Repentance for abuse and structural reform will help to renew church


RITE AND REASON:THE SUFFERING of people abused by clergy and religious in the Catholic Church has been well documented. Their depth of pain can never be adequately communicated; nor can the full impact of the cover-up of their abuse by many of the leaders.

Many Catholics, including myself, were deeply disturbed by the response to the abuse and asked how can we stay in a group with such corruption.

To me there is only one possible answer: repentance.

Saying “sorry” and meaning it is part of repentance. If the Pope visits Ireland it would greatly help if he spent 15 minutes in silent prayer in some public place as an act of sorrow. But repentance also means changing our wrong behaviour, vindicating those who have been wronged, and making appropriate restitution. Three features of our structures were part of the reason why our organisation responded so badly.

One was clericalism: lay people have been excluded from governance. In previous centuries they had much more power. In the scriptures the whole community appointed the replacement for Judas among the apostles and they selected the first deacons. For centuries the people of Rome elected their bishop.

A second feature is patriarchy.

In the past it was different. There is strong evidence that women played leading roles in the early community: the prominence of Mary Magdalene in John’s gospel, the references to women in Romans 15, the fact that Paul and his group were invited to Lydia’s house, all testify to this.

It cannot be claimed that the organisation is not patriarchal if we exclude women from ordination and at the same time confine authority to the ordained. Ordination is not doctrinally necessary to exercise authority.

Both these features led to a third: deference to clerical authorities. The early followers of Christ showed nothing like the deference that has grown up around the modern papacy: Paul confronted Peter when he supported those who tried to impose Jewish circumcision and dietary laws on gentiles. All three features of our structures made the bad response to abuse more likely because they encouraged protecting the reputation of clergy and religious over the duty to expose the crime of abuse.

If lay people want to exercise the duties and charisms to which they have been called by their baptism they will have to struggle. That struggle needs a focus, organisation and political skill. One possible focus is Canon 129. Under this, lay people are excluded from the exercise of significant authority. Intuitively many feel this is wrong.

A second option is to call, as others have done, for the setting up of a lay body with a significant proportion of women, which together with the current College of Cardinals would elect future popes. There is no doctrinal block to this. Having such a body would be a step forward in recognising the charism of lay people.

If these changes were achieved a major blow would be struck against clericalism.

Many within the community are in despair. Yet the riches available to us in the community are immense: the Eucharist, the sacraments, the various traditions of prayer, the lives of the saints – especially those we have known personally, the diversity and international connections in the community, the commitment to justice and peace shown by so many, the care of the sick, etc.

There are also signs of hope: Pope Benedict’s call for more “co-responsibility”, John Paul’s plea for help in reforming the office of the papacy and the recent conference in Rome on child protection. The first plea Christ made in the gospels was for us to repent. Repentance leads to hope. We cannot say we have repented if we are not working to change our structures.

Can I Stay in the Catholic Church?