Suspicion Apostolic visitation report will ignore deep problems


RITE AND REASON: The report is likely to be characterised by a restorationist tone and nostalgia for a church that is past

THE APOSTOLIC visitation of the Catholic Church in Ireland has concluded its work and was scheduled to report to Pope Benedict by the end of last month. Its leaders have been complemented on their openness and willingness to listen to all who asked to be heard.

But there remains a suspicion that little will come of it and that their final document had already been drawn up, at least in its broad outlines.

The fear is that it will be written largely in a kind of self-referential Vaticanese.

It seems likely to be characterised by a restorationist tone and nostalgia for a world and a church that is past.

It may refer to several of the usual tropes and the deeper theological problems will be largely ignored. So much more is called for in our present context.

A recent interdisciplinary conference at the Milltown Institute in Dublin brought together a wide range of speakers and participants to look at the painful reality of the Catholic Church in Ireland today.

How did it get to where it is? How did our understanding become so warped? Is there a future? What is it?

These were among questions asked by speakers and up to 200 participants. It became clear during the conference that people were demanding a much wider debate, and answers that will be very different from those that may be offered by any document issuing from the visitation.

The title of the conference, Broken Faith: Re-visioning the Church in Ireland, indicated that the institution had broken faith with its members through the appalling abuse of children entrusted to its care and the criminal as well as sinful sexual abuse of children by some who had been called to minister to them.

A sacred covenant of trust and care had been shamefully broken. Added to this was the egregious failure of the hierarchy to deal with the issues and the frantic rush to cover up, which completed this catastrophic scenario.

The other aspect of the brokenness was the destruction of the faith of so many people, first of all victims. One speaker, Fr Patrick McCafferty, himself a victim of clerical sexual abuse, said in a very emotional address they had their faith broken and were left “crying from the depths of the abomination of desolation”.

Another survivor, Bernadette Fahy, spoke searingly of the brokenness and alienation of victims of institutional abuse who were so often left without any real sense of their own dignity and personhood or of the broken world they found themselves thrown into.

The wider body of the church also feels itself to have been deeply betrayed and deeply damaged, or even broken in their faith by an institution it had placed so much trust in.

The conference concluded with many expressing the view that the debate cannot be simply left where it is. It has to be opened and broadened.

There was a strong feeling that the people of God, as a theological concept so essential to Vatican II, had to be revalorised.

Indeed the participants were asserting themselves as people of God, deeply attached to the gospel but increasingly sceptical of the institution. They are committed to a future with faith and they dared to hope and to offer hope in a time of deep fear.

There were several calls from speakers and participants for the creation of forums that would allow for much wider dialogue, whether assemblies or even full synods with the widest possible representation of all the faithful. This is an enormous challenge and one cannot simply dismiss it as a desire for “talking shops”.

One of the disappointments of the conference was the absence of any bishop. While none had been officially invited, all were informed the conference was taking place and that they would have been most welcome.

This absence prompts a question as to where and when the real and urgent conversation can ever start.