, you made reference to “Thinking Catholics.” Just yesterday, I was talking with a friend about the topic and commented that most “Thinking Catholics,” like myself, have left the Church, specifically because we finally recognized not only centuries of repression of the scared, silent masses, but the repression of everyone and every ideology that doesn’t line up with Vatican-think. Soon, the Church will have just what she deserves: A few bobble-head, pew-potatoes, similar to what we call in the States, “Couch-potatoes” (one, who numbly sits on the couch, watches TV with their bag of potato chips, and nods at whatever is being said). The only thing that Pew-Potatoes will be missing is they won’t be bring their potato chips to Mass.

  3. TheraP

    AMEN! Again I say it: Amen.

  4. Christine Gilsen

    Thank you Eddie for illuminating how some members of the hierarchy of our church focus on structures that keep themselves comfortable while they continue to spiritually and emotionally abuse priests. It would be great if the bishops could proclaim that “Jesus is the truth” and show that they mean it. Would this progression be asking too much of them too soon?

  5. A Priest

    A UK priest offers you his heartfelt prayers and it full of admiration. Once again it looks as though the Irish church in its fullness may lead, nay shake the Catholic world. Press on and press on boldly. You will need much courage and deep perseverance but your history shows you have it deep within you. I have the strange feeling that not much of what we are facing at the moment would have happened if 50 years ago the full message of the Vatican Council had been implemented. It is the unreformed institution that is causing so much pain and trouble at the moment. My prayers are with you……………

  6. Mary O Vallely

    A powerful statement and thank you, Eddie, for your passion and truth. It was Fr Owen O’Sullivan who posed the question, “Which is better, honest dissent or pretended assent?” It strikes me that there is too much pretence among many of our clergy and those in the “higher” echelons. How can they not see that they are disrespecting persons, at the very least, by ignoring the call to dialogue. I do not understand how these men can preach the Gospel if they fail to show by their actions that they love their neighbour, that they are willing to engage in dialogue.
    Ah sure, maybe we still “have to be broken down more” as Enda McDonagh sadly commented on a WYB programme last year, before they realise that we are all equal in the sight of God and that we all need to engage with each other in a manner befitting Christ followers. God bless you, Eddie.
    Mary V

  7. Eddie Finnegan

    Following Eddie Molloy’s few words from the floor at Monday’s Assembly I found myself wishing for more but, given an attendance of 1,000+, the two-minute limit on speakers was essential. While virtually all the facts and points marshalled in Eddie’s piece have been raised in previous articles and comments over the past eighteen months, it is very good to have them argued so cogently here in one place by someone who has been up close to a lot of these stultitiae ecclesiasticae, dying for want of a change.

    Incidentally, in the context of Lord Acton and Pio No-No!, can anyone give me the source for the more apocryphal anecdote of when the curial cardinals were totting up the possible voting figures on Infallibility and wondering if the Irish bishops could be relied on, Paul Cullen (or someone) assured them that in Ireland even the parish priests were infallible ?
    Now if only the parish priests of Ireland could rediscover their courage and infallibility, at least to the extent of sticking their heads above the parapet and occasionally appearing on this website! OK, carry the oul blackthorn if necessary, but check it through as a walking stick.

  8. Pól Ó Duibhir

    Pawn takes Bishop. Check.


  9. Gene Carr

    Dr Molloy’s fundamental problems:
    (a) Garry Will’s book Papal Sin is anything but a ‘scholarly’ work;
    (b) Lord Acton’s phrase ‘power tends to corrupt, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely’ is perfect example of ‘a simple idea that is wrong’ rather than a ‘true idea that is complex’.
    Even his example of the Papacy is wrong. The Papacy was probably at its most corrupt in the 10th Century when it was at its weakest and the plaything of a few Roman families. It was probably at its most vituous in the period after the Cluniac reforms when it was at its most powerful.
    (c) the so-called infamous Syllabus of Errors needs to be read in context. For example, when it states that “it is an error to say the Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconsile himself with modern progess, liberalism and civilization’, one has to understand what was then meant by ‘progress’ and ‘liberalism’ in the public discourse of that time. ‘Liberalism’ among other things meant Manchester liberal economics and the general idea that ‘every man was a law unto themselves’. ‘Progess’ driven by Hegelian and Comptian ideas meant the ‘inevitable’ evolution of man and society to perfectability. Pius IX was not the only one who sensed that these ideas were Gnostic (diseases of the spirit) and would end in bloody totalitarian tyrannies, as they did.
    (d) Finally, while Dr Molloy says that the Church is not a democracy, he should be aware, as an organizational expert, that it has other benign characteristics. For example, Charles Handy often asks CEOs why they require multiple layers of management between them and the first line supervisor, when the Pope manages with with only one layer. Even that is questionable as bishops have a ‘collegiate’ role as well. Also, the very fact of clerical celibacy prevents the Church from becoming a closed hereditary caste, which is the real historic opposite of democracy.
    As an addendum, let me ask; who elects the Editors of our National Newspapers and who elects the Head of News and Public affairs at RTE? And, for that matter, who elected the leadership group of the ACP; did the laity have a say? Just asking.

  10. Katherine

    Dear Dr. Molloy,

    Thank you so very much for this article. I have been struggling with our new Pope and the edicts handed down. Especially, the recent Doctrine of Faith served on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

    I am the only person in my family who still goes to Mass. And I am finding it harder and harder to defend to my family why I still go, but your artlce has given me greater insight and gives me support in a sense. I would really like to know what, if anything I could do, other than pray, which would fight this “spiritual abuse”.

    Thank you, again

  11. Eric Conway

    It’s hardly tyrannical to expect a Catholic Priest to teach in accordance with the settled teaching of the Church, as he freely agreed to do so on his ordination. To compare & contrast, in recent years many Anglican clergy have become disillusioned with their church in relation to such issues as homophilia, women priests, papal authority, etc. These clergy have not been accommodated by the Anglican church. Rather they have had to leave their vicarage, bag & baggage ( frequently with their families & parishioners in tow ). The approach of the Catholic Church is positively benign by comparison.

  12. Nick Young

    I had to smile as I read the opening of this article. I too had exactly the same reaction ! Thank you Dr Molloy for writing such a well structured article. There seems to be a middle way that is being lost in the present fog of claim and counterclaim by conservative and liberal factions. However, these is desperate times . . . and sometimes desperate times needs desperate measures . . . .meanwhile keep going . . . . keep going . . .

  13. Eileen

    At the ACP meeting, in the afternoon, I was seated second next to you, Dr. Molloy. I am happy to see here, your analysis of the Vatican’s fundamental problem and its unfortunate expression in the silencing of our prophetic priests.

  14. Jane Murphy

    Thank you Eddie for this insightful article.
    I too was very impressed when I heard you speak on Monday and regretted you didn’t have more time to elaborate more on your points- this article has answered my questions…and indeed raised many more.
    Perhaps Eddie’s expertise could be of help to the ACP leadership team now as they continue to shed light and hope in this difficult time for so many of us struggling catholics.
    I love my church and have no intention of joining any other ‘club’ and am earnestly praying that the Spirit will help all those who are being so brave in naming some difficult truths at this time.
    May God continue to inspire you all.

  15. Martin Harran

    Good article, Eddie but a couple of points need corrected.

    1)I don’t think the Pope banned discussion on celibacy, he only banned discussion on female ordination.

    2) You say that the Commission on contraception concluded “that the Church should change its long-held view”; that’s not quite correct, what they actually concluded was that permitting contraception would not be contrary to Traditional teaching. That might seem like a subtle difference but it’s actually a very important one.

  16. Martin Harran

    Re: JeannieDunphyGuzman

    Just because you chose to walk away, please don’t denigrate those who have stayed behind to fight. Over a thousand of us gave up our Bank Holiday to express our passionate love for the Catholic Church and our desire to see it put to rights. There weren’t many “bobble-heads, pew-potatoes, or Couch-potatoes” there.

  17. Eric Conway

    As a “thinking Catholic ” & a “pew potatoe” (the combination is possible), it seems to me (maybe I’m being over-sensitive) that Jeannie Dunphy Guzman is not exactly respectful in her attitude to her fellow Catholics. God bless.

  18. Martin Murray

    This illustrates clearly that it is the very structures of our church that are inherently abusive and not just a few bad apples. Each of us needs to examine for ourselves the unquestioning support we lend to these structures, in the belief that others know better (laity), or as a strategy for survival (clergy). We need to find integrity and courage and add our voices to the call for serious and wide spread reform.

  19. Joe O'Leary

    Bultmann described Christ as the Eschatological Event and believed that this description contains the truth of all that later dogma articulated. He did not equate eschatology with the end of the world but saw it as a stucture of hope shaping individual and communal Christian existence.

    Historically, as Bultmann notes in his Jesus book (where like Weiss and Schweitzer he turns out to believe that we know quite a lot about the historical Jesus) it is true that Jesus, Paul and the early church believed in an imminent end of the world. A theologian named Werner said that the development of dogma began with the failure of this imminent eschatology and the need to rethink what the Gospel was about. Ratzinger said in an early work that there is a lot of truth in Werner’s hypothesis.

    Finding heresy in B16’s Jesus book is as easy as finding it in Boff’s Christology. If Boff is accused of reducing Jesus to a prophet of justice and peace, Benedict can be accused of lopping off the social and eschatological dimensions of the Gospel, making Jesus himself the Kingdom and making his divinity constitutive of this, drowning out the emphases in Jesus’ own message as found in the Synoptic Gospels.

    Benedict lurches into Marcionism, a recurrent temptation of German theology, when he says that Isaiah’s vision of world peace was an illusion and that Jesus preaches inner, spiritual peace instead. Political conservativism trumpts the Gospel here.

    “He develops a model of the Church which he says is based on a “Communitarian Christianity” and places it in opposition to the hierarchically structured Church founded by Christ” — why does this sound so much like the Church of the New Testament? Again, it would be as easy to fault B16’s onesided ecclesiology as Boff’s, notably in regard to his quashing of Vatican II’s vision of episcopal collegiality.

  20. mary casey

    Eddie,thank you so much for stating the realities and their interconnection. Where there is not respect for basic human rights there IS ABUSE in some form and degree, psychological, emotional, circumstantial or spiritual. Abuse is a disregard for the uniqueness of the person and an attempt to crush the spirit. The benchmark for those who say the are His people and more so for those who claim leadership IS LOVE, defined in it’s definition and expression by the Lord Jesus Christ. How did the Son of Man handle Peter after he denied knowing him? He personally sought him out on the shore. He prepared a meal. He addressed him by name. He adjusted His questions to meet Peter where he was at in his inner reality and walk. John 21. All was done in the light, no tone of rebuke. Jesus showed forth the heart -movement of a TRUE SHEPHERD. How did He handle Thomas and his questions? He provided in His own body the visual evidence needed to settle the issue. Jesus led by example! I ask how serious is it when those in leadership MISREPRESENT the heart and relational style of Christ – the Rock on which His Church is built-regarding their handling of children, woman, and even their own priests?

  21. Fergus P Egan

    An organism cannot survive solely from the top down. To be healthy, we need to be firmly rooted and grow from the bottom up. “God speaks to us through his people”. This is not the first time that the Church can be saved by the actions of faithful people. If it were not for the faithful people we would have been misled by heresy many times in the past, heresies that for the most part were championed by our “spiritual leaders”.

    Our future lies in the faith of the people (The “Church”) living the gospel with “clean hands” and “pure hearts”. Otherwise the Church will wilt and die.

    Kudos to all those brave people of the ACP – people more brave than I – who will ensure the survival of Christ’s Church.

  22. Patrick J Madden

    My great uncle, Msgr. Thomas E. Madden of the Diocese of Altoona, was very conservative in his theology. He was in his 80’s when Cardinal Ratzinger condemned Boff. I don’t believe my uncle had ever read a word of Liberation Theology. However, he was a New-Deal Democrat, and the principle that guided him was “Anything that is for the working man cannot be all bad.”

    So, he was in his 80’s when he wrote an editorial in his parish bulletin. I still remember the last sentence: “Prelates who come from a hierarchy that managed to remain mostly silent during the Holocaust should be more modest when they make pronouncements about the correct relationship between theology and politics.”

  23. ger gleeson.

    Truly superb contribution Dr Molloy. I hope that at the next meeting organised by the ACP you can address the gathering from the podium.