Reclaiming Our Consciences

At NCR Online, Joan Chittister has a thoughtful reflection on the Irish Bishops’ Vatican visit – from a perspective inside Ireland.  After noting that there are fundamental differences between the responses of people in Ireland and America, where the response was  that “people picketed churches, signed petitions, demonstrated outside chanceries, and formed protest groups”, in Ireland the response appeared much more low-key – but in fact was deep, and may well be far more significant for the future of the Church, over the longer term.

In Ireland the gulf got wider and deeper by the day. It felt like the massive turning of a silent back against the bell towers and statues and holy water fonts behind it. No major public protests occurred. “Not at all,” as they are fond of saying. But the situation moved at the upper echelon of the country relatively quietly but like a glacier. Slowly but inexorably.

A country which, until recently, checked its constitution against “the teachings of the church” and had, therefore, allowed no contraceptives to be sold within its boundaries, unleashed its entire legal and political system against the storm.

They broke a hundred years of silence about the abuse of unwed mothers in the so-called “Magdalene Launderies.” They investigated the treatment of orphaned or homeless children in the “industrial schools” of the country where physical abuse had long been common. The government itself took public responsibility for having failed to monitor these state-owned but church-run programs. And they assessed compensatory damages, the results of which are still under review in the national parliament.

This point of the state getting involved is what for me, makes the Irish saga so riveting.   For the first time, the state is attempting to hold the church accountable. Are hey succeeding?  Clearly, the Church thus far is not accepting the responsibility. There have been assurances of outrage, but there has still not been any acceptance of the findings of the Murphy report, nor have any bishops yet accepted personal culpability. This has already done untold damage to the reputation and standing of the Church in Ireland.  Unless the institutional Church, and individual bishops, do start to acknowledge their culpability, there could easily be more damage. So far, only the Dublin diocese has been investigated. Public anger could easily force an extension to the rest of the country. I would not be surprised if the Irish example should lead, in turn, to similar state backed investigations in other countries. (UPDATE:  Already, there are signs that this could be happening in Germany, where the magazine Der Spiegel reports that the government wants the church to “come clean”)

No bishop, in a land where the burden of guilt fell heavily on the backs of Irish people, has admitted his own guilt, his own defense of the institution rather than the care of the children. No one has said, “The church — I — was wrong in the handling of this scandal. Therefore, I, too, am responsible for this abuse.”

So how are the Irish people reacting to the impasse? Well, as they opened Catholic Schools Week in Ireland this month, the Market Research Bureau of Ireland was reporting that 74 percent of the population think that “the church did not react properly to the Murphy Report” and that 61 percent of the population “want no Catholic control of elementary schools.” Little more than half of the respondents think the church will really change to prevent abuse in the future, and 47 percent feel more negative than before toward the church.

There is some small benefit emerging, though.  Instead of meekly and unquestioningly accepting the judgment of the Church on all matters of morality, ordinary Catholics are now recognising that the priests and bishops, like all humans, can sometimes err and fail, forcing the Irish people to recognise the value of their own consciences.

Meanwhile, the average Irish person in the pews digested the information and, at the same time, calmly but clearly to declare a separation between “the faith and the church,” between the sacramental system and the individual conscience. The sacraments they continued to respect, but church attendance has tumbled in the cities. Their individual consciences, on the other hand, they reclaimed. “They won’t be telling us what to do anymore,” an old man on the street said in one of the earliest public interviews on the problem. “We’ll be deciding that for ourselves.” And, to judge by local conversations and polling data years later, nothing much has changed in that regard.

Reclaiming our consciences: an example we could all usefully follow.

Read the full reflection at NCR online

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