Yesterday Pope Benedict’s astonishing words of truth-telling about the sex abuse scandal were reported. And now I wish to draw your attention to an absolutely remarkable speech that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Catholic primate of Ireland, has just delivered, on the state of the Church in Ireland. It is bleak and sobering, but it is full of hard truths — and is therefore far, far more liberating and, despite superficial darkness, full of light than ten thousand happy-clappy homilies. Here are excerpts:
Why am I discouraged? The most obvious reason is the drip-by-drip never-ending revelation about child sexual abuse and the disastrous way it was handled. There are still strong forces which would prefer that the truth did not emerge. The truth will make us free, even when that truth is uncomfortable. There are signs of subconscious denial on the part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up. There are other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened. There are worrying signs that despite solid regulations and norms these are not being followed with the rigour required.
As regards the Archdiocese of Dublin for which I have pastoral responsibility I have constantly warned against any slippage in our vigilance. I appeal once again this evening publicly to all parishes in the Archdiocese to ensure that all child protection measures are in place and in operation and that there is no let-back on the level of vigilance. Questions about child safeguarding should be on the agenda of every meeting of every Parish Pastoral Council and if there are any concerns that are not being addressed then let people contact me directly.
Why such discouragement? The second and deeper root of my discouragement is that I do not believe that people have a true sense of the crisis of faith that exists in Ireland. We have invested in structures of religious education which despite enormous goodwill are not producing the results that they set out to do. Our young people are among the most catechised in Europe but among the least evangelised.
More, below the jump. Please keep reading; the archbishop is on a tear — and I have added some new comments about why this matters to American Catholics — and all religious believers, Catholic or not:
I am not sure however that we all really have an understanding of what Catholic education entails. Many people send their children to what is today a Catholic school not primarily because it is a Catholic school but because it is a good school. … We are also deluding ourselves if we think that what is in fact presented as a curriculum for religious education and formation in faith is actually being applied everywhere.
…There are fundamental fault-lines within the current structure for Catholic schools that are not being addressed and unattended fault-lines inevitably generate destructive energies. Our system of religious education – especially at secondary level but also at primary level in urban areas – more and more bypasses our parishes, which should together with the family be the primary focal points for faith formation and membership of a worshipping community. I am not attacking Catholic teachers and Catholic schools; they do tremendous work. What is needed is renewal of the vision of parish. Many of our parishes offer very little in terms of outreach to young people.
There are those who claim that the media strategy of the Church in the Archdiocese of Dublin following the publication of the Murphy Report was “catastrophic”. My answer is that what the Murphy report narrated was catastrophic and that the only honest reaction of the Church was to publicly admit that the manner in which that catastrophe was addressed was spectacularly wrong; spectacularly wrong “full stop”; not spectacularly wrong, “but…” You cannot sound-byte your way out of a catastrophe.
Some will reply that sexual abuse by priests constitutes only a small percentage of the sexual abuse of children in our society in general. That is a fact. But that important fact should never appear in any way as an attempt to down play the gravity of what took place in the Church of Christ. The Church is different; the Church is a place where children should be the subject of special protection and care. The Gospel presents children in a special light and reserves some of its most severe language for those who disregard or scandalise children in any way.
In analysing the past, it is important to remember that times may have been different and society and other professions may not have looked on the sexual abuse of children as they do today. It is hard however to understand why, in the management by Church authorities of cases of the sexual abuse of children, the children themselves were for many years rarely even taken into the equation. Yes, in the culture of the day children were to be seen and not heard, but different from other professions Church leaders should have been more aware of the Gospel imperative to avoid harm to children, whose innocence was indicated by the Lord a sign of the kingdom of God.
Renewal of the Church requires participation and responsible participation. I have spoken about the need for accountability regarding the scandal of sexual abuse. I am struck by the level of disassociation by people from any sense of responsibility. While people rightly question the concept of collective responsibility, this does not mean that one is not responsible for one’s personal share in the decisions of the collective structures to which one was part.
I am surprised at the manner in which Church academics and Church publicists can today calmly act as pundits on the roots of the sexual abuse scandals in the Church as if they were totally extraneous to the scandal. Where did responsibility lie for a culture of seminary institutions which produced both those who abused and those who mismanaged the abuse? Where were the pundit-publicists while a Church culture failed to recognise what was happening?
The Catholic Church in Ireland is coming out of one of its most difficult moments in its history and the light at the end of the tunnel is still a long way off. The Catholic Church in Ireland will have to live with the grief of its past, which can and should never be forgotten or overlooked. There is no simple way of wiping the slate of the past clean, just to ease our feelings. Yet the Catholic Church in Ireland cannot be imprisoned in its past. The work of evangelization must if anything take on a totally new vibrancy.
I would not however like what I say to be in any way interpreted as turning our back on the survivors of sexual abuse. They had their childhood stolen and the words of Jesus about his special care for children will apply to them until that day, whenever and if ever that will be, when their hurt will be healed. In my years as Archbishop I have learned enormously from survivors as they allowed me to know something of their pain and of their hopes and also of the spiritual void which many experience as a result of betrayal by their Church. I use the term spiritual void because it is an expression which some survivors have used to express how they feel in their lives. In my encounters with survivors, however, I have found their spiritual fragility somehow has given them in fact a deep spiritual strength, from which I have profited. For that I thank them.
Perhaps the future of the Church in Ireland will be one where we truly learn from the arrogance of our past and find anew a fragility which will allow the mercy and the compassion of Jesus to give us a change of heart and allow others through a very different Church to encounter something of that compassion and faith for their lives.
I have quoted at great length from this speech of the archbishop’s, but I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. It covers far more than the abuse scandal; in it, he addresses point-blank the broader crisis of the Catholic faith in Ireland. I was deeply moved by the archbishop’s words, because they are so honest, and guileless, and devoid of bullshit. Unsurprisingly, Irish abuse victims are cheering for it.
UPDATE: I think one reason I was so moved by Abp Martin’s remarks — beyond, I mean, the obvious appreciation for the depth of his understanding of the problem, and his refusal to shift blame for it — is that he links the scandal to a broader crisis in Irish Catholicism. What he’s said here reminds me very much of what a dear Catholic priest friend said to me eight years ago: that the scandal cannot be seen in isolation from the broader crisis threatening the Church: in Catholic education, in parish life, in family life, and so forth. To sum his point up in the Biblical metaphor: the salt has lost its savor. Catholicism has become for too many people, not least those within the Church institution, a formal thing, disconnected from an encounter with the living Christ. Over time, the substance of the faith had been hollowed out by mere rituals and rule-following. This is what Abp Martin has observed too. He’s trying to explain to his flock that the abuse crisis is only one facet of a more serious one.
It is hard, I believe, for any American Christian, and perhaps even religious believers of other faiths, to read the Dublin prelate’s words without seeing ourselves and our own churches in them to some degree. He seems to me to be saying, as Pope Benedict has said before, that the only Christians who are going to make it through this time with their faith intact are those who cultivate a living, active relationship to God through real prayer and worship. Cultural conditions have changed dramatically. He criticizes his own church for not changing with the times, by which he plainly does not mean failing to liberalize, and to accept modern morals; he means that the Church has not understood how radically the ground has shifted under its feet, and how therefore it has to change the way it presents the Gospel to new generations. That is a truthful observation that all Christians, and indeed all religious believers living in the secular West, must accept. The archbishop seems to be saying of his own church (if I’m reading him correctly) that the abuse scandal arose in part because people stopped caring about Jesus, and what he stood for, and rather accepted, or came to depend on, an empty formalism that accepted the structure and habits and rituals of Irish Catholicism, and mistakenly thought they were doing enough to serve the Lord.
There is not a single Christian in this world who doesn’t face that temptation every day of our lives.
UPDATE: John Allen weighs in on the impact of Benedict’s amazing words earlier this week. Excerpt:
The immediate effect of that statement would seem to be the following: If a Vatican official, or a Catholic prelate elsewhere in the world, falls back on a finger-pointing strategy, he will inevitably face questions about how to square such rhetoric with the pope’s own example. … The pope seemed clear: The fault worth focusing on lies not in the church’s stars, but in itself.