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ever-wider, while the authority of bishops was diminishing before our eyes, while the scaffolding that held together outdated church structures was collapsing, while so many (and so accurately) pointed to the realities of modern Irish life and their implication for a tired Church,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.