Brendan Hoban: Little has changed in the Catholic Church since Daly-Darcy clash

Western People 20.02.2024

I remember very well the evening of Friday, November 3, 1995. How could I possibly forget it? For the first and last time, I was a guest on the panel of The Late Late Show – with Gay Byrne then in charge of RTÉ Television’s signature programme. The show was devoted exclusively to the position of the Catholic Church in Ireland with the audience jam-packed with the great, the good and the not-so-good of Catholic Ireland.

People may remember it as the night that Fr Brian Darcy and Cardinal Cathal Daly famously clashed with different perspectives on Catholicism in Ireland, each representing different planets as we might say now. That was almost 30 years ago but, truth be told, the same discussion now would, I suspect, generate similar orbits.

It wouldn’t happen now, of course – the programme not the planets – because the interest in religion and in Catholicism wouldn’t attract the same audience much less sustain it for a few hours. As media people tell us, there’s no compelling interest in religion in Ireland now. And if anyone knows, they know. As the market research shows, there’s no media audience for religion anymore. The discussion has moved on.

I’ve forgotten what I said on the night but a report on the programme I came across recently reminds me that I remarked that Catholic clergy and laity were “living in two different worlds and speaking two very different, mutually incomprehensible languages”. Apparently, I also commented that in Irish Catholicism “something would have to die before something new might be born”.

I either said nothing else or anything else I said wasn’t worth reporting. And yet, I find myself still singing from an almost identical hymn sheet – different planets, same story, change or decay.

The clash between Daly and Darcy drew the most comment. Orchestrated by Gaybo who had an uncanny ability to generate media copy, a row between a cardinal and Ireland’s most popular media priest was too delicious a prospect not to have its embers fanned into a flame. Daly was cross-questioned on women in the Church and the celibacy requirement for priests and surrendered several hostages to fortune.

After the dust settled on the Daly-Darcy fracas, what I remember is the anger of some of the women present who took exception to Daly’s defence of Pope John Paul II. Daly argued in response to the women’s criticism of the then pope that John Paul had done more in terms of dialogue with women than any other pope in history. While it might be said that the level of engagement by popes with the women’s issues wasn’t (in the pre-John-Paul years) set very high and Daly was right, at the same time it wasn’t the most productive line to take.

While fighting grimly not to let the side down is always an admirable strategy, not giving an inch (or even allowing for different opinions) though commendable to loyal supporters is almost always unwise. As one report suggested, while Daly was factually correct, he didn’t “acknowledge the exponentially increased expectations on the part of women”. We can know our history and yet not realise how much has changed.

In 30 years everything seemed to have changed while, for the most part, things have more or less remained the same. In the unlikely event of a senior bishop appearing now on The Late Late Show, and being challenged by a group of women enraged by their part-exclusion from their rightful role in the Catholic Church (more than 60 years after the Second Vatican Council), the same drama would be played out. The bishop would refuse to give an inch on a settled centuries-long, unchanging and unchangeable tradition on women priests, clerical celibacy and the other hot-button issues of the day – and those who sing from a different hymn sheet – frustrated by a Church that insists (as they would see it) on living in the past – would not be slow to sponsor a different creed.

There are many imponderables at work here. Why do bishops on the rare occasions they feature on the media feel the need to parrot an uncompromisingly defensive position that seems forever intent on closing off avenues of obvious and necessary reform for the future of the Church?

Why can they not even admit, as surely they must know, that there is no compelling theological reason why women can’t be ordained? Or, even if that was not the case, why they insist on what the Jesuit theologian, Gerry O’Hanlon, calls “an almost pathological, fetish-like refuge in mantras about the impossibility of doctrinal development?” 

It’s not just that this obstructionist approach is so completely at odds with the Church’s history and tradition but that, in a number of key areas that shout to the house-tops for resolution, there is no theological impediment at all. And yet, in a Church that accepts that teaching was not handed over by the apostles as “a deposit of faith” but that emerged gradually over the centuries, some church leaders insist on implying that there is an unchanging tradition that is beyond their authority to question.

Do they not know that there is an unholy impatience with trumpeting as progress towards change what are generally regarded as merely token and cosmetic developments – votes at synod for a few nominal women or representational membership of a few Vatican dicasteries – especially when, in more central and compelling developments, there is a reluctance on decidedly specious grounds to release the ball though we’re well over the line.

And do they not know how embarrassing it is to listen to bishops getting themselves in a twist trying to hold a line that most Catholics have already crossed? And, in the exchange, compounding the unenvied reputation of the Catholic Church as the only significant institution in Irish society that refuses to accept the equality of women.

It’s a salient reminder that in the 30 years since the Darcy/Daly spat, very little has actually changed.

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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    “In 30 years everything seemed to have changed while, for the most part, things have more or less remained the same.”

    If the things that have remained the same are simply a series of episcopal NOs – to ending mandatory clerical celibacy, the exclusion of women from ordination, canon law disempowerment of the merely baptised etc – then surely the collapse in Irish awe of bishops, and of ordination itself, eclipses all of that?

    Haven’t we been flattened by scandal and made to realise that no one is closer to God than anyone else? What could married male or female Irish priests teach us now about the equal and infinite love of God for all of us that we cannot deduce already from those scandals?

    The UK Tory party makes a great fuss about ‘levelling up’ (without levelling anything). Our bishops, God bless them, have perfected the opposite process – ‘levelling down’ – a series of pratfalls so colossal as to destroy the mystique of the ordained hierarchy. This points up the crucial importance of the last sentence of CCC 1257 which reads as follows:

    “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”

    As Thomas Reese SJ has pointed out, this can only mean that God is not confined in the dispensing of grace by the shortcomings of the hierarchical sacramental system, just as Jesus was not confined by the exclusivist hierarchical system of his own time. A friend now approaching 90 years expresses this succinctly: “I have cut out the middle man.” He means that in his own mind he has ceased to think of God as being closer to clergy than to himself, and this realisation is now on offer to all of us – simply by accepting and living the Great commandments.

    The whole of CCC 1257 is a stunning transition that all should know by heart:

    “1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit.’ God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”

    That’s not to approve those NOs by the way. We do need to end those silly barriers to the ordination of women and married men, and to properly empower PPCs. But the Trinity aren’t meanwhile absent from us. I recite the Creed believing that the Holy Catholic Church includes, in perfect equality, all who obey the law of love, and that the grace to do that is available, now, merely by asking.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan said back then that clergy and laity were “living in two different worlds and speaking two very different, mutually incomprehensible languages”.

    A thought-provoking observation.

    I wonder are the two worlds in questions now so altered as to be unrecognisable.

    Bishops and priests also seemed to live in two different worlds.

    The meaning of being a layperson, cleric, or bishop today is becoming impossible to make overlap with what it was 30-40 years ago. Individuals and structures can doggedly stick to static postures, but history never stands still, the wheels of change grind on.

    How deeply must the self-awareness of seminarians and bishops be shaped by the experience of the two groups observing their respective number — the seminarians less numerous than the bishops for the first time ever.

    Sean is right, let’s all come together as equals, level before the Lord in mutual transparency, and gather the embers of our heritage of faith, begging the Holy Spirit to breathe on them.

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