54 years after Cardinal William Conway foretold the end of the ‘old paternalism’ in the Irish Catholic Church – in the year that the pope’s own closest adviser on the progress of child safeguarding in the church warned that the same paternalism is still endangering children everywhere – Ireland’s Conference of Catholic Bishops is still, in October 2020, behaving as though Cardinal Conway had never spoken.
In October 2020 that ‘old paternalism‘ – characterised by secrecy, lust for control, denial of dialogue and even of reality – turns its back to the cliff edge facing Catholicism in Ireland and yet again issues its usual look-the-other-way post-conference statement – the very image of the blind and decrepit cartoon character Mr Magoo.
’Where is it? asked Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in April 2019. ‘It’ was ‘Share the Good News’ – a 2011 plan for a revolution in the Irish church’s strategy for ‘passing on the faith’ – to replace an obviously failing over-reliance on schools. That over-reliance – originating in the collapse of frank clerical dialogue with parents following the papal instruction Humanae Vitae in 1968 – is now in 2020 leaving Irish seminaries and chapels virtually empty and ensuring that Confirmation in early adolescence has become the Goodbye Sacrament for Catholic children educated in those same schools.
If the archbishop of Irish Catholicism’s largest diocese does not know what has happened to his church’s only known programme for its own survival – and says so in Ireland’s newspaper of record, The Irish Times – how come that a year-and-a-half later the Irish Conference of Catholic Bishops still cannot give us an answer?
Must we simply content ourselves with an episcopal pat on our little heads for our resilience and compassion in the midst of a pandemic – the major business, it seems, of the bishops’ autumn 2020 conference? Who feels more resilient when plamás is preferred to honesty and realism by church leaders apparently scared witless of the largest and most obdurate elephant ever to take over the Irish Catholic living room?
That elephant needs simply to be named to be shifted. It is the difficulty of admitting that school-centred faith formation doesn’t happen in the absence of parental commitment, that the parents of today’s schoolchildren are mostly absent when it comes to ‘sharing the good news’, that clergy are exhausted by what they already have to do – and that the challenge of facing up to all this is now unavoidable by the rest of us, especially when our faith is tested to the limit.
That we are well capable of facing up to it was well proven on the second day of the bishops’ autumn conference – by Margaret Lee, parishioner in Newport, Tipperary – writing in the Irish Times. With next year’s Communion services threatened by unknown continuing dangers to public health, Margaret proposes a trial of family-based preparation for communion, with volunteering families presenting their children for the sacrament on an ordinary Mass date arranged with clergy.
Tartly Margaret observes: ‘This would also eliminate the spectacle of a church full of adults screening the event on their phones and holding conversations throughout the entire Mass.’
To object that few families would feel confident enough to take this on is to miss the point. It is the delusion that childhood faith can develop without a family faith envelope that is killing us off. There is simply no future for what prevailed before the pandemic. Furthermore, families are often now linking the generations more closely than ever online, and it would not be rocket science for every diocese to provide online the basic instruction that parents and grandparents need – if they feel so minded – to instruct the child.
Given that Catholic faith was passed on in Ireland long before mass literacy and the construction of the Catholic school system, who is to say that it was not the turning of faith formation into professional rocket science, the clerical refusal of dialogue for half-a-century and the removal of responsibility from the home, that lies at the root of the Irish Catholic crisis,
That and clerical paternalism – especially the denial by bishops that there was ever an iceberg even when the ship is sinking, and their abiding terror of owning up to the total failure of this manner of governing the church.
9th October 2020