Pastoral letter strays far from facts but has merit


OPINION:Confronted with the greatest tragedy in Irish Catholicism, the pope ignores the reality of decades of abuse to blame secularism and moral relativism, writes PATSY MCGARRY

WE WERE so much younger then. That year’s student drama festival was in Galway and the production of the evening was UCD Drama Society’s take on the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. Loud and declamatory, it was directed by Jim Sheridan in an adaptation by Neil Jordan and staged in the long-since disappeared Hanger ballroom in Salthill.

The audience sat in scaffolding arranged in a square around the ballroom floor, as the walls of Thebes. Festival adjudicator was playwright John Arden, then in a Stalinist/Marxist state of mind.

Very early on a weary predictability became characteristic of his post-performance adjudications. He saw all plays through particularly red eyes, beginning with a Belfast production of Sheridan’s School for Scandal which opened the festival. It was another example of class warfare.

Soon, all drama was class war.

So when he rose to deliver his preliminary adjudication that evening in the Hanger he had hardly uttered the word “class” for the first time when the mildest man in UCG’s Drama Society exploded at him from one of the walls of Thebes in a language it was once believed the clergy did not know. It ignited a chorus of rage from all four walls, directed at the startled John Arden.

That was his last adjudication of the festival. He was replaced by then Professor of English at UCG, Lorna Reynolds, whose outlook on life, while unique, was more in the round.

Reading Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter at the weekend was to be reminded of John Arden that evening in Galway. This pope has the same instinct for seeing all from one rigid perspective. Where he is concerned it is secularism, and its attendant twin moral relativism, which is at the root of all evil.

In his last homily as Dean of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the pre-conclave Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on April 18th, 2005, he told the cardinals who were about to elect him pope, “we are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive...”

Move on five years and not much has changed. Confronted with the greatest tragedy in the history of Irish Catholicism, he has an explanation – secularism/moral relativism!

In this weekend’s letter he tells Irish Catholics that: “In recent decades ... the church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society...” It was “in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse”, he said.

There is one small problem with this. It ignores reality.

None of it explains any, never mind the epic scale, of the sexual, physical and emotional abuse and neglect meted out by Catholic religious to tens of thousands of children held in orphanages, reformatories and industrial schools throughout those many decades of 20th-century Ireland before the Second Vatican Council and at a time when traditional moral absolutism reigned supreme in Catholicism on this island.

Even by the time the last of those institutions closed in the early 1970s adherence to traditional Catholic values in Ireland was still high with, for instance, weekly Mass attendance at 91 per cent in 1973.

And what of the four archbishops of Dublin who covered up clerical child sex abuse in the period investigated by the Murphy Commission? Who would ever describe John Charles McQuaid, Dermot Ryan, Kevin McNamara or Desmond Connell as secularists or moral relativists?

Besides being nowhere near the truth, it is to cheapen and diminish the enormity of the huge suffering inflicted on so many in this greatest scandal of Irish Catholicism to see it used by the pope as just another weapon in his very own war against secularism and moral relativism.

And what then of the true moral relativism employed today by so many Catholic Church figures and their lay fellow travellers for whom the past is, most definitively, a foreign country? They agree, they did things differently there. How do they reconcile that with their usual, traditional, moral absolutism?

And nowhere in his letter is there the merest hint that the Vatican itself had any role whatever in this tragic story. Ignored totally is the utter lack of co-operation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the Murphy Commission.

Ignored also is the refusal of the papal nuncio to appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and his lack of co-operation, also, with the Murphy Commission.

All that said, there is much in the letter which is as refreshing and clear as cool spring water.

Included would be his words of sorrow and admiration for the abused, particularly those who suffered in residential institutions. There is his unequivocal calling-it-as-it-is when addressing priest abusers and his words of encouragement to those innocent priests who suffer by association.

It was reassuring to read his frank acknowledgement that “some” fellow bishops “failed, at times grievously”, that they made “serious mistakes”, were responsible for “grave errors of judgement” and “failures of leadership”.

His encouragement to them to “co-operate with the civil authorities” and his call for “decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency” in addressing the issue, is to be welcomed.

But it is his decision “to hold an apostolic visitation of certain dioceses ... as well as seminaries and religious congregations” in Ireland that is his greatest indictment of church leaders in Ireland.

“You’ve made a mess of it,” he is saying. “I am sending an ecclesiastical inspectorate to put your house in order,” he is saying. There could hardly be a more forceful vote of no confidence.

But, of all, it is his verdict that what the Irish church allowed, “obscured the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution (in the penal laws era) had succeeded in doing” that is his most damning indictment.

Despite its inadequacies this pastoral letter is a significant step on the road to reform of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Explaining that he believes a factor in this crisis was a “tendency in (Irish) society to favour the clergy and other authority figures”. Not any more.

We’re older than that now.

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