If the Catholics of Ireland are angry with their hierarchy, their grounds for it are obvious and indubitable. However, anger is a dangerous emotion, and is a poor state from which to suggest changes.
John L. Allen, Jr., who (sadly) still writes for the National Catholic Distorter, reports: “I’m in Dublin this week for a couple of speaking gigs, the centerpiece of which is an April 6-9 conference on the sexual abuse crisis sponsored by the Jesuits’ Milltown Institute titled ‘Broken Faith: Revisioning the Church in Ireland’.”
Okay, the conference is being hosted by the Jesuits. Right away, you’re given grounds for suspicion.
It doesn’t get better. A social worker and psychotherapist from University College Dublin blames the problem on a theology of sexuality which can fuel “self-hatred and shame”, a theology of the priesthood which “sets [priests] apart in an unhealthy manner,” and a “top-down model” of leadership. The acting president of the Milltown Institute demands “a reinterpretation of the faith and the Christian way of life”, especially a “more participatory church” (i.e., hecklers’ rights over magisterial teaching).
Charmingly, Allen confesses the bias: “ … [T]he crowd at the Milltown event probably skewed a bit to the center-left, and I suspect the conversation in more conservative circles would be different. I summarize them here merely to indicate the kind of ideas circulating among some thoughtful Irish commentators.”
Sorry, Mr. Allen, they’re not “thoughtful” at all. It’s the same old recipe of sexual permissiveness and quasi-Marxist dialectics; dissidents can rattle it off in their sleep. If the conference was skewed only a bit to the center-left, it may be because the people you quoted didn’t think to bring women’s ordination and gay marriage up.
Let’s look at the propositions the social worker, Marie Keenan, brought forth:
A new theology of priesthood, which would treat the distinction between the clerical and lay states as “more symbolic and less literal”. Another way to say this is, “Let’s pay lip-service to the sacramental priesthood but treat priests as ordinary Joe Blows doing an ordinary job.”
But priests don’t do an ordinary job. I might be a brilliant administrator, an excellent teacher and a great guy to have entertain at your weddings. But I can’t confect the Sacrament of the Altar, or impart forgiveness of your sins, or validly consecrate your marriage.
I’m not trying to reduce the priest to a ‘sacrament dispenser”; in fact, I argue that a proper understanding of the sacraments automatically vests the priest’s role with an authority and power that begs for such a literal distinction. The power of the sacraments is literal; “symbolic”, in this context, can only be synonymous with “empty and ritualistic”.
A new ecclesiology which would treat Catholicism more as a “moral and social proposition” and less as a “power apparatus”. What does this mean? Well, if priests don’t really do anything that Joe Schmuckatelli the layman—or Jane Schmuckatelli his wife, or Bob McGuffin his lover—can’t do equally well, then the Church is little more than a collection of social services provided by people who are kind of interested in good behavior, and should be run like any other social services agency.
This is precisely what liberals have been trying to reduce the Church to for the last forty-six years; in many parishes and, to some degree, many dioceses, they’ve succeeded. I would agree that some changes in diocesan structure could be made to help bishops function more as apostolic successors and less as bureaucratic administrators. But Catholicism isn’t just a “moral and social proposition”, and to reduce it to that is a breathtaking insult to its theology and history.
A serious study of decision-making procedures within the Catholic hierarchy. Here’s an open door to the “more participatory church” Cornelius Casey (the acting president of the Millhouse Institute) is plunking for. What is Ms. Keenan asking for if it’s not ecclesial government by committee? This isn’t a strictly theological argument, but from looking at other churches governed by committee, I can say this is a disastrous recommendation.
Rather than creating its own child safety protection offices and review boards … the church should simply “cooperate fully with the state” and independent bodies devoted to promoting child welfare. Uh, no. Can anyone say “separation of Church and State”? Maybe it’s because I’m an American, but I don’t trust any government agency to do a better job of looking out for young people than the Church in Ireland did at its worst.
One of the reasons for the scandals is the failure of the Church to take internal responsibility for the treatment of its young folk … in other words, because it didn’t have child safety protection offices and review boards. Moreover, state and independent bodies have their own agendas (and interpretations of “child welfare”), and are often in the charge of people hostile to the Church and its teachings.
The role of the priest is special. However, as Abp. Diarmuid Martin remarked in an address at Marquette University recently, that “The culture of clericalism has to be analyzed and addressed. Were there factors of a clerical culture which somehow facilitated disastrous abusive behavior to continue for so long?”
Archbishop Martin rightfully points out that most of the abusive behavior took place in the 1970s and 1980s. It doesn’t follow, however, that the culture which allowed such behavior to flourish isn’t still present within the Irish presbytery.
According to Tom Roberts, +Martin “has begun establishing programs that end the segregation of priests from lay people studying for ministry. The intent, he said, is to have future priests ‘establish mature relationships with men and women’ and avoid developing ‘any sense of their priesthood giving them a special social position.’”
This plan at least has the merits of addressing the real problem. The folk at the Millhouse Institute conference remind me of the saying: “To the man who only has a hammer in his toolbox, every problem looks like a nail.”
Update: April 12, 2011
Update: April 12, 2011
The British journal The Tablet (their version of the National Catholic Fishwrap, and thus often called The Bitter Pill or RU 486) recently harrumphed:
It was interesting to read about the new Confraternity of Catholic Clergy in the British Province of Pope St. Gregory the Great (News from Britain and Ireland, 2 April). The theologically dubious description of the priest as being an image of Christ, acting in the person of Christ, and possessing an "active instrumental power" all in a way in which the layman respectively is not, cannot, and does not, betrays a clericalist and power-based notion of priesthood at odds with any notion of service. This could all be put down to a traditionalist nostalgia for past priestly status or to an outmoded and flawed theology of the priesthood, were it not for the fact that psychologists and others are very aware that it is precisely that kind of power-focused self-definition that has in part contributed to the abuse of power within the priesthood, including the sexual abuse of children.
However, the theology of the priesthood isn't power-focused; that's being read into the dogma by liberal activists posing as pop psychologists. Blaming the theology of the priesthood for abuses of power within the priesthood makes as much sense as throwing away your hammer because you had no success removing Philips-head screws with it. Or blaming the theory of apostolic succession for bishops selling indulgences in Germany.
Let me explain: I can write and arrange music. If you can't, that makes you no better or worse a person than I. But if it's the sin of pride for me to assume superiority to you because you can't, it's a grave failure of charity and the sin of rash judgment for you to charge me with elitist ideas simply because I get recognition for my writing and arranging skills. There's no other word for it than envy.