Church survival pivots on authority of love not power

 

WHEN Archbishop Storero takes up duty ash Apostolic Nuncio in will Ireland in January he, discover a society that hash changed remarkably since he last worked here as a junior official in the nunciature in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

He left us as we celebrated the Patrician Year in retrospect the last great ardfheis of traditional Irish Catholicism. It was a time when priests emerged each year from "our seminaries" when convents were filled to capacity when church attendance was such that Frank O'Connor wryly reflected that an Irish person only became interesting when he or she had lost the faith when our laws reflected a close affinity with Catholic teaching when the media reported the church uncritically when political leaders deferred to bishops.

Since then this solid fabric has decayed. Monolithic Irish Catholicism has fractured and there is a clear division between traditionalists (who wish for the return of rigid conformity) and liberals (who long for dialogue and diversity). Vocations have plummeted and in 1995, the year of its bicentenary, Maynooth College had one of the lowest intake of students in its history. Church attendance, though high compared to other western societies, seems in inexorable decline. Women, once the acquiescent mainstay of the church, are increasingly disillusioned. Bishops and priests are treated with less deference Cardinal Daly had to fight for a hearing on a recent Late Late Show and during the divorce referendum a Cabinet Minister accused a strident episcopal critic of telling lies.

Furthermore, a church which had seemed untouchable in its purity has, been beset by sexual scandals that have reached into the heart of the hierarchy. This has been a particularly humiliating year. The chronicle, of clerical sexual abuse cases has seriously eroded the church's credibility. To many people it seems that protection of the good name of the institution mattered more to church leaders than the pain of abused children.

Since Archbishop Storero's last sojoum, the consensus of Catholicism, nationalism and middle class economics that gave birth to the Irish State has disintegrated. Social and economic change since the 1960s has opened new avenues of experience. The old Catholic solidarity has been destroyed by liberalism, social mobility, and a more pronounced democratic culture.

A new class has emerged in Ireland well educated, articulate and questioning, even sceptical of venerable institutions such as the church. And the church establishment is at a loss to understand what has happened. Schooled in the ways of an authoritarian and patriarchal society and drawing inspiration from outdated maps of the Irish mind, church leaders have failed to develop a pastoral strategy and language that empathises with modern Irish Experience and, strong enough to otter a critique of its materialistic drift.

The church has reacted to crisis in the fashion of beleaguered institutions. It seems the most consistent, response is to draw the remaining wagons into a circle and hope for, rescue.

The media is excoriated and dissenters in church ranks are sidelined. These may seem unnecessarily harsh judgments but some events this year offer substance for them Bridget Anne Ryan, as editor of the Irish Catholic, tried to free it from the stodgy grip of pious devotionalism and defensive conformity. For her pains her editorial freedom was curbed so extensively that she felt compelled to resign.

I realise that I cannot be objective about the Intercom debacle but I am convinced that I was replaced as editor because of my determination to, have the magazine focus critically on the problems besetting the church.

CHURCH leaders could not bear the reality portrayed and preferred, a, bland diet which, even if it does not interest or enthuse its readers, at least does not disturb them.

The church has been such a dominant and sometimes arrogant force on the Irish social landscape so it is not surprising that those whom it has excluded take pleasure in its present traumas. I believe, however, it is important for Irish society to regain its credibility though not its arrogance. As Prof Joe Lee has argued "The church is a bulwark, perhaps now the main bulwark of civic culture the main barrier between a reasonably civilised society and the untrammelled predatory instincts of individual and pressure group selfishness.

Similarly, as Noel Barber SJ argues in a recent editorial in Studies, Catholicism can provide what secular liberalism lacks a moral framework within which we can exercise our freedom, express tolerance, make our choices, claim our rights and accept our responsibilities.

How can the church be rescued from the slough of despond in which it is mired? For starters it would be helpful if its leaders purged themselves of nostalgia for a past world. The future cannot be carved from a tombstone, in singer songwriter Paul Bradys words. It is often argued that the high tide of traditional Irish Catholicism was also the period of strong family values, marital stability and parental authority. Authoritarianism may be one way of realising these desirable objectives but it is not the only or most positive way of doing so.

While pre second Vatican Council Catholicism played a significant role in the humanisation of Irish society, it colluded in the crudities of philistinism. Artists and writers were frowned upon and major works of literature banned. A repressive sexual morality held sway and there was a failure to infuse Catholic teaching, on the subject with the compassion of Jesus Christ. Discrimination against women was pervasive. The church's cult of secrecy held people in fear.

For those concerned, to restore the church's credibility it is encouraging that this difficult situation is not one of unrelieved gloom. Bishop Walsh, in a Furrow article last February, accepted that the image of priests at national level had been seriously damaged but added people quickly distinguish between image and reality. The reality for them is the priest they see on Sunday, the priest who," visited mother when she was in hospital, the priest who cried with us when we lost our child, the priest who did not pass our door though he knew we were not married in church. People can be cynical about and even angry with the church but they will still respond to the gentle care of the local priest".

There are also several fragile green shoots.

The institutional church is dying, at the centre but along the margins new ways are sprouting as John O'Brien CSSP details in Seeds of a New Church (Columba). Our seminaries are emptying but there are high numbers of lay people, especially women, studying theology at Trinity Maynooth, Mater Dei and, the Milltown Institute. The vocations crisis would seem less acute if the church sought pastoral roles for such graduates.

Though Irish society has in the main been enriched by recent economic reforms, much work remains in the building of a just society here only the scaffolding has been erected. Church groups, most notably CORI's Justice and Peace Desk, have provided the most sustained and substantiated critiques of economic policies that favour the well heeled and articulate and imperil social stability.

There is also a great hunger for spirituality and adult religious education that is only scantily aggressed. Spirituality, a new Dominican journal, has become a best seller prayer, groups using the Ignatian exercises proliferate, extra mural theology courses are over subscribed. The young poet and journalist, Sean Dunne who died this year, prophetically showed in The Road to Silence (New Island books) how a literate and imaginative person could find in Catholicism a meaningful and sustaining spirituality.

What is needed is a creative leadership to encourage these signs of, hope and mould the disparate element into a vibrant force, that can" challenge the consumerist ethic, undermining social stability. Among priests there is widespread cynicism, about the consultation process for the appointment of bishops. Priests" believe that bland, careful and ecclesiastically ambitious men are chosen.

What is needed is a process that marries the best of democracy and discernment. It would start not with the question of who should be appointed but rather with an exploration of the qualities freedom for effective pastoral leadership in a particular diocese.

Perhaps in this way a new kind of church leadership might emerge in line with the description given in the recent biography of Jean Monnet, the pioneer of European union. The author distinguishes between transactional leadership designed merely to keep the system running and transformational leadership which is creative and has the capacity to change the terms in which the debate is conducted.

IN FAIRNESS, there is evidence that such leadership is beginning to emerge. In a dark year for the Irish church the leadership of the recently appointed Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Willie Walsh, has proved a constant light.

His article in last February's Furrow was the most open episcopal viewpoint expressed in Ireland since the second Vatican Council. By letting it be known that he had voted in for the removal of the constitutional to Catholics disturbed by the hard line tenor of the general episcopal statement.

He has the solid look of a senior churchman but has escaped the prison of received ideas and is at home in the world of dialogue and diversity. Perhaps his experience as manager of the Clare hurling team has helped him in his more august position.

A good manager always creates space where talented players can express themselves in an overall framework that benefits the whole team.

Leaders of Dr Walsh's calibre would have the vision and courage to bring a synod of the Irish church, if it is ever held, to a productive conclusion.

May I end with a personal reflection. In this season of Christ's birth I hope for a new beginning for the church. It is after all the season of glad songs.

I long for a church that is humble but not humiliated authoritative rather than authoritarian, which talks with other churches and institutions and seeks to learn from fruitful and honest exchange which believes its teachings are valuable for society but does not assert that these teachings need the force of State law which radiates what Bishop Butler once called the authority of love rather than of power.