One of the most absurd features of Enda Kenny’s notorious Cloyne speech last July was his quoting from an obscure Vatican document, penned in 1990 by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, to create the false impression that the Pope believes that the Church is above the law.
Wondering how the Taoiseach had come across such a document, I speculated that the passage might have been drawn to his attention by his close adviser Frank Flannery, whose brother, Father Tony Flannery, was one of the founders of the Association of Catholic Priests, and is currently under investigation by the Vatican.
The relevant document, On the Ecclesiastical Vocation of the Theologian, describes the Church as a mystery of communion, in which we share a bond of faith with our fellow Christians throughout history.
As the faith of the Church today must remain essentially that of the earliest Christian community, polling public opinion to determine what to think or do and opposing the Church’s sacramental teaching authority on the basis of such polls is specifically warned against: we cannot impose our opinions on the truth.
Leading questions, dodgy answers, and shocking grammar...
It’s somewhat ironic then that this week the Association of Catholic Priests has published the results of an opinion poll assessing people’s opinions on such matters as ecclesiology, whether women can be priests, translation from Latin into English, and the Church’s teaching on sexuality. It seems that the ACP either didn’t get Rome’s memo, or didn’t bother reading it.
As published, Contemporary Catholic Perspectives is a disappointing document, rife with grammatical errors* and revealing a readiness among Irish Catholics to embrace theological errors thus divorcing themselves from the fullness of Christian teaching, the wider Church, and their fellow Christians through history.
I can't help but wonder what the leaders of the Association of Catholic Priests – the leaders, now, not ordinary members who've joined out of a sense of frustration with the hierarchy – think when they pray the Nicene Creed and say they believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
- 'One' in what sense? Do they really believe the Irish Church should be united in faith with the Church everywhere else in the world, or indeed throughout history? The Irish Church and the Church in Ireland are one and the same, after all. There's no distinction between the two, much though some might want to wish there were, with their cries for Rome to keep out of our affairs and stop trying to tidy up the mess we've made. Don't they believe that the English translation of the Mass should say the same thing as the Irish, German, French, Spanish, and other translations of the Mass? Don't they think Irish Catholics and Filipino Catholics should pray the same prayers?
- What about 'holy'? 'Holiness' means a lot of things, but at its basic meaning is the notion of being set apart for a special purpose – should a Church that's to be set apart to serve God be bending over backwards to accommodate itself to the passing whims of modern society, whether in one country or a batch of them?
- And 'Catholic'? Attested to as a way of describing the Church as far back as 107 AD when Saint Ignatius of Antioch was en route to his martyrdom in Rome, the word means 'universal' or 'according to the whole', but do people understand that their faith should be a comprehensive totality, and one that's to be found everywhere rather than being merely a modern Irish phenomenon?
- And as for apostolic, don't they understand that the faith of the apostles and our connection with them through our bishops and especially our communion with Rome cannot be selected from according to our own arrogant desires without breaking that link? How important to they think our communion with the See of Peter is?
In what sense do the likes of the ACP see themselves as Catholic? I'm not saying they're not, of course, as sacramentally they'll be every bit as Catholic as, well, the Pope, but what do they understand the Creed to mean?
Sloppy and depressing though it is, the survey is nonetheless far from useless. It shows just how right the Apostolic Visitation was when it observed a widespread tendency among Irish clergy to hold theological opinions contrary to the fundamental teachings of the Church, and stressed the desperate need in Ireland for deeper formation in the content of the faith for young people and adults. Of course, anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knew this anyway, but it's good to have numbers. I trust numbers.
84 per cent of people living in Ireland, according to the latest census, self-identify as Catholic, but it seems most of these have little idea of what it is that Catholics are expected to believe and do, let alone why, while many of those who criticise the Church waste their energies raging against a phantom Church that exists only in their imaginations.
I always find it hard to supress a wry grin whenever people start to rant about children being indoctrinated in Catholic schools. If it’s indoctrination that Catholic schools are engaged in, then they’re obviously not very good at it. We’re reaping the harvest of decades of bad catechesis, and when we consider how we should rear our children in our faith, we need to face this fact.
Obligatory autobiographical bit, with comic anecdote...
My own experience of Irish religious education in the 1980s would have been typical of the era.
Preparation for my first Confession and first Holy Communion was clear and comprehensive, as was that for my Confirmation, but whatever I was taught in between was unsystematic and not the sort of thing to stick. In secondary school I only ever heard the word 'transubstantiation' in history class, with reference to Martin Luther and the Council of Trent, with me having picked up a smattering of other information from doing the likes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in English class.
My abiding memories of religious education in secondary school consisted of watching lots of films, raising money for Concern and the Simon Community, a school Mass or two, a couple of afternoons in the school oratory during one of which we all sniggered when someone broke wind, and one memorable visit from the local parish priest.
'Morning lads,' he said.
'Morning, Father,' we replied.
'What are you doing in religion now, lads?'
'Gandhi, Father,' we said.
A look of utter confusion waltzed across his baffled face. 'Oh,' he said, after a moment. 'That’s good. Because Gandhi was a good man. Now he wasn’t a Catholic, mind, but he was a good man.'
And, to be fair, he was. We weren't learning about Gandhi because he was a Hindu, mind, or because his actions had deep roots in his religious faith, though they very definitely did. We were learning about him because he was nice.
My teachers were talented and dedicated people who meant well, and I’ve fond memories of them, but the fact remains that in a good Catholic school, run by brothers, religious education boiled down to five years of well-meaning agnosticism with a hint of Catholic seasoning.
I always think folk should be wary of meddling in things they don't understand...
That Catholic education in Ireland is in need of a comprehensive review is something the Visitation highlighted, but such an urgent project seems to have been pre-empted, at least for now, by the Government’s drive to encourage schools to be divested from Church patronage.
Ruairí Quinn’s ambition that half of Ireland’s Catholic schools be so divested looks set to be neutered by the report of the advisory group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector. The group has recommended, not that 50 per cent of schools should be transferred from diocesan patronage, but that fewer that one school in 50 should.
More worrying, however, is the advisory group’s recommendation that rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, requiring teachers to inculcate Christian values throughout their teaching, should be abolished, and that each faith-based school should be obliged to display images reflecting all the school’s students’ religious traditions.
While I’d disagree with those theologians who’ve described these proposals as a frontal assault on faith-based education, I’d certainly agree that they could prove a devastating flank attack with the potential to deal a mortal wound to Catholic education in Ireland.
In his 1919 book Irish Impressions, G.K. Chesterton commented on the sincere assurances given by English socialists to Irish Catholics in 1913 that they would care for Irish children in England and would refrain from interfering with the children’s religion:
'Those who offer such a reassurance have never thought about what a religion is. They entertain the extraordinary idea that religion is a topic. They think religion is a thing like radishes, which can be avoided throughout a particular conversation with a particular person, whom the mention of a radish may convulse with anger or agony. But a religion is simply the world a man inhabits. In practice, a Socialist living in Liverpool would not know when he was, or was not tampering with the religion of a child born in Louth.
If I were given the complete control of an infant Parsee (which is fortunately unlikely) I should not have the remotest notion of when I was most vitally reflecting on the Parsee system. But common sense, and a comprehension of the meaning of a coherent philosophy, would lead me to suspect that I was reflecting on it every other minute'
There is the little matter of the Constitution, not to mention the ECHR etc...
Religion is a holistic thing, and the right of Irish parents to have their children raised in their faith – whatever that might be – is something that should not be lightly disregarded.
It might be argued that this is not the job of the State, but the Constitution recognises that the family is the primary educator of the child; if economic reality requires parents to outsource education to the State, then it is only reasonable that they should exercise their democratic right to influence the State to educate their children as they would wish.
Our right to observe, practice, teach, and otherwise manifest our beliefs – save when it's necessary that that right be curtailed – is enshrined in the Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights. That doesn't – indeed, it mustn't – mean imposing their faith on others, but it does mean having the confidence to stand up and say 'no' when people representing a small minority of the population try to reform the national education system as though their views were normative for Ireland as a whole, rather than, say, just 6 per cent of people.
Ruairí Quinn believes that the requirement that Irish national schools inculcate Christian values in their students is at the core of what’s wrong with the current system. Perhaps, though, in a country which is 84 per cent Catholic and more than 90 per cent Christian of one sort or another, the problem is not that Irish schools are too Christian; it’s that they’re not Christian enough.
* I'd list them, but that might be a bit off-topic. There are four on the first page alone, though. And in case you're wondering what I'm doing posting at such a crazy time of night, I've been on a boat, and am currently sitting in a rather jolly ferry terminal, waiting on a train. It's a couple of hours away yet.