RTE’s “religious” documentary, Would You Believe, had a special on the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church on Sunday evening. (It wasn’t the most interesting documentary with a focus on Christianity.) It starts with the typical overview of the Church; that it was a “state within a state”, Vatican II was never enacted and is now being rolled back, and Catholic sexual ethics are “pretty close to being inherently evil”. It has very little representation from the more conservative wing of the Catholic church, which is very curious because in my experience whatever life there is in the Irish church is to be found in the more Roman of Catholic parishes.
Image from my friend Florian Knorn.
It is very interesting to watch this as a Presbyterian who goes to college in a Pontifical College. Either the church is is in an almost unimaginably hollow state of starvation or there is something very curious going on in the way it is depicted in the media. I went to Maynooth hoping to find a load of fellow Christians who were desperately hungry to follow God’s call on their life to lead local churches. I have found these guys in my class of seminarians but to be honest, friendship has been harder than I would have thought.
The best explanation for why this is so, that I have come up with, is that the healthy parts of the Catholic church in Ireland are the conservative, ultra-montane parts that are sceptical of ecumenicism, a little bit dismissive of “protestantism” (that is one big movement with very little diversity in their heads) and perhaps just slow to make friends with me because I am a tosser!
I see the more conservative side of Catholicism in the involvement with campus pasotral groups. Students show up for mass and for anti-abortion events and for meetings about purity and chastity. They do not show similar enthusiasm for evangelism or theology. It’s not like going to Queens University in Belfast! I have grown to appreciate this, while not sadly coming to share any of their enthusiasms. Initially I wanted to run the hell away from any expression of the Catholic church that saw Rome as the centre of the world and thought that sex was the major problem facing the world. Every sane man knows that Geneva is the centre of the world and sex is the major bonus the world has to turn to!
But I have realised that my reaction betrayed my goals. I have come to study in Maynooth to learn about Christianity in all its fullness. For the rest of my days I will be reading and learning and working with people within the Reformed tradition. Now I get a few years to see things in a different light. I was defining what kind of light was acceptable to me, ahead of time.
Furthermore, I went to Maynooth in a spirit of Christian unity, seeking friendship with Catholics that would last a lifetime and support us whatever journey we are called on. The only way friendship can occur is to reach out.
In reaching out I have discovered that while I theologically and socially disagree with the emphases that my fellow students follow, I can see the way in which it is authentic to their tradition and an attempted response to the times they live in. The Catholic leaders in training that I know would never be able to take an hour to talk church and not focus on the Eucharist, on Mary and on chastity. This is their response to the abuse of power in the church: be consumed by the powerless one we consume at Mass, focus on the powerless one who conceived in grace and live lives of physical discipline in a society where such concepts are unintelligible.
I disagree that these are adequate response to the problems or even well configured responses in themselves but that is the Catholic church I know in Maynooth, in the faith of actual Catholics (which is surely in line with the editorial ecclesiology of the WYB documentary). Or put another way, the Catholic church that is generating the energy of new leadership is a Catholic faith that is sacramental, Marian and chaste.
For a show that featured Enda McDonagh, Patrick Hederman Willie Walsh and numerous bishops, it was astoundingly banal, dominantly preoccupied with “power structures”. Christ doesn’t tell us to overturn insane power structures through force of power but by humbling ourselves. Dr. Mark Dooley (the single greatest lecturer I have yet studied under) was the only guy who really reverberated with the Catholic church that I know and from where I am sitting, Dr. Dooley does not come off well on telly. Ray Kinsella does and he began to speak truth with clarity but then was cut off for an ad break.
So the curious thing watching this show was that either the Catholic church is full of people who for all appearances want to be Protestant or there is some hesitancy in Irish media outlets to put the more representative, full bodied, robust Catholic on air. The “ordinary Catholics” who featured on the panel who apparently agree with John XXIII’s conviction (truism) that the church is the people, don’t consider the sin of their church as something they are implicated in. Instead its a “culture of clericalism” that is to blame. If that is the case, then why are these folk still Catholic- there are lots of denominations with fundamentally different conceptions of priesthood! The thin self analysis is devastating and depressing.
I am loathe to be someone who talks of a media bias, with all the accompanying histrionics and hand waving and outrage that seem to go with it. But a conversation about a Christian church that has covered up systematic and widespread abuse against those in its care, conducted with members of that church, that largely talks about new structures and other administrative principles, suggests we need less theology (what is the conversation they are having if it isn’t theological?!?) and doesn’t really mention repentance, discipleship and mission is not a conversation. It is a diagnosis.
The Catholic church won’t die in Ireland. But the “liberal” wing (what an awful misuse of the word liberal) of it will certainly go the way of the dodo. There is nothing to keep you at mass if you don’t know what mass is, don’t care that you don’t know and don’t want to hear anyone explain it to you. It’s not about god, some vague force out there that is benign. It is about God. The scandalous particularity of God with us. It is about a carpenter from Palestine hanging and broken on a tree for you. The crucifix heart of the Catholic faith will live on because it is the hope of the world. Contained within it is the only thing that the Catholic faithful need to turn to resolve their identity crisis, get moving in mission and most importantly, make healing possible for those who have been wronged. Power is over-rated. Repentance is liberation. That is the path to go down.
Your Correspondent, Is the life blood that fuels the dreams of champions