If this rambles, it's because I'm just trying to get my thoughts straight on something. Feel free to join me on my journey...
Fintan O’Toole’s column today is a forlorn but functionally ignorant piece that disregards recent developments in the Irish Church and comments with scant regard for current context; while I have some sympathy for his views, they should, nonetheless, be taken with more salt than doctors generally recommend.
His general thesis is straightforward. Back in the day, had such priests as Fathers Brian D’Arcy, Tony Flannery, Gerard Moloney, Seán Fagan and Owen O’Sullivan been censured for saying what most Catholics actually think about celibacy, women priests and homosexuality, he would have written a column about the Church abusing its power. Such a column was, as he puts it, ‘a reliable old standby’, the kind of thing Fintan could have written in his sleep, and probably often did.
Nowadays, however, he just sighs. He sees what’s happened as a tragic and humiliation generation of a generation of priests who were full of hope and openness to the world, ‘infused with the energy of reform and renewal’.
Like a legion of lesser journalists, Fintan then turns to the cliché that is the abuse issue, something he has elsewhere recognised is not a Catholic issue or even a clerical one, and says:
‘This is the institution that told us that it was unable to control child rapists in its ranks because it couldn’t just issue orders... Remember the stuff about how bishops were lords in their own dioceses and religious orders were their own kingdoms?
When priests were raping children, the institutional hierarchy was wringing its hands and pleading “what can we do?” The Vatican was very busy and very far away. But when a priest makes some mild suggestions that women might be entitled to equality, the church is suddenly an efficient police state that can whip that priest into line. The Vatican, which apparently couldn’t read any of the published material pointing to horrific abuse in church-run institutions, can pore over the Sunday World with a magnifying glass, looking for the minutest speck of heresy.
An institution so stupid that it thinks its Irish faithful is more scandalised by Brian D’Arcy than by Brendan Smyth is not worth anyone’s anger. It is doing a far better job of destroying itself than its worst enemies could dream of.’
Hyperbole and nonsense, I’m afraid. Hyperbole and nonsense, without a shred of understanding of how things have changed, or any attempt to grasp why this is so.
A Network, not a Monolith
All the stuff about bishops being lords in their own dioceses and religious orders being their own kingdoms was true. Ian Elliott, the Protestant head of child protection for the Catholic Church in Ireland, put it well back in 2009 in a speech on child protection in the Irish Church:
‘Although it is described as a single Church, it is more easily understood as a single communion with close to two hundred different constituent elements. There is no one person who is resident in Ireland and holds the authority to direct all the various parts of the body to act in a particular way...
The most difficult issues for the Church to overcome are those that arise from its structure. It is the largest membership organisation on the island of Ireland with over four and a quarter million members. There are 1366 parishes, 2646 churches, 5069 priests, 942 brothers, and 8093 sisters. By any scale, it is a very substantial organisation. However, it is not a single body but rather a number of quite separate ones that are linked. There are dioceses, religious congregations, orders, missionary societies, prelatures, and religious institutions. In all, there are 184 different parts to the Church in Ireland and each has its own head. Many have their own constitutions and relate to head quarters located in Italy, France, the United States, or some other part of the world.’
Structurally speaking, then, the Irish Church is much better understood as a network rather than a monolith, with that network existing within the much larger network that is the global Church with its roughly 5,000 bishops, 400,000 priests, 750,000 sisters, 220,000 parishes, 5,000 hospitals, 17,500 dispensaries, 15,000 homes for the elderly, and so forth.
Of course, if people don’t believe Elliott, the man whose investigations in Cloyne led to John Magee’s ‘resignation’ and the subsequent Cloyne Report, they could look to the first national investigation of the institutional Church, that being 2005’s Ferns Report, which has a hugely informative section on the institutional structures of the secular diocesan priesthood; of course, I’ve explained all this at some length before.
A System Wholly Dependent on Honesty...
The crucial thing about Church structure that the Ferns Report rightly identified is that contrary to popular mythology it is incredibly decentralised, and communication is almost always a bottom-up rather than a top-down phenomenon. With the all-important exception of doctrine, given the teaching authority invested in the Pope as successor to Peter, the flow of information goes from the parishes to the dioceses and from the dioceses to Rome and does so on a voluntary basis: the quality and comprehensiveness of the information being supplied is wholly in the hands of the supplier.
Putting it another way, in the normal course of things the Pope knows only what the bishops choose to tell him, and the bishops know only what their priests choose to tell them.
This shouldn’t surprise us. Even if it were theologically appropriate to do, as John Allen, the most astute of Vaticanistas, commented last October, Rome simply doesn’t have the tools to micromanage the Church: the total workforce for the Church’s central bureaucracy is 2,170 people, who rely on a budget roughly half that of UCD’s to serve a Church of 1,200,000,000 Catholics.
Sadly, as we know from the two Murphy Reports, as well as interviews with the likes of Monsignor Charles Scicluna, who Marie Collins has described as someone who ‘gets it’ when it comes to the problem of abuse, an awful lot of important information has historically not been passed upwards or even sideways.
Indeed, in terms of abuse, it looks as though the tendency of the Church at a local level – at least during the sixties, seventies, eighties, and early nineties – has almost always been to deny its reality and to hide it from others in the Church. Everything was dealt with, as much as possible, in-house. And, of course, it was usually dealt with badly.
Enter the Visitation
In Mach 2010, in the aftermath of the first Murphy Report, the Pope wrote a pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland, in which he expressed great concern about developments in Ireland, saying that he was ‘deeply disturbed’ by what he had learned about the abuse of children and vulnerable young people, and shared in the ‘the dismay and the sense of betrayal’ that so many Irish Catholics felt on learning of what had happened and how the Irish Church authorities had dealt with reports of abuse.
He apologised to abuse victims for their sufferings, saying that he was truly sorry for the wrongs abuse victims had endured, the betrayal of their trust, the violation of their dignity, and the failures of so many in the institutional Church to listen to those courageous enough to speak out.
Commenting on changes within the Irish Church he talked of how traditional sacramental and devotional practices had been increasingly neglected, noted the increasing tendency of Irish priests to engage with the world without sufficient reference to the Gospel, and condemned Ireland’s bishops and heads of religious congregations for grave errors of judgment and failures of leadership, which – among other things – had seriously undermined their credibility and effectiveness.
Listing various actions the Pope was going to take in order to facilitate a renewal of the Irish Church – a renewal that ought to ensure that such horrors as the abuse crisis not happen again, the Pope announced that he was going to organise an inspection or investigation of the Church in Ireland.
‘Furthermore, having consulted and prayed about the matter, I intend to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. Arrangements for the Visitation, which is intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal, will be made in cooperation with the competent offices of the Roman Curia and the Irish Episcopal Conference. The details will be announced in due course.’
In other words, the Pope announced that he no longer trusted the Irish bishops to tell him what was going on in Ireland, and so he would be appointing people to go in and find out directly. This, of course, is something that’s not normal practice. When Paul went to Corinth, Peter didn’t send a sceptical Thomas after him to check that he wasn’t hiding something, just as Jesus hadn’t chased after the Seventy Two to make sure they were doing their job. Nicholas I may have invited Cyril and Methodius to come to Rome, but he didn’t dispatch spies after them when they went back to the Moravia and Pannonia, and neither Paul III nor Julius III sent monitors to Indian and Japan to find out what St Francis Xavier was playing at.
It’s been reported that the Irish bishops sought to limit the terms of the Visitation to two issues, these being the handling of child abuse allegations, and the formation of future priests in seminaries. Rome, on the other hand, took the view that such serious problems in the Church were likely to by manifestations of other problems, possibly ones with very deep roots, and that a much wider investigation was needed.
The press release issued by the Vatican made it clear that the Visitation would home in on the abuse crisis, its interest was broader and deeper: it was, rather, ‘intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal’, and would also have to ‘identify the explicit problems which may require some assistance from the Holy See.’
Following in the Footsteps of Giants...
Just over a month back, a summary of the Visitors’ report was published. It’s an extremely condensed version of a much larger document, which has been given to the bishops, which cannot be understood unless we read between the lines and recognise that it merely points towards things which will have to be worked on.
The essence of the document is that a renewed Church needs a renewed clergy and a renewed laity. In a sense, of course, this is always the answer. Here’s Westminster’s Archbishop Vincent Nichols, for instance, in his recent introduction to his four decades’ old study of the sixteenth-century bishop St John Fisher:
‘It is again popular to criticise the clergy. Has it not always been so? Of course now as then some of the criticism is justified. But its generalisation is not. Now as then there is much evidence of the untiring work of the majority of priests and those who assist them. There is ample evidence of the on-going formation of priests, of the resources and opportunities available to them. There is a need today, as then, to look at the facts of parish life rather than the popular impression.
‘It might also be a consolation to recall that in the fourteenth century too the question of clerical celibacy was contentious and its abolition proposed as a solution to many of the failings attributed to priests.
Fisher’s main effort in support of the clergy was in the area of education. He wanted a clergy that was better educated, thereby better able to inform and form itself for its important ministry. And in that ministry the task of teaching the faith was uppermost in his mind. He wanted his priests to be able and ready to study. He wanted them to bring the fruits of that study into their preaching. He wanted a laity that understood their faith and not be led astray by erroneous opinion and error.’
A well-educated laity wasn’t just something that was needed as error and confusion ran amok in the blaze of the sixteenth century. In his 1851 study, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, John Henry Newman famously wrote:
‘I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity; I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism and where lies the main inconsistencies and absurdities of the Protestant theory.
I have no apprehension you will be the worse Catholics for familiarity with these subjects, provided you cherish a vivid sense of God above and keep in mind that you have souls to be judged and saved. In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit; they saved the Irish Church three centuries ago and they betrayed the Church in England. You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it; to expose to the comprehension of others the fictions and fallacies of your opponents; to explain the charges brought against the Church, to the satisfaction, not, indeed, of bigots, but of men of sense, of whatever cast of opinion.’
Newman, famously, was a great believer in the consensus fidelium, that idea that the view of the faithful was crucial for the maintenance of Christian truth. His thinking on this is often misrepresented, however, as though the consensus fidelium is a crude matter of opinion polls. In his 1859 work, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, he argued that it had been the collective mind of the faithful who had maintained the truth of the Nicene Creed during the fourth century when legions of bishops and priests had fallen into heresy. But this, he made clear, wasn’t a simple matter of Christians sticking to what they believed to be right:
‘For I argue that, unless they had been catechised, as St. Hilary says, in the orthodox faith from the time of their baptism, they never could have had that horror, which they show, of the heterodox Arian doctrine. Their voice, then, is the voice of tradition...’
In other words, for the consensus fidelium to be worth something, the faithful must have been catechised thoroughly, and this point is something that the Visitation hammers at.
The Visitors Speak...
If we work our way through the visitation summary we see, after all the stuff that obviously addresses the problem of clerical abuse and its mishandling, that a straightforward theme is apparent: that both clergy and laity need to up their respective games.
Look at the massive emphasis placed on the improvement of seminarians’ selection and formation, the urging of religious orders to focus on their scriptural and other sources, the hint at diocesan restructuring, and this:
‘It is vitally important that, at a point in history marked by rapid cultural and social transformation, all the components of the Church in Ireland hear in the first place a renewed call to communion: communion among the Bishops themselves and with the Successor of Peter; communion between diocesan Bishops and their clergy; communion between Pastors and lay persons; and communion between diocesan structures and communities of consecrated life - communion that is not attained merely through human agreements or strategies, but above all by listening humbly to God’s Word and to what the Holy Spirit gives and asks of the Church in our day. Only a united Church can be an effective witness to Christ in the world.
Among the pastoral priorities that have emerged most strongly is the need for deeper formation in the content of the faith for young people and adults; a broad and well-planned ongoing theological and spiritual formation for clergy, Religious and lay faithful; a new focus on the role of the laity, who are called to be engaged both within the Church and in bearing witness before society, in accordance with the social teachings of the Church. There is a need to harness the contribution of the new Ecclesial Movements, in order better to reach the younger generation and to give renewed enthusiasm to Christian life. A careful review is needed of the training given to teachers of religion, the Catholic identity of schools and their relationship with the parishes to which they belong, so as to ensure a sound and well-balanced education.
Since the Visitators also encountered a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, Religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium, this serious situation requires particular attention, directed principally towards improved theological formation. It must be stressed that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the Church is not the authentic path towards renewal.’
There’s a lot here, but look especially at that last paragraph, in light especially of the call to communion which the Visitation is intended to assist. That the there’s a widespread tendency in the Irish Church to hold theological opinions at variance with that of the Magisterium can hardly be disputed, especially in light of the results of the recent survey conducted by the Association of (800 or so) Catholic Priests.
It appears that the consensus fidelium in Ireland is out of step with the consensus fidelium of the global Church; it seems that we are slipping away from geographic and diachronic unity with the Church as a whole.
And it is that that brings us to the Passionist Father Brian D’Arcy, the Redemptorist Fathers Tony Flannery and Gerard Moloney, the Marist Father Seán Fagan and the Capuchin Father Owen O’Sullivan.
A Right to Leadership...
To listen to Fintan and others, with their hysterical talk of censorship and silencing, and with the unhelpful distinctions they draw between liberal and conservative clergy, it certainly looks as though there’s a massive clampdown going on in the Irish Church. This, of course, is hysterical nonsense.
Have any priests been laicised because of their views? Have any been excommunicated? Have any been denied their priestly faculties or in any other way suspended from ministry? Have any being denied whatever licenses they have to teach? Are any of them deprived of the incomes they’ve hitherto received through the work they do as priests?
Look at the case of Brian D’Arcy, about whom Fintan and Alison O’Connor and others are so exercised. In what way, exactly, is he censored? Put idle gossip aside, and ignore what journalists have written about this, just for a moment. Pay attention to his own words, as expressed to RTE’s Marian Finucane just the other day: It takes a lot of listening, as he does a lot of scene-setting and digresses a lot to charming effect, but at its core he describes how his ‘silencing’ has worked in practice over the last year.
‘I tried to work with it, in other words to do subjects that were non-contentious insofar as possible, and those subjects that were contentious, not to avoid them, but certainly if I was writing an article for the Sunday World that I would ask an appointed censor–’
‘Who appointed the censor?’
‘The Provincial – to read over them. The other man obviously didn’t want to do it, but he took it as his duty to do it. So if there had been articles that I thought needed that, they’d be passed to him, and he’d pass them back.’
‘Was any not passed?’
‘No, but I would have done that anyway, to be honest, you know? He was a good journalist. I would have done that if there was an area that – and I would still do it as a good journalist.’
Now, as a friend put it the other day, what this seems to consist of Father D’Arcy passing articles at his own discretion over to another priest, presumably within his own order and chosen by his superior, for the other priest to look over. This is something he says he would have done anyway, and is something that is normal practice among other orders. And, of course, not one of Father D’Arcy’s articles over the past fourteen months – on no matter how contentious the topic – has been blocked from publication, and despite his claim that he’s not supposed to talk about what’s happened, he’s evidently been talking about it to all and sundry over the last week or so.
If this is censorship, I can’t see what Orwell was so bothered about. Talk of Father D’Arcy being ‘gagged’ is clearly rot.
Granted, other priests seem to have had somewhat sterner fates, though again, none have been denied their priestly faculties, their incomes, or whatever licences they have to teach. Even Father Tony Flannery’s enforced six-week retreat is best understood as medicinal, for want of a better word: a chance for him to take a sustained period of time to reflect and pray and see if he could in conscience bring his heart and deeds into union with the mind of the Church.
Whatever else they may be – journalists or whatever – Father Flannery and Father D’Arcy and the rest are priests first and foremost. That defines them. As priests they have a privileged position, in that they’re given a pulpit from which to speak, but they have responsibilities to that position, one of which is that they much speak not merely from the heart but in accord with the Church. They don’t have days off from being priests; they’re always priests and are always called upon to represent Christ and his body the Church.
It’s not good enough to say that they subscribe to the Nicene Creed; plenty of Protestants subscribe to the Church’s historic creeds, but devout though they may be as Christians, they’re certainly not Catholics. There are, after all, Catholic and Protestant ways of understanding the ancient creeds, and there’s more to Catholicism than the Creed. The Creed never mentions the Eucharist, and it never mentions the Priesthood, to take two obvious examples.
The faithful are entitled to orthodox leadership, to priests who will teach in accord with what the Church teaches. That’s not to say that there’s not room for legitimate dissent on loads of things, but there are a fair few topics on which Rome has spoken and the case is indeed closed.
As Benedict said in a homily back in 1979:
‘To say that someone’s opinion doesn’t correspond to the doctrine of the Catholic church doesn’t mean violating their human rights. Everyone should have the right to freely express their own view, which the Catholic church decisively recognized at Vatican II and still does today. This doesn’t mean, however, that every opinion must be recognized as Catholic.’
That’s the key thing. Aquinas used to argue that hypocrisy was a worse sin than heresy, and while people are fully entitled to disagree with the teaching of the Church, if in conscience they cannot accept the teaching of the Church, then this has consequences. Certainly, if one disagrees with the Church on an important issue, then one can hardly stand as a priest, an ordained representative of the Church who acts in persona Christi, and teach something which the Church does not believe.
Irish Catholics are entitled to be led into their faith by people who hold to all the Catholic Church teaches. It’s as simple as that.
So is this why there’s a clampdown?
It’s far from clear that there is a clampdown going on. It seems that there were at least a handful of priests whose names were sent to the CDF for one reason or other a while back, but we need to be wary of assuming that just because all the stories are breaking at once, this means that there's a frenzy of anti-dissident action going on in Rome.
After all, the abuse stories started to break from the mid-1990s on, but they reflected abuse that had taken place in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
It's more than likely that there are those in Rome who are watching what's going on in Ireland with a very keen eye, largely due to the abuse crisis, which as the two Murphy Reports so ably demonstrate, was almost wholly concealed from Rome.
Rome has taken plenty of steps over the past twelve years or so to try to eradicate the problem of sexual abuse within the Church, but it's clear that this can't be enough: the best policies in the world don't mean anything if those charged with implementing them are lax about doing so, and so Rome has been forced to step in. It's been encouraged by the fact that the Irish Church has been in the main handling the abuse issue well over the last decade or so; although this is terribly, tragically, heartbreakingly late, it nonetheless is happening.
However, it's evidently become clear that there are other problems in the Irish Church, problems that are in dire need of being seriously tackled, and an open climate of ‘undeclared heresy’, as Diarmuid Martin has put it, is central to this. So, having belatedly tacked the abuse issue, it makes sense that the Church start to tackle those priests who teach people that certain unCatholic things are fully compatible with the faith.
That said, Rome is hardly putting the boot in. A handful of priests have been – in practice – either cautioned or had their writings restricted in the most lenient of ways. Nobody’s been excommunicated, or expelled from the priesthood, or deprived of a livelihood or an income, or even suspended from ministry for a while.
And there's a serious school of thought that even this is to paint too hysterical a picture. It may simply be that Cardinal Levada, head of the CDF, is about to retire and move back to America, and has been clearing out his desk so his successor has a fresh start. I'm not just saying that because my editor says so, though he does; John Allen says so too, pointing out that this is normal practice for heads of Vatican offices as they approach retirement, and Cardinal Levada will turn 76 on June 15.