The protection, and nurturing, of children is fundamental to the integrity of any country. The Cloyne Report has set-out catastrophic deficiencies in upholding this imperative within that Diocese. It has generated an anguished response within, and outside of, the Church. However, the interests of children require an informed and even-handed national debate on the Report. David Quinn, in an article in the Irish Independent, highlights the lack of balance to date– and he is absolutely right. No political Party has a mandate to highjack balanced and even-handed debate on an issue of such sensitivity; one in which the good faith of all, not excluding the Pope, should be the starting point.
Need for Balance
The need for balance is very clear in reflecting on events in the UK, our nearest neighbour, in the week in which the Cloyne Report was published. The News of the World/News Corp. debacle has generated a crisis that threatened to engulf not alone the media, but the government and even the police. This debacle is all about a lack of responsibility and a collapse of Trust. But it would be wholly wrong to say that there are not politicians or journalists or police of unimpeachable integrity. Of course there are. Here in Ireland, it is right to require of the most passionate critic of the ‘Cloyne Syndrome’ the same even-handed approach that might be expected in addressing institutional failures in all other fields of Civil Society.
In the case of the Church, such an approach begins and ends with Christ. His Church was founded on very fallible individuals. One of the twelve betrayed Him; one denied Him. They foolishly contended for power and influence ‘at his right hand’: they presumed to ‘draw down fire’ on those whom they believed to oppose his teaching. They sought to exclude those who were not followers but who spoke well of Jesus; they sought to hold back the children from Him.
In all these things, He instructed them by His words -and even more by example- how to see things differently. He sent the Holy Spirit to confer the doctrinal infallibility that has preserved the Church from error- but not personal or institutional failings. There must be a reason why He chose such a frail and fallible bunch. Perhaps because every generation since then sees in the Church a mirror image- good and bad- of itself and the need to continually look to Him.
Still this Church He founded, for all its frailties, has animated Human history over the last 2,000 years. It has lit up Irish history and since the time of St.Columbanus in the sixth century (acknowledged by Robert Schuman as one of the giants who shaped European history)
At its best, it is a Church rooted in the humility which Our Blessed Lady exemplified – ‘Humility with fierce resolve’, in the words of a celebrated Harvard Business Review article on Leadership; the heart of what true Leadership is, whether in the Church , in Business --and also in Politics.
Christ warned His followers against judging others. In judging the institutional church, with all of its failings, the State leaves itself wide open to being judged in relation to its own duty of care down the years.
The case has been made that the State, too, has failed in its duty of care to children and, indeed, that the Church’s guidelines are even more rigorous than those of the State. Maybe so; but that is no reason for the Church to delay fundamental reforms to rebuild Trust.
But what this does do is to reinforce the argument that neither Church nor State should claim a monopoly of that most treacherous of all locations – the ‘high moral ground’.
If, in fact, we really believe that it is the interests of the child that matter most, then both Church and State need to come together, through gritted teeth if necessary, to learn the lessons of their respective failings and, more important, to share their own distinctive values, experiences and insights, in the protection and nurturing of our children. A culture of antagonism or expediency or legalism should have no place in such an important dialogue.
In the wake of the Cloyne debacle, there are a number of fundamental issues which the Church should focus.
- It should acknowledge its institutional failings as a cross that it must carry and, at the same time, commit itself to renewal building on all that it has done( much of it unacknowledged); that is what each of us are required to do in our own lives.
- The issue of mandatory reporting has been addressed by the Church. Over and above such reporting in the normal course of events, there has also been talk of legislation which would, in effect, seek to set-aside the absolute seal of sacramental confession in the case of individuals confessing to the abuse of children. Such legislation would simply deter those guilty of a heinous sin, and a crime, from reconciling themselves with God. It would also fatally undermine the integrity of sacrament which is the beating heart of Christ’s redemptive mission. There is also an underlying presumption in the belief that it is alright for us to seek forgiveness for our particular sins, but that Christ’s mercy is not to be extending to every single person who seeks, with real intent and purpose, to transform their lives. Some, foolishly, may seek a kind of confrontation on this issue. Others may be led to believe that legislating for mandatory reporting of such sins and crimes, actually confessed to a Priest in the confessional, will resolve this most difficult of societal problems. It won’t. For Catholics, the Church stands, or falls, by its conviction that, until we draw our last breath, forgiveness and reconciliation is open to us. In our history, many priests have faced execution to uphold this conviction.
- The Church should seek, so far as possible, to remove itself from a culture of Power. The British philosopher Alistair McIntyre, on a visit to Ireland a few years ago, spoke of how we see more clearly ‘from the margins’. This is because the centre is always contended by those seeking ‘power’. It is enough that members of the Church seek, as best they can, to have Christ at the centre of their lives – and to understand that Christ Himself lived, and healed, and was crucified, ‘at the margins’.
- There are compelling reasons to simplify the Church’s ecclesiastical structures. Some years ago, Professor Vincent Twomey SVD argued persuasively for the need of an overhaul in the whole diocesan structure in Ireland. Such an overall would make it easier to ensure more effective leadership and oversight, as well as the implementation of ‘best practice’ in those areas of social responsibility that are at the heart of the Church’s ministry of witness.
- At a yet deeper level, the Church needs to move away from the whole definition of its institutional identity as ‘Hierarchy’. This is one of those words, like ‘Human Resources’, that speak to the values of this world and not of the Gospel. The Church is about ‘Service’ and responsibility, not ‘Hierarchy’- a term which, to be fair, does not do justice to the vocation actually lived out by Bishops, and by religious congregations.
- The Church in Ireland needs desperately to embrace its own intrinsic goodness. The Christian faith has shaped Ireland’s history and, also, that of Europe. It is that same faith that animates many voluntary Communities and organisation within parishes and across the country and which provide irreplaceable support to the whole of society at a time of national crisis. In addressing its failings, the Church needs more than ever to be conscious of this intrinsic goodness, which transcends such institutional failings.
- The Church needs to continue to reach out to, and learn from, the very best in other faith traditions. The invitation in 1997 extended by Pope John Paul II to all faith traditions to meet and pray at Assisi was an inflection point.. At one level, the Church could learn from the way that crises and institutional failings are dealt with in other faith traditions.
- But there is an equally important reason. Over and above justified criticisms of its institutional failings, there is vein of hostility to the Church that reflects secularism wholly intolerant of the transcendent of the human Person.
The Catholic Church happens to loom largest in its sights, but there should be little doubt that this secular fundamentalism would, given the opportunity, set aside the values and all that is best in every faith tradition. There is enormous reassurance for Christians in the Jewish understanding of the faithfulness of the Covenant of G-d with His people. The pervasive importance of prayer within Islam reinforces the importance of a mind-set that is in danger of being lost sight of.
Across the whole Judaic and Islamic tradition, the reverence for life and for family and for the exercise of care for those of our brothers and sisters, call us to a unity whose importance could not be overstated at a time when Ireland faces into headwinds that threaten to diminish us as a people.