Irish church making progress towards 'medicine of mercy'


THINKING ABOUT the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council led me to reading again Pope John XXIII’s opening speech. While some of the phrasing seems dated, the wit and joy for which he was famous shine through, writes BREDA O’BRIEN

“In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times, they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin . . . We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”

Nevertheless, he is not guilty of a Pollyanna-ish optimism, having a great awareness of the suffering and darkness in life.

It is clear that Pope John did not think that major innovations in core church doctrines were desirable. “It is necessary, first of all, that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers.

“But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.”

Many of the themes that were to be more fully realised in the 16 documents of the council are present in his opening words. He spoke both of the need for unity within the church, and unity among the Christian churches. He spoke of the errors of having “excessive confidence in technical progress and a wellbeing based exclusively on the comforts of life”. There is a real spirit of joy in what he wrote, a sense that the church had something extraordinary to offer the world, not in a hectoring or condemnatory way, but as a gift.

“Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”

Fifty years later, where are we? No one in 1962 could have foreseen the decline in esteem of the Catholic Church, caused in great part by the self-inflicted wound of failure to deal adequately with sexual abuse of children by clergy.

As a teacher in contact with young people, it is clear to me that those who have grown up with little but scandals are often deeply sceptical about the church as an institution. Yet despite that reality, the council has brought about many positive changes. No one would suggest that all the changes envisioned by the council have happened to everyone’s satisfaction, but the modernisation brought about by it was dramatic, as 400 years of deferred change began to happen within decades.

To give a small personal example, prior to the council, the idea of a young lay woman studying theology without having any notion of becoming a religious sister would have been preposterous. Yet, by the 1980s, when I attended the Mater Dei Institute, it was commonplace. (There were laymen, too.)

There have been extensive changes in liturgy, the role of lay people, the emphasis on social justice and not just charity, the development of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, and in advocacy for the developing world and the environment.

Perhaps what is most striking on rereading Pope John’s opening words is how cautious and circumspect the modern church seems in comparison, and how much the Irish church seems to lack confidence it has something valid to offer a modern world.

It is unsurprising, given recent history, that the church is less active in the public sphere. There are some signs of willingness to step into the fray when it really matters, however. For example, it is striking that the Irish Catholic Church decided to declare a month of prayer on the theme of “Choose Life” this year.

Launched last Sunday, the Choose Life initiative, with its prayer cards, homily notes, posters and so on seems designed to bypass traditional media channels and communicate directly with people in the pews. At the same time, a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube seems calibrated to reach a less-committed audience.

However, when the so-called expert committee on abortion reports, this grassroots approach will have to be matched with a more formal church response.

Michael Noonan and two Labour TDs have chided the church in recent times for not giving an immediate positive response to the children’s rights referendum. How politicians react to the church commenting on abortion will be interesting.

Let’s hope the reaction doesn’t suggest that politicians believe the church’s right to speak should be confined to being a rubber stamp for Government policy.

The Choose Life website,, features a sensitively made video with short personal testimonies, including people who contemplated or had abortions. One woman who was raped as a young girl describes travelling on the boat to England, clutching her tummy and knowing she had a life in there. She experienced significant trauma as a result of the abortion.

Much of the Second Vatican Council vision may remain to be implemented, but the positive nature of the Choose Life initiative demonstrates that, on abortion, the Irish church has chosen the “medicine of mercy rather than that of severity”.

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