US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The pope's letter to Ireland: Two steps forward and one back?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Though its reception has been uneven--with some applauding and some shrugging--the pope's letter to the church of Ireland is definitely worthy of praise--with reservations.

First, it actually contains an apology: "You [victims] have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured."

Second, it has harsh words for abusers: "You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God. . . . Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy."

As for bishops, although the pope acknowledges the challenges some faced in understanding the "expert advice," he has tough words for them as well: "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. . . . Grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness."

Still, this one-paragraph description of the causes of the crisis is troubling: "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. . . . 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. . . . 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."

What was that again? Secularization in Ireland and Vatican II lie behind this crisis? I don't know who slipped this passage in, but it is way off the mark, especially since most of the abuse dates to well before both Vatican II and the secularization of Ireland is more a product of the Celtic Tiger economic expansion of the last 20 years. And I hardly think the decline of weekly confession among the faithful has any relationship whatsoever to systemic abuse committed by clerics and religious in the 1950s and '60s.

Also curiously absent is a call to involve lay people explicitly in cleaning up this mess. The pope does suggest in his words to the bishops that "the lay faithful, too, should be encouraged to play their proper part in the life of the Church. See that they are formed in such a way that they can offer an articulate and convincing account of the Gospel in the midst of modern society (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) and cooperate more fully in the Church’s life and mission."

The pope completely missed the boat here. In the U.S., it is the national lay review board that has been the main engine of reform in child protection, not the bishops. Every country, whether they have or know they have a sex abuse problem should create one. If you want to protect children, best to get parents involved.

Indeed, what is still going unacknowledged is the true cause of this crisis, which is neither gay clergy nor clerical celibacy. The cause is, and largely remains, a closed clerical culture in which all authority is held by a small and sociologically unique caste of individuals: celibate men. That culture has shown an almost patholigical willingness to cover up some truly monstrous crimes to protect its image. The only true solution, both to this crisis and to much else that ails the church, is a dismantling of this culture and a more (dare I say it) democratic approach to the governance of the church.

That, however, I do not see in this letter, nor do I expect it any time soon.