The Vatican is still cocooned from reality
Fr Kevin Hegarty
Based on the reports we have heard so far, the Irish bishops’ visit to Rome to discuss the implications of the Ryan and Murphy reports seems to have been a damp squib. A tenth century anonymous Irish cleric and poet would not have been surprised. He wrote:
“To go to Rome,
Much labour, little profit,
The King you seek here,
Unless you bring him with you,
You will not find.”
Tellingly, the epigram is entitled a “pointless pilgrimage.”
I was not surprised either that the visit failed to meet the expectations of the victims of clerical and religious sexual abuse and of the vast majority of Irish Catholics who have been shocked by the revelation of the cover-up that followed.
The perceptive political analyst, Elaine Byrne, who contributes a column to The Irish Times, wrote there recently: “Institutions are by definition predisposed towards self-preservation, resistance to change and are characterised by self interest.”
Her words appeared on February 16, the day of the conclusion of the bishops’ summit in Rome. Though they refer to our political institutions, they apply even more acutely to the Catholic Church.
The Vatican’s main concern is to preserve the male hierarchical character of the Catholic Church in its present form. Its procedures are archaic, cumbersome and precious, utterly out of sync with the ways of the democratic world.
Lip service is paid to lay involvement. Misogyny is veiled in theological abstractions. Emotional intelligence is an alien concept. One is as likely to find it there as in a fridge.
As Maureen Gaffney, a clinical psychologist and chairperson of the National Economic and Social Forum, wrote recently: “The Catholic Church is a powerful homo-social institution, where men are submissive to a hierarchical authority and where women are incidental and dispensable. It’s the purest form of a male hierarchy, reflected in the striking fact that we collectively refer to it as ‘the Hierarchy’.
“It has all the characteristics of the worst kind of such an institution; rigid in social structure; preoccupied by power; ruthless in suppressing internal dissent; in thrall to status, titles and insignia, with an accompanying culture of narcissism and entitlement; and at a great distance from human intimacy and suffering.”
We saw it in all its tedious glory at the meeting in Rome; the cardinals and bishops, all elderly and middle-aged, adorned in their soutanes; the kissing of the papal ring with obsequious enthusiasm; the total absence of lay women and men.
The television images of the opening of the meeting brought home to us that, as was once said of the Bourbon kings of France, the Vatican has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
Images are important, especially nowadays, given the ubiquity of the visual media. They hint at an inner reality. Almost half a century on from the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council which sought to move the Church from an hierarchical model to one based on the “People of God”, nothing has really changed.
That is the tragedy of the Catholic Church today. As the distinguished liberal theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, once wrote: “I do not begrudge any believer the right to describe and live out his belief in accordance to old models of experience, culture and ideas, but this attitude isolates the church’s faith from any future and divests it of any real missionary power.”
According to reports, Vatican officials have been dismayed by the negative media coverage of the Roman summit. It just shows how cocooned they are from the reality of the crisis in Ireland. While it is welcome that the papal statement after the meeting called the sexual abuse of children a heinous crime, overall the response lacks inspiration. There is no reference to the systematic failure of the Church’s response to the abuse, nor is there any explanation or apology for the failure of the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith and the Papal Nuncio to cooperate with the Murphy Commission.
Spokespersons for the victims of abuse were deeply disappointed by the statement. They had hoped that the Pope would offer to meet them and offer an apology on behalf of the Church for what they had suffered. They had expected that the Pope would welcome the Ryan and Murphy reports because of the definitive manner in which their pain had been brought into public view. There is much validity in their criticism.
Meanwhile the Irish bishops are engaged in damage limitation in the wake of the meeting. Several bishops have hinted that the Roman meeting was more comprehensive than reflected in the papal statement. It would be helpful if all the bishops published the texts of their submissions to the Pope so that we can see what was said on our behalf. Hiding under the cloak of confidentiality in this matter is counter-productive.
Meanwhile, we await the Pope’s letter to the Catholics in Ireland, due before the end of March.