The Bishops, ‘the Message’ and the Church

May 25, 2015 | 0 comments

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin

“The church needs to do a reality check, a reality check right across the board.” So said Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, in the wake of the ‘Yes’ vote on same-sex marriage, on Saturday May 24th.  His honesty is refreshing.  However, he unfortunately repeated this equation of ‘the church’ with its bishops in another sentence: “The church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people.”

There is wisdom in what the archbishop is saying about a reality check, but why does he equate ‘the church’ here with its designated leaders – and imply that ‘young people’ are somehow outside of it –  when the marriage referendum proved that much of the Irish church, and not just its young people, had voted – for well-considered reasons – in opposition to the advice of its bishops?

Must not a ‘reality check’ involve consideration of the possibility that Irish Catholicism’s real problem is the failure of its designated leaders, over many decades, to keep pace with the developing mind of the rest of the Irish church – especially on issues relating to sexuality?

The archbishop’s approach implies that he believes that bishops must always be the true possessors of ‘the message’, that somehow they have failed to transmit that message, but that, once they discover how to do that, the problem will be solved and effective transmission from bishop to non-bishop will resume.

What if instead this referendum result is a wake-up call from the people of God to the bishops – to tell them that it is they – the bishops – who do not properly understand the essence of ‘the message’, and that it is now their people who have taken hold of that, and applied it correctly?

Surely the core of ‘the message’ of which the archbishop speaks is the unconditional love of God for all of his people? And surely this message has been compromised for centuries by an utterly bankrupt association of original sin – and therefore sin in general – with human sexuality? More recently – since Vatican II in the early 1960s – this fixation seized complete hold of the church’s episcopal magisterium, which then sought to prevent all exploration of a credible and respectable – and life-affirming – theology of sexuality. St Augustine of Hippo’s preposterous teaching – that original sin is transmitted by sexual intercourse – is centuries overdue for revision, so why is it still dangerous for Catholic theologians to say so?

This self-positioning by the magisterium – their failure to face squarely the deficiencies of the clerical church’s historical understanding of sexuality – was supinely acceded to by generations of Irish bishops.  This inertia paralysed and demoralised our Irish clergy and left them tongue-tied on all sex-related issues in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandals. Bunkered quarterly in Maynooth, Irish bishops effectively ceased two-way communication with their people from 1968 – while the country was meanwhile experiencing a storm of social change.

We know the consequence: there is now on average a half-century age difference between Irish priests and every fourteen-year-old. Typically, weekend homilies avoid all acute observation of the social reality of those fourteen-year-olds – and bore them utterly. By that age nowadays many have already rebelled – and there is wisdom in that too.

Many of their parents will be well able to explain to an Irish bishop what now needs to happen. ‘The Church’ is not coterminous with bishops – or something separate from its young people.  It is a learning, living community that has for decades been denied – by those who call themselves a teaching magisterium – the opportunity of open dialogue, and therefore of genuine communion also.   No ‘reality check’ will happen until our bishops have ended that embargo and allowed the Irish Catholic Church to breathe at last.

It is our bishops who need to catch up with ‘the message’, not most of their people.

Sean O’Conaill


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