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Irish Archbishop Agrees: Catholic Church Needs Fundamental, Cultural Change

When people think of the crisis facing the Irish church since public awareness exploded over the sexual abuse scandals, they generally think only of the abuse itself. However, the real crisis goes much deeper. The abuse problems brought the crisis into sharp focus, but (tragically important as they are) they are in fact just one symptom of a much deeper malaise.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has garnered respect for his own response to the crisis, but in a hard-hitting speech in Cambridge, he has explained the extent of the problem, in terms remarkably similar to the argument made by the German theologians this month. Their statement, remember, was a response to a reflection on the abuse problems that emerged in Germany, Austria and Switzerland a year ago. Reflecting on the abuse issue, they concluded, like Archbishop Martin, that clerical sexual abuse cannot be looked at in isolation, but must be viewed as part of a much larger problem of Catholic culture and structures, which are urgently in need of fundamental reform.

Archbishop Martin has made his own statement in the context of a sorrowful regret that he has failed in his attempt to achieve the reform that is so desperately needed.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has confessed that he is failing in his efforts to promote “radical change” in the Catholic Church.

Addressing a meeting yesterday in Cambridge, Dr Martin said he believed that the church in Ireland in many ways had already reached “the brink” of collapse.

In a lengthy and hard-hitting speech, he said the crisis facing the church is “real” and is a deep cultural problem that transcends the spate of clerical child abuse scandals and church cover-ups.

In spite of being acclaimed as the leading voice for reform in the church, Dr Martin, who took over in 2004 from the disgraced Cardinal Desmond Connell, dramatically revealed his personal frustrations and accepted that it might not be “his talent” to bring everyone with him.

Read more at Belfast Telegraph

However, I suspect that Martin is missing something here. In stating that he has failed in his attempts to reform “the Church”, he is not in fact referring to the whole, true church of all Catholics, but only to that part of it that is part of the Vatican power structure, the Catholic oligarchy. Personally, I have a growing sense that in the broader church, the one that really matters, the fundamental reform is already taking place, and may in fact be quite far advanced. This is the reform that takes place not in Catholic rule books, the Catechism and in Canon Law, but in the minds and hearts of Catholics.

It has been well known for years that ordinary Catholics simply do not any longer believe what they are told on matters of sexual ethics. The sexual abuse problems have further weakened their acquiescence, and have increased their opposition to claims of papal infallibility, of obedience to authority, and to church rules on ordination to the priesthood. Painfully for the Vatican, it has also reduced the willingness of many Catholics to continue paying for the the settlement of law suits, and the maintenance of the clergy, in a church where they are not allowed any input into decisions or the selection of priests and bishops.

We now know that a very substantial proportion (at the very least) of professional theologians essentially agree with them, and concur with the archbishop on the need for fundamental reform of church culture. This has become public in Germany, but is almost certainly also the case in other regions – only the precise proportions, and the willingness to go public, are likely to differ significantly elsewhere.

And while Martin is thinking only in terms of the formal power structures of the church in his statement of regret, I see in very statement one sign that even there, right in the heart of the Vatican beast, change has begun. Like Archbishop Martin, an extraordinary number of bishops and cardinals have gone public over the past year or so with similar calls for reform, especially on the question of compulsory celibacy. The simple fact that these people are now prepared to go public in discussing a matter which Pope John Paul II insisted was simply not up for debate, is in itself a remarkable indication that the desired culture change is, in practice, already beginning. The emphasis placed by the visiting bishops investigating the Irish church on listening to all parties, and the response of German bishops to their theologians, are two indications among many of a church that is beginning at last to take seriously the concept of the “listening church”.

Popular perception is that after the initial years of excitement that followed Vatican II, the curia and the papal double act of John Paul II and Benedict have successfully rolled back much of the progress and reforms that were achieved at the council.  I now believe that while this is broadly true, this is something of a Pyrrhic victory for the reactionaries. They may have scored a temporary victory in one battle, but they can not in the longer term win the war. They have already lost in the important battle to control the minds of ordinary lay Catholics, and have effectively ceded much of the ground in theology to lay people.

Church reform is already happening. All that is now required is for the Vatican oligarchy to catch up.

Suggested reading:

From Inquisition to Freedom:Seven Prominent Catholics and Their Struggle With the Varican (Paul Collins, editor)

The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (Mark D Jordan)

Gay Catholic Priests And Clerical Sexual Misconduct: Breaking The Silence (Donald L Boisvert & Robert E Goss, editors)

Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II (Jason Berry & Gerald Renner)

Why the Catholic Church Needs Vatican III (T P O’Mahony)

Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Eamonn Duffy)

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (Bishop Geoffrey Robinson)

 

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