Editor assesses state of church in Ireland

by Tom Roberts

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For those interested in Catholics overcoming theological and ideological divides, Ireland might provide an example of how to achieve such agreement, admittedly amid difficult circumstances.

The series of government reports in recent years outlining widespread abuse of youngsters by priests and a broad coverup of the crimes by the hierarchy have united people from widely varying points on the ecclesial spectrum, according to Michael Kelly, deputy editor of The Irish Catholic, an independent national publication. From movements left, right and center, he said, people in this overwhelmingly Catholic country are saying: “‘This is not working. We still want to hold our orthodoxy and be traditional Catholics but we also want to find a new way of being church,’” he said in an Aug. 4 phone interview.

Kelly said his newspaper has begun conducting a series of meetings across the country to provide a forum for people to speak out about the scandal and the future of the church. The first was held recently in Dublin. The rest will follow in coming months. About 150 attended that first meeting, he said and represented “a wide variation of theological differences” gathered in one room. They included, he said, people who think that Humanae Vitae (the encyclical reaffirming the ban on artificial birth control) was a mistake and that women should be ordained to those who think Mass celebrated in English isn’t valid. “But they weren’t shouting at each other,” he said. It was as if they had decided to put all the other disagreements on hold. “There was a palpable sense of frustration” across the board, said Kelly, and a consensus on “the need to reform structure.”

Kelly said he believes one reason the hierarchy in Ireland reacted so differently to the scandal than bishops in the United States and elsewhere is because of the detail provided in the three government investigations so far in to clergy sex abuse. Because the government had access to internal documents and cooperation from the hierarchy in the case of the Archdiocese of Dublin, the evidence compiled was overwhelming and the narrative provided a thorough picture of the dimensions of the abuse and of the cover up.

Another reason is Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, appointed to Dublin in 2004 and, to date, surprisingly frank in his assessment of the scandal and that reforms are necessary. Prior to his arrival, said Kelly, the hierarchy would never give the appearance of having disagreements or criticizing each other in public. Martin, said Kelly, “pulled apart the cozy consensus that had been there.”

Of course, not everyone agrees with his approach. Several bishops have resigned under pressure after the government revelations. Most recently, the Vatican refused to accept the resignations of two of Martin’s auxiliaries and the jury is out on how much that could damage his standing.

Kelly said as a result of the inevitable tensions, “the hierarchy is divided in a way it probably hasn’t been in two centuries in Ireland.”

Meanwhile, the people will continue to meet. Kelly said the gatherings sponsored by the paper will pick up again in the autumn and run for months after throughout the country. In one sense the meetings may provide an answer to another frustration that he said is felt by Catholics. One of the prevailing sentiments of bishops in the wake of the government revelations is that more lay involvement is needed. “But that’s just a statement, that’s not policy,” said Kelly.

“Whenever you go to religious events, there’s lots of talk but a strong feeling that there’s no real forum.” Lay involvement, he said, “doesn’t seem to take a concrete form.”

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