A driving force in bringing unpalatable facts to light

Sat, Jan 14, 2012, 00:00

I had disputes with Mary Raftery in certain cases – but never over her central theses, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

HEARING OF Mary Raftery’s death left me with a feeling of shock and loss. That might seem surprising, given that our initial encounters, mostly in radio interviews, and back and forth in newspaper articles, were very tense.

But in that peculiarly Irish way, two women who often ended up waiting together for radio interviews gradually found they had things in common. I knew people that Mary had been in college with, or who worked with her at In Dublin. We both had sons called Ben, who were not that different in age. I also discovered this woman, whom I at first found so formidable, was both warm and funny.

Her death is a huge loss to her family and friends, but also to journalism. She was driven by a kind of saeva indignatioin the Swiftian sense of being appalled by injustice.

I had my disputes with her about individual cases, and also because I felt that in her drive to reveal the crimes committed against children in industrial schools and in dioceses she neglected the good work done by many religious and clergy.

However, I never disputed her central theses – that Irish society had stood by passively while children were incarcerated in often dreadful conditions where physical abuse was widespread, and that sexual abuse by clergy and religious was covered up in a desire to protect the Catholic Church. It is for forcing those facts into public awareness that she will be long remembered.

On a different note, I doubt that Mary, even in the whole of her health, would have had much interest in the series of letters published in these pages under the heading, “Time for A ‘Catholic Spring’”?

They were sparked off by a December 17th editorial, itself a response to Archbishop Martin’s statement that the Dublin archdiocese faced its biggest crisis in two centuries, due to declining numbers of priests, falling Mass attendance, and financial difficulties.

The editorial perceptively noted that “the number of Catholics who expect the church to be there when they need it is far greater than those who are regular Sunday Mass-goers”.

In a recent Would you Believespecial presented by Mick Peelo (who, incidentally, also presented Mary Raftery’s Cardinal Secrets), a nice young man who is having his son baptised exemplified this viewpoint. The young father says something to the effect that one of the good things about Catholicism is that you can give as much or as little as you want to it.

Maybe another one of the problems the church is facing is that few now encounter faith presented as a rigorous, life-giving challenge. As a result, for many people, faith and religion have become, in Tommy Tiernan’s memorable phrase, like a channel on the television that is never turned on and never missed.

It is not just the scandals, appalling as they are, that have caused this: it goes far deeper.

There are lots of theories as to how to make the church more relevant. For example, celibacy is often seen as one of the great obstacles to the Catholic Church having an appeal in the 21st century.

Why then, did the Dalai Lama pack them in on his visit to Ireland? No doubt the great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, will do the same when he visits in April.

Monks and nuns are celibate in Buddhism, just as they are in Catholicism.

It is no deterrent to people eagerly sitting at their feet to learn more about how to live.

Perhaps the problem is the model of celibacy that operated in the Irish Catholic Church for decades. It seems to have been a particularly repressive, even Jansenistic model.

However, seen at its best in people such as Thich Nhat Hanh, celibacy in Buddhism seems to be a seamless part of an integrated lifestyle.

The practice of celibacy is deeply rooted in Catholicism. Self-denial and the sacrifice of good, worthwhile things are ideas which are part of most religious traditions. The example shown by being able to give something up may be particularly important in a culture that is hyper-sexualised and which rarely denies itself anything.

The questions are, what help and support is there for people who choose to make this sacrifice, so it becomes a life-giving rather than a stifling discipline? And does celibacy have to apply to all priests?

Not only are there married Anglicans and Lutherans who have received Catholic ordination, but there are also Catholics Rites (in full communion with Rome) which have married priests. This is forbidden in the Latin Rite to which most western Catholics belong, but it is common in eastern rite Catholicism such as the Maronite and Melkite rites.

Just as in the Orthodox churches, priests are free to marry, but bishops are drawn from the ranks of celibate monks. Celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma.

Prof John P McCarthy made the intriguing suggestion in his letter, which I think was largely ignored, that the Catholic Church should consider ordaining already married men near the end of their careers, and presumably whose families are reared, without demanding celibacy of them.

However, I have to say, in the full expectation of rousing saeva indignatioof a different kind, that I don’t think a Catholic Spring or wider Christian renewal will come from ending celibacy or ordaining women.

I think it will arise from a deep, spiritual awakening that centres on the life, death, resurrection and profound teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.