14Feb New pope must confront inconvenient truths – a Scottish perspective

‘Turn to me and be saved’, says the Lord, ‘For I am God, there is none other, none beside Me, I call your Name’. Hopefully, without being unduly and prematurely maudlin, I can share that those versified simple words of scripture resonate with me. I have asked for them to be included in my requiem mass come the day my family and friends will gather to pray for the passing of my soul and, God willing, perhaps celebrate my life.

Like many 21st-century western Catholics, in falteringly answering that call I have the contradictory sensation that it has never been easier but, at the same time never harder, to cling to the barque of Peter. Certainly, as Scottish Catholics, we now no longer suffer the unjust fates of our forebears. Most of the often still heated anti-Catholic rhetoric flows from an aggressively secularist body of opinion challenging Catholicism as its most robust opponent in the public square rather than the crazier, if equally bitter, sectarian rantings of yesteryear.

Yet my greatest anxieties for the future of the Catholic Church flow more from the antics of some inside our church rather than any enemy without. The church my parents raised me in, and which I doubt I could ever leave, often is an uncomfortable place for a liberal Catholic (not yet an oxymoron). There is an air of shrillness and fundamentalism to much of the monologue emanating from elements of the episcopacy.

A visiting spaceman might think that our global church, founded on believing impossible things made possible by a loving and living God infatuated with His creation, had elected instead to ignore that simple, eternal and glorious Truth. He might judge that we had opted for the internal debates of a sect obsessed with issues of gender and sexuality.

As 300 million children face going to bed hungry tonight, as our planet groans from her exploitation and degradation, as racist voices are raised again across Europe when people falteringly struggle to understand the causes of the global financial collapse and as our own lacklustre government locates the answer to collective corporate greed in austerity imposed most on the most vulnerable, many good people, if asked what the Catholic Church stands for nowadays, would point to the bishops’ campaigns against equal civil marriage or legal abortion.

Were the Risen Lord to address His church tomorrow, I fear His pastors would face some awkward questions. Yet those awkward questions must lie at the heart of the prayers faithful Catholics are duty bound to be offering for the deliberations of the forthcoming conclave.

  • There will be those who say that Papa Benedetto returned awe and solemnity to the liturgy of the universal church in place of happy-clappy claptrap. Agreed.
  • That he brought to the papacy the insights and rigour of a first-class intellect. Agreed.
  • That he addressed many of the structural weaknesses ignored by his sainted predecessor. Agreed.
  • That he did more than any other pope to help heal the scandalous breaches of unity with the Lutherans and orthodox. Agreed.

But he also presided over a drive for internal orthodoxy that meant the saintly, the compassionate and those ready to question, ponder (or worse) loyally disagree, were passed over in the promotional stakes of the church by those who made the right noises when asked their views on priestly celibacy, gay marriage or women priests.

This Sunday, across the globe, millions of Catholics will not share the Eucharist because of some of those choices. The Catholics who have no priest for want of priests due to the rules against married priests; the divorced Catholics who, in every parish church, self-police and do not approach the altar and are so often joined in their exclusion by conscientious gay Catholics; the confused and betrayed who feel let down by Episcopal cover-up after cover-up of clerical abuse.

Yet, in that same simple act of worship, is also to be found the hope of the world. It is why I, and a billion like me, cling however uncomfortably to that barque. As the priest, any priest (however frail, unworthy or undeserving) repeats the words of the Galilean who is my Lord, I receive the same graces and benefits as I would had I been in that Upper Room 2,000 years ago.

Not from any merit on my part. Far from it. The very opposite of it. But because across the boundaries of time and space a loving God so loved me, and all of His Creation, that He took human form, walked the earth, died for me and rose from the dead – for undeserving me. Those impossible beliefs must drive, inform and renew the church. A conclave ready to release the Spirit to do Her work, as was done at the 21st Ecumenical Council (Vatican 2), is capable of being utterly transformative of a church much in need of transformation.

As we look to the forthcoming conclave I thank the departing pontiff but I also look for a pope who will awaken every day to proclaim those inconvenient truths to a world that needs, and longs, to hear them. A good start would be to proclaim a global act of repentance for the priestly child abuse catastrophe and demand the collective resignation of the Irish bishops, and any bishop anywhere, who knowingly shielded an abuser of the same Lord’s ‘little ones’. We shall see. God willing.

Brian Fitzpatrick is an advocate and former Labour MSP

8 Responses

  1. Jim Braddick

    I thoroughly agree with your last paragraph. We need a clear statement of exactly what pope, cardinals and bishops mean when they say that “mistakes” were made. It would seem that their meaning was that they were finally caught and the whole world knew what their real mistake was and still is.

  2. Jerry Slevin

    Thank you, as an Irish Yank, I share much of the Scottish sentiments so eloquently expressed above.

    I think much may happen in the next month. The sudden call for an election puts those non-Vatican Cardinals desiring real change at a disadvantage. Even so, a third of them could block this apparent strategic retreat of Cardinal Sodano and the Pope and demand an airing of the real problems facing the Church, either now or at a future conference following full and proper preparation, as I recommended.

    Parading around St. Peter’s Square in red dresses, sending smoke signals, mouthing pietistic platitudes, etc., are hardly the best ways to fix these unprecedented problems.

  3. Sandra Mc Sheaffrey

    Brian, I too was raised in Scotland, near Glasgow and the epicentre of the other religion, football. Funny how both institutions have been displaced over the last fifty years. The point of my response: a family member, long since self regulated out of the barque for the sin of non-compliance, was in mixed faith company when the news of Benedict’s resignation came out. There were two reactions, but the same question. What is he trying to avoid in his position as pope? What is the next scandal? If that is not an indicator of the effect of the church in our world, please someone, tell me…

  4. Veritas

    With respect, it seems to me that, like many ” liberal ” Catholics, Brian wants a Church made in his own image. To conform with the spirit of the age ; especially the spirit as defined by liberals/feminists. Not much place for those of us of a conservative/orthodox disposition. Maybe I’m being unfair to him. But I dont want the Church to conform to my every whim.

  5. Con Carroll

    Nice one!

  6. Kevin

    It’s nice to see that while the Vatican is “running” the church, normal Catholics, priests & lay, see what needs to be done.
    It’s just a pity that the Vatican isn’t moving on. As with all things, interpretation of the word of God changes with the times. & don’t say it hasn’t. It was only at Vatican II that mass became vernacular.
    The church needs a fresh perspective. There’s too much conservatism (I’m not saying there shouldn’t be). There needs to be a healthy balance between right & left.
    The Vatican need to realise that we’re not back in the dark ages. Everyone can read the bible. Many lay people study theology. They need to communicate on level with the lay people & their priests instead of looking down & saying “this is how it is so deal with it”.


  7. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    No, Veritas, I have to disagree. This is clearly not being a “liberal” Catholic – this is being a Catholic who understands human nature and how it is the most basic tenet of our religion. What is Divine, let be; what is nature, set free. The Church is to be made in all our images and there is no Spirit other than “the Spirit of the Age”. Like many, you have a tendency to see the Church as something seperate from the people who occupy it. To me, they are one in the same. The Spirit is not defined by anyone, it flows through everyone and surely it flows through both you and the feminist as well as I and the conservative. Does the the Spirit leave the feminist and bypass the orthodox; only if the orthodox wishes, I gather. And by the Church conforming to your every whim, don’t you mean Christ forgiving all your sins? That my friend, is guaranteed.

  8. John

    Awe and Solemnity : The second Vatican Council was indeed followed by a phase of experimentation in music, most of it based on popular music. While the music industry was able to move on and develop, curiously music in catholic churches was left in a backwater, characterised by musicians with little talent doing their own thing, disconnected from the congregation and endlessly repeating the same banal, hackneyed songs. Parish priests let them get on with it as they pleased. Enough you might say to offend the ears of anyone who loves music and wanted to praise God. What was missing was leadership and any notion of standards. Such manifestations continue and seem to predominate in Ireland. Where a tradition of choral music continues to be practised, as in cathedrals and major churches it remains disconnected from congregations. The notion of church music or liturgy as songs and hymns which the congregation can know and sing in praise of God is almost totally missing from the Catholic Church in Ireland. Compare this to Italy, if you have been there, but not Rome. Congregational singing is prohibited in Ireland by the simple means of presenting the dreary repetitions described above or by presenting music that is not suitable for congregational singing or songs and hymns that are unknown to the congregation. Missing also is the notion of consulting with the community as to what the music should be. Perhaps the very idea of community is limited. Where solemnity has been aimed for and achieved, this has been at the cost of turning the congregation into passive spectators, an audience, there to be entertained, perhaps uplifted, but not being able to express themselves in song. It is often said that “Catholics cannot sing.” One must suspect that priests and bishops have little love for music. You get solemn but joyless ceremonies. John