Robust questioning of a loyal opponent of the church

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

RELIGION: No Lions in the Hierarchy: An Anthology of Sorts, By Joseph Dunn, The Columba Press, 270pp, €14.99

Since its establishment, in the early 1980s, the Columba Press has produced almost 800 books, many of which openly challenged the dominant religious orthodoxy in Irish society. Joseph Dunn’s No Lions in the Hierarchy, first published in 1994, is one of the titles chosen for inclusion in the new Columba Classics series. It has lost none of its prophetic charge, and many of the issues raised, such as celibacy, the silencing of theologians, leadership in the church, birth control, liberation theology, Vatican politics and the appointment of bishops, are as relevant today as they were nearly 20 years ago.

Dunn was a Catholic priest who worked for many years in television, most notably as part of the Radharc team that was responsible for producing award-winning documentaries. Through his work, Dunn had the opportunity to meet priests in various countries, some of whom had gone so far as to take up arms against tyrannical regimes.

He was acquainted with the widely varying types of church that can be found in different parts of the globe and was friendly with several members of the Irish hierarchy, especially the Dublin archbishops John Charles McQuaid, Dermot Ryan, Kevin McNamara and Desmond Connell. It would appear that very little happened in the Irish church or in Rome that escaped Dunn’s attention.

In his preface the author acknowledges that he was freer than most to express his views, being “neither a professional theologian nor a practising parish priest”. The critical stances he adopted derived from what he terms “loyal opposition” to the church.

In an interesting introduction, Fr Tom Stack describes his friend’s “uncanny gift of being able, simultaneously, to write critically of the institutional church and still somehow retain the confidence of church authorities”. To achieve this balance requires one to be a shrewd operator, which Dunn undoubtedly was.

The book covers a broad canvas. The opening chapter deals with seminary life in the 1950s and 1960s. Dunn notes how young men contemplating the priesthood had to sacrifice a lot, such as having recourse to sex and the comfort of a wife and children. Given his rather liberal views on a number of issues, it might come as a surprise to learn that he regarded celibacy, when freely chosen, as a blessing that should not be discarded lightly. He made no attempt to downplay his own occasional struggles with loneliness and coping with normal sexual urges.

Like many Irish people, Dunn was a huge fan of the charismatic Pope John XXIII: “John for me is proof that the papacy can work. That it can be the centre of unity. That it can inspire people to believe in the goodness of God and of his creation. That it can generate optimism. And in the end help us to love God and one another better.”

This unbridled admiration clearly coloured his view of a more recent pope, John Paul II, of whom Dunn can find nothing positive to say. He is at odds with John Paul’s autocratic style, his promotion of conservative bishops (many of them from Opus Dei), his paranoia about Marxism and his well-publicised disagreements with highly regarded theologians, such as Leonardo Böff and Bernard Häring, who were not prepared to follow the Vatican line on certain key issues.

All of which leads to a stark summation: “As a Catholic priest I hate to say it, but . . . pretty well everything I have seen and everybody I have met in the course of my work have led me towards a negative judgment on the pontificate of John Paul II.”

Such a blanket dismissal could be said to lack restraint and objectivity. In a similar vein, writing about the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which underlined the pontiff’s unconditional support of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, he concludes that if one were to take the views expressed in this text seriously, it would mean that the vast majority of the Catholic laity are living in sin and that many theologians are also incorrect in their interpretation.

Dunn was undoubtedly correct to point out the gaping contradiction between professed teaching and daily practice in the area of family planning. In his view, this contradiction engendered scepticism and a growing crisis of faith that could easily have been avoided.

Dunn believed in and loved the Catholic Church, and the last thing he wanted was for his book to weaken anyone else’s love or belief. A man of keen intellect and strong convictions, he felt it necessary to point out certain issues that he believed were harming the institution to which he devoted his adult life. Loyalty, for him, was not synonymous with silent acquiescence; rather, it required robust questioning from within.

No Lions in the Hierarchy is a timely reminder that deep divisions remain within the Catholic Church and that clerics of courage and conviction, such as Joe Dunn, are needed as never before.

The book invites readers to re-examine and to question what the church presents as absolute truths. It also contains fascinating anecdotes and insights about theologians and members of the hierarchy.

Columba has done an excellent job producing this attractive new edition of a genuine classic, which whets the appetite for the other titles in the series.

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