The latest report into abuse in the Irish Catholic church was published this week. What is most remarkable about it is that it still manages to shock. We discover at least in Cork that the bishop in question lied, that the Vatican interfered in a fashion that is almost worthy of a Dan Brown conspiracy and that reports of abuse were repeatedly mishandled even into the last decade.
Christians are called to proclaim: “Repent and believe, the Kingdom of God has come!” but the Irish church seems to still not be acquainted with that liberating word, μετάνοια. Major figures in the report seem unable to even form a morally cogent apology. The bishop in question, Magee, a man who was private secretary to three popes, has gone to ground. No one knows where he is.
To my Presbyterian/Evangelical/Born Againy readers, for all of our denominational identity or confessional convictions, remember that there is only one church in Ireland. This is not “their” problem. This is our problem.
The Cloyne Report is not bad news for the church. It is good news. Every time sin is exposed, it is an act of liberation. The followers of the man who says he is “The Truth” cannot fear the truth. In that case, we are not following Jesus.
There can be no segregation of these acts of abuse from the rest of the church. These acts are so horrific and are so widespread and were and continue to be so unacknowledged, that no language of “think of all the good that x or y is doing” can be accepted. The church must own its sin. No backstory can explain it. No sensitivity can justify it. No good deeds can ameliorate it.
The contemporary hierocracy of Rome is untenable in terms of doctrine, history and Biblical warrant. A reformation of decentralisation is needed now more than ever.
Thoughts of this nature were actually proposed by my old English lecturer, Brian Cosgrave in this summer’s edition of The Furrow. Prof. Cosgrave was the man who introduced me to the genius of the under-rated Brian Moore. I remember one memorable class where I presented on the novella Catholics. It was the first time I had ever delivered a report at a post-grad seminar. It was the first time I had ever spoken in a humanities class at all, since I had just started the masters having completed a degree in computer science. I don’t know if he was just shocked into silence or full of charity but he responded way too graciously to an interpretation of the end of that book that probably bordered on the criminal. He still didn’t manage to enthuse me about Joyce however.
His article in the Furrow is called “I wish to remain a Catholic but…” and in the light of news that the Irish government is trying to do the impossible and pry open the seal of confidentiality that surrounds the confession booth, a section of Cosgrave’s thoughtful essay seems to have more merit than all the mountains of analysis and comment I have already encountered on the issue. The Irish Times reports today:
Under the plans put forward by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, priests could be jailed for up to five years for failing to disclose information on serious offences against a child even if this was obtained in Confession.
And Cosgrave writes:
Doubtless a more informed theologian than I can claim to be would insist at this point that in matters of doctrinal definition the people can have only a limited input; and having read my [John Henry] Newman in the Apologia (the great chapter V) I have no problem in accepting a central authority in that regard. But doctrinal affirmations relating to Church dogma are one thing; moral positions regarding justice, as these affect the broader secular society, are quite another. What this means, surely, is that there ought to be no discrepancy between canon law and the law of the land; and democratic process requires that, if the former conflicts with the latter, then in the ordinary course of events it must simply give way.
Cosgrave is here outlining what I would call a pragmatic approach to culture in a post-Christendom state. It is so straightforward and obvious that I can’t quite step inside the mind that opposes it. Or at least, I can’t grasp why someone from the Reformed side would oppose it. If an evangelical leader in Ireland, representing less than 1% of the population, opposes proposed legislation on moral grounds that is (potentially) noble and appropriate. But if they insist on implementing their morality on the majority it is beyond ludicrous.
Is it any different for Roman Catholics, even if 85% or 48% or 623% of people claim allegiance to that church? It might be. Perhaps the peculiar metaphysics that undergirds the Roman Canon Law tradition renders this pragmatic approach not just unattractive but impossible. Consider a key concept in the historical development of Canon Law: Pope Gelasius’ Two Swords principle. Roughly stated, he argued that there are two powers in the world: the sacred authority of the priesthood and the authority of civil rulers. The priests have supremacy, the “sword” God gives them is greater and so the king is accountable to them.
If something like the Two Swords principle is taken to be a truth everlasting as against a political doctrine conceived in and for the Mediterranean world of 1500 years ago, then the church cannot relinquish the jurisdiction of the Canon over to the State. The Canon lawyer might be compelled to say that Canon is God’s territory. This brings us back to the last of my spontaneous theses. The church universal is much more central to God’s love of the world than we often realise. And this is true even in the Roman form of church. The theological investment they place in the church warps its picture, drawing it into battles it need not fight and tempting it into powers it cannot handle.
The Reformation is not something to be celebrated but it was necessary and it is necessary.
Your Correspondent, Emboldened by disgrace
Wife-unit says my final paragraph is very obscure. Let’s have another go at it! The Gospel outlined in the New Testament is unintelligible without the church. The evangelical church tends to draw a midget ecclesiology. As a result, they consistently miss or warp key aspects of the Gospel. The Roman Catholic church doesn’t ever fall into the traps of the evangelicals. But on the opposite side of the spectrum they draw a giant, steroid ecclesiology. The church literally becomes incarnational. This warps or blinds them to key aspects of the Gospel and in tempting them to equate the church with God it draws them into battles they ought to have no business fighting. Any more coherent?