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Disaffection with Disconnection

What happens when there is a disconnect between people who respond enthusiastically to the need for reform in the Church articulated by Pope Francis and the refusal of a bishop, appointed by Pope Benedict, because of his conservative disposition, to contemplate reform?
What happens when a bishop regards his diocese as a personal fiefdom, ignores the advice of his priests, surrounds himself with a coterie of advisors and dismisses the experience and wisdom of his people?
That’s the question that’s looming large in the minds of Catholics everywhere, not least in Ireland as bishops appointed in recent years seem to have little if any enthusiasm for the agenda of reform Francis is painstakingly building.
In Ireland what’s keeping the lid on this particular pot is the reluctance of priests and people to confront the situation because of their instinctive loyalty to their church, their traditional respect for its leaders and the lack of any appropriate forum in which to address their concerns.
This won’t last, of course, because the democratic dividend that people now ritually expect in any kind of engagement is markedly missing from church structures. People and priests may not always allow themselves to be taken for granted.
Up to now when people in Ireland are confronted with a bishop who refuses to listen or take their opinions on board they begin to disengage with the Church.
Some simply drift away and lose contact; others hang around because making the break is a bridge too far; others, because of family tradition or the needs of children still find themselves physically present in the pews but they’ve left their minds at home.
In the USA, however, Catholics tend to be more responsive. If a parish or diocese doesn’t deliver they move to another more amenable parish and sometimes diocese. (American parishes are not geographical as in Ireland so Catholics decide on their parish). If, for some reason, American Catholics can’t leave their diocese they tend to state their objections and criticisms very clearly.
An example of this is the present disconnect between the Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, and prominent Catholics unhappy with his opinions and policies.
An appointee of Pope Benedict three years ago, Cordileone is regarded as theologically conservative, is fond of the Latin Mass and is a member of Opus Dei. He has also opposed same-sex marriage and recently produced a document outlining his requirements of Catholic teachers in Catholic schools.
In the three years or so that Cordileone has served in San Francisco, opposition to his approach and opinions has been growing. The division in the diocese spilled over into the public arena when, on April 16, a powerful cross-section of Catholics, in a full-page advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle, asked Pope Francis to replace Cordileone, saying the archbishop had ‘fostered an atmosphere of division and intolerance’.
More than 100 signatories said that the archbishop was pursuing ‘a single-issue agenda,’ coercing teachers with a ‘morality code which violates individual consciences as well as California labour laws’ and ‘[isolating] himself from our community’ as he ‘relies on a tiny group of advisors recruited from outside of our diocese and estranged from their own religious orders.’
The signatories referred to themselves as ‘committed Catholics inspired by Vatican II,’ and included in their ranks well-known contributors to the archdiocese, members of university boards and other educational institutions, high-profile professionals, major figures in the business and corporate world, and officials of trusts, foundations and charitable organisations in the diocese.
The disaffected Catholics, it seems, held back for some weeks while they appealed privately for intervention from church authorities, including the American Papal Nuncio in Washington ­ all to no avail ­ before deciding to publish their plea to Pope Francis.
In response Cordileone’s supporters have launched a counter-offensive, attacking the signatories as ‘liberals’, accusing them of seeking to bully their archbishop and launching a Facebook page garnering support from the public. As the song goes, it mightn’t rain in Southern California, but as John Wayne used to say in the cowboy pictures of yore, there’s ‘trouble in them thar hills’.
It’s difficult to imagine something similar happening in Ireland as the practice of ‘loyal opposition’ doesn’t really exist in the Irish Catholic Church. The codicil ‘merely consultative’ ­  attached in church law to almost every committee of substance with ‘lay’ members ­ ensures that only the pious and the sycophantic survive the disrespect implied.
The Catholic Church, as bishops and sometimes parish priests remind us, is not a democracy but if people are used to their opinions being taken seriously in every other walk of life, they tend to raise a collective eyebrow when the Catholic Church decides that decision-making is confined to a tiny elite. Imagine a sports organisation, say the GAA, defining its members opinions as ‘consultative’  . . . it wouldn’t last a year.
Because the Irish, unlike the Americans, have little sense of ownership over the Catholic Church and often live their lives at an angle to it, in many ways (particularly organisationally ­ who wants to be on a Parish Council?) they tend to give it a wide berth. We have been, priests and people, happy to allow things to muddle along.
But with priests disappearing, progressively Irish Catholics are losing patience with the refusal of church authorities to acknowledge problems that need to be faced if parishes are to survive or even have Mass in their churches. And Irish priests are becoming increasingly ill-at-ease with the failure of church leaders to respect their opinions, the burden of work expected of them in their declining years and the way bishops continue to take them for granted.
Sometime, someplace, in an Irish diocese or an Irish parish we will have a ‘San Franciscan moment’ and then we will have to examine why it happened.
What we may discover is that there is a limit to loyalty.

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  1. “……. the practice of ‘loyal opposition’ doesn’t really exist in the Irish Catholic Church. The codicil ‘merely consultative’ attached in church law to almost every committee of substance with ‘lay’ members ­ ensures that only the pious and the sycophantic survive the disrespect implied.”
    As usual from Brendan, a very accurate perspective of how things are. And I say that speaking as some who has been in everything in my parish over the past 35 years (except the crib – maybe this year).
    I agree that its largely true that ‘loyal opposition’ doesn’t really exist in the Irish Catholic Church for the reasons Brendan explains. Usually the most we can manage in the face of the latest embarrassing story of scandal, unaccountable mismanagement, or unjust put-down, is a shrug of the shoulders or a lifting of the eyes to heaven, followed by business as usual. A wonderful environment for the thriving of clericalism. But it doesn’t have to be this way and can be better than this. Change will only be possible if we are at talking about it and persistently demanding it. The reform groups such as the ‘Association of Catholics in Ireland (ACI) and ‘We are Church Ireland (WAC-IRL) are at least are trying to raise a collect voice for change. The conversations have begun, but must expand. Even by taking the small step of joining one of these, or other reform groups, you can help make a difference.

  2. Willie Herlihy says:

    Hi Brendan:
    As usual you have your finger, on what is wrong with the Catholic Church.
    There is an old adage, that says and I quote (Culture eats Change).
    To apply the above adage, to the current power structure in Rome.
    Change is impossible,while the current cabal in the Curia control all the levers of power.
    Poor Pope Francis is isolated, to having no more than aspirations for change.

  3. Mary Vallely says:

    Oh but that’s a depressing read. I shuddered when I read “pious and sycophantic” because there’s a great danger many of us fit into that category without realising it. Tony Flannery told us that he was impressed by the level of theological education among many of those he had met on his recent travels in the USA and I think that is what gives people confidence. Confidence is what we Irish lack. Chutzpah and courage come with confidence and we need that confidence to question, to challenge and to find ways to make changes. We are so afraid of ‘offending/hurting’ by questioning or challenging and therefore in appearing to be disloyal to our priests and bishops but in actual fact loyalty should be based on love and love means speaking the truth as we see it. Brendan Hoban doesn’t lack courage. Some of the rest of us need to pray harder for more of that much needed gift.

  4. Richard Shields says:

    Public opinion in the Church–freedom of speech. Something that we were taught has no place there. Religion was narrowed for most of my age (70s) to the conditions necessary to be fulfilled in order to get into heaven. These were not up to us to decide on. God had prescribed them and the Pope and Bishops were called by God to pass them on, formulate them into rules and precepts, and to control adherence by “guarding” access to the sacraments.
    One became a citizen of the Church by [re-]birth. Catholicism was one’s spiritual nationality.As such you had to live within the laws of that “nation” and under its political structure, accepting above all else the power relations that assured the integrity of the “Body of Christ.”
    Public opinion was not and is still not welcome. Faith and morals could not be negotiated.
    I believe that today many bishops and priests are prisoners of an paranoia about orthodoxy, that is itself a cover for a fear of their own lack of faith. If their faith is more in the institution and the rules, than in the “unruly freedom of the word” they may realize in their deepest conscience that they don’t know God.
    Public opinion is then not so much a threat to the Church as a threat to the faith of these poor clerics. They wouldn’t know what to do if they had to find God anew in their lives.

  5. Bob Hayes says:

    Someone please tell me, what are ‘prominent Catholics’?
    If – like me – you are not a ‘prominent Catholic’, by what hierarchical terminology are we known? ‘Ordinary Catholic’, ‘low Catholic’, ‘minor Catholic’? In this hierarchy of prominence, what weighting is given to the opinions of ‘prominent Catholics’ compared to ‘low Catholics’?
    Some commentators appear to think we should defer to the views of ‘prominent Catholics’ – people whom, perhaps, we are now to consider our ‘betters’?
    I hope those who are normally critical of hierarchy can see the absurdity of their present love-in with business, political and cultural elites.

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