The Catholic Church is back in the spotlight. It was the week that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, had his resignation letter to the Pope accepted. A Vatican statement said: “Pope Francis accepted his resignation from the cardinalate and has ordered his suspension from the exercise of any public ministry, together with the obligation to remain in a house yet to be indicated to him, for a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial.”
The National Catholic Reporter stated that the cardinal had been “credibly accused of sexually abusing a teenager nearly 50 years ago, as well as additional allegations of sexual abuse and harassment over a number of decades. Other victims include three adults who were young priests or seminarians when McCarrick allegedly abused them.”
At the MacGill Summer School in Donegal, my Mayo News columnist colleague, Fr Kevin Hegarty (whose Second Reading column appears fortnightly on these pages), spoke on ‘The Catholic Church in Ireland – Will it survive? Should it matter?’. He said that the Catholic Church is heading towards irrelevance due to its positions on female ordination, contraception and sexuality. For many people the Church’s teachings on contraception and homosexuality have ‘as much validity as Danny Healy Rae’s views on climate change’.
It is also the week of the 50th anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which prohibited the use of contraception for Catholic couples. “People began to lose confidence in an institution whose teaching on this topic was so out of sync with their lived experience,” Kevin Hegarty said. In the 22 parishes in his diocese of Killala there is only one priest under the age of 40, two under 50 and five under 60, with just two priests ordained since 2001. “What is needed, I believe, is a new council of the church to map out a paradigm for the future,” he said.
Over the past month the Association of Catholic Priests has been hosting public meetings across the country, posing a single question: “What would you say to Pope Francis about the Irish Church?” Anyone can submit views on www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie.
Some people speak about their pet topics, bemoaning any changes and urging the Church back to the realm of Vatican 1 (1869-70). Others seek change, stating it cannot come quickly enough.
The role of women is one that will have to be tackled. “We’re good enough to make the tea, make telephone calls, but not make decisions,” a woman said at one ACP meeting. She added that her involvement in church matters was limited to the wishes of the parish priest. When priests are transferred, the level of lay involvement changes.
This begs the question: Are priests the major obstacle to change within the Church? So often, bishops are blamed. If the buck stops with parish priests then, to a large degree, they control the level of change within the day-to-day running of the church. There are broader institutional issues that they cannot tackle directly. For many people, the living out of their Christian experience in a faith community hinges on the level of involvement a priest will encourage and support.
Any discussion on the Church will bring out the polar opposites – the conservatives and the liberals. The truth, as always, hangs somewhere in between. That’s where Pope Francis finds himself, trying to balance things. According to many reports that is more difficult than it seems with an immovable Curia (the civil service of the Church). “Reforming the Curia, it has been said, is like trying to give a haircut to a drowsy lion,” according to Kevin Hegarty.
Pope Francis is trying to adopt a more synodal approach – listening to every voice, or at least as many as he can. This is removed from the many dogmatic utterings, the historical emphasis on black and white, with no recognition of the colours in between.
The church needs people to grow as individuals in faith to become part of a faith community, not mere ‘yes people.’ Faith communities have many failings and weaknesses, from the top down and bottom up. Regardless, if Christ is the head then nothing will prevail against it.