Irish Letter Out

Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter is up on the Vatican web site this morning. Doubtless many others will have thorough commentary on it today and in the days ahead. I’d like to confine my initial remarks to a few issues of personal importance.

Throughout, the pope urges more prayer. And while many lay people, victims and their loved ones especially, may find this to be lacking in meaning, I think this is a good step.

Through intense prayer before the real presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm, at the same time imploring the grace of renewed strength and a deeper sense of mission on the part of all bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.

There are a lot of us who could use a holy year, and in essence, this is what the Holy Father proposes. The pope urges Eucharistic adoration (14), but I think his program could use a bit more fleshing out. The Church’s quality of unity has been stretched to near the breaking point, and it would seem that celebrating that sacrament of ultimate unity would be in order. Special votive Masses for victims and loved ones, and an attempt to unify parishes and communities could enhance the good end foreseen in Eucharistic adoration.

Additionally, it might be helpful for a liturgy of penance to gather all the bishops, active and retired, to give example for the rest of the faithful. That element has been gravely lacking in the US, with the result that a restoration of credibility has been stunted.

Interesting that the largest section addressed to any group is addressed to the bishops:

It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise. They too have taken part in recent discussions here in Rome with a view to establishing a clear and consistent approach to these matters. It is imperative that the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland be continually revised and updated and that they be applied fully and impartially in conformity with canon law.

Some may complain about the use of passive voice here, especially considering that the previous sections addressing victims, offenders, youth, family members, clergy and religious have little such use. How to interpret it? Is the pope angry? Or is it a tone of respect toward his “brother bishops?”

Some bishops broke Canon Law, but more seriously, they violated the Decalogue, professing innocence and giving false witness about themselves and the offenders they sheltered. While the pope satisfied to acknowledge a “complexity of the problem,” still, in moral matters, do people have a just expectation of demanding much of their bishops? Or do we turn elsewhere for moral witness?

An acknowledgment I found slightly startling, not for its truth, but for its source: “All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness.”

The rest of the section addressed to bishops, and this paragraph starts out in active voice and continues like something of a sermon:

Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal. The Irish people rightly expect you to be men of God, to be holy, to live simply, to pursue personal conversion daily. For them, in the words of Saint Augustine, you are a bishop; yet with them you are called to be a follower of Christ (cf. Sermon 340, 1). I therefore exhort you to renew your sense of accountability before God, to grow in solidarity with your people and to deepen your pastoral concern for all the members of your flock. In particular, I ask you to be attentive to the spiritual and moral lives of each one of your priests. Set them an example by your own lives, be close to them, listen to their concerns, offer them encouragement at this difficult time and stir up the flame of their love for Christ and their commitment to the service of their brothers and sisters.

Transparency is judged by the sight of those who watch and observe, not by the manufacturer of the window. I don’t envy these bishops. Those who have harmed others are certainly men of God enough that their consciences are pricked and they will hopefully rise above the inner struggle for denial. And others will be rightly resentful toward current or former bishops who have poisoned their effectiveness in ministry: healing from this scandal as well as other initiatives.

Did you catch the pope’s particular exhortation? I ask you to be attentive to the spiritual and moral lives of each one of your priests. Does this seem like bishops are now to be held accountable for their clergy? No more passing off excuses like the size of the diocese or delegating to chancery subordinates.

On this blog accurate diagnosis has been one of my soapboxes, and I have to confess my pleasant surprise at this

Only by examining carefully the many elements that gave rise to the present crisis can a clear-sighted diagnosis of its causes be undertaken and effective remedies be found.

In the weakest part of this letter, unfortunately, the Holy Father partly bumbles the diagnosis (no. 4) by attributing blame to “rapid transformation and secularization … (f)ast-paced social change” and the neglect of “adherence to Catholic teaching and values … sacramental and devotional practices.” Blame also for “priests and religious … thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel … (Vatican II) misinterpreted,” plus a failure to apply “penal” aspects of canon law.

No hint of the timeless problem of sin. Just sin. And the tendency of many repeated practices involving substances (like alcohol) and behaviors (like forced sexual relations) to become addictions. If Pope Benedict were really interested in clear sight, he might consider more than recent history. Begging a wider diagnosis would be evidence like this:

– The serial sexual promiscuity of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. Can we blame it on neglect of traditional piety or secularization or a misinterpreted Vatican II?

– The long and widely-accepted history of alcohol abuse by the clergy way before the upheaval of the 1960’s. The drunk priest stereotype was even more prevalent before the Council. Does that have some root in real experience?

– The culture of clericalism in the Church as a whole. Persecution of the innocent has sullied the Church’s credibility, particularly in the case of saints like Joan of Arc or Thomas More who were later vindicated for not obeying ecclesiastical authority.

Overall, I think we can note some progress. Bishops are on the hot seat, and the USCCB can thank another pope and another more innocent time (2002) that they have avoided these Irish prescriptions. The one possible future fruit I see on the vine would be an overhaul and renewal of the Catholic episcopacy in the light of widespread and repeated scandals of harboring offenders. But if it’s even there today, it’s a very small and very green fruit indeed.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Irish Letter Out

  1. Adam Wood says:

    From the letter:
    “In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.”

    This is literally making me sick to my stomach. The problem of men in authority abusing their power to satisfy their sickness and sin is not caused by modernity or a lack of fidelity to the Church’s teachings and practices.

    If it weren’t for a changed religious culture that specifically DOESN’T see the Church as infallible and it’s ministers as untouchable, it is likely that these criminal acts would never have been brought to light.

    It is a mistake, and quite possibly a grave sin, for Benedict to turn this tragedy into an opportunity to advance his agenda.

  2. Todd says:

    Strong language, Adam, but I would suggest there is more of a victim mentality in the pope’s approach here, and less of a sense of sin.

    The initial reaction to this letter has been very critical in some quarters. Section 4 is a clunker, no doubt. It will further harden people to some of the prescriptions that come up later.

    And yet, Pope Benedict seems to be engaging in a bit of self-criticism in suggesting that delegating his VG to reinstate a predator priest was wrong.

  3. Michael says:

    And yet, Pope Benedict seems to be engaging in a bit of self-criticism in suggesting that delegating his VG to reinstate a predator priest was wrong.

    He needs to engage in more than “a bit of self-criticism.” He needs to resign.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    How does one say “self-serving pablum” in Latin?

  5. Jimmy Mac says:

    A response to the Papal letter to the ‘Irish Faithful’.

    Below is a response to the Papal letter issued to the ‘Irish Faithful’ earlier today that I recorded for the PM programme on BBC Radio 4.

    It’s a first response, I will post a more detailed response soon.


    “If you think I am being too judgemental, then consider the following.

    At the end of the eight pages of fine words which fail to address the real issue at all we read what the Pope thinks are the steps to be taken to put things right.

    Catholics should pray, fast and do penance for a year in an effort to bring about the rebirth of the church in Ireland.

    And the Vatican will organise an Apostolic Visitation, a visit by its enforcers to some dioceses to ensure they are enforcing church law in dealing with child abuse.
    The same church law that has been previously used by bishops and church defenders to explain their cover up of abuse.

    You couldn’t make it up could you? “

  6. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    Response to Benedict’s letter. Not impressed.
    As someone who received his own formation in Ireland in the 1970’s, including theological studies at the Pontifical University of Ireland (Maynooth), too many memories flood back regarding the state of the Church there even in those days.

    Many bishops and priests lived very much a life of privilege. In the early years of my formation, the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid had his residence by the sea in a very exclusive residential area, commuting to the Chancery in a chauffer driven car, and often in jest some would mention that having the initials J.C. made him believe he had absolute authority.
    Parish priests live separately from their associate pastors, owned horses and greyhounds which they raced, and on Mondays it was said that if you fell ill on any of the exclusive, members only, golf clubs scattered around the outskirts of Dublin, you would soon be surrounded by a veritable choir of Canons and Monsiniors. Clerical elitism must be rooted out if the trust and support of the ordinary faithful is to be rebuilt.

    As part of my formation I taught religion for a couple of hours a week in three different high schools, both in rural areas and the suburbs of Dublin. Already, in those days, the young were distancing themselves from the Church, and cynicism among them was rife. I was not surprised to see vocations drop off as the 70’s became the 80’s.

    The quality of formation given to the diocesan seminarians I studied with was dire, though some of my teachers told us it had improved quite a bit since their days. Developing a sense of responsibility and accountability never seemed high on the agenda, and assisting or monitoring development in affective maturity never seemed a priority. My work with the student council, which we changed into a student union affiliated with the national student union, much to the distress of more than one bishop, saw me frequently approached by female lay students with stories of what nowadays we’d name as “sexual harassment”, from diocesan seminarians. Trying to work through the Dean’s never worked, so you tried to do what you could by talking with their assistants, who would be senior classmen in their final year of formation, and with more than enough on their plates besides covering for lack of direction and leadership from the top.

    The analysis offered in the Pope’s letter is totally inadequate, and reflects both his own theological stance, (all his theology, be it Christology, Ecclesiology, Liturgy or the priesthood, is from above, with a suspicion of what can be learnt from the social sciences), and the quality of the advice he received from the Irish bishops during their recent meeting with him. As the news reports indicated, they saw a draft of the letter, and you can be sure there was some lobbying thereafter. That some of them are still smarting from the more demanding statements made by Archbishop Dermot Martin speaks volumes.

    How much we can expect from the Apostolic Visitation, which it seems will be limited in scope, is also open to question. Visitators from Rome would need more time than they will given to even get a feel of the situation, even presuming no limitations that may come from lack knowledge of English, should some of the visitators not be native English speakers.

    As one with both family roots and family members in Ireland, and fond memories of time spent in Ireland, I pray for the renewal and recovery of the Church there. Over the years Ireland has given so much to the universal Church, her faithful deserve our prayers, and her Bishops and priests should also hear and attend to the call from all sides to demonstrate a greater sense of responsibility and accountability for the current situation.

  7. Tony says:

    In the weakest part of this letter, unfortunately, the Holy Father partly bumbles the diagnosis (no. 4) by attributing blame to “rapid transformation and secularization … (f)ast-paced social change” and the neglect of “adherence to Catholic teaching and values … sacramental and devotional practices.” Blame also for “priests and religious … thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel … (Vatican II) misinterpreted,” plus a failure to apply “penal” aspects of canon law.

    No hint of the timeless problem of sin. Just sin.

    Actually the pope’s diagnosis is right on target. This is the timeless problem of sin. When was the last time you heard a homily addressing fornication, adultery, homosexual practices, birth control, abortion or any of the myriad of sins with which our secular society has no problem?

    The “Easter people” of Vatican II have lost touch with their sinfulness and the required sorrow and firm resolve to do better. Is it any surprise that it’s happened to our priests? Our Bishops?

    • Todd says:

      Unlike you and the Holy Father, I view the notion of generation exceptionalism with extreme skepticism. What you two are grasping at, but missing, is the notion that every individual and every society struggles with sin. The post-Vatican II generations are no exception for either greater sin or greater virtue.

      There is every indication that the sexual abuse of children predates the Council, as well as its cover-up of wrongdoing by the hierarchy.

      No, the pope bumbled this diagnosis. His personal experience with life in the 30’s and 40’s should have shown him that the pre-conciliar generations were by no means better than today’s.

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