On July 20, 2011, the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny made a statement in the Irish Parliament in which he condemned the Vatican’s attempts to circumvent justice in the sexual abuse scandals that have ripped asunder the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.
In his statement, Prime Minister Kenny said this: “[f]or the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an Inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”
Kenny went on to talk about how clericalism had so infected the Roman Catholic Church that it left many of its leaders nearly useless, “Clericalism has rendered some of Ireland's brightest, most privileged and powerful men, either unwilling or unable to address the horrors.”
Kenny’s comments match my experience of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. I lived in Ireland thirty years ago and I came away with two distinct impressions of the Roman Catholic Church.
The first impression was one of clerical hypocrisy. To me, there was no better example than to see a priest in the Sunday pulpit, railing against the evils of television and drink and to find that same priest two hours later, sitting in front of the television with a glass of liquor in his hand. That was the most blatant example, but there were many others. While many people in smaller Irish communities felt lucky to be able to have a meal of old mutton now and then, the local priests might be having expensive fine roast beef dinners. The further up the clerical ladder you went, the more luxury you found. There was a serious disconnect between the life of the clergy and the life of the faithful who provided the means for the life of the clergy.
The second impression was the absolute power held by the clergy. The deference paid to the clergy was almost embarrassing to this liberation-theology-formed-Canadian Roman Catholic. I saw Irish Roman Catholics kneeling in front of a priest on the street to ask for a blessing. In many ways, it felt surreal, like stepping back in time. Seeing the standing-room-only crowds for Novenas and the like made me wonder what we North Americans were missing. For one thing, we had missed a Church in persecution. Sitting quietly beside a “Mass rock” or visiting Oliver Plunkett’s remains in Drogheda give you a visceral understanding of why Roman Catholicism is so intense in Ireland.
Having experienced the quiet revolution in Quebec, I also wondered how long it would last. The clericalism that permeated the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec is what led generations to abandon the Church.
It is this power that still dominates the mentality of those who work within the Vatican hierarchy. They are ambitious men who want to climb higher up the ladder and reportedly will do whatever it takes to achieve that power. For many of them, the red cap of the Cardinal is the goal for which they strive. Being able to tell their friends that they attended Mass with the Pope gives them a rush that is not 100% spiritual. Such ambition should seem out of place in the Roman Catholic HQ; instead, it’s right at home.
I remember an old priest telling me one time that “the further you are from the Vatican, the less it matters.” It’s very important to remember that while there is evil within the walls of the Vatican, it is not a universal truth for all Roman Catholic clergy. There are many excellent priests, deacons, brothers and bishops who labour long and hard in the spiritual fields without any scandal or any acknowledgement.
The Irish Prime Minister spoke of these men in his statement, “This Roman Clericalism must be devastating for good priests, some of them old, others struggling to keep their humanity, even their sanity, as they work so hard to be the keepers of the Church's light and goodness within their parishes, communities, the human heart.”
Prime Minister Kenny makes an important ecclesiological distinction when he separates the governing structure of the Roman Catholic Church from the Church itself in speaking of the “light and goodness”.
This understanding of Church was perhaps best explained by the Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles in his four basic models of Church: as institution, as mystical communion, as herald, and as servant. In any such discussion, it is important to keep those models in mind because one, in this case the institution, cannot cancel out the others, regardless of how dysfunctional the institution may be. Just as disease can infect any living organism, the disease of clericalism, rampant in the Church hierarchy, does not mean that the entire Church is diseased.
The Dominican theologian Yves Congar said that the ultimate reality of the Church is a fellowship of persons. The challenge arises when the clericalism meets the fellowship.
Ireland is experiencing the same spasms now that another island nation, Newfoundland went through thirty plus years ago in the wake of similar sexual abuse scandals. As in Ireland, there were official reports in Newfoundland which detailed the abuse in the Mount Cashel orphanage and in the province generally. The similarities are common throughout the Roman Catholic world – the widespread clericalism, combined with the absolute power of the clergy allowed the abuse to happen and go unreported for a long time. When the abuse scandal finally did become public, it was like a sledgehammer striking Congar’s “fellowship of persons”.
In Part III of this essay, some consideration of the conditions that provide fertile ground for the scandals.
Your comments are welcome.