Decline of the Irish Catholic Church


DEBORAH POTTER, correspondent: It’s often called the Emerald Isle—and with good reason. Ireland is as green as ever. But the country that once was a bastion of Roman Catholicism has changed. The vast majority of people here still call themselves Catholic—87 percent on the most recent census. But many of the most faithful church-goers in Ireland today aren’t even Irish. This Sunday Mass in Limerick is said in Polish for some of the thousands of immigrants who poured in during the economic boom of the past decade. But it’s hard to find an Irish congregation this packed, and especially this young, in bigger cities.

PATSY McGARRY (Religious Affairs Correspondent, The Irish Times): People still identify themselves as culturally Catholic even though they no longer go to Mass or go to confession. You’ll see them at first communions, you’ll see them at confirmations, and you’ll see them at funerals. They’re taking very much an a la carte view to the practice of their religion.

POTTER: As recently as the 1970s, almost 90 percent of Irish Catholics went to Mass at least once a week. Today, the number is closer to 25 percent. And in some parts of Dublin, just two or three percent of self-described Catholics regularly go to church.

post02-irishchurch(speaking to Irish woman): Did you grow up Catholic by chance?


POTTER: Do you go to Mass now?

WOMAN: Not really that much. No, not much at all.

MAN: Weddings and funerals, things like that. That’s basically it.

POTTER: Those who do go for special occasions like this prayer service in County Galway can’t help but notice that the people in the pews have changed.

REV. TONY FLANNERY (Association of Catholic Priests): They’re old. That is the main thing. When you look down at a congregation from the altar now you’ll see mostly gray heads. The young people, the under 40s, have largely deserted the church in Ireland now.

POTTER: Irish priests are aging, too—on average, they’re well over 60. Many are still working into their 80s, and replacements have slowed to a trickle. At Maynooth, the country’s only Catholic seminary, the number of students being ordained to the priesthood has never been lower.

REV. HUGH CONNOLLY (President, Maynooth Seminary): Twenty years ago you could have been certainly over 20, maybe not that unusual to have a year where there would have been 30. Now we’re more likely to have somewhere under 10. Six, seven, that kind of thing.

POTTER: In the diocese of Dublin, not a single priest will be ordained this year—or next year. It’s been a stunning decline for a church that once virtually ruled the country.

post03-irishchurchMcGARRY: It was a huge organization. It was like an alternative state within the state. It ran our schools, it ran our orphanages, it ran our reformatories, it ran most of our hospitals, and so therefore you can get an idea of the scale of what the Catholic Church was. It was an alternative society within Ireland.

POTTER: The Catholic Church here in Ireland saw its influence begin to wane with the social upheaval of the 1960s. But in the past twenty years, two factors combined to accelerate its decline: sudden prosperity and the shocking revelations of sexual abuse. The worldwide recession stopped the so-called Celtic Tiger in its tracks, but consumerism had already weakened the church’s hold on the Irish people, who had become far better educated over the previous 40 years.

McGARRY: They questioned their faith, they questioned the right of bishops to tell them how to live their lives.

POTTER: The body blow, however, came from the clergy abuse scandals that hit harder and closer to home in Ireland than anywhere else. Here, almost everyone knows someone who’s been affected.

FIRST WOMAN: Maybe we as older people did a lot of covering up. Also, we were very much into appearances, putting our best foot forward, saying the right things.

SECOND WOMAN: I think with all the scandals that have been revealed, it certainly made people think more and question a lot of things that were happening.

post04-irishchurchPEADAR CREMIN (President, Mary Immaculate College): Those who had a shaky faith now had an excuse for walking, because why would you go to the church every Sunday morning to hear somebody who potentially is in league with child abusers, and I think many people used the backlash against child abuse as a basis for saying, “Do I really want to subscribe, do I want to contribute, do I want to be part of that type of a church anymore?” I think at the heart of our problem is in a sense the church has lost its moral authority. The church has lost its right to speak out on issues.

POTTER: The abuse was a betrayal of trust, Pope Benedict acknowledged in a pastoral letter last year to Irish Catholics, his first-ever apology for the sexual abuse of children by priests. This year, during an extraordinary liturgy of lament and repentance at Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral, the Archbishop of Dublin and Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley prostrated themselves, asking God and the victims for forgiveness. But it hasn’t been enough.

CREMIN: People are still waiting, I think, for the kind of great atonement and the kind of fundamental change that will convince them that things have changed. There isn’t enough evidence yet that things have fundamentally changed.

FLANNERY: It’s a crisis, and it’s not one of the future. It’s one of right now. It’s quite extraordinary an organization as big and as ancient as the church that we cannot face a crisis that’s right at our doorsteps and begin to talk realistically about it.

POTTER: The kind of change Father Flannery advocates would be dramatic.

post05-irishchurchFLANNERY: Opening up the ministry of the church to lay people, to married people, to priests, to women. In other words, not confining it to the male celibate priesthood as we’ve had in the past, because clearly that is not working now, so we have to begin to think in different ways, but the Vatican is increasingly forbidding any discussion on that.

POTTER: Still, there are small signs of renewal. Some parishes now have lay people in positions that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Kevin Mullally is a full-time pastoral worker. Sheena Darcy works for the International Eucharistic Congress.

SHEENA DARCY: I’ve seen young people come back to know God’s love. I’ve seen young people get more involved in the church.

KEVIN MULLALLY: They’re also searching for basic things, belonging and love and, you know, acceptance and tolerance, and all those elements go together in a spirituality.

SHEENA DARCY: Yes, there’s that acknowledgment that what happened was dreadful. It was absolutely dreadful. However, we do also, we do need to move on.

POTTER: Whatever happens, the Catholic Church in Ireland has already changed irrevocably.

McGARRY: I do believe Catholicism will continue, will survive in Ireland, and I do believe the clerical church will not. That doesn’t mean there won’t be priests, of course there will be, but I don’t think as a force it will ever again, in my lifetime certainly, will never have the power it had when I was a child. And I think that’s a good thing because it abused its power massively, and it became, I mean, a dictatorship in a democracy which was answerable to nobody.

CREMIN: I still have the view that what’s happening is actually something quite healthy, because the church we will end up with will be a church of committed, passionate, and dedicated people who will live the gospels rather than talk about them.

POTTER: That undoubtedly means the Irish Catholic Church will be smaller, but it may be, in a very different way, stronger.

For Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, I’m Deborah Potter in Dublin.

  • Patrick OMalley

    The Catholic church was once revered because people believed they told the truth.

    Then the real truth came out – they raped children by the thousands in the US, and many more in Ireland. Then the truth came out about the fact that they always knew about it, and always covered it up, all the way up to July of 2011. Then people realized that they had been covering it up, lying about it, and ignoring or denigrating the victims the entire time, going back at least 60 years, an probably for the entire reign of the church.

    Now people don’t believe anything the church says. If you’re going to lie about child rape, you’re going to cover it up, and you’re going to ignore the victims, there’s nothing you won’t do in your own interest.

    The Catholic church depended on their ability to hide the truth, but then God created the Internet, and the truth could be spread to everyone. This is a huge nightmare for the church, and will cause the end of Catholicism in one or two generations. Every teenager will read about these evil, coordinated, organized church practices of raping children and protecting pedophiles, and they will leave the church.

    Why would anyone join a church that does that? A small number of small minded people may do it for one generation, but the Catholic church will be gone in two generations. As is spirals down, it will lose money, tax exempt status, and fanatic followers.

    Hopefully, someone will start an independent Catholic church, completely separating itself from the current one, and the church will survive, but that seems unlikely. If the church dies a slow death, it’s unlikely that anyone will have momentum to resurrect it.

  • Norma Villarreal

    It’s time for the Catholic church to confess its sins, apologize for clergy abuse, and clean house by turning in the names of known perpetrators to civil authorities. The Vatican must consider discussing the suggestion of opening up the ministry to lay persons as the practice of using male celibate priests is not working. If the church gets into action, perhaps it will become ‘one of committed, passionate, and dedicated people who will live the gospels rather than talk about them.’

  • Carol Taylor

    Ms. Villarreal is right – the Catholic Church needs to turn the child molesters over to the law of the land in which the crimes were committed. There are still American bishops who don’t get that the first thing they need to do is call tje cops. The idea that they still want to protect their perverts from due process shows that they are willing to be accessories to these crimes and need to be jailed as well. Enough!

  • John Bunyan

    Some Irish Roman Catholics are finding a home in the Church of Ireland. Not without its faults and weaknesses of course, nonetheless the Church of Ireland (which also straddles Northern Ireland and the Republic) has some attractions- a tolerance and breadth of thought, a long history of good vernacular liturgy and of a married priesthood, and now women priests and probably before long women bishops also. In that same city of Dublin, one in ten of the Church of Ireland priests is a former Roman Catholic including the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, and so is one in ten of the people preparing for ordination to the priesthood. I do not know the number of the latter but in England, while the Roman Catholic Church, I read, has less than 40 ordinands, the once and still sometimes derided Church of England has over 600. One can only hope that Roman Catholic Church (which already has so many true riches to share with other Christians) will see reform and refreshment and a renewal which brings it closer – as it often is at least at the local level – with other Christians, other members of the one Body of Jesus.

  • Joe Bruemmer

    The death knell of catholicism has been heard in Ireland, the island nation that once harbored it when the world turned on it once before. As Ireland goes, so goes the rest of christianity.
    Monotheism will soon be obsolete, and that’s a good thing. Evolution wins.

  • Andrew the Gothicist

    In May 2009, my wife and I went on a tour of Gothic Revival architecture in Ireland, including Maynooth which is mentioned in this piece. The Celtic Tiger was still quite strong. (We were told that a certain fine but not huge Gothic Revival house, were it on the market, would sell for 20 million euros, a huge sum even in the world’s most expensive cities.)

    But perhaps the most remarkable social phenomenon was the number of average Irish people who had rejected the Roman Catholic Church because of the sex abuse scandal. Our taxi driver from the center of Cork to the airport, a man in his early thirties with young children, said he would never send his children to the Catholic church, and he and his wife had given it up completely. We heard similar comments, some very strong worded, from many people in all walks of life. The universal condemnation was unexpected by us, but presaged this R&E piece.

  • Cormac MacGowan

    As an Irishman, living in Ireland, I’d just like to note that those quoted here are all Catholics. McGarry writes a pro Catholic column in a National broadsheet, promoting Catholicism. At best then, these people represent a moderate Catholicism.

    They aren’t really representative of the majority views.

    87% of the people Catholic? The Census question on religion is traditionally fudged, and made deliberately hard to answer properly. This has brought forward criticism, which can be found by cursory search on the internet.

    A new census was held just a couple of months ago, and even though they have gone further out of the way to fudge this question, I’m expecting a dramatic change in this position.

    And… What on earth does “culturally” Catholic mean? I am Irish. I was brought up in a Catholic family. I am and have always been an atheist. I don’t accept at all that there is Aug a thing as culturally Catholic.It is a [expletive removed] construct of those who are vainly hanging on to the last vestiges of their mental and emotional enslavement.

    The sooner the church understands its proper place in a democracy, the better. That is to say, it should have exactly the same place as any other interest group, and its actions and words should be treated with suspicion for the self-serving efforts they probably are.

    What other foreign state could reach into a sovereign state to interfere in justice in this manner without facing consequences? Expulsions should now swiftly follow.

    Ratzinger has not apologised for anything. He has, at best sympathised, but in doing so, his whole intent is to distance himself and the Vatican from the criminal conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. In reality, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was at the centre of this policy. Despite the dizzying spin from the Vatican, it is plain that he is implicated. Until he acknowledges his part, and his guilt, he remains a sickening and despicable liar and cruel hypocrite, as does any member of the clergy or laity that goes along with Ratzingers lies.

  • Hank Estrada, Author

    In UNHOLY COMMUNION, Lessons Learned from Life among Pedophiles, Predators and Priests, Hank Estrada takes us through the horrors of being sexually abused in his family of origin by a trusted uncle only to be followed by a second experience of sexual abuse by a trusted priest during his seminary training in the religious order of the Claretian Missionary Priests and Brothers. Estrada is candid not only about those who abused him but also about his own dark side that emerged as he tried to come to grips with the effects of the abuse and his own sexual orientation.

    What moved Estrada to write this book, however, was not the traumatic effects of sexual abuse, but rather it was the Claretian Order’s continued decisions to allow the priest who abused Estrada to remain in active ministry that involved supervision of other young men, despite assurances that the priest would not be allowed access to other vulnerable youth. When Estrada learned that another man reported being seduced during a relationship of spiritual direction by the same priest that abused the author, Estrada knew that nothing would change unless he made his own story public.

    This book is worthy of a careful reading by anyone, but especially by those who have doubts about the effects of sexual abuse of vulnerable young people by members of the clergy or about the systemic pattern of enabling these same abusers to violate additional vulnerable people.

  • Channah

    ”the end of Catholicism in one or two generations.”

    Also, education of the people shows them that the church is not the law, the final word, the way—-the only way. The Catholic church has held its people in contempt and spellbound obedience. No more! People are no longer in fear of the church—–which is how they have controlled them thruout the centuries,

  • Suzanne

    I don’t understand the calls for reform. What do we need this church for, or any other? Let it (and all others) die as it should have long ago. That is progress!

    Religion is an outmoded and dangerous institution at odds with democracy and human rights. There is absolutely no reason to allow it to continue spreading mythology and enslaving minds. There is enough real truth and information in the universe for us to spend our energy on.

  • Phil

    Jesus Christ founded one Church and that is the Catholic Church. Jesus selected 12 apostles, one of which was Judas and he betrayed Jesus himself. The point is you don’t leave Peter because of Judas. Yes, there are sinners in the Church, but Jesus foretold that anyway. It’s not a big shock. But Jesus still established a Church. Do not turn your back on God’s Church. Jesus is welcoming you with open arms.

  • Mary OConnor

    The Catholic Church is full of wonderful people all over the world, and most especially the Irish Catholics. They are the most generous and kind nation in spite of what they have been victim to for generations first during the potato famine then from these unholy pedophiles. We need to separate the catholic people from the Vatican and the men who are overcome with their own position and power which lead to total protection of their members rather than doing God’s work of caring for the children, the poor and the suffering.
    I ask what Jesus would do with this church which proclaims to work in His Name. The example which comes to mind is how he treated the moneylenders who corrupted the temple entrance.
    This is what happens to an institution or country which negates the influence of women. If you look around the world many of these structures are coming down for they are out of balance and cannot stand here on God’s beautiful earth.

  • James

    Unlike the Reformation, where the Catholic Church lost power in certain geographic areas but managed to enforce its power in others, the latest crisis involves a total, global breakdown of Catholic authority. Imagine a thick piece of wool that has become completely suffused with rot and mold. This is the Catholic Church. Soon it will crumble, leaving nothing behind but a few pathetic scraps and patches.

  • Jim, USA


    Thanks for your comments. Indeed, Jesus, the God-man who raised Himself from the dead, established one Church: the Catholic Church.

    Mary, sorry, but you appear to be sexist — biased against men. Would it surprise you to know that God created men to be in leadership positions, and not women?

    James, your comments, if accurate, tell us the end can’t be that far off. When God’s Church crumbles, then truly we are living in the most perilous times.

    May our Blessed Mother (who understood what it meant to be a faithful woman) intercede for us.

  • Alan

    How could men of the church, who claim to be Jesus spiritual brothers do what Jesus said was wrong and think Jesus would turn his back to this, he made sure all these bad acts came to light. Shame on you men who claimed to be Jesus Brother’s and the Catholic Church.

  • Ciaran

    I do wish all greetings to my fellow Irish participants in this debate. However in this matter there is a substantially higher amount of abuse of minors amongst the non clerical populous than amongst the clergy. In fact the Church is the most highly criticized organization for abuse of minors and has been continuously if not daily given publicity on the media for the past 15 years that is 5475 days of hearing this over and over again like a broken record the most aired issue over the past 10 years in the media.
    So I do understand your anger but your anger is being conditioned by the media and not a balanced opinion. The fact is that as the Church has put in guidelines to protect the welfare of children in the Church the percentage of abuse will and has declined dramatically unlike the non-clerical populous where the rampant abuse of pornography, multiple sexual partners will all increase the likelihood of a spike and an increased from the spike in the abuse of minors by the non-clerical populous which has never been so heinously high than in this century of ours.
    Pornography has caused an explosion in sexual abuse of minors. While it may be impossible to put in legislation that will protect children in the family which is where the abuse occurs. We can only say that the problem is not so much a clerical issue but a global across borders issue. Remember when it was legal to be a pedophile in the Roman and Greek cultures it was not however legal in the Roman Catholic Church so our historical teaching on this matter is from the Primacy of Pope Peter the rock of Christianity from the 2,000 years apostolic tradition of the Catholic Church.
    It is my estimation that when the issue is cleared up in the Church it will eventually have to come out which is another cover up by the media of the drastic increase in the cases of pedophilia across the western world the child kidnapping which is hundreds of thousands in America and also across the western world. This is due to sexualizing of people from a young age and pornography and the policies of politicians at home and abroad that are causing an epidemic in cases of abuse of minors mostly within families.
    So the question is who is doing the covering up is it solely the Church that has to be called to account or are the media and the politicians hiding the real issue which is the epidemic of pedophilia in the western world. The media knows there is a problem of an epidemic but why do you not know you seem to think its just a Church issue nothing got to do with us. The Church which is on the path to healing cannot however can be said for the political establishment who are not highlighting the issue of the epidemic in pedophilia in the non-clerical populous.

  • Cormac MacGowan

    @ Ciaran.

    And here we see the counter-propaganda at work.

    It is irrelevant whether or not the proportion of abusers in the church is higher or lower than the background rate in the general population.

    What is relevant is that the church as an organisation, and as the extension of a foreign power, acted to COVER UP the abuse of children.

    While there has been no legal obligation on a person to report a crime, that evaporates the moment one acts to prevent detection of the crime. Once that occurs, the person so acting becomes an accessory to the crime. They have conspired to pervert the course of justice.

    The church undeniably spent decades, if not centuries, engaged in such active conspiracies. That conspiracy continues today.

    Ratzinger has never once apologised for what the church did in these deliberate, cruel, immoral, and despicable conspiracies.

    He has been very quick to apologise for the acts of the abusers – which is to say – he has not apologised at all. How can he apologise for something he has not been in any way implicated. Noone has suggested that Ratzinger himself has raped, molested, or beaten to death a child.

    There is a distinct and deafening silence from him about the deliberate policy of cover up that he, as the head of the CDF, led. Instead, what we have is various wormtongue vatican spokesmen appealing to Canon Law, and claiming that various documents have been taken out of context. They, Ratzinger included, are liars.

    The Cloyne Report has demonstrated that the church has not implemented any particular policy for child protection. In any case, why is there a need for such a policy? We have the law of the land, simple moral behaviour, and recognition of the primacy of the state and the judicial system. We don’t particularly need the church to have a “policy” – we need them to obey the law.

    Canon Law is a nothing at all. It is a meaningless token used by the church as a tool to abuse the credulous. It has no bearing whatsoever on the law of the land, and should be utterly disregarded with the contempt it deserves when it comes to these matters in particular.

    The church is a foreign power, it is corrupt. It changes the card it plays, depending on the circumstances – one day the “church” is comprised of the faithful, the next it is the hierarchical structure, the next it is a sovereign state – all depending on the weasel words being presented, and on the particular challenge the church is trying to dodge. Of these definitions the first is definitely incorrect – the church is not the faithful. This is because the faithful make no decisions regarding any aspect of the church itself. In fact, Ratzinger is on record as having said that a person who rejects any aspect of Catholic dogma has excommunicated him or herself. This means that, in relation to any meaningful aspect of control or operation of the church, the faithful are excluded. Therefore, they are not the church.

    It is correct to define the “Church” as being the hierarchy and the Vatican. If the Vatican plays the “sovereign state” card in trying to hide behind diplomacy and diplomatic immunity, then the hierarchy above the level of parish priest should be treated as the representatives of a foreign state – and their activities restricted as such.

    The Church has actively conspired against the law of the land in many states throughout the world, and it has conspired against children. It is a foreign state. It should therefore be held out for special treatment, and held out for particular criticism.

    Within society, the cover ups that went on were in large part influenced by the toxic culture driven by the despicable fascist McQuaid. Again, back to nefarious influence on the state of Ireland by a foreidn power.

    Paedophiles in the general populace, who might be able to hide behind some localised cover-up, don’t have a craven old criminal sitting in the Vatican pulling corrupt strings to cover over the paedophiles rape of children.

  • Tiffany

    Most of these speakers are basically apostatizing themselves. Liberalism is the CAUSE of this abuse. The weakening of church authority, church independence and rigorous standards of conduct has led to this disaster.

    It is precisely DEMOCRACY and laxity of morals, and not an ecclesial ‘dictatorship’ that caused this to happen.

  • JDE

    @Tiffany: “It is precisely DEMOCRACY and laxity of morals, and not an ecclesial ‘dictatorship’ that caused this to happen.”

    That would be the same democracy that ensures your right to express your inane opinion publicly.

    Another sterling example of our failed educational system.

  • Janet

    I have read all of the comments and I saw a pattern with Catholics in defense of the church.
    Carian said that the non-clergy were responsible for more sexual acts then the clergy.
    The news has been filled for years about priests that had offended as many as sixty some children!
    The opportunities for this are many in the Catholic church.
    When you write something like this it just reminds us of how many years you have been in denial when participating in the Catholic church.
    Writing it nicely, still sent the same message to those of us who know the horrors of the reality of the Catholic churches history. It’s a cop out. Those priests took a vow that they have broken.
    I would be much more impressed if this person had admitted change was long overdue in this church.
    Priests used to marry until it was decided that too much money was going out to support their families. If the Pope wasn’t so stubborn, he wouldn’t be in this boat.
    I was saddened to read that one writer no longer believed in organized religion because of it. There is good in all religion, but a more modern faith is called for in this day.
    No clergy, investigation for yourself, Baha’i World Faith. Believes in ONE God, ONe Mankind, and protection of the children within it. No prejudice, no controls,striving for the Unity of Mankind. The rituals are no longer needed, nor are the ministers and priests. Sharing with the cultures of people from all over the world in a spirit of oneness, in charge of your own spiritual growth. Way nice. Been a Baha’i since I was 15 years old, and never regreted breaking loose to the message for this day in which we live.

  • Mary

    People turn away from the Church because, as I recall from my lessons on sin and forgiveness: the greater wrong is to perpetuate the sin, avoid forgiveness and deny a “penance”.
    Church leaders refuse to discuss options for change. Laity has naught but our prayers, presence and pocketbooks for response. So we stop sharing our coin and pray to find our faith fulfilled in a cleaner house more pleasing to Christ than the one which failed and continues to fail our children.

  • Martin Doorhy

    My parents are from Galway, and I was born in London and now reside in Chicago. Some of the remarks I have read here bother me a great deal more than “clerical sex abuse.” First, what is the percentage of priests that have even allegedly engaged in sex abuse? I, as a lawyer, assisted in the research on the exhaustive US John Jay Report which was published in the US some 10 years ago. Therein it was disclosed that, of the roughly 100,000 men ordained to the priesthood in America since 1950, FOUR (4) PER CENT had even been accused, let alone found guilty, of any form of child sexual abuse. Moreover, Catholic priests accounted during those 50 years for under ONE (1) PER CENT of the child sexual abuse in the US. Can those who excoriate Irish priests tell me what the Ryan Report revealed to be the percentage of Catholic priests involved in Ireland in child sexual abuse? If it is in any way comparable to the John Jay Report, it is infinitely small. So if Irish people today are so disillusioned with the clergy because of child sexual abuse, how disillusioned are they with the principal perpetrators of such abuse, such as live-in boyfriends, uncles, half-brothers, stepfathers, and other family members, who in the US are the overwhelming majority of predators? Very few of us out here know victims of priests, but most of us know victims of family members. We also know some victims of the US public school system, from administrators to social workers to, of course, teachers. Professor Carol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University in New York State has devoted much of her life to research that discloses that the likelihood that a child will be molested by a worker in the US public school system is 200 times more likely than that he will be abused by a Catholic priest. And just as in most families in Ireland or the US these crimes are “covered up” by senior family members, so these workers’ crimes are “covered up” by their superiors who continue to transfer them to other school districts. It even has garnered a name in America; “passing the trash.” (By the way, how often have you heard of one family member turning in another to the Gardai over child sexual abuse?) Yet our mainstream media virtually ignores all this. Why?

    For the same reason your website writers and those interviewed ignore it. They, like the US and Irish media, do not have the spleen to attack familial child sexual abuse because that hits far too close to home with their audience. Just as importantly, as is the case with the Western media in general, most Irish and American laymen are not engaged in a Kulturkampf with school teachers or family members over homosexuality, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, living together outside marriage, contraception, abortion, etc. That is the REAL reason why certain elements of Irish and American society are gleeful in their merciless attacks on the teaching authority of the Church over a handful of perverts within the ranks of its clergy, which in America are exceeded by teachers, social workers, Boy Scout leaders, and especially family members. Now such elements feel that they can look themselves in the mirror as they engage in every sort of sexual immorality condemned by the Church. I know of two of my family members in Dublin who are obsessed with this subject because their sexual “lifestyles” have flown in the face of Church teaching for years. Now they are peculiarly and selectively indignant over a miniscule handful of clerical perverts and somehow draw a tortuous link between the outrageous behaviour of this tiny group and the consequent and highly convenient (for them and so many others in Ireland) release from their obligation to attend mass or obey the Magisterium. This is National School logic. It is as if the Acts of the Dail could be ignored because 4% of TD’s were alleged to be molesting youngsters, and a small percentage of those were actually guilty.

    So now we have the paradox of some Irish people, especially in highly sophisticated Dublin, that bastion and model of sexual virtue, pompously lecturing the Church on the misbehaviour of a tiny few, while feeling no compunction in engaging in mortal sin themselves by willfully refusing to attend mass on Sundays and having sexual relations with persons outside marriage while, among young people, reaching the absurdity of intentionally having children out of wedlock to see whether they can be good parents before deciding to marry. I dare say these self-righteous sexual paragons ought to examine their own behaviour before so viciously lambasting the one moral authority we have left in the West to teach us right from wrong.

  • Bill Keane

    So now we get the church bashers and the haithful followers confronting each other, speaking two different languages. . It might help the “dialogue’ if we can get a clarification of a vision of “Church” which is common to what most Christians find in the Scriptures and in the teaching of Vatican II.

    Among my favorite ecclesiologists were Adrian Dulles and Edmund Schillebeeckx, neither of whom were notable liberals. Both significantly influenced my concept of the Church as well as the concept expressed by the bishops at Vatican II, Dulles in delineating various models of Church, Schillebeeckx in forming a vision of the Church as the Body of Christ who acts and speaks through it in the world today. I also have found Richard McBrien to be a most readable writer as well as an outstanding theologian.

    When I started to formulate my vision for the Church of the future, not the heavenly New Jerusalem but the church down and dirty in its members, I tried to put that vision in words in the context of the world in which we live and love and strive and fall and rise again today. I think that it is the same vision as that expressed by Vatican II in the document Lumen Gentium.

    The structure and authority of the Church, and the way that authority is exercised is not clear in the New Testament, but it developed over centuries. More important: What is the purpose of the Church? Why did Christ establish this community and why does He maintain it in existence in spite of its faults and failures, its betrayals and its rejection of His message?

    Scripture tells us that God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants and that this covenant was renewed or extended by Jesus with those who accepted Him and His message until the end of time. “You will be my people and I will be your God.” God poured out His everlasting love on us, freely and without merit on our part and wants our love in return.

    The Church is a means to achieve this end by introducing us to that loving relationship with the Father for which we are made and to nurture and grow us in that relationship. It is not a legalistic or dominating relationship: God does not force us, He invites us to love Him and trust Him as we journey to that eternal Kingdom where we will be with Him forever.

    And that is why I reject the concept of a Church which juridically expels or excommunicates members whom God has called to Him. God calls each one individually to this relationship with Him. The Church exists to help us on our way, to provide doctrinal and moral principles to guide us, but faith is a personal gift, not an institutional one and in the final moments when our life changes the relationship is not with the Church or the hierarchy but with the Father.

    Christ’s Church is a servant Church, not an authoritarian structure,one where service not power is the keyword. The initial appointments made by the apostles were deacons to care for the needs of the widows, and the only fund raiser described was Paul’s appeal for funds for the needy in Jerusalem. Peter was the leader appointed by Christ to lead His Church, but we know that Paul challenged Peter on some issues and prevailed. That is my vision of the Church – the pope is head of the Universal Church, the sign of unity and spokesman for the Church on issues of faith, on our understanding of the Gospel, but individual bishops are free to express their opinions and seek a consensus as they appear to have done at the Council of Jerusalem. This is the role of the pope in the Church, preserving its unity and fidelity to the teaching of Christ. The pope is “servus servorum Dei”, servant of the servants of God, and his primacy is rooted and expressed in that role. In the early Church the bishop of Rome functioned primarily as a mediator of disputes rather than an interpreter of doctrine or an ultimate authority.

    McBrien describes the role of Peter’s successor: “The Catholic Church considers the pope to be the Vicar of Peter, that is, the one who personally succeeds to the distinctive ministry of St. Peter for the sake of the unity of the universal Church.” “Before the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-1085) … (the popes) did not appoint bishops. They did not govern the universal Church through the Roman curia.” John Henry Newman, who was beatified recently, “contended early in his Catholic career that the laity should be consulted on doctrine, since it was sometimes more faithful to revelation than was the hierarchy (including the pope.) He pointed out that the promise of the Spirit was to the whole Church.”

    Many Christian theologians of various denominations in the post-Vatican II period seem to have shared that same vision of the servant Church, though it has never been fully grasped or implemented.In 1966, Cardinal Cushing issued an Advent pastoral “The Servant Church.” He set forth the image of Christ the Servant who “came to serve to heal, to reconcile, to bind up wounds. Jesus, we may say, is in an exceptional way the Good Samaritan,” and argued that the Church must be the body of Christ, the suffering servant and hence the servant Church. “So it is that the Church announces the coming of the Kingdom not only in word, through preaching and proclamation, but more particularly in work, in her ministry of reconciliation, of binding up wounds, of suffering service, of healing . . . As the Lord was the ‘man for others,’ so must the Church be ‘the community for others.’

    A similar understanding of the servant church is present in declarations of other church bodies of the period: the Presbyterian Confession of 1967, the Uppsala Report in 1968, the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin in 1968 and the document on Justice in the World issued by the Catholic Synod of Bishops in 1971.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that the Church should give away all its property to those in need, and the clergy live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. The Church would thus experience the secular problems of ordinary human life. Anglican Bishop John A. Robinson argued that the house of God is not the Church but the world.” Robert Adolfs took Paul’s phrase in Philippians 2:7 “Taking the form of a servant” to mean that Jesus divested himself of all craving for power and dignity. The Church, if it is to be like Christ, must similarly renounce all claims to power, honors, and the like; it must not rule by power but attract by love.

    While my vision of the Church may not be as radical as Bonhoeffer’s, neither does it include an Episcopal palace such as the one currently on the market in Philadelphia for 8 million dollars or a twelve room beach house for the summer. I recall one bishop who lived in a normal family sized home in a middle-class neighborhood, probably valued at less than $100,000, and several others who lived in the parish rectory.

    In many ways I think this vision harks back to the early Church we find in the Acts of the Apostles. It is the Church described by Paul who wrote, “Have that mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross”. (Phil 2:5-8). It is the Church of the ghetto and the catacombs, the weak and the voiceless, the Church of the Servant Christ who told His Apostles at the Last Supper, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do….no slave is greater that his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:35-36).

    I find it troubling that Cardinal George of Chicago in a recent interview speaks about the bishops’ mandate to be “governors who exercise … the power to punish.” He does not make it clear whence they derive this power. It is certainly not from Christ’s command to His Apostles at the Last Supper. Nor is it in Paul’s description of what Christ did: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave coming in human likeness, and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil.2:5-8).

    The true definition of the bishop’s role in the Church is service and leadership (like the “good shepherd” who leads out his flock), a vision certainly absent in many recent highly publicized statements and actions by bishops, not only in America but around the world. In spite of Cardinal George’s opinion to the contrary, most Catholics seek from their leaders clear moral principles on which to base their decisions not moral micromanaging by the hierarchy. Christ’s Church calls for pastoral leadership, not juridical and punitive authority.

    In like manner the role of patriarchs and bishops is rooted in the same service to their flocks. Vatican I diminished their role but Vatican II clearly restored it. Statements by the Pope which express the teaching of the universal Church are truly guided by the Holy Spirit but his personal opinions are not infallible.In a Church that seems to be gradually eroding the changes of Vatican II and reversing its teachings, it is important to remember and defend this principle. Unity in faith refers to formal teachings of the universal Church, not personal opinions. And nowhere is there any basis for authoritarian edicts or legal decisions affecting the life of the faithful, only teaching and guidance in the way of the Lord.

    Bishop Kevin Dowling echoes this when he says:”It is, therefore, important in my view that church leadership, instead of giving an impression of its power, privilege and prestige, should rather be experienced as a humble searching ministry … which does not presume to have all the answers all the time.”

    It seems clear that many bishops have a different concept of the nature of the Church and the role of the bishop. It might help if they could clarify the differences.