Dump church baggage for reform to be real, Eamon
Controversy only serves to cloud a lot of good works done by a declining number of priests and nuns, writes Colum Kenny
Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30
When the devil opens one door he shuts another. Last week, the Irish hierarchy took a step in the direction of better relations with the media. But a parish priest in County Dublin reopened old wounds.
On Tuesday, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh met journalists who regularly report on religion. His hierarchy faces a great challenge if it is to restore public confidence in the Catholic Church.
He met the media at Maynooth. Meanwhile, a parish newsletter appeared in which Fr Arthur O'Neill of Cabinteely publicly questioned the parentage of the late Fr Michael Cleary's son.
That other Archbishop Martin, Diarmuid of Dublin, quickly distanced himself from Fr O'Neill and pointed out that a parish newsletter is no place to air personal opinions.
Fr O'Neill is not actually denying that Fr Cleary had children, or citing anyone who does deny it. His beef is with the way that journalists have reported the story.
This kind of controversy clouds much good work done by a declining number of ordinary priests and nuns.
O'Neill chose Father's Day as the occasion for his passionate outburst about Fr Cleary. The actual position of fathers today, unemployed or struggling on low incomes, might make a better homily at this point.
"I can help someone who is hungry, so that they are no longer hungry," Pope Francis said last week.
"But if someone has lost his job, he is involved in another kind of poverty. He no longer has his dignity."
You do not need spin doctors or a Twitter account for that kind of message to get across.
Archbishop Eamon Martin says that he wants a new kind of communications between church and society. He wants to understand the media, he says, and acknowledges that it has an important role to play. If his aspirations are to be more than patronising platitudes, then his church must change.
He uses the word "encounter" to describe what he is after. This is not just one-way communications, not just messages from the top-down and press releases. The evangelisation that he says he wants would involve some kind of meeting of minds.
But he still slips into using the word "church" as if it belonged to the bishops.
Yet to the question "Where is the Church of Bergoglio headed?" Pope Francis (Jorge Bergoglio) told a Rome daily paper last week, "Thanks be to God, I don't have any church - I follow Christ. I didn't found anything."
Archbishop Eamon Martin's sincerity is not in question. And he was challenged at his meeting with media last week. Irish bishops have a way to travel from where they are to where they need to be if he is achieve his objective and restore trust.
At present the hierarchy too rarely holds press conferences, or engages in robust public discussions that reveal any element of self-doubt or openness to change.
Eamon Martin wants more than just a media pulpit, and that aspiration is admirable. Creating glossy websites carrying their messages is what private corporations are good at. A religious organisation ought to be different. It can never rely on media to do its job.
And Archbishop Eamon Martin acknowledges this when he says that the future of the church, just like its past, is fundamentally a question of witness. You do not bear witness to the message of Jesus by merely talking about it. The witness generates the message, not the other way around.
The Catholic Church will not solve its communications problems until it solves its institutional issues. A top-down body with little tradition of taking on board the views of its own general laity, never mind alienated but authentic critics, is not well placed to engage in external communications that ring true.
Speaking of child sex abuse last week, Eamon Martin suggested that it had at times seemed to "many people in the Church" that "they were being unfairly targeted". While the media is far from perfect and certainly made mistakes in respect to its coverage of abuse stories, how many rank-and-file Catholics really felt targeted by media exposure of the scandal? One suspects that bishops did.
Pope Francis is sounding a new note of evangelisation, suggesting a different kind of reformed church that speaks for the poor and that is itself poor in spirit. How that translates into change at the level of national churches is a big question.
It cannot be done simply by "managing" a message or creating websites. It involves a set of fresh priorities, and the jettisoning of meaningless baggage.
That clearing-out should include interpretations of doctrines on matters as diverse as virgin birth, transubstantiation, papal infallibility and birth control that have accrued over the centuries. In the forms in which they have been frequently asserted or repeated, they are unnecessary stumbling blocks to belief.
Change also requires a new approach to church authority and to the involvement of a range of ordinary believers in their own right.
The response to Mary McAleese's recent description of the all-male bishops' synod's deliberations on family matters as "bonkers" ought to have been one of inclusion - not dismissal.
An immediate obstacle to change for Irish church authorities is the promised referendum on same-sex marriage. As was the case with the government's legislation on the life of mothers following the death of Savita Halappanavar, bishops may again engage in political sniping and further alienate people.
Unlikely to be as clear-cut as opinion polls have suggested, any vote now on same-sex marriage is more fraught because of the drubbing of government party candidates in the recent local and European elections.
Not just Opposition backbenchers but some bishops will be sorely tempted to return to the fray of culture wars by actively opposing the government's promised proposal on same-sex marriage.
It would be such a relief if bishops had the discipline not to do so. It is time to move on.