Tony Flannery in today’s Irish Examiner: Church needs to come off its pedestal to reverse decline in faith

One of the findings of the recent census report is a decline of 10 percentage points in those identifying themselves as Catholic. 

But for anyone observing attendances at Catholic Church events in recent times, both in terms of numbers and age, there might have been an expectation of an even greater decline.

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How has this come about? The Catholic Church in Ireland in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries seemed to be a very solid edifice, built to endure. It had a clear top-down system of government, exclusively male and clerical, a rigid set of doctrines and teachings, all imposed under pain of sin and the threat of eternal damnation, and a strictly imposed set of practices. 

Over it all, we were told, was a male God in the heavens who would pass strict judgment on what was called, to emphasise the point, the Day of Judgment. 

Fear played a big part in Catholic belief. The notion of a loving God, while it occasionally got lip service from the altar, was completely overshadowed by the sermons on hell and damnation.

Second Vatican Council

Most of us now regard an event that took place in the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council, as the most significant event in the Catholic Church for centuries. But, ironically, it was also what loosened some of the main block of this edifice. 

Instead of defining the Church in terms of ranks of clerics, it referred to it as the People of God. It went on to state that the pre-eminent sacrament was Baptism, and as such all believers were equal. 

Only in hindsight can we see how radical that was. It also re-affirmed and emphasised the primacy of the individual conscience, and when the Pope in the late 60s declared that the use of artificial contraception was always seriously sinful, people really began to exercise their conscience. 

By then, the wave of freedom which had swept through the Western world in the 60s was prevalent in Ireland, and this coincided with a growth in the number of people receiving education. 

So education, a new sense of freedom, and the teaching of the Vatican Council shook loose some of the core blocks of the old-style Church. As we saw with the collapse of the communist regime, once a rigid, controlling system begins to shake, begins to be successfully challenged in any one area, its collapse can be dramatic and speedy. Interference in any part of a tightly knit system can topple the whole edifice.

‘Absolute control’

In the 1970s, I and my fellow missioners, in our work around the parishes of Ireland, began to hold open discussions in houses. In a sense it was some effort at the type of Synodal Church that Pope Francis is now promoting. 

One of my clear memories from those meetings was that when ordinary Catholics got a forum where they could find their voice, a great deal of hurt and anger was expressed — some personal, a great deal inherited — against various priests, and this was well before stories of sexual abuse began to emerge. 

We heard a lot about the absolute control that a priest could exercise in an area. Listening to these discussions began to open my eyes to the destruction that what we now call clericalism has done to the Church, and why Pope Francis is constantly railing against it.

Going back to the census, the decline can be seen as having two aspects. Some Catholics, while observing the rituals, had never internalised the message of Christ. The revelations of sexual abuse by priests and religious gave them a justification for walking away. 

Others had struggled to practice faith according to the teachings of Vatican Two and had been stonewalled by a clerical Church. For them, the abuse scandal was the last straw. They had been hanging on by their fingers, but could do so no longer. They gave up. 

Reports on life in orphanages and mother and baby homes added to the picture of a Church that exercised abusive forms of control and authoritarianism. 

n that context, while I wouldn’t for a moment try to defend what happened in some instances, I personally find it difficult to see and hear the widespread vilification of nuns. I think there is a lack of fairness at present, and I hope that eventually the evil that was done by some might be balanced against generations of nuns who educated Irish girls, and opened up to them the opportunity of living a fuller and more independent life.

A future for the Catholic Church

Where are we now in the Irish Catholic Church? By any standards, it is not in a good place, and all the indications are that the decline will continue for some time to come. 

But I have hope that some good will come out of it all. Pope Francis has been a blessing. He recognises the problems and is gradually, and very courageously, trying to bring about the type of change that will develop a more credible and humble Church.

The clerical Church will have to come off its pedestal, and that applies at all levels, from the Pope to the priests and deacons in local parishes. 

All forms of ministry in the Church will need to be open to all the baptised, and this raises the very thorny and difficult question of the Catholic Church’s attitude to women. 

It cannot continue to exclude women from ministry and decision-making if it wants to have any chance to attract young women into the Church. This won’t be easy, and has the potential to cause serious divisions in the Church.

A divine reality, known traditionally as God, is central to Christian belief, though we are dealing here with a fundamental mystery that at best we can only glimpse. 

But we need to rid ourselves of the image of a distant, judgmental God. I think that is happening. 

More and more I am reading and hearing, and coming to my own awareness of, a divine presence that, far from being distant and remote, is a presence in the whole of creation, is at the heart of creation, at the heart of this broken world, is all around us and within us. 

The word, more than any, that touches the nature of this presence is love. With this understanding, we are encouraged to live our lives, not in fear as in the past, but with a sense of joy and trust that, in spite of everything, all will be well.

Gerard Manley Hopkins sums it up beautifully:

“And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; …… 

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent 

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

* Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest and the founder of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests

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