The Catholic Church is Beyond Reform

I speak as a priest from a Greek Chorus within their tragedy plays. “The Catholic Church is beyond reform”. I repeat this, to myself, not because I am negative, but rather that I am facing reality. Strangely, I have found a kind of peace with this in the last few days. This is not new, that the Catholic Church is beyond reform.
Arguably, continuing, at least since the time of the Reformation and on this day of 15/5/2014, the Catholic Church is beyond reform. What of all the women, men, priests and religious who have left a Church that refuses reform? So many, many priests alone have left every diocese in Ireland during the reign of Pope John Paul II. Look up the statistics and see for yourself.
We belong to a Church which refuses to talk, listen and learn from those who have left. Does this not speak of a Church that is not interested in reform?
In order to face reform, the Catholic Church would need to spend a few years in a trauma hospital or a rehab centre between crucifixion and resurrection. It would need to travel with all the Thomas’s & Thomasina’s of this world who ask the hard questions and refuse to move on until they were faced. The Thomasina’s represent the many women who have no forum either under this papacy. So I am Thomas and I refuse to move on because I belong to a Church that will not face hard questions.
The present Pope speaks of a field hospital but in other ways he is still operating out of a very exclusive Church that does not include Thomas and Thomasina and especially all those treated so inhumanly by the CDF even in this moment as I write. So much of his outreach and all his good efforts are increasingly becoming more hollow for people who cry out for substance.
We are suffering from the Russian-Fatima syndrome! The enemy is out there far away in the big world while we can remain unchallenged in our own bubble zones. Why didn’t Our Lady of Fatima, ask us to pray for the conversion of the Vatican Curia or for all those who would cover up child sex abuse? Why didn’t Our Lady ask us to pray for the conversion of America, for all their destruction in Vietnam, South America and lately in Iraq? So why Russia? All the Popes since John 23rd have refused to face reform of the Catholic Church and have concentrated their efforts elsewhere.
As we know from our own experiences, it is safer to address the big world out there, while refusing to face the in-house issues. I wonder, not only do we belong to a Church that is twenty centuries chronologically removed from Jesus Christ but also to a Church of twenty centuries of accumulated structures that have suffocated Christ and his message. This is what makes inviting Pope Francis to Ireland so unpalatable. A complete ban should be put on him making any visits abroad and for once face all the in-house issues. I agree with those who say, making these personal phone calls, living in a ‘sparse flat’, adopting a simple life, as commendable as these are, are somewhat irrelevant unless he addresses Thomas’ and Thomasina’s hard questions.
We need new structures at every level that will rid us of clericalism, patriarchy and hierarchial- authoritarian- dominating ways of relating with people. Anyway the present system of replacing Bishops is saying that Bishops don’t matter! This is loud and clear in that it often takes up to three years to replace a Bishop. If they believed that Bishops were so important, one would be ready to replace the other on the day of retirement. They nearly got this right in the almost immediate replacement of Bishop Willie Walsh, of Killaloe!
Again, as in a Greek chorus, I repeat, the Church in Ireland is beyond reform. As a colleague, says we are like in a boxing match, beaten into a pulp, yet each time we are about to stand up for the next round, we are knocked out punch drunk. We spend all our energies, trying to get up again, barely making it to the next round, which is like a nightmare, with no relief. Where have all these listening sessions in dioceses up and down the country got us? They have, with a few exceptions, made us more like Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, a futile search … task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. I remain with Thomas and Thomasina, outside the Upper room. In my lifetime, sadly but realistically, I don’t think I will ever see the Upper Room – the promised land!


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  1. What a graphic and searingly honest statement. Would that all those who know it’s true had the courage to own it! Bishops pretending that all is well.
    Theologians hiding behind their foot-notes as they plot their way to a
    bishopric. Priests without the courage to name the reality ­ oblivious to
    the fact that by not naming the truth they are betraying their church.
    Could it possibly be true ­ as the western grapevine has it ­ that the
    Apostolic Nuncio on his visit to Sligo to announce Kevin Doran’s appointment
    as Bishop of Elphin told the Elphin priests that ‘The Church is going from
    strength to strength?’
    Bishop Thomas McDonnell (R.I.P) once wrote that a historian’s first responsibility is to tell the truth.
    Surely the same should be said for bishop, theologian, priest, thinker,
    tailor, soldier, sailor, beggarman, thief?
    How has it come to this?
    Roy Donovan, I salute you.
    Brendan Hoban

  2. I have listened carefully to St. Paul when he says that he had to surrender so and so to Satan…What does that mean?…Well, sometimes, a situation or person just isn’t going to embrace Christ and the Truth. It certainly could happen that there will not be any meaningful reform in the Catholic Church. I hope that isn’t true…but, sometimes, we need to be probing all the possibilities and this is one. To say, however, that reform of the Church will not happen in Ireland…well, I just can’t go there…I believe the Lord will always honor the work of Christ through people now and people from the past, like the Great St. Patrick. I can’t say how this reform is yet to occur…but, I think it will. I am more sceptical that Church reform will happen anywhere else….yes, Pope Francis…has made giant steps…and I continue to hope that there will be enough of a Francis Effect…that change is inevitable and irreversible…However, I am in many ways…a Thomasina..but, I first look to Christ…and as long as there are souls who are yearning for living water and living bread, we have a Church…but, when the day comes, when that is not true..then, we are done…out of business…so to speak. I, too, had great hope in the listening processes that were happening. What has become of those? I maintain, that one of the major needs is for the Irish Bishops to come together courageously and to hear the voices of concern and those who have a vision for change, renewal, and reform. The faith is there…and hopefully, there is also a desire for faith communities, and a willingness to think outside the box, and to create anew. Ireland, might well be one of those fringes again, for the Roman Church, and a place where new life may come. I pray for you all, all the time Is the Irish Catholic Church built on Sand or on Rock? The answer to this question, identifies whether or not reform is possible for the Irish Catholic Church. Although, this is probably true for all Christian denominations, not only in Ireland, but around the world. All the best.

  3. Graham English says:

    It is not going from strength to strength here in Australia. In my lifetime we have gone from 66% at Mass each week to 12%, from three or so priests per parish to a priest to two or three parishes, from large religious orders with lots of energy to small orders with an average age of 70+. Some have no one qualified to lead them. We are in the midst of a sex abuse royal commission with excruciating details coming out regularly. Our bishops are irrelevant. The few in the seminaries are out of touch with reality like your apostolic nuncio. As you say, beyond reform. How sad!

  4. Con Carroll says:

    I like the piece about the Russian Fatima syndrome

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I have a hard time understanding this position. My question is : “when in history has there been a time when the world has needed a more dedicated church?” It’s as if the church is only flourishing when people are lining up in its pews. The opportunity to reach out to people to give them hope has never been better. We are not exactly in the best of times people. The Church needs to come together, its body needs to grow a backbone and enforce the changes it needs to make to strengthen it and then get out there and fight the good fight. Today, the good fight is not the conversion of non-believers. It’s combating the disparity we see in our consumer driven society. We are literally at the tipping point and unless a large body of believers comes together to kick this thing off, it will be too late. There is a reason why Pope Francis chose his name. The greatest sin of our time has yet to be addressed.

  6. Darlene @2, that thorn in the flesh for St. Paul was a personal matter, it wasn’t another person. Some suggest it was a struggle with purity, but much more likely in my opinion, is that the thorn in his flesh was the bitter regret he carried in his heart for the rest of his life about how he had persecuted Christians before his conversion.

  7. Shaun…for the sake of clarification, I know it was a person…however, I am unable to access my I’m working away from home this week. I find that discussion works best, when I am attentive to the overall point someone is making.

  8. Con Devree says:

    I often think our priests do not get enough affirmation. I can empathise with Fr Donovan and Fr Hoban, but I can’t agree with the article.

    A Church that represents 17% of the world’s population but which sponsors 25% of all the world’s humanitarian institutions can hardly be described as a Church “of twenty centuries of accumulated structures that have suffocated Christ and his message.” Indeed in John chapter 6 people were rejecting Christ’s message in the absence of any structure. The Apostles did not consult these people but uttered “to whom shall we go.” Neither did Christ shout “Come back, I’ll change the bits you don’t like.” Of course He is always waiting and welcoming.

    The Church by its very nature is never beyond reform. The word “arguably” suggests that Fr Donovan doubts that it is. We as members are always in need of reform, and therefore so is the Church. But it is constantly populated in part by people of extraordinary virtue who avail of its guidance. Many of these profess to have benefitted from the example of Pope St John Paul II.

    Reform has two meanings in Catholicism. It can mean conversion, repentance, renewal, cultivation of prayer and charity. I have observed instances of this reform in Ireland. A young woman whom I met at the Pro Life Vigil said to me “There is loads for young Catholics to do in Dublin every night.” Reform for some of course means structural reorganisation aimed at changing Church teaching.

    It is true that St Thomas questioned the veracity of the Resurrection but it’s stretching things a bit to suggest that he would identify with the sentiments expressed in the article or that he was alienated.

    Our Lady of Fatima asked us to pray for what she knew was important. There is a consistency in the guidance contained in all her apparitional messages. She is a happy woman, a principal source of consolation and joy.

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    The routinization of the eucharist and the fetishism of mass attendance is the core of this problem. If we could all emphasize the perpetually life-giving resources of scripture, tradition, prayer, and the sacraments, and invest our energies in meaningful works of charity or justice and peace, the vibrant future of the church would be an automatic side-effect, Tinkering with intractable institutional conundrums is only a combox hobby — there must be a primary investment of faith and its energies that transcends that messy business and that pushes ahead in spite of it.

  10. Mary Wood says:

    Some debate on this matter in
    Agreed – the Russian-Fatima question is so true

  11. But who, really, occupied the upper room?
    Was it not the ones who sought reform?
    And where did their seeking lead them?
    It led them into an awful lot of trouble.
    It is far safer to remain on the outside with the ones who cling to Tradition, the status quo.

  12. iggy o'donovan says:

    Shaun sure if Paul (Saul) had not persecuted Christians we would most likely have never heard of him.

  13. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Joe @ 9,
    “…tinkering with intractable institutional conundrums is only a combox hobby.” Wow, you want us to invest in meaningful works of charity, justice and peace yet simply bypass the real mechanisms that seem to control the dictate. I used to believe that one needed simply to be a good person and that would make all the difference in the world. That’s no longer the case because good people’s deeds go unnoticed in a society where the greater good is controlled by a very small percentage of the population. This world of ours needs a reset so to speak – a leveling of the playing field and the Roman Catholic Church has a huge part to play in it, in my opinion. We are the people who believe in this “reset” and have the influence and the numbers to make it happen. What we don’t have is the backbone yet. If our church can’t reset itself in some way, shape or form, it will never be responsible for the planet’s next stage in evolution from a consumer driven society to a resource based one.

  14. Willie Herlihy says:

    I agree with Fr Roy O Donovan that the Catholic Church is not capable of reform.
    My reasoning is as follows:
    Christ established his Church and he sent a shepherd and eleven assistants out to preach to all nations.
    Fast forward two thousand years and the shepherd has become a figure head and the eleven assistants have become irrelevant.
    They have been replaced by a civil service namely the curia,this cabal has now become so powerful and  corrupt, that the tale is now wagging the dog.
    I once read Susan MC Kay’s book northern protestants an UN settled people,some of the people she interviewed were of the opinion the we Catholics, were no longer Christians,at the time I thought this was a bit over the top,I am no longer so sure.
    I am of the view that the catholic church only thrives in primitive societies, e.g the Ireland I grew up in was a primitive society, i.e. the only educated people were the priest the The teacher and the doctor.The rest of the masses were ripe for indoctrination and boy were we indoctrinated.
    In the developed world to day the catholic church is almost irrelevant.
    On the contrary the Catholic Church is thriving in the third world.

  15. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #9 Joe O’Leary
    “The routinization of the eucharist and the fetishism of mass attendance is the core of this problem. If we could all emphasize the perpetually life-giving resources of scripture, tradition, prayer, and the sacraments, and invest our energies in meaningful works of charity or justice and peace, the vibrant future of the church would be an automatic side-effect.”
    It would help if clergy could lead this programme – instead of (mostly) maintaining a Chinese wall by eschewing any meeting with laity that would put everyone on a footing of strict equality, based upon shared baptism.
    So it seems that we the merely baptised will need to initiate such a programme ourselves, issuing an open invitation to clergy to join us when they are ready for that. As things stand, the clerical club rules in most cases, and individual priests seem to have great difficulty standing outside that, alongside non-deferential lay people. Lay deference is the drug that clericalism thrives on, and it seems to be highly addictive.

  16. Malcolm R says:

    At the Eucharistic Celebration on on Friday 16th May, Pope reflected on the best way for people to get to know Jesus, describing it as the most important work in their lives. He warned that studying or having ideas was not enough on its own, to acquire that knowledge of Jesus.”Prayer on its own is not enough, we need the joy of celebration. We must celebrate Jesus through his Sacraments, because these give us life, they give us strength, they nourish us, they comfort us, they forge an alliance with us, they give us a mission”
    “Without celebrating the Sacraments, we’ll never get to know Jesus, he said. This is what the Church is all about: celebration.”
    He explained the way to find Jesus:
    “The first door is praying to Jesus“,The second door is celebrating Jesus, “The third door is imitating Jesus”
    In recent years we have heard of the dire shortage of Eucharistic Ministers, even in Ireland the former provider of priests to the world’!
    However the shortage is more dire in countries of South America, such as Brazil.
    Recently Francis spoke to a Bishop, Elias James Manning O.F.M. Conv, the recently retired Bishop of the diocese of Valença in the ecclesial province of Rio de Janiero,
    who told him that his ‘flock’ could only celebrate the Sacraments once or twice a year because of the shortage of ministers.“The number of priests are not sufficient to take care of all of our communities so, lay ministers receive a lot of value. The ministers of the Eucharist, of Baptism and we also have qualified witnesses of Matrimony.
    In spite of these measures, they are failing in what Francis perceives as as the only route to know Jesus- the Celebration of the Sacraments.
    It is madness, it is said, if we continue to do the same thing, and expect a different outcome.The reservoir of celibate vocations is drying up
    What is required is that the practise of the early Church be followed: self supporting Worker Priests, who will not be a burden to the Christian Community, but can still provide the Celebration of the Sacraments!.

  17. Hello Willie #14…I am commenting on your words: “Fast forward two thousand years and the shepherd has become a figure head and the eleven assistants have become irrelevant.” The scripture says, “The cornerstone was rejected by the builders”. Clearly, this was not only true of what the Jewish leaders did to Jesus, but, might well be applied to what our Catholic religious leaders, have done to Christ, in many situations around the universal ecclesial endeavour. The eleven assistants might well be no longer “living stones.” The apostles truly became living stones when they were filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Actually, a New Pentecost is needed today. We need to be living stones again, who have not rejected the builder, to follow the direction of the Lord, to not only repair the Church, but, to build it anew. History shows us that empires crumble and fall, and if indeed, so much of the Church has become a kingdom that belongs to this world, instead of heaven, then, fall, it must.
    If indeed, there is to be reform, what does God intend? We need to be open to new and surprising possibilities. The Church is God’s Vineyard, and he decides its’ course. We, the branches, are to follow.

  18. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Well said Darlene @17.

  19. Sean Loughlin says:

    This is a very sad article which says a lot about the state of morale of the Irish clergy (If Fr Donovan is indeed Irish). What saddens me is its lack of theological depth and special pleading. The Second Vatican Council stated: ecclesia semper reformanda thus acknowledging that the Church is composed of sinners as well as saints. But, in its 2000 year-old history, it has also produced an astonishing array of good things, from saintly priests, nuns and lay-people to innumerable works of art, literature, architecture, music, philosophy, science, etc., etc. that have enriched humanity (I am a devotee of Kenneth Clark’s notion of Civilisation!). But, most importantly, it has been the means of salvation to countless millions of human beings, including me. Here’s the thing. It still is the same Church! Pleading after some utopian human expression of the Church is basically a waste of time and typical more of the gnostic or Protestant sects than of Catholicism. Some Irish priests seem to have lost their way and so engage in this endless bickering and complaining that is so unedifying. We should be proud of our great Church and of the great men and women it has produced – all the Popes from Pius XI to the present, figures like Helder Camara and Dorothy Day, and all those thousands upon thousands of lay-people, priests, nuns, brothers who have faithfully carried the message of the Gospel to those who need it sometimes to the extent of giving up their lives for them.
    All the liberal groups in the Church: the ACP, ACTA in Britain, The Tablet, the National Catholic Reporter, seem to me, a mere layman but, I hope, a faithful Catholic, to be betraying this heritage.

  20. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Sean @ 19 – I’m not sure what heritage it is you think reform betrays. Tradition, for the sake of tradition, has proven to be a dangerous thing, historically speaking. No one on this site will deny the great accomplishments of a committed group of followers like Roman Catholics, however, what was once considered traditional and completely accepted in society has changed. Those accomplishments you speak of would still have happened no matter if women had presided over masses, priests had been allowed to marry or if the Church itself had changed its stance on homosexuality, right?

  21. Sean Loughlin says:

    Lloyd @ 20. Well of course we don’t really know whether that would have been the case. What is certain is what actually happened with a Church that had a celibate male priesthood and that confined sexual relations within heterosexual marriage. Of course, some of these issues, such as the celibate priesthood are matters of discipline and could be changed. But I find it difficult to see how the Catholic understanding of sexuality could evolve into an acceptance of active homosexual behaviour as valid and licit behaviour. The Catholic Church is not obliged simply to follow what is fashionable in society but is also a critic of that society while being open to the ‘signs of the times’. But the ‘signs’ may be indicative of a growing evil in society and the Church must always oppose this. What saddens me about the self-defined ‘reformers’ is that they seem to be deeply unhappy Catholics because the Church authorities will not adopt their opinions. They seem to be immune from criticism themselves. As I said, I am very proud to be a Catholic and wish some of our priests and religious would be so as well.

  22. Ed Flaherty says:

    I feel your pain … and I really appreciate your posting and your willingness to discuss these issues, but the Church must reform or perish. The fact that we have priests speaking out helps me to believe that we can and will have reform. The Church belongs to us the people and the priests, not just to Rome and the Pope. We must continue to speak out and demand reform. It pains me that my children do not go to church. They don’t go because the church offers them so little. I go because I believe in God and that God will see our needs and the churches needs for reform. It may not happen in your lifetime or mine, but as long as we have priests and people willing to speak out there is hope. Thank you for giving me hope.

  23. Joe O'Leary says:

    ” I find it difficult to see how the Catholic understanding of sexuality could evolve into an acceptance of active homosexual behaviour as valid and licit behaviour.”
    Actually, the argument is quite simple. Sex plays a cementing and stablilizing role within long-lasting gay relationships or, now, gay marriages. Even if one continues to class gay sex along with contraceptive sex as intrinsice inhonestum, there is no reason to deny the validity of the relationship for that reason alone.
    If, in a more “radical” move, the Church admits that contraceptive sex is NOT inherently wrong, then the way is open to saying the same about gay sex, and to celebrate its positive value. Yes, that means that the church is learning from the world and catching up with the world. But that happened before on several moral issues, such as the well-known chestnuts of lending money with interest, proscribing the buying and selling of people as slaves, etc.
    The moral development in question has been urged by leaders in other Christian churches (for instance in Rowan Williams’ famous essay on “the body’s grace” or by Bishop Jefferts-Schori who defines homosexuality as a vocation to love) and adopted by some churches fully.
    There is no reason for us to remain forever locked in a surly dogmatic bind.

  24. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Sean @ 21 – the fact that you relate homosexual relationships as fashionable says a lot. The idea that you’d speak of it as an evil in society makes it sound like it is contagious disease that is being spread by a shadow group. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand what it is to be homosexual because they either don’t have the ability to afford an interpersonal relationship with an openly gay/lesbian person or they are disgusted by them and avoid them at all cost. How do you come to understand someone from sheer avoidance? That has been the church’s stance on this issue and likely some people who contribute to this site.
    Remember, homosexual relationships are natural because we don’t collectively define what is natural (for acceptable behaviours, I urge you to refer to the ten commandments). The person in question has their own conscience to do that for them. Homosexual relationships are not conducive to the natural propagation of the human race is the statement that the church should have. These are clearly different issues which the church for some reason recognizes as one. Natural law is not to be tampered with in such regard. It’s not for anyone to label or rename in its own image. As for reformers being deeply unhappy, I think you misread that as being deeply concerned that ignorance might lead to a hardened heart in some and that this darkness might also alienate those from the true life of God which on last check is all inclusive. But maybe it is God’s wish to give generously without reproach and not ours; maybe we should just sit and idly judge with open hearts and happiness.
    And for those who would prefer to expound on the 6th commandment, remember, according to the Church, humans are sexual beings whose sexual identity extends beyond the body to the mind and soul. This echoes the scientific explanation to a degree, however science would argue that sexual identity is ultimately determined in the mind no matter the person’s outward appearance. This opens the possibility for a design flaw which is to be not only expected but also honored for its uniqueness and rarity. That is why the church will continue to lose ground with children today – it’s simply because children accept this possibility; that it is not simply a decision one makes and as responsible adults, we should correctly educate them to avoid people who blindly believe it is simply a sin to act in such a manner. Does this make it unnatural?..not in the least. Isn’t natural defined as what simply happens in nature?

  25. Joe O'Leary says:

    “natural defined as what simply happens in nature” is not good enough as an argument. Aquinas recognized that the homosexual instinct happens in nature and it in that sense natural, but he still saw homosexual acts as against Natural Law. And of course all sorts of violence and cruelty happen in nature. Also “design flaw” does not match what science today, both natural and psychological, says about homosexuality.
    Appraise rather homosexuality and homosexual expression according to values recognized in Natural Law, such as love, fidelity, pleasure, beauty, intimacy, tenderness, freedom of conscience, human flourishing, mutual support, creativity, enhancement of life, enrichment of community, the common good, etc.

  26. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    If it’s good enough for a definition, it always makes a healthy argument, Joe @ 25.
    If Aquinas saw these acts as against Natural Law, then what did he mean by the statement : “when the Natural Law and the **responsibilities it entails** are denied, it dramatically opens the way for ethical relativism at the individual level and totalitarianism at the political and state level…”? Was this a foreshadow to the church we know today? Are the responsibilities he mentions those laid out by the Church who may still feel to this day that it is a “choice”. Isn’t the ultimate responsibility to obey your instinct?
    Also don’t connect my “design flaw” with anything pejorative – whether it is having ambiguous genitalia, being inter-sexed or hardwired for SSA, it is still a naturally occurring anomaly.
    I’m also not sure of what happens in nature that is considered cruel or violent; it must all happen for a reason. Again Joe, I’ll have to disagree with your appraisal because you can’t expect to recreate the Church’s vision without picking apart its hard data on these things. If something just doesn’t seem right, there is usually a reason for it. Why does the Church think homosexuality is wrong – because of a design flaw they themselves are caught in: totalitarianism at a state/political level.
    Given the choice of connecting “an evil act” with the splendor you’ve outlined or telling the church that their intelligence gathering on these issues is antiquated and unreliable, I would always pick the latter because the church doesn’t simply have to go with the flow – they have to recognize that they were wrong about this since day one and properly atone for their sins.

  27. Joe O'Leary says:

    Beware of Google quotations.
    “If something doesn’t seem right, there’s usually a reason” — yes, and in the case of lending money at interest the reason was that it was unnatural for a dead mineral to fructify. If it didn’t seem right (to Aquinas and everyone else at that time) not to burn heretics, the reason was that their freedom of speech would corrupt souls and undermine society.

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