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Brendan Hoban: Irish bishops listened to the wrong voices

Irish bishops listened to the wrong voices.

Western People 17.8.2021

When something is difficult to understand, a good tactic is to look behind the presenting problem and ask the question: what’s this really about?

The presenting Irish Catholic Church problem at present is: how, in the midst of a pandemic, can we facilitate children and their families in the matter of First Communion and Confirmation?

Everyone accepts that the pandemic is still raging. The experts tell us: one, that the present wave – driven by the aggressive Delta variant – has still not reached its peak; two, that hospital admissions have increased over the last few weeks and (as I write) Dr Holohan, the chief medical officer, has announced that almost 20,000 have tested positive for Covid in the last fortnight; three, that we’re at a ‘key juncture to path our way out of Covid-19’ but ’rising cases still pose a real threat’; and, four, that even with 77% of adults now fully vaccinated, caution for the next few weeks is a sensible course as children aged 12-15 begin to be offered a Covid vaccine from August 12.

It’s a belt and braces strategy which makes eminent sense. If you don’t agree ask those who have lost loved ones to Covid. Or those who still suffer from ‘long Covid’ or even those who have recovered from Covid. Indeed, you could argue that it’s difficult to understand how anyone could possibly question the wisdom of a cautious policy when it’s just a matter of waiting for a few more weeks.

Strangely, a number of Irish Catholic bishops have publicly indicated that they are unilaterally rejecting the official guidance and allowing (indeed effectively encouraging) priests to organise Communions and Confirmations in August.

Why, one wonders, would they do this?

Up to now, the only ones rejecting official health guidance were ‘anti-vaxxers’, conspiracy theorists, attention-seekers, climate change sceptics and a few rogue publicans. To date, it was generally regarded as irresponsible not to accept and support the experts’ wisdom in public health matters and unconscionable in a pandemic to effectively encourage those demanding preference for particular agendas.

Now, some Catholic bishops, so often in the past taking the high moral ground, are no longer adopting what, in the circumstances of a pandemic, seemed to most responsible people the sensible, upright, moral position. Instead, they are joining those who are attempting to undermine the authorities by forensically searching for seeming anomalies in the complex arrangements for protecting public health.

How could bishops possibly defend what seems a morally indefensible position?

The justifications and explanations offered by a few bishops could, I suppose, be analysed at length to throw some light on the motivation behind this extraordinary about-turn which places people at risk of serious illness or death. But, on the face of it, the words of Jesus in Luke 4:23 – ‘Physician, heal yourself’ – seem a suitable riposte to most of it.

So, it might reasonably be asked why, if the official guidance around dates for First Communions and Confirmation were respected for the last year and a bit, a few weeks now would warrant a complete volte face?

Or why anyone might possibly decide that the mission of the Church might suffer an irretrievable set-back if children had to wait a few more weeks – from August to September – to receive Communion or be confirmed.

But back to my first question – what’s this really about? Moving First Communions and Confirmation a few weeks forward? No, that’s just the presenting problem.

The real problem is, first, a refusal of some elements – clerical and lay – within the Catholic Church to accept that our status in Irish society has changed and that we no longer hold the centre of the stage in a way that allowed us in the past to control or dictate the agenda of Irish life. (In effect, our failure to adjust to our changed circumstances). And, second, it’s about the inordinate influence of a small circle of very traditional Catholics – in church and in media, who consistently goad the bishops to stand up to the government, which it consistently portrays as anti-Catholic and even anti-religion.

Unfortunately, a few bishops have succumbed to the pressure of those marginal voices demanding another Church versus State conflict. An example was the recent gung-ho interview of Archbishop Dermot Farrell of Dublin – described variously by respected commentators as ‘disingenuous’, ‘overdoing the righteousness’, etc. – and from which a week or so later he had to back-pedal furiously when the official guidance changed.

This is not responsible leadership but a mixture of grand-standing, appealing to the usual suspects from ‘Catholic’ media who are spoiling for a fight with the government and a failure to understand that the majority of Irish Catholics have no appetite for the culture warrior conflict that has brought such grief to the American Church.

It’s something of a consolation to note that only a third or so of Irish Catholic bishops have indicated their agreement with this new resistance strategy and among that minority some have included ‘get-our clauses’ that distance themselves from it.

Clearly most bishops are unhappy/uncomfortable with the stance a minority of their colleagues has taken and some have bravely indicated their refusal to go down that road. Bravely, because an unspoken tradition is that Irish bishops don’t disagree in public – an infantile pretence calculated to reassure the pious and frustrate honest debate.

A small cadre of Catholic commentators – some of whom have their own agendas – lauding a minority of bishops is bringing us down the wrong road. Indeed, the First Communion fiasco is a telling reminder of what happens when those in positions of leadership listen to the wrong voices. And it’s why Pope Francis has called for a ‘synodal Church’, one where all bishops, priests and people ’walk together’ in a common mission.

I suspect that when the history of those years is written the bishops who rushed to use Communion and Confirmation as a stick with which to beat the government will not nearly be as lauded as those who had the good sense to keep their silence.

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7 Comments

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