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.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

“… the crisis [that] extends far beyond Dublin to the heart of the Catholic Church …”

[After reading my post yesterday of Sr. Joan Chittister’s comments on the crisis in Irish Catholicism, MOJ friend (and former MOJ blogger) Greg Kalscheur, SJ, law prof at Boston College, sent me “A Response to the Murphy Report” by Gerard O’Hanlon, SJ, a theologian and former provincial of the Irish province.  Here are some excerpts.  The piece was posted on the Irish Jesuit website www.amdg.ie on February 9.]

This is, without doubt, a period of deep crisis in this archdiocese’ – from Statement of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Friday, Dec 18, 2009.

Archbishop Martin’s observation was in response to the resignation of Bishop Donal Murray in Limerick, on foot of negative findings in the Report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, commonly referred to as the Murphy Report. I want to propose in this article that the crisis extends far beyond Dublin to the heart of the Catholic Church, and that this crisis offers us an opportunity for the ‘radical change’ also referred to in the Archbishop’s statement. . . .

The report

[S]ince, as Fr Donald Cozens points out ‘the Dublin report details a pattern of church response to clergy sexual abuse that mirrors that of countless other archdioceses and dioceses throughout the Catholic world’, we need urgently to enquire into the deeper causes of the ‘secrecy and denial that have abetted and compounded unspeakable evils’ (The Tablet, Dec 5, 2009, 6-7). Cozens even dares to hope that ‘the Catholics of Ireland will show the rest of the Catholic world how to face up to one of the saddest chapters in the history of the Church – for the good of the people of God, for the good of children’ (Cozens, 7).

Deeper causes: sexuality and power

‘But tidying up cooperate governance and instituting a more transparent culture is not going to resolve the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. That will require the church to face up to a much more profound problem – the church’s own teaching on sexuality’ (Maureen Gaffney, I. Times, Dec 2, 2009).

Young people need to be presented with ‘a more persuasive sexual ethic than the no longer relevant traditional teaching, to which for the time being the church remains committed’ (Garret FitzGerald, I.Times, Dec 19th, 2009).

Fianna Fail backbencher Mary O’Rourke on the ‘sheer discourtesy of a body called the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, or something with an equally convoluted title…this wonderful doctrine body, whatever it is, does not reply to letters…consider the discourtesy of it and the discourtesy of the head of the Vatican (sic), parading around Ireland in his wonderful glitzy clothes, but not replying to letters and not seeing fit to talk to his counterpart…It is just not good enough’ (I. Times, Dec 4, 2009).

No one with knowledge of Irish public life would accuse distinguished figures like Maureen Gaffney, Garret FitzGerald or Mary O’Rourke of being rabidly anti-Catholic. On the contrary, I believe most people would acknowledge both their fairness and their constructive attitude towards the Catholic Church. Taken together I believe they are pointing to a problematic nexus of issues around sexuality, power and the relationship between them, which are deeply corrosive of Catholic Church moral authority and credibility.

The roots of this crisis lie buried back in the 1960s. First, in the Second Vatican Council, there was a clear emphasis on the Church as the People of God – we are all, as the great Dominican theologian Yves Congar once put it, first and foremost brothers and sisters: it is only secondarily, and in service of mission, not in exercise of power, that we are laity, priests, religious, bishops, Pope. Baptism comes first and remains primary, and all baptized people are called to exercise that Priesthood of the Faithful which is part of our service to the wider world, a kind of sacramental sign intended to give hope to all men and women that our relationship with God is both our source, our constant nourishment and our final home. To that end, with Baptism and Confirmation, with Eucharist, we are given the presence of the Holy Spirit, those who are tasked with leadership roles in the Church will need to consult with the lay faithful in order to discern the sensus fidelium, the ‘sense of the faithful’, which is intrinsic to sound church governance and teaching. All this of course is entirely consistent with the well-known principle of subsidiarity, so prominent in Catholic Social Teaching.

Sadly, for a multitude of reasons, this dream of Vatican 11 of a more collegial church, with active lay participation, and a balancing of the power of the papacy with the influence of local churches (Episcopal conferences, informed by lay input), has for the most part not been realized. The dominant culture of our Church remains that of a dysfunctional, autocratic clericalism, as Cozens makes so clear. So many women religious, not just laity, know this only too well. We have had in Ireland some small steps forward with, for example, the development of Parish Councils, but there has been little sense of urgency about this whole movement. Perhaps this has been due in no small part to what theologian Nicholas Lash has identified as the conflicting interpretations of Vatican II, the success of the Roman Curia in resisting reform and effectively ensuring that collegiality has yielded to a more entrenched centralization.

But if there was one event which crystallized this crisis of power and linked it with the crisis of sexuality it was the promulgation of Humanae Vitae in 1968. (3) The Papal Commission leading up to this promulgation included lay men and women, married couples, medical and other experts. It found – much to its own surprise, since this was originally a commission to advise the Pope on issues of population control in response to developments in the UN and initially simply accepted without question the traditional church teaching on contraception – that it could not establish the intrinsic evil of contraception on the basis of natural law or reasoning. Four theologians (from a Commission variously estimated as comprising between 58 and 70 persons) dissented from this finding. Paul VI in his Encyclical took the side of the four dissenting voices and effectively decided the issue by papal authority and power.

However a large majority of practicing Catholics have not ‘received’ this teaching as true, they do not find it persuasive. Theologians have pointed to an overly physicalist notion of natural law underlying the teaching, as well as an overly static notion of what tradition entails, tendencies which continue to be the case with regard to the many other neuralgic areas of sexual teaching which Maureen Gaffney identifies (such as premarital sex, remarriage, homosexuality, the role of women in ministry and mandatory clerical celibacy). It is also worth noting, in particular in the context of the novel introduction of teaching on sexuality into Catholic Social Teaching in the recent Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, how absolute this teaching is in contrast to the more tentative stance on disputed economic and political matters. Is it not curious that the Church can claim such certainty on a matter as complex as human sexuality, while being more modest about truth claims in other spheres and even admitting that the natural law is not something that we know fully but rather something about which we grow in knowledge?

What has happened in our Church as a result of this problematic relationship between sex and power is that there has developed a culture of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ (Murphy, 1.31), a culture which is at its most lethal of course in relation to clerical child sexual abuse, but is much more pervasive than this one issue. Catholics who have questioned this relationship have been ignored – sometimes silenced, more often simply regarded by the establishment as disloyal and even as ‘cranks’. This has resulted in an intellectual mediocrity and a culture in which often very good people (lay, religious and clerical) keep quiet, even become unaware of why they believe what they believe, instead of submitting beliefs to intelligent scrutiny. And it is out of this mistaken culture of loyalty that the pool of Bishops is replenished, thus perpetuating the institutional blind-spot.

By way of exception in Ireland a bishop like Willie Walsh has over and again voiced his concern about a raft of Church sexual and gender teaching, echoing the questioning he has heard from good, committed Catholics of his Diocese. This, you would imagine, is what a bishop ought to do. But, at best, there has been a deafening silence from his fellow bishops, who in this respect seem to view their role more as vicars of the Pope than, as Vatican II would have it, vicars of Christ. . . .

In fact Pope Benedict XVI rightly again and again stresses the compatibility of faith and reason, and there is a lovely phrase in the Declaration of Religious Freedom in Vatican II which says that ‘truth cannot be imposed except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entry into the mind at once quietly and with power’ (Dig. Hum. 1). What has happened instead with regard to many controverted issues of sexual morality in our church is the development of a culture of taboo and fear, with matters being settled by appeal to authority and power rather than by means of open and reasonable discussion. This is simply incredible to the modern democratic mind-set, and it pays scant respect to the notion of that ‘sense of the faithful’ which is intrinsic to the Church’s own teaching. It lends substance to the trenchant critique of Maureen Gaffney: ‘…the Catholic Church is a powerful homo-social institution, where men are submissive to a hierarchical authority and women are incidental and dispensable…it has all the characteristics of the worst kind of such an institution: rigid in social structure; preoccupied by power; ruthless in suppressing internal dissent; in thrall to status, titles and insignia, with an accompanying culture of narcissism and entitlement; and at great psychological distance from human intimacy and suffering’ (I. Times, Dec 2, 2009). . . .

All this recalls the sardonic impatience, almost contempt, of Mary O’Rourke in the Dail. It also alerts us to how far we have come from the notion of power and authority personified by Jesus in the washing of feet. It seems at times we are closer to the notion of power as exercised by the Scribes and Pharisees in this devastating critique of Jesus, according to a modern paraphrase:

‘Instead of giving you God’s law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend’ (Mt 23, 4-7, according to the Message Bible, by Eugene E. Peterson, 2003).

Of course institutions are important, and of course office should be honoured, but really do we need all this fine dress (which dates back to the paraphernalia of the Roman senate, reinforced by the 4th century Constantinian settlement between Church and State), these honorific titles like Your Grace, Your Excellency, The Holy Father? Have we not set ourselves up for the kind of autocratic abuse of power which Jesus warned against?

A way forward

One gets the sense that we are at a watershed moment in Irish Catholicism, with repercussions for Catholicism world-wide. There is an institutional dysfunctionality at the heart of our Church which goes beyond any simple notion of governance or management reform and which needs to be tackled. . . .

It would seem appropriate that we in Ireland might respond to this request. Again, theologian Nicholas Lash has many suggestions along the lines of greater consultation of local bishops and laity, including a standing commission of bishops and lay people from all over the world who would effectively take over the functions of the Roman Curia. (8) (ref-Lash, 239). Cardinal Martini often called for a Third Vatican Council precisely to address the kind of neuralgic issues like collegiality, sexuality, inter-religious dialogue that did not seem to him were being well handled: again, down the road, this is surely worth considering. . . .

Now would also seem to be a good time to call into question the reality that certain narrow grounds of orthodoxy are a sine qua non of Episcopal appointments at present, and to call for more transparent , representative and accountable local, including lay, participation in the appointment of bishops. It’s instructive to note that as recently as 1829, of 646 diocesan bishops in the Latin church, only 24 had been appointed by the Pope: often we forget how new many of our ‘traditions’ are! (10)


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