Liberal jolt has positive role to play in church


The clergy can embrace sincere questioning but not to the point of killing core beliefs

ODDLY, BERTRAND Russell, who once declared religion to be “a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery to the human race”, might have some wisdom to offer in the current Catholic debate about “silencing” and the legitimate uses of authority.

He said every community faces two dangers. The first is ossification, through too much discipline and reverence for tradition. The second is dissolution, when growth of individualism makes co-operation impossible.

I know many of the men associated with the Association of Catholic Priests. Some of them are my friends. I admire Fr Seán McDonagh immensely for his work on environmental issues. Fr Bobby Gilmore has worked very hard for the rights of migrants, and before that, for justice for the Birmingham Six.

Fr Peter McVerry tirelessly advocates for the kind of young people that the rest of us cross the street to avoid. I worked with Fr Gerry Moloney on the board of Reality, and found him to be wry, intelligent and deeply committed. Fr Brendan Hoban helped me with a master’s thesis I did on church and media. I could go on and on.

The ACP deserves admiration for the courageous way it helped Fr Kevin Reynolds clear his name, with the able assistance of solicitor Robert Dore. I support its call for greater involvement of lay people, better communication both within and by the church, and fair treatment of victims of clerical abuse, and those accused of the heinous crime. Most importantly of all, like them, I want a church focused on the loving message of Jesus Christ.

We might disagree on some issues, but I don’t see them as a “bunch of ageing radicals”, but as good men. Put it this way, in my last hour on earth, I would be glad to see one of their kind faces coming to pray with me.

But some of the priorities betrayed in questions in the recent ACP survey on “Contemporary Catholic Perspectives” really jolted me. The questions were almost completely focused on clerical concerns. At the average school gate, mammies aren’t bemoaning the lack of consultation about who their new bishop will be. They are worrying about the recession, and how best to raise kids in a world that daily grows more complex and challenging.

And the finding that the church’s teaching on sexuality is irrelevant to people’s lives? All of it? Including the bit about fidelity and self-sacrificing love? The wail of the baby as she lands on the ground along with the bathwater is painfully audible.

There are strands of opinion in Irish society that see Catholicism as inimical to progress, and wish to see its influence diminish to a vanishing point. Ironically, those strands were one (but by no means the only) factor in the creation of an atmosphere in which any priest accused of child abuse was automatically presumed to be guilty. The ACP survey was a gift to them, allowing them to crow that even Catholics don’t believe what their church teaches. In their sincere desire for reform, the ACP may unintentionally be giving succour to those who don’t want reform but extinction of the church.

That does not mean that voices calling for reform should be stifled. The church needs both liberals and conservatives. Often so-called radicals viewed with suspicion in their own time are later revered as pioneers.

What the ACP may forget is that the changes it so ardently desires would cause many faithful Catholics to feel utterly betrayed by their church. Does the ACP accept that any viable organisation has to have the right to teach, and have its representatives accurately present those teachings? How sympathetic would any member of the ACP be, if he were a bishop, to conservatives? They don’t strike me as too fond or supportive of the young priests whom they see as overly pious and conservative.

But reasonable conservatives are not the enemy. Jonathan Haidt’s latest book, The Righteous Mind, describes how he, as a secular liberal, moved from an inability to understand conservatives, to an appreciation of their strengths.

He says, “I believe that liberalism – which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity – is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to over-reach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of conserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.”

Perhaps even using words like liberal and conservative in a religious context is unwise. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative, founded by Cardinal Bernardin to address internal differences through dialogue, has a great deal to offer. For example, it says, “We should presume that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith. They deserve civility, charity, and a good-faith effort to understand their concerns.” There is a middle way between ossification and dissolution. It’s called talking and listening to each other with love.

Postscript: Last week’s article incorrectly identified Ger Colleran as editor of the Irish Daily Star, rather than as the newspaper’s managing director. Mr Colleran says he is not “a ferocious critic” of public money going to RTÉ. He supports public money for RTÉ, but not the fact that it also receives substantial advertising revenue.