Aidan Hart challenges the lack of effective response to the various crises in today’s Catholic Church
The old adage in the title of this article, used by Benjamin Franklin, could not be more apt than it is today, to describe the absence of effective response by the Vatican and Irish hierarchy – among many other hierarchies – to the current crisis and confusion in the Catholic Church.
This crisis includes:
- a serious drop in church attendance and Church membership;
- the closure or amalgamation of parishes due to the ever increasing shortage of priests;
- with younger generations absent from church, confusion about the purpose and effectiveness of Catholic schools in the task of faith-formation of young Catholics;
- the long-standing battle over whether or not the Second Vatican Council was an appropriate, Spirit guided, reform of the Catholic Church – or whether it went too far and now needs to be re-reformed back to where the Church was before it took place.
To begin with this last issue, groups in various parts of the world are now increasingly asking for Mass to be celebrated once again in Latin, a situation encouraged and made easier by Pope Benedict XV1’s apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum. Supporters of the Latin Mass argue that Mass in the vernacular has lost its essential sense of mystery, awe and worship.
Those against a return to Mass in Latin want full implementation of what Vatican II deemed essential – ‘full, conscious and active participation by the laity’. They also want further reforms to emphasise Eucharist as a transformative and sacred meal, full of joyful and worshipful praise, in which all participate. They want participants to leave Sunday Mass more fully united as a community in Jesus the Christ, strengthened and encouraged to make Christ and his unconditional love present to all those they encounter. They feel that Mass has become a privatised and individualistic devotion rather than sacred food for the task of forming mutually supportive and evangelising communities.
And those in the English-speaking world want the current and awkward Latinised English of the recent translation of the missal to be retranslated into an English which is easily read and meaningful.
Faith formation failing
As for faith formation of the young, reformers want parents to take back the crucial task of being the primary and most important formators by their words and actions – supported by parish and diocesan training programmes.
At present there is serious danger of squandering the huge investment of both money and human resources in Catholic primary and secondary education over a very long period of time. During that time Catholic parents have been under considerable pressure from their local clergy to have their children attend Catholic schools in order to learn about their faith and become Sunday Mass-attending Catholics for life. “ Irish Catholic young people are among the most catechised and least evangelised in Europe…With the exception of Catholic Schools Week, the Irish religious education establishment is fixated on questions of ownership and management and too little on the purpose of the Catholic school and the outcomes of Catholic education in terms of faith formation. (Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin in his Saint Kilian’s Lecture in Germany 8th July 2017) An accurate and honest critique of what is wrong but nothing in the speech to suggest or recommend what should be put in its place. It is both surprising and shocking that no professional research has ever been carried out and published in Ireland and in most other countries as to the effectiveness or otherwise of leaving the formation of faith solely to Catholic schools. The fact that the sacrament of Confirmation has for quite some time been regarded by many clergy as the Sacrament of Exit from the Church would indicate that Catholic schools cannot, on their own, effectively form the faith of young people in a way that will grow and develop throughout their adult lives. The Spring 2017 edition of The Sheaf (St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society) reports recent studies showing that about 80% of those who leave the Catholic Church have done so by the age of 23.
(See the article ‘Faith Formation and Fear of Shame’ by Sean O’Conaill, first published recently in The Furrow and now hosted on this website.)
A disappearing priesthood?
Why has so little been done in the past – and why is so little still being done at present – to tackle the crisis which is now upon us in the Catholic Church? Closing, clustering or amalgamating parishes when priests are no longer available is far too little too late – a rearranging of the deckchairs on a sinking ship! The organisation of endless talking shops which are ‘doomed to success’ by discussing a very restricted agenda of non controversial issues and ineffective solutions is mostly a pretence at involvement of the laity and at effective action.
An example of a solution which fails to solve the underlying problem but merely covers it with a sticking plaster is the ordaining of permanent male deacons to do what mostly any baptised Catholic lay man or woman can already do by virtue of their baptism (Cf. Canon 1112 of Code of Canon Law 1983). Making lay men permanent clerics and dressing them in black suits and Roman collars are part of the deception that effective action is being taken and all is well for the future. The original role of deacon in the New Testament is now filled successfully by the local members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The transformation of this office into a totally new semi-liturgical role – which does not require a cleric – fails to solve the problem of the severe lack of vocations to the priesthood as currently constituted. Permanent deacons may alleviate somewhat the near exhaustion and feeling of isolation of the rapidly dwindling number of parish clergy but at the high cost of Sunday Mass no longer being available locally to a greater number of Catholics who will no longer be known by their local priest.
Between 2004 and 2014 the number of Irish diocesan priests declined by more than 500. At least 8 Irish priests have fallen victim to suicide in the last 10 years as morale continues to decline and mental health issues increase. As Fr. Gerry Moloney CSSR wrote about priests in 2012, when the shortage was already well under way, non-resident clergy serving amalgamated parishes “will become little more than sacrament dispensers, going from one parish or church to another, with little or no time to get to know people or to be with them.” (‘A Look at a Priest’s Life’ The Furrow, January 2012)
Comprehensive and radical thinking and discussion of all options by clergy and laity into all these issues seem abhorrent to most members of our hierarchy, which can seemingly be the only reason they avoid it. Pope Francis has frequently asked local bishops to come up with concrete, effective proposals but to little avail. One could almost say the lack of effective action in the current crisis by our hierarchical leaders is a sin against the Holy Spirit as they seem to be wrongly awaiting the Spirit to do what they lack the vision, commitment and courage to do themselves. Even a casual reading of the Old Testament should disabuse them of that response.
Emergency response is lacking
A country facing an impending disaster, such as widespread famine or flooding, or a business facing impending bankruptcy, would urgently commission expert reports and consult all agencies and people concerned, irrespective of gender and status. In a failing business, management and staff (men and women) at all levels would work closely together to identify the causes and all possible solutions to their existential crisis. The identification of problems would be honest and rigorous. No suggestion would be ‘off the table’. People would realise that the future of their sinking company was in all their hands. A close partnership based on trust and shared responsibility, with everyone’s skills and contributions being encouraged and respected would be the order of the day. A strong sense of urgency would prevail, knowing that time was of the essence.
Why then does our Irish hierarchy, and the Vatican itself, seem to feel that such an urgent and comprehensive response to the current crisis in the Irish and universal Church is totally irrelevant, inappropriate or unnecessary? Could it be that the admission of a crisis and particularly the admission of the hierarchy’s and Vatican’s part in helping to bring about that crisis, is beyond the capability of most members of the hierarchy and Vatican? After all, most seem to have been appointed for being ‘a safe pair of hands’ rather than for their inspired thinking, strong and proven leadership skills and team work. Do they see themselves as above blame? Are they too ashamed or are they afraid of losing their current power and status?
Why must the church ‘become small’?
Pope Benedict’s forecasting as far back as 2009 of the Catholic Church getting smaller has a strong ring of complacency and defeatism about it, and an attitude of the decline having nothing to do with Rome or the hierarchy; “The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning…but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” (‘Faith and the Future’ 2009). There is no acceptance in the book of the author’s complicity in helping to bringing about the present crisis. This he did by being silent publicly over clerical paedophilia and arguably thus covering it up. As Cardinal, he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and responsible for investigating and taking effective action on such matters. He failed to do so, as protecting the good name of the Church was deemed to be more important than protecting children from sexual abuse. Parents’ letters to the Vatican about their children being sexually molested by a priest were left unanswered.
Nor is there acceptance in that papal book of the Vatican’s institutional complicity in causing additional decline by its long-standing failure to take effective action to stop the Vatican bank’s money laundering activities for dubious organisations and individuals, and its refusal to publish full and independently audited accounts. In a Church rapidly declining in both membership and influence, where will men and women find what Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI called “home where (they) will find life and hope beyond death” during his predicted centuries of decline and absence of Eucharist? Who will ‘feed my lambs and feed my sheep’ (John 21:15-17)?
Many will see the declining Church, not as a place of “life and hope”, but rather as the sinful organisation that covered up terrible crimes against children by many of its male clerics and female religious in many parts of the world – the latter in their running of orphanages and homes for unmarried pregnant women.
It will also be seen as contradictory for a Church to have put Eucharist at its centre and yet to have denied that same Eucharist to many of its adherents around the world through its insistence on a seriously declining all-male and celibate priesthood. That situation, in effect, puts male priestly celibacy at the centre of the Church and not Eucharist.
Pope’s Francis’ statement to EU leaders in March 2017 could be equally applied to the crisis and turmoil currently within his own Church; “When a body loses its sense of direction and is no longer able to look ahead it experiences a regression and, in the long run, risks dying.” Does that not say it all?
We are now paying the price of all power being over-centralised for centuries in the Vatican and failing to be open and accountable to its lay members. The Second Vatican Council agreed on the decentralisation of much of the power to local bishops, which had been the more ancient Tradition. However, the ‘old guard’ in the Vatican, supported by two post-Council Popes, dragged their feet and reform quickly petered out. Some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, particularly liturgical reforms, are now seen by some cardinals, bishops and priests as needing to be reformed back again to the situation before the Second Vatican Council. (This is known as ‘the reform of the reform’.) The failure to implement the totality of the Second Vatican Council, both in spirit and letter, has helped create the disillusionment of many Catholics, both lay and clerical, and helped perpetuate the clericalism denounced by Pope Francis. Clericalism has perpetuated careerism within the clerical ranks of the Church, and particularly, according to Pope Francis, within the Vatican itself, and is underpinning the practice of clerical promotion still being too often based on ‘a safe pair of hands’ rather than on depth of spirituality, strength of commitment to apostolic endeavour, proven skills in team-work, a history of responding adequately to necessary change (particularly those envisaged by the Second Vatican Council), humility and poverty of lifestyle. The ‘order of the day’ has for too long been ‘better to do nothing than to be seen making a mistake and blotting one’s copy book or offending those in power in the Vatican, thus endangering one’s chances of future promotion to the rank of bishop, archbishop or cardinal’ .
Tinkering at the edges will no longer work. Being dishonestly positive by refusing to admit that there really is a deep-seated crisis in both the Irish and universal Church is irresponsible. It will only accelerate and deepen the crisis further. What is required is a complete paradigm shift in Catholic ecclesial theology, moral theology, Canon Law, liturgy (particularly Eucharistic liturgy), the role of laity, the requirements for priesthood and new, open and accountable structures for Vatican /diocesan and parish governance. Root and branch reform is required, not a mere tinkering at the edges.
Another schism pending?
The inadequate response of the hierarchy, and particularly of the Vatican, to the major problems and scandals in the 16th century Catholic Church (e.g. the sale of indulgences), highlighted by Father Martin Luther O.S.A. in Germany, led to the splintering of the Catholic Church into various Protestant Churches. The Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) introduced some necessary reforms (and a lot of rigidity) but it was a case of too little too late. That schism within the Christian Church remains to this day.
Are we not again seeing that lack of adequate and effective response to major problems in today’s Catholic Church, perhaps leading to another schism, this time much larger than that brought about by Archbishop Lefevbre in 1970 by the founding of the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) to oppose the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. It has to be accepted, of course, that further reforms might themselves cause further schisms by those ultra-conservative members of the Vatican and world-wide hierarchy, hence the cautious progress of Pope Francis.
Could the answer be a Third Vatican Council? If so, one hopes it will have a more inclusive structure, with both a House of Representative clergy (of Cardinals, Bishops and priests) and a House of Representative Laity (men and women), all with courage, honesty and integrity putting forward proposals and discussing and deciding upon the recommendations of expertly researched and publicly available reports? This might free the way for the Holy Spirit, dwelling within all of the People of God, to plan with us and through us for a more fruitful future in making the Kingdom of God more effectively present in our midst and available to all of human kind. It would enrich and evangelise the whole of society with God’s life-affirming, unconditional love and mercy. It would make progress in spite of the fears, weakness and sins of humanity, both clerical and lay, which will always be with us. However, cooperation with God’s ever abundant grace in taking effective and timely action will always help us overcome the obstacles to progress in spreading the Kingdom of God on earth, His Kingdom of love, mercy and justice to all.
May all the People of God, clergy and laity alike, have the humility and wisdom of the young King Solomon to ask God for His gift of discernment in guiding His Church in all things, particularly in the long process of structural, theological and spiritual renewal. (Cf. 1Kings 3:5-12)
Excellent and challenging piece from Aidan Hart here. I wonder though do we have to wait for a Vatican 111 to happen? Will many of us see it in our lifetime, those of us 65 +?
Writing in The Irish News 4th August 2017 Denis Bradley suggests having a consultation of the unfaithful. This makes such perfect sense but it requires an openness to listening, a courageous heart and as Kevin Walters so often reminds us, the necessity of an act of humility. Are our bishops ready to do that? Is this proposal from Denis Bradley a “tinkering at the edges” or is it at least a positive start on the long road to effective consultation and listening? Do we always have to wait for Rome to act first?
“What would be interesting would be a consultation with the ‘unfaithful’. To hear the thoughts and encourage the support of those who are not gospel greedy, those who are just hanging in there, including former clerics and former nuns who, in the eyes of many of the clerics and the faithful, have sinned or reneged on their vows. (It is surprising the number of people who don’t know that diocesan priests don’t take vows ). It should especially involve women who feel deeply offended by the misogyny of the Church and homosexuals who have been insulted and marginalised.
Within that forum there would surely be the revelation of the human spirit in this time and in this place. It would likely present the modern anxieties and fears, coupled with the aspirations, the hopes and the courage of the ‘smelly sheep’ as Pope Francis describes us.
Within that cauldron the debate would be fearsome. It would be all over the place and it would throw up the most outlandish and impracticable ideas. But it would also reveal some of the flavour and some of the texture that a renewed Church would need to embrace and manifest.”
Mary, I wouldn’t disagree with either yourself or Dennis Bradley. Pope Francis has made it clear that he too agrees that the Church must cease waiting for all change to come from the top –from the Pope and Vatican. As part of his drive to decentralise power back to bishops he has asked them to come forward with ideas but obviously to little avail. I think they and the hard line traditionalists in the Curia are the problem. Nothing is going to happen until Pope Francis imposes it, which is highly unlikely as that goes against the decentralisation he is trying to achieve….. OR…. individual bishops submit radical proposals to him to bring about the changes that will reform and re-energise the Church in their dioceses. The impasse can only be broken by awaiting the appointment of new bishops who are up to putting forward radical solutions after full, honest and frank discussions at diocesan and parish levels with their local clergy and laity. It might only take a few bishops or Archbishops to have the courage to put forward radical ideas proposed by their diocesan consultations of clergy and laity and for these ideas to spread quickly once it is seen that the current crisis has been halted in those dioceses and a more vibrant and forward looking local Church set in motion. Or it could happen with another Church Council but one with a radically different structure, which is what I suggested; in other words a structure which includes a goodly representative number of priests and laity, alongside a restricted number of Cardinals and Bishops. What to me is clear is that the laity on its own is not going to bring about change. Currently lay people are powerless, apart from their power to walk away, which I have no intention of doing.
Lay people do have some power, Aidan, and it is the power of the purse strings because without our financial support the whole edifice would crumble. I know lots of people who refuse to pay their weekly envelope money because of clergy abuses but it is a pointless gesture unless they explain to the clergy why they are withholding it. If there was a concerted effort by many parishioners to withhold money until changes are made ( starting locally and then growing into a global movement) then the hierarchy would see that they have to listen. I still pay my envelope money because I feel that I am using the services and for the most part we have good and faithful priests here. It is a weapon that could be used though, the withholding of finances but ridiculous that we should have to resort to using it when reason, sense, and downright justice should be motives enough for organising some sort of synod or consultation process.
Point taken Mary.
Aidan I enjoyed reading your articles. You covered all the areas of concern,hence I am not going to argue with you.However I am looking forward to meeting you in the near future.
Vatican 2 never reached our shores?….?
Our prayers must be written in such a way as to be readable and understandable.
I too wonder if my availing of what clergy provide in daily and weekly Mass is not a kind of complicity in clericalism’s continuing denial of genuine co-responsibility – and if a complete cutting of the cord would not be the better option. I am torn between a sense of obligation to clergy under pressure, and the deepest alienation from that clerical institution’s continuing exclusion of everyone else – its institutionalised arrogance.
Am I part of what sustains that arrogance? Watch this space, as I teeter!
All religions tend to classify their essentials as those things that keep them in business and require the services of their inner group of priests.
For decades now it has been said that Catholics are over-sacramentalised and under evangelised. However, ‘over-sacramentalised’ is rarely spelt out. Which sacraments are we receiving too often? Since the two most frequently administered sacraments are Eucharist and Confession, are these being too frequently given?
When I was young, a way back in the 1950s, weekly confession was mostly the taught norm. It resulted in those whose faith was ill formed, and that was likely most of us, making up sins to have something to say ‘in the box’. Others talk about ‘Catholic guilt for life’ resulting from that practice. Priest friends have often told me that they are continually shocked to hear adults and elderly people still coming to Confession and running through the same shopping list of childhood ‘sins’. Could that be said of daily Eucharist? Has it, in the form in which it is currently celebrated, induced an almost passive spirituality in which one just observes but cannot pray in other than taught formulas. Has it perpetuated a spirituality of ‘redemption by good works’, the good work being attending daily Mass and regularly Sunday Mass without perhaps reflecting sufficiently on how we are continually allowing Eucharist to deeply transform our lives as we work as disciples for the Kingdom of God ?
Since God is all around us and within us would it not be better to spend some time each day in the silence of that divine Presence, letting it transform us into the persons we were created to be – channels of God’s love and mercy to all those we encounter each day and in all the situations in which we find ourselves? Do we spend some time each day allowing the Holy Spirit to increase our awareness of His/Her revealing presence in the written word of Sacred Scripture? Would it help develop a lay, family-based spirituality if these two exercises took place in the home with the family gathered together and sharing. Do we turn to God during the day to praise and glorify Him and tell Him how much we love Him; it only takes a few seconds of our time, time He has gifted to us.
My deepest apologies if all this sounds preachy but it comes from my heart.
Never apologise for something that comes straight from the heart, Aidan. It is a privilege to be allowed to see into it. Yes, I can identify with what you are saying. Daily mass going can become a routine with little impact on the heart or spirit at times. This is my personal view and lately I have found that if I ration myself and pay a chapel visit instead of a daily mass that the mass can be much more meaningful. I have a deeper sense of God’s presence in a way. Of course I realise that visits or masses are meaningless unless they influence my going out into the world and making God’s presence felt by my attitude and behaviour. That is an ongoing struggle. Thank you for your honest and for the baring of your soul. It has impacted me greatly.
In response to Aidan’s ‘family-based spirituality in the home with the family gathered together and sharing’, I feel that, with benefit of practical leadership, this practice could be introduced & bolstered through developing Small Christian Communities, preferably in the home.
The latter could lead to meaningful celebration of Mass, as I recently experienced in a Sunday Church Street Mass in Dublin.
The 3-4 hundred members of the actively participating congregation, mostly 20’s-40’s age group, almost filled the Church.
I’m not the only person who has benefited from such an experience. On chatting after the Mass with one of the (Brazilian) leaders of the choir in the Sanctuary, she & others mentioned a recent visit by A/B Diarmuid Martin when he asked for their opinion on ‘what we can do to bring the young adults back to the Church’. They said they answered, ‘Bring them here’.
On responding to their invitation to join them for tea & coffee & Community Prayer in the Basement afterwards, I found about 50-60 of them assembled, most of them already seated quietly in a large circle, the rest not quite finished chatting over refreshments before joining the group.
Unfortunately, I was not able to stay for the community prayer. Next time I will.
Teresa, thank you for that inspired sharing.
In addition to such meaningful celebrations of Eucharist as you describe, I think what is vitally necessary is the development of lay-led spirituality and prayer services, operating both within the home and within Small Christian Communities; the home is the effective seed-bad of faith and the Small Christian Community its flowering outwards.
Without such a development, and taking account of the ever increasing shortage of priests to celebrate Eucharist regularly, even if done in the enriching way you describe, the Catholic faith will continue to decline and young people continue to walk away.
The presence of Jesus the Christ must be emphasised constantly within all present at such lay-led prayer services and within the sharing of His revealed word in Holy Scripture to rebalance our over-emphasis on presence-within-Eucharist, vitally important as that is.
I used to think that Vatican III was the way forward. And as Aidan suggests of course men and women and priests would be fully involved – not just to offer insights, but to be part of the decision making process!
Maybe first we need to have radical diocesan synods again with women & men & priests involved – and of course dealing with the important issues – and all involved in the decision making process.
Then again maybe Vatican lll and radical diocesan synods are not on the short term horizon. But they are not ruled out.
So we must also look to Small Church Communities as Teresa Mee suggested. They should be based in homes with the Eucharist led by suitable lay people. Everyone should have the opportunity to share the Word as it impacts their lives. Such small communities are already present in many places. They represent the grassroots of the church.
In my opinion reform of the catholic church is much more likely to come from the grassroots than from the hierarchy in our church.
I tend to agree on this, Colm. I would even say that we are held up at the moment solely by the failure of the clerical church to provide sufficient opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak to the church through its lay people.
Sacred Tradition is a foundational pillar of the Catholic Church and to that the Church must return, whether via a Third Vatican Council, radical diocesan synods, Small Christian Communities or Christian Base Communities.
I agree with Colm about reform coming from the grass-roots and with Sean that the emphasis must be on the role of the Holy Spirit, active within all members of the Christian community, rather than solely on structures, lay/clerical or otherwise. And surely Teresa is right when she argues for Small Christian Communities where involvement, sharing, intimacy, mutual support and community can become real.
The earliest Tradition of the New Testament indicates several examples of active female discipleship and leadership (Romans 16, Philippians 4:2-3, Philemon 1:1, Colossians 4:15 etc). Women were active as early disciples of Jesus, present also at His crucifixion and active in His new house-church movement and missionary outreach. While there is no clear and undisputed reference to female-led Eucharist there is the strong Jewish tradition of the woman of the house taking a central role in the Jewish family, pre-Sabbath liturgy. The argument goes that since early Christianity was a Jewish house-church movement, following the traditions of the synagogue, it would likely have involved the woman of the house in her traditional liturgical leadership role.
Once the young, persecuted Christian movement became the Established Church of the Roman Empire after Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. it enjoyed the power, influence and privileges of the Roman aristocracy and traditional pagan priesthood. Christianity gradually turned away from being a home-based, self sufficient, community & mission orientated, lay involved and intimate liturgy, coupled to a way of life focused on Jesus the Christ and His teachings and thus radically different from what was around them (hence the martyrs). As a clerical hierarchy became established house communities gave way to larger and more ornate buildings and cathedrals set aside for the celebration of Mass, where the laity became spectators rather than active participants. Eucharist was celebrated in a language which most of those present did not understand so Mass became a privatised, individualistic spirituality. Ordained men, rather than worthy local men and women, were set apart to celebrate Mass, dressed in the clothes of the well-off and military Graeco-Roman world. They soon became a privileged caste, many corrupted by wealth and the awful practice of Mass stipends to ‘buy’ one’s way into Heaven, and the sale of indulgences and fake relics.
The new rule of celibacy, based on the body(corrupt)/spirit(good) dualism of Greek philosophy and to prevent medieval bishops passing on property and wealth to their children, was, and still is in some places, (according to some modern research and my own experience in two African countries) more honoured in the breach than in the observance, even by former Popes (Popes Sergius 111, John X, John X11, Benedict 1X etc).
Under clerical domination Christianity gradually conformed to much of the mores of the time. Safeguarding the good names of the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) and its clergy became more important than protecting children and speaking the truth with power. The unjust treatment of women, the awful practice of slavery and the use of military violence to conquer, subdue and pillage other nations went mostly unopposed by the Christian Church for many centuries.
That is the base from which I desire a return to the early pre-Constantine (A.D. 313 A.D.) and most sacred Tradition of Christianity.
I agree with all of these profound comments and am of the opinion that until the church adopts the philosophy of equality the decline will continue. It is extraordinary that it is ok to exclude half the population…what planet are the leaders in I ask…certainly not on this earth.Women are people too and must be part of the whole…not as subservient but as equals.