The curious case of the Archbishop’s comments.

Archbishop should have faced down bullies

After the Abortion referendum, a consensus of sorts developed around the idea that the Catholic Church in Ireland is in ‘a new place’. As two thirds of the voters, most of whom would happily designate themselves as ‘Catholics’, rejected the advice of the Irish Catholic bishops, it seemed an obvious conclusion to draw.

What made it easier was that such a conclusion suited the agenda of a variety of different and very disparate groups, across the broad spectrum of Irish society – from the anti-Catholic hate squad who now had a stick to beat the Catholic Church with in further debates to the very traditional and conservative Catholic pressure groups who want the Catholic Church to become the equivalent of a sect, creating an ultra brand of Catholicism conspicuously and determinedly at odds with the bad, bad world out there.

Suddenly an unexpected consensus had emerged between those whose antipathy to Catholicism led to an effort to undermine the Pope’s visit by applying for tickets to the papal Mass in Croke Park so that fewer Catholics could attend – a strategy described by Taoiseach Varadkar as ‘wrong, petty and mean-spirited’ – and the flaky world of the far reaches of the Catholic press.
The more difficult truth is that the Catholic Church in Ireland is not in ‘a new place’ because of the result of the recent referendum. It’s being there for some time. What’s different now is that we’ve been given strong evidence of where we are. The abortion referendum has just helped us to join the dots.

For some years, possibly decades, we played a silly game. No matter what the evidence suggested, we pretended that really nothing had changed. ‘Denial’ is a technical term for those who can’t see the elephant in the room but this was denial on a grand scale. While the gap between what the Catholic Church said and what people believed was growing ever-wider, while the authority of bishops was diminishing before our eyes, while the scaffolding that held together outdated church structures was collapsing, while so many (and so accurately) pointed to the realities of modern Irish life and their implication for a tired Church, those who inhabited a clerical bubble continued to reassure themselves that there was a turn on the road somewhere just ahead of us when all would be well.

Many didn’t see because they didn’t want to see or couldn’t bring themselves to see. Archbishop John Charles McQuaid when he arrived back from the Second Vatican Council in 1965 memorably reassured the faithful Catholics of Ireland that nothing going on in Rome would upset ‘the tranquillity of your Christian lives’. Now, in retrospect, that comment is widely viewed as wishful thinking. McQuaid imagined that he could keep out the tide of the modern world, but didn’t advert to the influence of education, growing prosperity, television and a desire for personal freedom.

Leaders of the Catholic Church have less excuse than McQuaid for not knowing how the wind of change has been blowing for years. And less excuse for the kind of wishful thinking in absurd rallying calls to raise the morale of the troops, like imagining that there are fresh green shoots of growth appearing when everyone can see that the desert is encroaching by the week. Or thinking that they can keep change at bay by dismissing anyone who doesn’t sing from their hymn-sheet of ‘negativity’. It’s as if the captain of the Titanic was singing an optimistic tune while the sea water was creeping above his knees.

Part of the problem we have in the Irish Catholic Church is that little respect was given to the critical voices that time and again warned against the icebergs stalking our voyage. A lack of vision, a failure in leadership and an inability to cope with the complexities of a changing world meant that the uncritical voices, especially those that echoed official thinking, were given an inordinate influence in the last few decades. And anyone who didn’t subscribe to the old conservatism was taken out in some shape or form. As it was in the beginning . . . was the way it would always be.

Over the last few decades, as a series of crises emerged, the Catholic Church was in thrall to a small, conservative and traditional elite who urged bishops to return to the bunker of a pre-Vatican Two Church and who bullied their way into the heart of the Irish Church, punching (as we say) way above their weight and their numbers.

Some bishops agreed with them and clearly urged them on, giving them a platform in their dioceses at every opportunity. Other bishops who didn’t toe the line were harrassed and bullied into submission. And bishops who gave any indication that they disagreed with them were liable to be set upon in an orchestrated negative campaign against them.

A bishop told me recently that he had no problem in dealing with pressure from what were deemed liberal groups, like the Association of Catholic Priests, but his real difficulty was the avalanche of pressure from a small group of very traditional Catholics.

I wonder could that explain the uncharacteristic reaction of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to government Minister, Josepha Madigan’s recent intervention in her parish church in Mount Merrion. Madigan, who led the Fine Gael campaign for a Yes vote in the recent referendum, is a reader in Mount Merrion. When no priest turned up for Mass, she did the readings and it seems part of the Eucharistic prayer and the story was widely reported in the press.

Most commentators were surprised by Archbishop Martin’s reaction, given that on the occasion in question the congregation was supportive of Madigan’s intervention and that services akin to what Madigan led are now taken for granted in churches all over Ireland.
What instigated Martin’s strong, even unnecessarily strong reaction? Someone referred me to a message on Twitter giving the archbishop’s number and encouraging people to ring to complain about the Madigan incident!

We’ve paid a high price as a Church for conceding so much influence to a small, loud, bullying cadre, who are spectacularly out of sync with vast numbers of Irish Catholics today, and some of whom are very strange people. Numerically they hardly represent anyone but themselves.

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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    A really excellent analysis, Brendan. Well said.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Also, Brendan, there seems to be some clerical idea that the Irish laity are stupid and naive. But as our teacher Fr Peter Connolly said so long ago, “the Irish are not a sentimental people; when something no longer has a useful purpose they let it go.” The country that produced such devastating critics of religion as George Moore, Yeats, Shaw, O’Casey, Joyce, Beckett, could never have been as naive as it often pretended to be. The church robbed itself of oxygen by failing to cultivate lay theology and to open forums for honest discussion. Now the honest discussion has overtaken us with a vengeance, not only among the coarse new atheists, but among mature Catholics who voted Yes in the referenda of 2015 and 2018. Some of the most acute and startling comments on church failures and the need of change came from people of our parents’ generation, who turned out not to be so closed-minded as we imagined. Do you remember Cardinal Conway telling us at a theology graduation in 1972 or so that the particular charism of the Irish thoelogian was never to say anything that would shock his grandmother? But if the Cardinal had really listened to grandmothers he might have learned a thing or two that would have shccked him! We were all wrapped up in clericalist defences and trimming to the point that we censored as well what others were trying to hint to us. Let’s hope Francis opens up to and encourages the new culture of open discussion.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    What should Francis say?

    Whatever he says is bound to offend, as is silence.

    I’d say his best bet is to focus on welcoming migrants (in contrast to Trump who made fear of migrants his major stress in the UK — a fascist ploy) and then he could talk of constructing a society that would be more welcoming to children.

  4. mary cuffe says:

    are you seriously suggesting archb. martin is a pushover or an old trad at heart – you are way off the mark brendan
    the archbishop was responding to a scandal -a government
    minister who spearheaded the pro abortion amendment .ensuring
    future generations of innocent little children will never see
    the light of an irish day ,invading the sanctury .
    m cuffe

  5. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #2 “The church robbed itself of oxygen by failing to cultivate lay theology and to open forums for honest discussion.”

    Exactly. And that gave to younger generations the strong impression that our Irish clergy were utterly unable to defend the Creed in Irish public space.

    No wonder such pusillanimity cut to the root of Irish priestly vocations. Just two years ago I made an attempt to discuss with a local priest his homily on Luke 10 – the sending out of the seventy-two to spread the message of peace and the Kingdom. As this curate (no older than myself at 75) had asked us to pray for more priests to do that – and I knew from Owen O’Sullivan’s ‘The Silent Schism’ that African lay people in Angola had grown their parishes by doing it in the complete absence of clergy during their civil war – I asked this curate to discuss that with me.

    “I am not authorised to discuss that with you!” That’s what he told me on the phone – and he made no reply to a letter I sent quoting Pope Francis on the competence of lay people to spread the faith, e.g. in South Korea.

    It is this rot of fear, clericalism and obscurantism – and the apartheid that it led to between priests and people – that lies at the root of the repeal vote of May 25th, 2018. That bunker strategy for defending the faith has been an utter, catastrophic failure – and all of our archbishops and bishops should be able to see that now.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    Again, the repeal vote was not about the church but about the welfare and dignity of Irish women, whose stories were at last heard by their fellow-citizens. Making it all about the church is pure clericalism.

  7. Phil Greene says:

    I can’t help thinking of all the abused children/people who silently had to sit whilst the priest that abused them not only read a reading but conducted a full Mass whilst ruining lives in the most evil of ways possible.. their voices as we know now were of no importance. Their sense of outrage at the hypocrisy and evil that inhabited the sanctuary was not shared by the leaders of the Church. Thankfully we have change in Ireland, albeit through necessity it would seem.
    And indeed as long as the church globally adopts a re-active rather than proactive approach to child abuse I feel that it cannot talk about respect for human life when that respect appears to remain steadfastly for the baby in the womb of the woman.
    The other glaring factor is that in the Catholic Church a baby only commands the same respect when in the womb, as once it is born , depending on gender , the child/adult becomes ” less than”. We are told about the “genius” of women , by men…but we are not allowed to share this “genius”… enough said!
    And yes we see a change in thinking among clerics but nothing has actually, in real terms, changed.
    So as you said above, we lay people make the change ourselves, out of love for our children and recognition of the fallibility of church thinking, and the individuals who teach it they are, like us, only human after all.

  8. Kay McGinty says:

    So very well said, Brendan.. it’s the way it was, is now and so shall be.. what a pity the bishops cannot open the windows and let light and love that surrounds us, shine through.. we’re all on the same pathway through life, different opinions, but nonetheless going in the same direction.. a little love and respect for the said opinions would surely make that journey a more even, balanced and enjoyable trip. Keep well, stay strong and continue to spread God’s message of love.. we are all chiselled from the same rock.

  9. Con Devree says:

    Historians hold conferences for a number of reasons. One is because they differ in their accounts and conclusions concerning past events. A little reflection makes clear why we cannot say only one thing about historical events, and cannot generalise from particulars or bias.

    Catholics similarly look back and see the past in different ways. Gratefully the “Our Father” makes but one reference to history – “forgive us our trespasses.” None of us can be smug about the past, or about our interpretations of it. If we are to learn from history, then history and humility go together.

    Catholicism today is riven with confusion and division in several directions. Future historians will agree on this, particularly on observing labelling practices identifying people as “conservative and traditional elite” and “a small, loud, bullying cadre.” The instance of a parliamentarian deeply at odds with her Church teaching on a serious faith matter providing spiritual leadership at a liturgical service is nothing new in Irish Catholicism. Some priests have been practicing such for decades. It simply bears out the acrimony and division.

    Human beings, most importantly inhabit culture. We can see, reflect upon, and desire things not immediately present to us; hence, we always to some indefinite extent transcend the “place” that locates us. The ambient culture influences the nature of the transcendence and the nature of the yearning of individual Catholics in particular. Many Catholics, to some extent, participants in Pascal’s wager in different ways.

    The support for the said parliamentarian in this article illustrates one type of such participation. In effect the article frees all Catholics to pursue their individual beliefs on sacraments, magisterium, Church organisation, pursuit of knowledge of God, knowledge about human destiny – about the existence of God, the nature of the soul, and the prospect for immortality.

    This article is in effect, albeit indirectly, promoting congregationalism. It’s a form of “Cathexit.” In yearning for what is divine each selects the priest/leaders deemed most appropriate to one’s beliefs. This may correspond with constructing a comprehensible, manageable god who corresponds with one’s own plans, one’s own projects. Of course it provides no protection from the situation wherein “we need only see what the least enlightened see.” (Pascal) Abraham has no responsibility to pray for Sodom nor is Moses under any obligation to come down from the mountain.

    Historians grapple with the objectivity and truth of history. The “Our Father” is about interaction with a hidden God this day and the future. God expects!

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    “a serious faith matter”

    The morality of abortion can never be a matter of faith per se; it stands or falls by rational ethical reflection.

  11. Con Devree says:

    The morality of the act of one person terminating the innocent human life of another pertains to the Fifth Commandment and is a matter of faith.

    It is also no harm to observe that the early Christians upheld the sanctity of the life of the unborn child, not only because of the revelation of the Old Testament but also because of the mystery of the Incarnation. The early Christians, as we still do, believed that Mary had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through her, Jesus Christ — second person of the Holy Trinity, consubstantial with the Father, and true God — became also true man. No faithful Christian would ever deny that Jesus was a true person whose life was sacred from the first moment of His conception in the womb of His blessed Mother Mary.

  12. Joe O'Leary says:

    St Thomas Aquinas says in Summa Theol. III that ONLY Jesus was fully formed at the moment of conception. For all others the soul is present only at some later stage. In the 19th century the focus on the Immaculate Conception of the BVM (thanks to the dogma of 1854 and the Lourdes cultus of 1858) gave a new impetus to the idea that the conceptum was a human being from the start, a claim first appearing in Vatican documents only in the 1890s.

    The Fifth Commandment (“Thou shalt not murder”) is not a matter of faith, and still less are the multiple interpretations of this commandment in various circumstances (just war, capital punishment, etc.) a matter of faith. For instance, when Innocent XI in 1679 condemned the proposition that “licet procurare abortum ante animationem foetus, ne puella depreshensa gravida occidatur aut infametur” (“it is licit to procure an abortion before the foetus is ensouled to prevent a girl found to be pregnant being killed or losing her reputation”) he makes no appeal to the theological virtue of faith. The obsequium religiosum with which such decrees are received is indeed based on the faith that the Pope enjoys special authority, as one’s obedience to the Fifth Commandment is reinforced by one’s faith in the authority of Scripture. But while it makes sense to say “faith tells me that Christ rose from the dead” it does not make sense to say “faith tells me that murder is wrong.” You could say, my Christian faith reinforces my rational moral conviction that murder is wrong.

    The many prescriptions of the Torah can be enacted as an expression of faith in the God of the Covenant — but it’s the ones that are not based on rational ethical insight — for example the practice of circumcision — that look most like expressions of faith. To refrain from murder is a moral law for all humankind, not for a community of faith.

    When abhorrence of contraception and abortion is made the mark of the Catholic faith-community, they become sectarian matters and proportionately lose standing as universal moral precepts. Mixing up ethical reflection on these issues with defence of papal authority is a mistake, I think, and one that has greatly deprived the Catholic voice of credibility.

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    Summa Theologiae III, q. 33, art. 2: Verbum Dei assumpsit corpus mediante anima, et animam mediante spiritu, idest intellectu. Unde oportuit quod in primo instanti conceptionis corpus Christi esset animatum anima rationali. (The Word of God assumed the body through the mediation of the soul, and the soul through the mediation of the spirit, that is, the intellect. Hence it was right that in the first instant of coneption the body of Christ be ensouled with a a rational soul.)

    Sicut enim statim formato corpore alterius hominis, infunditur anima, ita fuit in Christo… Quia prius tempore formatum fuit perfecte corpus Christi, prius tempore fuit etiam animatum. (Just as for another human being ensoulment ensues immediately on the formation of the body, so was it for Christ… Since the body of Christ was fully formed at an earlier time, so it was also ensouled earlier.) The previous article showed that the body of Christ, unlike that of other people, was fully formed at conception, and now the consequence is drawn that it was ensouled at conception, IN CONTRAST to the situation of other human beings, whose bodies are formed at a later time and only then ensouled.

    Some might object that this sounds docetistic, as if Christ were not really human. But the special circumstances of his conception, as a work of the Holy Spirit with no human father, entails these consequences (immediate formation of body and immediate ensoulment) for Aquinas. The natural and the miraculous blend in this account. Aquinas quotes St Ambrose: “multa in hoc mysterio et secundum naturam invenies, et ultra naturam” (you will find much in this mystery that is according to nature, and much that is beyond nature) (a. 33, q. 4). “Si enim consideremus id quod est ex parte materiae conceptus, quam mater ministravit, totum est naturale. Si vero consideremus id quod est ex parte virtutis activae, totum est miraculosum” (For if we consider what pertains to the matter of the conceived, which the mother supplied, all is natural. If, however, we consider what pertains to the active power [the Holy Spirit:, all is miraculous.” Since the latter is more significant, “conceptio Christi debet dici simpliciter miraculosa et supernaturalis, sed secundum aliquid naturalis” (Christ’s conception should simply be called miraculous and supernatural, but in some regard natural).

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    Thomas fearlessly draws all the consequences: Christ in the first instant of his conception enjoyed the exercise of free will (q. 34, a. 2), the capacity to gain merit (a. 3), abundance of sanctifying grace (a. 1), clear vision of the divine essence (a. 4).

  15. Con Devree says:

    As written this text could seem as positing faith as merely a matter of belief, e.g. “one’s obedience to the Fifth Commandment [i.e. behaviour] is reinforced by one’s faith [i.e. belief] in the authority of Scripture.”

    But broadly, faith is the human being’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to humanity, at the same time bringing human beings a superabundant light as they search for the ultimate meaning of their lives.(CCC 26) Faith signifies not just the observation of this or that fact or belief. It is also a fundamental mode of behaviour toward being, toward existence, toward one’s own sector of reality, toward reality as a whole. The fundamental mode of behaviour necessary in the response of faith is that Catholics observe the will of God in the life situations they find themselves in. (Matt 12:50) Obeying any Commandment is part of the faith.

    So “my Christian faith” goes well beyond reinforcing “my rational moral conviction that murder is wrong.” (#12) That way of thinking could even justify the claim: “There is a God and He thinks like me.” Life is not so simple.

    Presumably the crowd demanding Jesus’ crucifixion had a “rational moral conviction that murder is wrong” but were they really engaged in murder? Some at least were demanding an execution for a perceived crime committed. But Jesus told Pilate that they had the greater sin. (Jn 19:11). In the Jesus context sin is that which violates faith. The relevant commandment was the fifth.

    Just as there was nothing redemptive in the actions of the crowd or of Pilate per se, so also there is nothing redemptive about any involvement in extinguishing an innocent human life. To have facilitated such in any way is an act seriously opposed to the will of God irrespective of rational moral conviction. Lived Catholicism challenges rational moral conviction, and natural law is a “foundation prepared by God and in accordance with the work of the Spirit. (CCC 1960)

    Adherence to the will of God is based on the authority of Scripture. It is difficult to see how a reader at Holy Mass who is in effect proclaiming the Word of God, of Scripture, can do so while publicly promoting and establishing a practice at odds with the will of God, of Scripture. Abortion per se is not the most important aspect of Catholicism. But proclaiming the Word whilst at the same time challenging the credibility of the Authority which underpins the Word, as a response to God, is a personal but public contradiction of faith.

  16. Joe O'Leary says:

    “To have facilitated such in any way is an act seriously opposed to the will of God irrespective of rational moral conviction.”

    Well the Church officially allows the extinction of innocent human life according to the law of double effect and in other cases as well.

    “Lived Catholicism challenges rational moral conviction” — no, it clarifies and reinforces natural and rational morality. It may challenge one to heroic virtue going beyond the demands of morality, but it does not challenge one to go against them.

    Natural law is the basis of rational moral conviction. “The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie” (CCC1954).

    It is only when this teaching is clearly in place that the subsequent remarks in CCC 1960 make sense: “The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known “by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error.” The natural law provides revealed law and grace with a foundation prepared by God and in accordance with the work of the Spirit.”

    There cannot be an opposition between natural law and revealed morality. If there were, all sorts of fideism, scepticism, and amoralism would flourish.

  17. Con Devree says:

    The law of double effect does not allow the direct targeting of a human life for extinction, when such extinction cannot be justified for its own sake. Aquinas even says that good intentions do not render the act lawful. The law of double effect does not justify any facilitation of such an act or law.

    Going back to the original article in this thread, the parliamtarian in question made a public declaration that her leading role in the promotion of such extinction of life does not conflict with her Catholicism. One takes it on trust that she does not regard this conviction as irrational or immoral. One accepts that it is her “rational moral conviction.” Clearly Catholicism does not reinforce this “rational moral conviction.” Insofar as the Church clarifies the conviction, it challenges it, because Catholic teaching as the expression of the Divine Will regards the fruits of the said conviction a triumph of evil over good.

    The accompaniment implicit in CCC 1960 becomes an obligatory duty, exercised in an appropriate manner, for either the relevant Bishop or parish priest.

    Moving on, we laity in general have need of an end to the drought of appropriate accompaniment in different areas of Catholic morality. We need an apposite awareness or understanding of the providence of God in times of difficulty. We need a revamped belief in the existence and power of Divine Grace in challenging circumstances and the faith and trust and charity to rely on it.

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