There is room for liberals in the Catholic church

I have always considered myself to be a liberal. Instinctively, since as long as I was able to think for myself, I subscribed to what was known as the ‘liberal agenda.’ Though I was a committed Catholic, and came from a devout Catholic family, I had no time for theocracies. I believed in the separation of church and state. I believed that any church or religious institution that relied on the state to enforce its teachings was, by definition, a weak church or institution. I felt that an unhealthy codependency had developed between civil and religious authorities in the decades after Irish independence that would be detrimental to both of them in the long run.

The relationship between de Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, and the latter’s interventions in almost every aspect of Irish life, seemed to encapsulate all that was wrong with church and state in 20th century Ireland.

When the ban on artificial contraception was being discussed in the 1970s and 80s, I was with those who wanted reform. It was the same when it came to divorce. I might personally subscribe to what the church teaches about the sanctity of marriage, but I didn’t think it should be imposed on those who were not Catholic or who disagreed profoundly with the church’s position. Similarly, when it came to legalising homosexual acts and to the vote on marriage equality, I was on the side of the reformers. I even wrote an op-ed piece for the Irish Times in support of marriage equality.

And many years ago, when I had just emerged out of my teens, I voted against the 8th amendment to the constitution, not because I was in favour of abortion, but because I thought the proposed wording was weak and was going to lead to a whole pile of trouble.

Meanwhile, I had joined the seminary straight out of school and so found myself in the difficult position where some of the views I held were at odds with the official teaching of the church. When it came to internal church politics I also found myself on the liberal side – favouring the ordination of woman and the introduction of optional celibacy, as well as a more compassionate approach to those who were gay or divorced and remarried. I identified strongly with liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor. I was enthused more than anything by the idea of a church and a clergy that stood alongside the oppressed and were willing to lose all in solidarity with them. An open, welcoming, inclusive church.

But the odd thing is that not only did I find myself in conflict with the Vatican over the years, and run into trouble with the authorities for my views, I found that many so-called liberals had no time for church people like me either. I remember being taken aback one time when Fintan O’Toole referred to me in his column as a conservative. I certainly didn’t see myself as a conservative. Then I understood that in the eyes of many secularists, being a Catholic priest was synonymous with being a conservative. That if you were a card-carrying member of the clergy then, ipso facto, you had to be a conservative. And, therefore, an ogre and an obscurantist.

Given its arrogance and abuse of power in the past, I don’t blame people for being angry at the Irish Catholic church. But what I don’t like is the way in which everybody in the church is viewed through the same lens, how all clergy and religious are regarded as the enemy, and as opponents of all that is good.

Sure, the church as institution has much to answer for, but the church is not a monolith. There is diversity within and much goodness too. To deny that fact, or refuse to see it, as some liberals do, is to replace one form of arrogance and intolerance with another.

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The way bishops are chosen is broken – we need to fix it

The current papal nuncio to Ireland has found himself in a uniquely privileged position. He got the job in 2011 at a moment of extraordinary crisis in the Irish church and, as luck or otherwise would have it, he has had the opportunity to put his mark on the shape and orientation of the Irish bishops’ conference for many years to come. Since his arrival, Archbishop Brown has appointed 10 bishops, and is in the process of appointing six more. That amounts to 16 dioceses out of a total of 26. That’s a whole lot of influence and power. 

But even with all this influence and power, when it comes to selecting bishops, the nuncio faces a number of problems.

One problem is that there is a shrinking pool of men from whom to choose. There are fewer available priests out there and fewer still who are under 60 years old.

A second problem is finding suitable candidates from among that under-60 age group. With a shrinking pool of priests and scare vocations, the number of clergy with the requisite education, pastoral skills and leadership ability has also gone down.

A third problem is the reluctance of clergy to become bishops. It’s impossible to prove because the process is so secretive, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant number of priests have said no to episcopal office in recent years. Who could blame them? They are all too aware of the challenges facing the church in Ireland today. They don’t feel qualified enough for the job, or would rather not have to spend years trying to staff parishes and find vocations and close churches and administer dioceses with ever dwindling resources.

But though all these problems exist, there still remains a pool of priests out there who would make fine bishops, if only chosen and encouraged.

Imagine, though, if bishops were chosen in a different way, if they were chosen along the lines adopted by the early church.

If that were to happen, each diocese would nominate its own bishop. The bishop would be chosen after wide consultation among priests and people in a manner that was open and transparent. The bishop would be elected at a synod attended by priests and people from throughout the diocese. The pope, who would be obliged to accept the candidate unless there was clear evidence of his incompetence and/or unorthodoxy, would then ratify the new bishop formally.

Imagine if each bishop came from within his own diocese. He would not be a ‘blow-in’ from another diocese or be from a religious order or congregation but would be one of the clergy of that diocese. From the local church, of the local church, called by his own people into leadership, he would know the smell of his sheep and their needs, and they would have knowledge of him. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as the danger of political interference in the selection process or major disunity in the diocese, would a non-native be appointed.

Imagine if each bishop remained in his diocese for the duration of his episcopal ministry. Chosen by the priests and people as their shepherd, it would be unthinkable that he would transfer elsewhere, or use his appointment as a stepping-stone for promotion to a larger or more significant diocese. In keeping with the understanding of the early church, his relationship with his diocese would be seen as being like a marriage relationship, and so to break that bond would be akin to divorcing the community he was ordained to serve.

When you compare how things were done in the past with how bishops are appointed today, it is clear that there have been significant changes from the practice and understanding of the early church.

The method of selecting bishops today is secretive. Some consultation is done but only with a select few whose recommendations do not have to be accepted. How the consultation is done and what questions are asked is never revealed. The local church gets very little say in the selection of its leader. The first engagement most people and priests of the diocese have with the process is when their new bishop is presented to them.

Nor is every bishop from the diocese he has been chosen to lead. In fact, all of the recently appointed bishops are from another diocese. When you are an ‘outsider,’ it inevitably takes time to settle in, to get to know priests and people, to understand the issues and challenges the diocese faces, as well as its history and heritage. It also weakens the sense of the shepherd as one of the local presbyterate who is called into leadership by his own flock.

And, of course, there is the long-established practice of transferring – or promoting – bishops. There is no guarantee that a bishop, once ordained, will remain always in the same diocese. Quite a bit of moving around takes place, which leads to the danger of careerism and undermines the image of bishop as being wedded to his diocese. There will always have to be some moving around, moving upwards, but it should be the exception.

One can debate how lucky or unlucky the Irish church has been in the bishops chosen to lead it. But what is clear is that the system of selection needs urgent reform. Given the many pressing problems that confront the church today and in order to reclaim the understanding of bishop as one who is called by his local ecclesial community to be its leader and shepherd, it’s time to change how bishops are chosen and return to our ancient, more transparent, practice.

 

My worst nightmare

Every priest and religious in active ministry today share one common nightmare – that he will receive a phone call from his bishop/congregational leader informing him that an allegation of sexual abuse has been made against him.

To be falsely accused of any crime is bad enough but nothing, except perhaps murder, compares with being accused of the sexual abuse of a child or vulnerable person. In most cases, you are instantly and very publicly removed from office, and even when there is no official explanation for your removal, local people will soon start to put two and two together. There is the shock, the incredulity, the shame (even though you are innocent), the helplessness, the vulnerability. Your world comes crashing down. You are made to feel guilty even before you have a chance to defend yourself.

Even when your family and friends believe and support you, you feel totally alone. You are stuck in a nightmare and you don’t know when or if you’ll ever get out of it.

You hope for the total support of your bishop/superior, but his first instinct will be to protect the interests of the church. As it has always been. In the old shameful days of the past, protecting the interests of the church meant ignoring the cries of those who were abused. It was an unforgivable act that destroyed countless lives, and for which the church continues to pay a heavy price. Now it means letting clergy hang out to dry, even when the allegation is anonymous and clearly spurious.

Because of the church’s past sins, allegations of abuse must always be treated with the utmost seriousness. The victim(s) must always come first. And the vast majority of allegations of abuse are one hundred percent genuine.

But if the allegation is anonymous, or if it is clearly false, the accused priest needs to feel supported by the church. That does not always happen, as Fr Tim Hazelwood describes in The Tablet newspaper (see his story on the Association of Catholic Priests’ website). What happened to him is every innocent priest’s worse nightmare. It is mine too.

It’s time women were allowed preach in the Catholic Church – and lay and married men too

Last Sunday I preached on love. It was the first time I have done Sunday preaching since I went under the knife (twice) last November. When you preach in our Limerick church on a weekend, you do so at all the Masses. So I performed four times.The response was positive. I love preaching. Actually, I love public speaking. I was no more than 10 or 11 years old when I began delivering passionate political addresses with a hairbrush as a microphone.

I will never forget the first time I got to use a real microphone. I was reading in church at Sunday Mass. I was about 14 years old, and I tried to imagine I was Lincoln, or Churchill, or JFK, but it’s hard to electrify a crowd when all you have to work with is a dull passage from the Old Testament. Still, the experience exhilarated me. I was buzzing afterwards. I knew that whatever career I would choose would have a public speaking element.

For a long time, I was determined to become a barrister. It would be exciting to stand before a jury like one of the TV lawyers and use my oratorical skills to brilliantly and forensically demolish my opponent’s argument.

I also dreamed of a career in politics. It wasn’t the humdrum constituency work I was interested in, or messy meetings in smoke-filled rooms, but the opportunity to make speeches, and argue points, and even, eventually, once I got to the top, to address the nation. I could recite large parts of JFK’s inaugural address and MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I could imagine delivering speeches like that, but, of course, it never came to be because I got derailed down the religion road.

I still often wonder ‘What if?’

At least being a clergyman offers the opportunity to speak in public, like I did on Sunday. And, occasionally, to debate in public also. I have taken part in a number of university debates against top quality opponents over the years and won them all on a show of hands. There are few bigger thrills than having a student audience declare you the victor.

Not all my preaching has been a success. I remember vividly the Christmas midnight Mass when I got it spectacularly wrong. The little church was packed, lots of young families were in attendance, and I spoke about how at Christmas many people can experience the absence of God rather than God’s presence. I used a story from Auschwitz to illustrate my point.

I knew half way through the homily that it wasn’t going down well, and after the Mass was over and I stood at the back to greet people as they left, several made sure to let me know what they thought of my performance.

“Disgraceful!” one man exclaimed. His wife tried to be more diplomatic. “It wasn’t that bad, Father, don’t listen to him,” she said. “No, he needs to hear the truth,” the husband retorted. “Someone needs to tell him.”

Another woman, two kids in tow, told me forcefully never to preach that sermon again. Others said the same thing.

I was distraught. I knew I had miscalculated badly. Christmas should be uplifting and cuddly and child-friendly. Mine was the opposite. I vowed never to make a mistake like that again. And I haven’t.

I think one of the great weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been the quality of its preachers and preaching. Some preachers are always going to be better than others. They have an aptitude for it. They work at it. They enjoy it.

Some will never be brilliant but, with determination and effort, they can and do improve.

But a lot of clergy, it seems to me, do not try very hard. And maybe do not care a great deal any more. They are too tired or too busy to prepare adequately. They commit little or nothing to paper. They feel they have said it all before, or they have a few pet topics they keep returning to. The whole exercise is a chore for them as well as for the congregation. I sometimes wonder how so many people put up with it week after week.

And of course it is difficult for both priest and people when the priest has to face the same people every Sunday and the people have to face the same priest.

The preaching problem will become even more acute as the number of priests continues to fall. Importing clergy from overseas, who have no knowledge of our culture and for whom English is not their first language, will only exacerbate the problem.

Priests need more training. When the Redemptorists ran renewal courses for clergy and religious back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the preaching segment was the bit the participants disliked most. Each had to compose a homily and deliver it to camera as if in his own parish setting. And then the others were encouraged to critique his performance. He would naturally get defensive and his colleagues would always be reluctant to say something negative about his content or delivery.

Most of them found the whole ordeal excruciating, most made excuses about being in an unnatural environment that put them off their game. Many were in denial about how dreadful they actually were. I doubt that most took any lessons on board at all.

And yet priests need training and regular refresher days, because preaching is such a vital part of their ministry. Not all are going to be spellbinding orators or storytellers, but everyone can do better, if they try and if they prepare.

It is a shame and unjust that only priests and deacons are permitted to preach at the Eucharist. Women’s voices are never heard (unless occasionally one is invited to “say a few words” after communion). Married voices, unless the preacher is one of the few convert priests, are never heard either. So much wisdom is being lost. So much needs to change.

But change won’t come while we remain trapped in the current clerical model of church. Maybe the slow disappearance of priests in Ireland and the western world will bring about the change that is needed. Then good lay people will be required to preach and teach. For if they are not, the gospel will not be proclaimed and the church will become even more irrelevant.