Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A response to Patrick Brennan on authority in the Church

[MOJ friend Gerry Whyte--a member of the law faculty, and former dean of the law faculty, at Trinity College Dublin--sent me the following message this morning:]

I would like, from the perspective of an Irish Catholic, to respond to Patrick Brennan's recent posting on MOJ about the Apostolic Visitation to women religious in the US. To put my comments in context, I should point out that, prior to the discovery, beginning in the mid 1990s, of the abuse of children by Irish clergy and religious and the subsequent cover up by our church authorities, I was very proud of what I considered to be the heritage of Irish Catholicism, both here in Ireland and abroad. In particular, I was very happy to serve as a member of the episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace for a number of years during the 1980s, inspired as I am by the Catholic vision of social justice.

Turning to the scandal of child abuse in the Church in Ireland, it seems to me that some of the underlying factors may be, if not unique to Ireland, of more relevance here than elsewhere. This would include a repressed sexuality (arguably the product of the Jansenist strain within Irish Catholicism combined with the pressures of living in a poor, agrarian society), a repressed anger (possibly the legacy of colonisation?) and a hierarchical and judgmental society that placed great store on social status and, conversely, thought little of those who lacked that status.

However in my opinion, a further factor contributed to this sorry situation, a factor of which Catholics outside Ireland should take note, and that is the fact that the clergy and religious in Ireland had great power, in respect of the exercise of which they were completely unaccountable. Many people are familiar with Lord Acton's aphorism that 'power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Fewer know that Acton, an English Catholic,  coined that phrase in the context of the nineteenth century debate on papal infallibility. I mention this not to implicate papal infallibility in the current scandal - the rights and wrongs of papal infallibility are, to quote your President, 'above my pay grade' - but rather to illustrate the fact that Acton, in the nineteenth century, recognised that the Church could be corrupted by the exercise of absolute power. In my opinion, the recent revelations of abuse and cover up by the Catholic Church in Ireland reinforces that point. Reflecting on the Ryan and Murphy reports, one has to conclude, reluctantly on my part, that the wrongdoing here was not simply the actions of a few bad apples but, rather, was systemic. The exercise of untrammelled power corrupted the institution of the Church. So, returning to Patrick Brennan's point about the three forms of leadership within the Church - institutional, charismatic and intellectual - in my opinion, the Irish experience shows that there is something very wrong with the structures of leadership within the Church and that they have a corrosive and corrupting effect on people who are otherwise good and decent. Quite what we need to do now, I am not sure, but it cannot simply be a case of 'business as usual'.

One final (and unrelated) point arising from last week's Murphy report relates to the concept of 'mental reservation'. This was a concept of which I was unaware (though I know I am not alone in this) prior to the publication of the Murphy report and I wonder whether MOJ readers are better informed? The concept justifies what might politely be called 'disingenuousness' and was relied upon by one prominent cleric here to defend his statement that Church funds ARE not used to compensate victims of clerical sex abuse when he knew, and chose not to disclose, that such funds WERE so used in the past.


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