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18 March 2010 Edition

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A reflection on the Irish Catholic Church and the clerical scandals


Irish Catholics have for centuries suffered at the hands of those who had limitless and uncontrolled authority over their lives and liberties. While individual priests and bishops stood with the people in opposition to such authority, for the most part the Church leadership stood resolutely on the side of the politically and socially powerful – the ‘nice people’.     
That powerful alliance was forged out of self-interest – to promote and protect the church institution and to keep the people in check. A culture of absolute power is the direct opposite of one of openness, accountability and compassion which is why the modern Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere is currently being exposed as a facilitator of the greatest social crime of all – the abuse of children.           
Parish priests (not all) abused power at the local level of the parish. (The case of Jim Gralton in Leitrim is a sorry tale of how that clerical abuse of power led to that man’s expulsion from Ireland.) Priests refused people the use of their own halls, condemned people from the pulpit, refused to marry some people and refused to bury others, refused absolution in Confession and Communion to those who wanted it. Bishops banned people from going to certain colleges, banned dancing after midnight, banned contraception to vulnerable women. These are just some of the abuses of power that have taken place in the Catholic church.
All this experience raises questions about the structures of the Catholic church and raises serious questions about the priesthood and the hierarchical nature of the church, which has moved far from the kind of prophetic community that formed the church in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Second Vatican Council was an attempt to get back to the origins – at least to set the Church in a new direction away from power towards the prophetic community of the early days before it was co-opted by the imperial powers. Liberation theology tried to recover the original meaning and power of the Gospel. Bishops and priests in South and Central America and in South Africa tried to put into practice the social message of Jesus and to defend the poor against the rich and powerful. Many paid the price with their lives.
The Church is the People of God – not the hierarchy and certainly not the curia in the Vatican. Priests are the servants of the people and called to promote the values of the Kingdom of God – justice, gentleness, compassion, peace, truth, equality and human dignity. Priests are called to publicly proclaim the gospel of justice and peace with renewed vigour in a world where the rich/poor divide is widening every year. Everything relating to the use of power in the church -in the diocese, in the parish and in the Vatican – should be open and transparent. To implement this vision of Church requires leadership and courage. Neither of these qualities is very evident in the current leaders of the Irish Catholic church.
Those who are ordained ministers are called to be disciples – learners from the ministry of Jesus. That same Jesus – whose presence is still felt by many – is calling Christians to remain faithful to his values – the values of the Gospel which the Church proclaims – and to follow the prophetic rather than the clerical model of church. It is calling us to be open to change and to revise the rules if they are getting in the way of creating a more just and human world.
The Prophet in society is the one who brings good news to the downtrodden and the one who protects the innocent and the young at all costs. Prophets stand up for the people and are the voice of the voiceless and the oppressed, often at great danger to themselves. We think of the powerful witness of people like Archbishop Romero and Bishop Belo and the many Christian martyrs who have been killed in the act of defending the poor in different countries in recent years.
This is a challenging ministry, which calls for a commitment to the bringing about of justice in Irish society and among all peoples. It is only through engagement with the poor and oppressed and their representatives that priests can hope to find real fulfillment in ministry. It cannot be found in running a kind of fuel station where people go to Church ‘to get’ Mass or ‘to get’ married.
In spite of the abuse scandals and the resultant negative publicity, priests who continue to work in parishes must be people of hope. We are mindful of the words of Jesus and Saint Paul that hope is the virtue which gives us perseverance and energy. As one contemporary scholar states: ‘If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world. That’s your choice.’ (Noam Chomsky)
This commitment to the future demands that we see it as our primary responsibility to support and work with the people who have been marginalised or victimised in any way by church or state in Ireland.
The Irish Catholic bishops did not take seriously the teaching of Vatican II about the need for a new kind of Church based on small communities and a new emphasis on justice and human rights as central to the Gospel of Christ. They ignored the social gospel of Christ. They spiritualised the Gospel so that it never presented a challenge to the political establishment in the six counties or the 26 counties.
As ministers of the Gospel, priests are called, at this time in our history, to rid ourselves of all forms of authoritarianism that have crept into the clerical culture over the years. Even some of those liberal clergy who are constantly critical of Sinn Féin send out contradictory messages.
There is now a special urgency about our work and mission that derives from our sense of sadness about crimes committed against children by priests and covered up by bishops.
This sense of solidarity with the poor and oppressed of this world and for the world itself, derives from our celebration of the Eucharist, which was never meant to be a ritual action with no relation to the situation we find ourselves in.  The Mass is always a call to action in the here and now to bring about justice and healing – the healing of all of creation.
Priests have a special responsibility to be signs of God’s eternal saving grace and power, of God’s compassion for the poor, the victims of child abuse, the weak and vulnerable. If we priests are not clearly seen to be ministers of healing and firmly on the side of the victims of the abuse of power in the church then we have no future.

• Joe McVeigh is a priest in the Diocese of Clogher and is based in Garrison, County Fermanagh. He is the author of a number of books, including A Wounded Church and Taking a Stand both published by Mercier Press. He is well known for his work on human rights and Irish Unity.

For the most part the Church leadership stood resolutely on the side of the politically and socially powerful

 Also see: McGuinness says Brady should consider his position and Liberation theology: Sharing the people's lot


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