A Church Traumatised.

Michael Paul Gallagher, the Jesuit priest, died recently. Those of my vintage remember Michael Paul fondly as an author of books on faith and contemporary culture, notably his book, Help my Unbelief, which became a kind of bible for a generation of Catholics.
I remember him once lecturing on how the pace of change can suddenly escalate. He took the example of French-Canada where the level of practice among Catholics plummeted in a relatively short time. It could happen in Ireland too, he warned. And none of us believed him. But it did.
We weren’t ready for it then and we’re still not ready for it, even though it has happened on our watch. Probably because we can’t quite get our heads around it.
When Michael Paul was talking about the possibility of this Armageddon, the most recent surveys then indicated that 92% of Catholics attended Mass every weekend. As in French Canada, the decline in Ireland was swift and quite extraordinary.
Without rehearsing again all that has happened in the last two decades, we experienced a steep decline in practice, vocations virtually disappearing, the loss of trust and authority and all the rest of it. And the reasons for it happening: the child abuse scandals, the way they were handled, the inevitable decline as the levels of prosperity and secularism increased, and so on. The result was that, within the space of a few decades, the Catholic Church in Ireland contracted and, in a sense, imploded.
We couldn’t believe it . We couldn’t get our heads around the fact that an institution at the heart of Irish life, apparently so secure in its world and so confident in the support of its people, could become a marginal and often scorned presence on the periphery of Irish society.
We were, and I believe still are, traumatised by the experience. Which, I think, accounts for the lack of energy, the low morale, the collapse of hope evident particularly among the clergy. We don’t quite know where we are or how we got here and have no sense of what we might do to re-build spirit or confidence. All the classic components of trauma.
An equivalent, though possibly laboured, example is the American experience of the war in Vietnam. A generation of 18-somethings were conscripted to fight in south-easy Asia. With huge fanfare and high hopes they were sent off to Vietnam. But as the war there was reported in more graphic detail than any war ever before, media reports soon suggested that American soldiers, usually lauded in the American press for their sacrifices, were responsible for atrocities like My Lai.
By the end of the war returning veterans were shunned by a society that had distanced itself from the war and the soldiers returning from the front found themselves alienated, isolated, abandoned and sometimes reviled and shunned because American society had decided to take a different tack.
It wasn’t unusual for veterans to be labelled psychopaths and called names like ‘baby-killer’.
The new diagnostic term in psychology – post traumatic stress disorder – was easily applied to their predicament, not just because of the horrors they experienced at war but the hostile reception they received at home.
Allowing for the limitations of the comparison, I would argue that Catholics, and particularly priests and bishops, are at present caught in the depths of a communal trauma. Once admired for their selflessness, now in a different Ireland priests are often reviled, scorned, sometimes pitied as society turns its back on them, blaming them, attacking them, even (in the wake of the child abuse scandals) calling them names in the public street.
Social psychologists describe three fundamental beliefs of Western culture, three assumptions we erect as a scaffolding for our lives. One is that the world is ‘benevolent’. (We get up in the morning expecting the best). A second is that the world is meaningful, controllable and predictable. (If we eat properly, work hard, do the right things, everything will be fine). And a third is that we tend to view ourselves in a positive light. (We assume we are worthy, decent people.)
Trauma occurs when those three ideas and the scaffolding they support come tumbling down. The pre-existing assumed beliefs suddenly don’t fit anymore and we are stunned, disillusioned, at odds with ourselves, not knowing what to do or, even if we did, how to go about doing it. In other words, we’re traumatised.
In his book, ‘What Doesn’t Kill Us, a guide to overcoming adversity and moving forward’, Professor Stephen Joseph writes that scientific surveys show that there are three things we need to do to deal with trauma: (i) name what the reality is; (ii) accept what has happened; and (iii) take responsibility for what we need to do.
In other words, in psychology-speak, we need to resolve the tension in our lives between the assumptions we used to make and the new information we have to deal with. We have to ‘accommodate’ a different reality and strive towards ‘assimilating’ it, if we are to move forward.
If we accept that Catholic priests and bishops have been traumatised by the events of recent years – and I would suggest that all the evidence points towards that – what we’re confronted with is not just something as ordinary as ‘denial’ but a deep-seated condition that demands of us that we name, accept and engage with the new realities.
To date, we’ve given no indication of an ability to do what needs to be done: name the reality, accept it and respond to it. As a Church we keep minimising the reality, looking back over our shoulders at a perceived golden age, hoping against hope that the road will soon turn, harking back to the merits of a collapsed scaffolding or organising pious outings in an effort to convince ourselves that nothing has really changed.
Worst of all, those who should be helping us to accept and deal with the realities of life and of religion in Ireland today don’t seem to have any idea about what we need to do or how to go about it – apart from waffling incoherently about faith and secularism.
We need prophets, like Michael Paul Gallagher, to help us realise and accept where we are if we are even to begin to take responsibility for the choices we have to make. Trauma, it really is.

Similar Posts


  1. Willie Herlihy says:

    Thank you Brendan, for your realistic analysis of where we  are.
    In my humble opinion, the problem stems from the election of Pope John Paul 11 in 1978.
    Collegiality, that great buzz word from Vatican 11, was dumped,  in favour  of a communist style organisation.
     All authority from now on was to be centered in Rome.
    Bishops were selected, according to a template drawn up by the Pope,this template strictly forbade selecting people with leadership ability, people like yourself, who would call a spade,a spade,people who would think outside the box.
    What was required, were people who would do as they were told,the Pope would do their thinking for them,a few got through the net, Bishop Diarmuid Martin comes to mind.
    All was fine until, finally, the child sex abuse scandal exploded.
    All the years of moving paedophiles around, to protect the institution, came home to roost.
    In the intervening years the curia began to take shape like a communist Politburo.
    Now we have a crisis:
    An imploding church, the curia in their ivory tower are controlling the show,from their loft perch they do not see a crisis,(OR WANT TO SEE ONE).
    Presently, they have Pope Francis trapped in a web of intrigue.
    The poor “yes” men bishops, are bereft of ideas,this was never meant to be their function,the only thing they can come up with is, pray for vocations.
    A great portion of the clergy are consumed with clericalism,they are too busy talking down to people and swanning around in their black uniforms to see the wood for the trees.
    The remaining clergy, who see the problem for what it is,are not getting the necessary support for their ideas, from the “yes” men bishops.
    In summary, we are in a cul-de-sac.

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    Willie Herlihy @1
    All was fine until, finally, the child sex abuse scandal exploded.
    All the years of moving paedophiles around, to protect the institution, came home to roost.
    Name what the reality is; (ii) accept what has happened; and (iii) take responsibility for what we need to do.
    All was not fine, we need to look at collective guilty to understand the reality of the situation
    The reality, many priests and privileged privileded laity were aware of this culture of cover up but rather than look at themselves with the penetrating eyes of Truth with regards to the abuse crisis cover up and acknowledge its historical culture within the Church from the Popes down they colluded in their silence with it and were quite happy to purported an image of worldly goodness and in doing so they betrayed their commitment to Jesus Christ, to serve the TRUTH they put self-interest under the disguise of obedience to the institutional Church as they lulled they consciences into a state of inertia. Accept what has happened take responsibility for your inaction.
    It will be all right
    Let things unfold
    The wise sage told
    But look beneath and see dawdling feet
    Fearful hearts that will not start
    An institution on the run
    Fooling no one
    Traumatised by mankind’s penetrating eyes
    Many without hope
    The tired Sheppard spoke
    What can we do?
    You must start anew
    Replenish heart
    Humility is the start
    In truth a broken image is what you are
    You must never forget
    You are a clay jar
    Venerate the Image of Broken Man
    Become a humble man
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. I read this article with great interest. I live in West cork and a few weeks ago I attended the launch of a novel written by a West Cork resident. I purchased the book, mainly out of loyalty to a neighbour, but nothing could have prepared me for what it contained. In a nutshell the novel explores comprehensively what the heart of this article is seeking to explain. For the first time in Irish literature, we have a work of fiction that seeks to address priests as human beings, points no fingers, yet comprehensively hits the nail on the head. Yes the church is in crisis, it is dropping like a stone and unless action is taken it will disappear. There is a particularly touching chapter about the abuse scandals and a reference is made to Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’. We are, the main character Father Barnabas Salmon writes ‘the lovers on that beach, we live in the midst of hope, knowing from our own life experience that change happens and how could anyone,at this moment not long for change.’ I would love the Association of priests to give this novel the due it deserves, it has done an immense service to priests, and has received accolades in the British press.

Comments are closed.