Savi Hensman

Ireland and the Vatican - a people's church?

By Savi Hensman
August 6, 2011

Enda Kenny’s powerful ‘Children first’ speech on 20 July 2011 to Ireland’s parliament has provoked strong reactions. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) denounced “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism....the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day” and led to the refusal to cooperate in tackling child abuse.

Some have read it as an attack on the Roman Catholic Church. But, in reality, it reflects divisions within the church, bringing not only judgement but also the hope of renewal. And it may challenge Christians of all denominations to think more deeply about the responsibilities of the laity.

Responding to sabotage of the workings of justice

Kenny was responding to the revelations in the recently-published Cloyne Report, based on an inquiry into the way that religious and state authorities had handled allegations of abuse against 19 clergy in the County Cork diocese.

According to this report, the local bishop and Vicar General, and officials of the Vatican, failed to uphold child protection procedures, and some police did not adequately investigate complaints. These procedures had been introduced by the Irish bishops after earlier scandals, but in this diocese they were largely ignored, due in part to Rome’s refusal to give them full backing.

“The revelations of the Cloyne report have brought the Government, Irish Catholics and the Vatican to an unprecedented juncture,” the Taoiseach declared.

“The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation'.

“Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict's 'ear of the heart'......the Vatican's reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.

“This calculated, withering position being the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion upon which the Roman Church was founded.”

He condemned the clericalism that “has rendered some of Ireland's brightest, most privileged and powerful men, either unwilling or unable to address the horrors” described in previous reports. But the days of “industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world” were over. Ireland was a modern democracy, subject to the rule of law.

The state too, he acknowledged, had failed to do enough to prevent children and young adults from being “reduced to human wreckage”. Urgent action was needed “to protect the sacred space of childhood and to restore its innocence.”

Division within the church

What gave Kenny’s impassioned speech added force was that he spoke as a practising Catholic. And the mixed responses to his statement showed the deep divisions within the church in Ireland. It also resonated with the experience in other countries and denominations where, at times, senior clergy or elders are perceived to have put institutional self-interest above the claims of love and justice.

He was also expressing widely-held concerns: “I believe that the Irish people, including the very many faithful Catholics who - like me - have been shocked and dismayed by the repeated failings of Church authorities to face up to what is required, deserve and require confirmation from the Vatican that they do accept, endorse and require compliance by all Church authorities here with, the obligations to report all cases of suspected abuse” in line with the law.

The clericalism which had done such damage “must be devastating for good priests” who have worked hard “to be the keepers of the Church's light and goodness”, he pointed out.

Indeed, there was a theological undertone to his critique of the religious authorities. “As a practising Catholic, I don't say any of this easily. Growing up, many of us in here learned we were part of a pilgrim Church.

“Today, that Church needs to be a penitent Church. A church, truly and deeply penitent for the horrors it perpetrated, hid and denied.”

Some Roman Catholics in Ireland were offended by the forcefulness of his rebuke, which would have been unthinkable just a generation before, when many projected on to clergy the deference due to God. One priest likened Kenny’s criticism of the Vatican to Hitler’s, but later backed down. The Vatican recalled its ambassador, and a spokesperson suggested that this was an indication of how seriously it took the issue and its commitment to cooperation with the Irish government, but expressed “some degree of surprise and disappointment at certain excessive reactions".

In contrast, there were senior leaders whose response showed that they really did understand why putting institutional privilege over children’s wellbeing was so profoundly wrong from a Christian perspective. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, who had earlier been angry and ashamed to discover that the agreed child protection procedures were not acted on in County Cork, said that the Taoiseach’s criticisms should be a wake-up call.

Large numbers of people, including clergy, contacted Kenny to express their support.

In the words of Brendan Hoban, a priest and well-known columnist and broadcaster, writing in the Western People: “Here was a man, a leader, a Taoiseach who would be heard on behalf of the Irish people. And his declared and unashamed perspective as that of a ‘faithful Catholic’ and ‘a practising Catholic’ gave his words all the more substance.”

In his view “Kenny has also articulated another obvious truth about the Irish Catholic Church: that the domination of Rome is strangling the emergence of a people’s Church in Ireland... the Irish Catholic Church needs to assert the freedom to develop its own distinct life” and “the basis for all of this is to be found not in some revolutionary manual but in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.” The time has come for “a People’s Church”.

Priesthood of all believers and openness to the Spirit

Some think of churches as primarily institutional, or as top-down communities in which, closest to God, are a set of senior clergy or elders who are the most important, and whose interpretation of Scripture and tradition the lower ranks should obey. But neither fits biblical imagery or, indeed, the way in which most churches talk of themselves.

Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospel, repeatedly refuses to put the interests of institutions above those of the needy and vulnerable, even if this angers the pious and puts him at risk. This is reflected, for instance, in the debate over the Sabbath (Mark 2.23-3.6).

In an image attributed to Christ in John’s Gospel, he is the vine and his followers are the branches (John 15.1-17). They are also his friends – no longer just servants doing as they are told – and called to love one another as he has loved them. In the Epistles, Christ is described as the head of the church, his body (Colossians 1.18), and all members have their own gifts from the Holy Spirit and should care for and value one another (1 Corinthians 12.4-27).

Indeed, throughout the Bible, it is clear that the Spirit is not controlled by anyone but rather acts freely, often surprising those who are called to particular tasks and others around them. The prophet Amos, for instance, is a shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees, not a priest, when he is summoned and empowered by God to speak out against the abuses of power and privilege around him; and on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on Jesus’ followers of varied backgrounds.

The priesthood of all believers – another concept rooted in the New Testament (1 Peter 2.9) – is widely acknowledged by Catholics as well as Protestants. This is not to underplay the importance of ministers or elders, without whose support other Christians would not be able to exercise their own ministry, and who are often the most visible representatives of the church in local communities. In teaching and worship (particularly, in many denominations, administration of the sacraments), clergy and elders can also help to connect congregations to a wider church, linked across time and space.

In 1964 Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), one of the documents arising from the Second Vatican Council, reflected the increasing recognition in theological circles of the role of the laity – the wider people of God. “The baptised, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man [sic] they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvellous light.” There is still an element of clericalism, for instance “The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people”. But this is far removed from the notion of laypersons as passive, while the work of the church is done by a select few.

Nor are they there just to assist in making the institution run smoothly. The laity “live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations” and “in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.”

According to ‘The Gift of Authority’, emerging from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) in 1998:

Within the Church the memory of the people of God may be affected or even distorted by human finitude and sin. Even though promised the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the churches from time to time lose sight of aspects of the apostolic Tradition, failing to discern the full vision of the kingdom of God in the light of which we seek to follow Christ...

In changing situations producing fresh challenges to the Gospel, the discernment, actualisation and communication of the Word of God is the responsibility of the whole people of God. The Holy Spirit works through all members of the community, using the gifts he gives to each for the good of all...

In every Christian who is seeking to be faithful to Christ and is fully incorporated into the life of the Church, there is a sensus fidei [sense of the faithful]. This sensus fidei may be described as an active capacity for spiritual discernment, an intuition that is formed by worshipping and living in communion as a faithful member of the Church. When this capacity is exercised in concert by the body of the faithful we may speak of the exercise of the sensus fidelium...

Those who exercise episcope [bishops] in the Body of Christ must not be separated from the ‘symphony’ of the whole people of God in which they have their part to play.

From scandal to renewal

Institutions have their place. Schools and hospitals, for instance, do much good, and require extensive organisation: but when finance, public relations, senior staff’s own careers or other factors take priority over educating children or caring for patients, things are liable to go wrong.

Bishops and clergy (or elders) are often excellent leaders. However, they cannot be experts in everything: there are limits to their knowledge and experience. And sometimes they may be so caught up in maintaining church structures that they fail fully to perceive human suffering and blighted potential, or signs of God-given hope. There are times indeed when the church must assert its independence of the state, or challenge unhelpful cultural trends. But on some occasions, social developments arising from the insights of lay Christians and others concerned with justice, mercy and peace reflect the workings of the Holy Spirit.

In various denominations, attempts to play down scandals related to abuse have done more damage to these churches than open admission of fault and true penitence would have done. Numerous Irish people, many of them Roman Catholic, have been saddened and angered by the failure of the church at times faithfully to follow Christ, who told his followers "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10.14), and that “nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light” (Luke 8.17). In speaking out for them, and insisting that children should come first, Enda Kenny was perhaps exercising his responsibility not only as Prime Minister of a democracy but also as a lay Christian, steeped in a tradition that includes not only piety but also prophecy.

It is easy for churches to become inward-looking, and fail to discern how and where God is at work outside institutional structures and hierarchies. Yet the hope of renewal may be found in humble openness to One present throughout creation and who (in the words of a prayer attributed to Patrick, patron saint of Ireland) may speak through “mouth of friend and stranger”.


© Savi Hensman is an Ekklesia associate, and an established Christian commentator on church, theology and society.

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