The Future of the Catholic Church in Ireland – Turning the Corner of Renewal
Some months ago a commentator on radio – in all good faith – said that he could not understand the Archbishop of Dublin. I seemed, he said, to be constantly speaking from both sides of my mouth and he felt he did not really know where I stood. On the one hand I had said that the Catholic Church in Ireland was at a crisis point and on the other hand I was saying that it had begun to “turn the corner” of renewal.
I do not see these as opposing comments. I believe that both reflect different aspects of the life of the Catholic Church in Ireland today. The problem is that those who see the Church in Ireland as being in crisis fail to see – or perhaps in some cases do not want to see – the Church already turning the corner to a renewed phase in its history. And those who feel we have turned the corner often feel that the Church has already definitively moved forward – perhaps much more than I would hold – and that it is time now to look forward with confidence and definitively archive the past.
Some years ago I spoke here in Glenties about the situation of the Church in Ireland. I can honestly say that I have found my task today in trying to analyse the situation of the Church in Ireland without a doubt much more difficult than it was then. There is no way I which I can make definitive statements. There is no way in which humanly I can unquestionably say that my vision for the Church in Ireland, at least in the short term, is optimistic or pessimistic. It is only the faith I have that Jesus will be with his Church always which gives me encouragement and light. On the human level there are perhaps more unknowns and challenges and dysfunctionalities than there were a few years ago.
I am by no means a born pessimist. I see the many and remarkable positive changes that have taken place in the Church in Ireland since Vatican II and indeed in recent years and in recent months. There are however many contradictions and levels of ambivalence in the way believers and non-believers look at and evaluate the Church and its role in Ireland today.
Let me give a first example. Priests in Ireland have experienced a very difficult time in recent years, not just because of the trauma of the scandals regarding the sexual abuse of children by priests, but also because of the changing culture in which the role of the priest in Irish society has become very different. Priests are challenged to live their ministry in a culture in which their self-understanding today is radically different to that of the time in which they entered into the seminary. Priests are being challenged in their work and feel that they are not receiving the formation and support they need to face the cultural and organizational aspects of the challenges of change.
On the other hand I believe that if surveys were only to ask the right questions, they might well find that trust and confidence and appreciation for the good, hard-working local priests in Ireland has if anything increased in recent years, as has the affection and the support which priests receive from their congregations.
Priests need to have that fact recognised and affirmed. They hear it and experience it every day from those with whom they work. They need to hear it in public comment. They need to hear it from their Bishops and their superiors. Being a priest today is following a lonely and unsettling furrow, but the vast majority of priests know that they have the human and spiritual resources to face those realities. If any group has faced and existentially lived through the crisis that the Church is experiencing in Ireland and have led the path to “turning the corner of renewal” it is priests.
One of the first great challenges that the Church in Ireland has to face is the challenge of vocations to the priesthood. Why is it that the numbers entering the seminaries are so low? Is the Church reaching out in the right direction? It is not my intention to enter into discussions here about the ordination of women or the introduction of married clergy. I am talking about the challenges that we face in the realities of the real life of the Church as it is today. We have now married deacons; we have committed, qualified and dedicated lay men and women in various pastoral and administrative services. In new structures of parish groupings, teams of priests, deacons and lay men and women will be working together to provide pastoral care within a wider area, each in accordance with their own calling. But we need priests.
It is not just that the number of candidates is low; it is also that many of those who present are fragile and some are much more traditional than those who went before them. I have no problem with priests or seminarians who come from a solid theologically-based traditional faith background. If anything, I would have greater anxieties regarding priests or candidates who simply go with the trends of the day and who lack a real spiritual and theological anchor. There is however a danger that superficial attachment to the externals of tradition may well be a sign of fearfulness and flight from changed realities: and that is not exactly what we need.
We came in Ireland from a very traditional Church and indeed there are many signs that the traditional rigid Church of more recent times that some look back to with approval may not have been what it appeared.
The seminary I entered in 1962, just days before the beginning of the Vatican Council, differed very little as regards the seminary rule and order of the day from that into which my professors had entered twenty or thirty years earlier. Indeed more than one of my professors had no difficulty in using for their lectures the theological notes which they had prepared ten or twenty years earlier.
Yet at that time theology was changing. The changes of Vatican II came to an Ireland which was perhaps too little conversant with the theological and liturgical developments that had been taking place in Europe and which were at the basis of the theology of Vatican II. It was clear, however, that our very static Latin textbooks were no longer the ones needed to respond to the current of change taking place in the world. My moral theology lectures on justice dealt in the abstract with questions that could have been asked one hundred years earlier. Its responses to the realities of the changing world were defined almost in simplistic and static question-and-answer formulae. The seminarian was to be given safe guidelines and clear-cut answers to the challenges of the changing world: and that no longer responded to the changing times.
There was a real desire within the Irish Church to adopt and apply the changes expressed by the Vatican Council. Sometimes, however, we tend to evaluate the results of Vatican II excessively in terms of what changes had taken place and where we feel there is more to be done. Vatican II was not simply a Council which fostered change and things new. It did not set out to create a new Church. If anything it was a Council which brought us backwards; it brought us back beyond what we had experienced in our youth and education to a deeper understanding of the faith of the Church, which was rooted in the scriptures themselves and in the constant tradition of the Church.
Change did take place. The pace of change in Church and in society was such as to challenge fundamental assumptions. Change is difficult to live with and to manage and the rigid culture of Catholic Ireland in pre-Conciliar days had not provided us with adequate norms of discernment adapted to the new situation.
One of the challenges we face when we talk of “turning the corner” is that one might be tempted to think that “turning the corner” meant either returning to the safe and well-known environment of the past, or opening out the pathway to a new modern, safe and well-lit motorway. In today’s rapid cultural change “turning the corner” is unlikely to be the end-product of renewal. The life of the believer, and life in the Church, is about a faith journey on which we encounter never ending corners to challenge us. We are called to adapt and respond to new situations through a profound insight into the teaching of Jesus Christ which the enables the Church to rediscover ever deeper its own true identity and mediate meaning in a world of change and uncertainty. “Turning the corner” of renewal in the Church means taking the risk of a faith which always entails elements of the unknown.
“Turning the corner” and moving forward does not mean turning one’s back on the past. There is no way in which the Church in Ireland can put definitively behind it the scandals of the sexual abuse of vulnerable children by priests and religious. This does not mean that the Church becomes pathologically fixated on a dark moment of its history. Neither does it mean that the Church overlooks the realities of the past and the suffering, past and present, of the victims and survivors.
Despite many investigations I believe that – as a Church and as a society – we still have to reflect adequately on the deeper roots of the abuse crisis and the response to it by the Church. I do not accept that is enough to say that it happened in different times and people reacted as best they could in the context of the day. I am not attempting here to criticize the decisions of individuals or to challenge their good faith. That is not my task and I am not the one to judge. It has been said to me even by fellow bishops that I would have acted in the same way as they did at the time. I cannot say that I would not have done so. This does not however mean that we abandon the search to deepen our understanding of what happened.
In the Archdiocese of Dublin we have published figures which showed that 84% of the allegations the diocese received over a fifty year period referred to events which took place in a twenty-five-year period from the late 1960’s to the 1980’s. The number of allegations relating to the successive years is greatly reduced. We have to try to understand better what happened to produce such an explosion of abuse at a particular point of time and how such a horrendous situation was not recognised for what it was. This attempt at understanding obviously must look at the responsibilities of all in society at the time, but there is a special responsibility to ask deep and uncomfortable questions as to why this happened in the Church of Jesus Christ.
The truth can be painful, but I believe that we still have a long journey to travel to fathom fully the truth and to accept that truth and to internalise that truth, about what happened within the Church in Ireland at a particular moment in time.
In today’s economic climate there is understandably no great interest in establishing new and costly investigations into the further aspects of the abuse scandal, even though – as is well known – I believe that there are some instances where the public interest would be served by public investigation. The answers to some questions are not to be found just in the archives of the Church.
Even if no further Commissions are likely, this does not mean that men and women of courage and conviction should not continue to seek other ways to shed the light of discernment on how the presence of the Church in serving the most deprived went wrong, and allow the truth to emerge. The fact that thousands of children were abused within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland is a scar that the Church will bear within it for generations to come. There is no way that it can be put aside.
I am thinking here not just of the known scandals of industrial schools and of abuse of children by priests. There are other questions still to be answered. Perhaps new forms of research-based investigation might better address such issues as the Magdalene Laundries or the quality of care in some mother-and-baby homes and other institutions. This might be less adversarial, somewhat on the level of investigative social history through which the truth could emerge. I am well aware that there are some who would willingly instrumentalise such questions simply to damage the Church. But if abuses did take place we owe it to the victims and to the Church itself to bring the truth to light and to foster repentance in a way which is honest and compassionate. Seeking the truth will also help put aside any false or exaggerated or unsubstantiated allegations against the Church.
The truth can be used to throw mud at the Church. The truth can also be the sharpest instrument to discern and root-out demons which have haunted the Church now for generations and which will continue to damage the Church unless they are addressed with courage. There is no way in which the Church should allow itself to be tempted to simply archive the past out of the light. But that should not lead to paralysis and resignation on the path to renewal in the Church.
The scandals within the Church, internal divisions and perhaps a lack of real faith have made the Irish Church too timid in bringing the voice of Jesus and his Church to the basic issues of Irish society. We are all tempted to succumb to the widespread opinion that Christianity is really something private and personal for our own devotion and inspiration and not something that has its relevance in the public square. The Church in Ireland has to find ways to make its voice heard clearly about important moral issues which are under discussion. It must do so with respect but with clarity. It must find a new language for ‘dialogue rather than decree’. But Irish secular society also has to go along the road of dialogue and not anathema and exclusion regarding the voice of religion.
Religion has contributed to, continues to contribute to, and will continue to contribute to Irish society, as it contributes to any other society in the world. It is not that religion must become the poor relation in a changed and more secularised society. A pluralist society, as any other society in history, benefits from the presence of religion. We should not forget or deny what was wrong. Believers, however, have to be more confident in themselves about the contribution they make to our society through being men and women of faith and within and through their faith communities.
We can see the changed cultural situation in the current debates about schools. In few other aspects of current debate do we witness the contradictions and levels of ambivalence about which I spoke earlier. There are those who would seem to say that the pluralism of our society requires that the role of religion in education must be radically re-dimensioned and even reduced to the private sphere. I believe that we have nothing to be ashamed of in fostering denominational education and that denominational education brings a specific and vital reflection to educational policy in general. It is true, of course, that people should not in any way be forced into attending Catholic schools or taking part in religious practises in schools. Pluralism is not identical with secularism. Secularisation does not mean removing religion from society. A mature secularist or even a mature atheist should be one who is open to deep dialogue with the culture of belief and of believers. The choice – on both sides – is between dialogue and intolerance.
There is a strong move to reduce the number of schools under Church control – a desire which I respect and share – yet at the same time there are clear indications that Irish parents in large numbers favour a system of education which includes a robust dimension of religious education. This is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. There is thus a responsibility, indeed an obligation, for the State to respond to and to support that desire of parents. This involves ensuring that there are sufficient schools to respond to the desires of parents who wish a religious education for their children. It also involves that future teachers of religion in such schools have access to and public funding for the training they need.
The question of belief and the relationship between faith and reason is one of the perennial questions in any society and at any time. It is a question that any serious reflection on the meaning of life has to address. These deeper questions are not answered by believers who simply presume faith and almost attribute bad faith to those who do not believe, or by those on the more secular side who simply reject faith as a non-question, a question not to be asked.
Recognising the changed cultural climate in Ireland does not mean that the Church simply accepts all dimensions of that change as inevitable. It is not the case of the Church simply taking a bow and leaving society for good.
The Church has positions which it has a right to express on many of the issues of social change in Ireland today. In a democratic society, men and women of faith have the same rights as others to make their views known. The family in Ireland is still strong compared to other parts of the Western world. There is a high birth-rate and rates of divorce are low. Marriage is not a simple social construct which can be changed at will. Certainly there are many changes in how marriage and the family are lived out at a given time. For the Church, however, there is something unique in the complementarity of man and woman in the human situation and life-long commitment is an essential dimension of the Church’s understanding of marriage.
The Catholic Church has long been in the forefront in the area of providing education for marriage, courses of marriage preparation and counselling and services to families in difficulty. Priests tell me that in the evaluation reports completed by couples at pre-marriage courses there is a growing appreciation of the specifically religious context on these courses.
The concept of life-long commitment and fidelity are hard to understand in today’s culture, but most young people who come for marriage in Church have a genuine hope that their marriage will be successful and will develop and mature with the passage of years.
For too long the Church appeared in a role of moralisation and people failed to transmit the real depth of the Christian message which is about Jesus as a person who in his life and teaching reveals to us who God is. God is a God of love with whom we can in Jesus enter into a personal relationship, which then brings richness to the way we live our lives.
When I say that the Church has to be more forceful in making its voice heard and understood in Irish society I am not speaking just about issues like marriage and the family, about education, or about the protection of human life from conception until natural death. These are central issues but there are other important issues about which the Church has also to speak.
Pope Benedict in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est wrote at length about the separate roles of politics and faith. “The Church”, he wrote “cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper”.
The Church in Ireland has to find new ways of speaking about and bringing to the forefront in public discussion those spiritual energies about which the Pope spoke and also indicate where those spiritual energies are missing or have been betrayed. The complexities of a modern economy and the diverse ways in which these may be legitimately pursued make comments by the Church on economic matters more problematic today. But there are questions about poverty and equity, about privilege and under-privilege, about opportunity and exclusion, about simple honesty, about greed and corruption and about generous commitment in society which the Church should have been addressing more coherently in the context of the Irish economy.
Perhaps it is because the Church has for so long – at least in recent history – played such a dominant role in Irish society, that much of the public discussion about the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland is about its position in society.
What are the internal challenges that the Church has to face? The Catholic Church faces new challenges which touch on its self-understanding and identity and once again the current debate shows that this field is also marked by the same contradictions and levels of ambivalence about which I have spoken earlier.
There are certain ambiguities as to what “being Catholic” means in contemporary Irish society. Many people who no longer regularly practice will still come to Church on special occasions and on the great feasts. In some cases people live out a sort of cultural Catholicism; in other cases what is called Catholicism is really a type of civil religion, a social spirituality without dogma, with blurred reference to a Jesus of one’s own creation.
In other cases there are appeals for a sort of de-institutionalisation of the Church. There are those who would wish an Irish Church separate from Rome. There are those who would speak rightly of a strengthening of the role of lay people in the Irish Church, but really want a Church in which Office and Order would be radically emptied of their theological meaning. One can talk about how office is exercised, but Office – including the office of the successor of Peter – is an essential dimension of Catholic teaching.
There are internal divisions in the Irish Church. I have said that a bickering Church is not one which will attract young people and that many of the internal discussions within the Church are about realities which seem to our young people often to be irrelevant to their world. When I said “bickering” I was referring to negative, destructive discussion. We do need robust discussion, but robust discussion about deepening our understanding of the real and central essentials of our faith. That discussion must be theologically informed and theology is a demanding discipline about a Church which is not ours to define but which is gift from Jesus Christ.
The Catholic Church in Ireland is, in fact, far behind other European Churches in the way it addresses the formation of people in their faith. The emphasis on religious education in schools has taken attention away from the need for adult religious education. By that I mean not just addressing the religious education of adults, as another category. I mean that the quality of religious education must be of such a level that it treats men and women as adults, addressing the questions which adult Christians have to face as they live their faith in today’s world.
One of the most striking features of the recent Eucharistic Congress was the fact that the workshops – many of very high calibre – were filled to overflowing and at times had to be repeated twice and even three times. There is clearly a felt-need among Irish Catholics for adult formation to live an adult faith. The excellent and stimulating National Directory of Catechesis Share the Good News was launched some years ago now but its application has been very slow and it has not yet made the inroads into popular catechetics and parish life that it needs to. More attention has to be paid to the training of priests and deacons for their ministry to preach the Word of God.
The Eucharistic Congress was for me an event of significance. Mine were never expectations of a re-enactment of 1932. I never expected numbers to be extraordinary. Daily attendance at some events was below attendance at county GAA matches. Croke Park was not full for the final Mass. But I still believe the Congress was a success. There was however an extraordinary atmosphere of enthusiasm present in the Main Hall and throughout the RDS. Again a lesson to be learned is that all of us – priests, religious and laity – need moments to build up our own personal spirit as disciples of Jesus and to renew our self-confidence as the Church of Jesus Christ. At the Congress the coming together of people of people from around the world bought a great sense of affirmation and this is something the Church needs.
Many people spoke to me about the high level of ecumenical collaboration that marked the Congress, especially at the ceremony on the significance of our common baptism presided over by Archbishop Michael Jackson with the homily of Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church. Such ecumenical collaboration would have been unthinkable not long ago. The Christian Churches in Ireland are aware that New Evangelisation is not a task for the Catholic Church or any individual denomination alone. The youth space at the Congress brought together various activities for young people across confessional divides. The evening prayer service for young people presided over by the Prior of Taizé, who came to Dublin especially for the Congress, showed that there is among young people a search for a faith which is counter cultural.
The biggest single challenge that the Church in Ireland has to face is to rediscover its ability to lead young people into an adult faith and into a commitment to want not just to belong to the Church, but also to want to shape a Church which provokes them into seeking the deeper realities of what human existence is about. Our work in religious education in schools, despite the dedication of those involved, cannot on its own produce the results that are needed. We need a new ability to allow the Gospel to reach out into the real lives of young men and women as a challenge that is as courageous as it is counter cultural.
As I said at the outset, some years ago I spoke here in Glenties about the situation of the Church in Ireland. I can honestly say that I have found my task today in trying to analyse the situation of the Church in Ireland much more difficult than it was then. That is the situation in which we find ourselves and I find myself in my role as Bishop of the largest diocese in Ireland. I find it challenging to be a bishop at this moment in our Church’s history. As my years pass and watching all my contemporaries in other walks of life enjoying happy retirement, I realise the urgency of engaging the minds and hearts of young people willing themselves to take up the challenge of turning the corner of renewal into a very different future. Despite the challenges I believe it can be done.