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Irish church’s dark night of the soul


No less a Catholic than the pope has said Irish Catholics are as good as Catholics get. So it’s a depressing sign of the times to find the Irish church a basket case of low morale adrift on a sea of simmering anger and woeful cynicism.

The island is still full of good people, including prosperous people, called collectively the “Celtic Tiger” now, proud of Seamus Heaney and “Riverdance” and pop stars whose names I don’t recall. It’s the church that’s having trouble.

As far back as 1997, The Irish Times was reporting, “there can hardly be a more battered group on the island these days than the 26 men who make up the current Irish ... hierarchy.” The point was that the bishops had become scapegoats for all kinds of old ills bitterly remembered.

The predominant ill, people seem to agree with hindsight, was fear. Such fear, the past hints, invariably comes home to roost. The Times’ Patsy McGarry recalls, “the terrors of Satan that froze their innocent hearts and the many casual cruelties of a church triumphant, so sure of its absolute truth.”

Some say this is just the media letting off steam and settling old scores. But then there’s a new book, From the Inside: A Priest’s View of the Catholic Church, by Tony Flannery (Mercier Press, Cork; e-mail address: books@mercier.ie), part biography and part history of the recent Irish church, which, he writes, “I have known to be authoritarian, dogmatic, devious, self-serving and even on occasion corrupt.” But, he goes on, “It has also opened up for me a world of great depth and beauty. It has been a gateway to mystery and to the realm of the spirit. I have experienced kindness, support and encouragement.”

The book has become a bestseller, a minor phenomenon, a catalyst, it seems, for a confused people wrestling with what to think of their church. Fr. Flannery writes: “The last few years have seen much anger and resentment against the clergy, and we are often pilloried and derided. ... Maybe the underlying source of much of the anger coming out today is not so much the scandals that we have experienced in the last few years but the whole residue of hurt that has accumulated over generations in which the church exercised power over the people.”

That power was pervasive, from national politics to the marriage bed. The people were “only middling sinners,” as a local poet said, but a well-organized church, with centuries of practice, quoted chapter and verse to control the lives of Catholics who, in Ireland and elsewhere, toed the line to stay out of awful hell. Then education blew the old cobwebs away.

Flannery describes a symbolic moment that sums up the disintegration. Not surprisingly, it had to do with sex, a national referendum on abortion. The author was conducting a novena -- yes, novena, so this is no wild and crazy guy -- in a southern town. On the Saturday night he discussed with the pastor, “a man of great learning and culture,” the raging abortion debate. He was impressed by the parish priest’s wide knowledge and objectivity.

But at Mass time next morning a 20-year-old girl was handing out leaflets that opposed writing the illegality of abortion, already thoroughly enforced, into the national constitution. Flannery observed the pastor getting gradually upset with the girl. “Then he began to try to stand between the young girl and the cars and to jostle her out of the way.” But she was the more nimble and easily did an end run around him. “It was a sad and pathetic sight,” writes Flannery -- a church floundering when the old fear went out the window.

The Irish church of Flannery’s early years was in many ways beautiful and innocent. Most priests, and bishops, too, were decent men and frequently heroic, as many still are. Famed for being conservative, many, for the sheer good of people, would vault above the law in a manner that would give liberals goose bumps and give curial cardinals cardiac arrests.

But they belong to an institution that, with the best of intentions, time and again, bit off more than it could chew, assumed more power than God or anyone had ever given it. An average example, closer to home, is the way the Vatican just silenced Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent (NCR, July 30). It’s easy to see the Vatican’s Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger playing the futile role of that Irish parish priest. Anyone who lives long enough will see how this pontificate failed to notice the changing times and abused power and brought the church into disrepute.

This could have a tragic outcome. While in some countries, such as France, the faithful just walked away from a perceived irrelevance, in other places, and not just Ireland, people who had invested so much in this particular route to personal and communal fulfillment and salvation may react with the anger and contempt so palpable just now in Ireland.

Flannery is no church basher. “My own religious congregation, the Redemptorists, has experienced enormous decay and disintegration,” he writes, which must be hard to say while he is still one of them. He tells of his joy at hearing of a new Polish pope and the subsequent letdown. “We failed to question the role of the papacy,” he interjects.

He tells of all Ireland coming to a standstill for the pope’s 1979 visit. He notes an irony of that trip, a harbinger of what was to come. As the papal extravaganza moved across the country, “the two big performers, apart from the pope, were [Galway Bishop] Eamonn Casey and [Fr.] Michael Cleary.” Not many years would pass until the scandal of Casey’s fathering a child would bring home to the people that their church was flawed after all, and would give the media its chance to explore the can of worms that had just been opened.

Soon after that, Cleary, a charismatic, singing, guitar-playing priest revered by Ireland’s young people, died. It then emerged that Cleary, too, had had, for many years, a clandestine domestic relationship.

Both of these popular churchmen, notes Flannery, had long been publicly moralistic and hard-line. Cleary wrote a column for one of the national papers. “I was constantly irritated,” writes Flannery, “by the way he insistently churned out a hard, unbending line on all moral issues and seemed to make no effort to reach out to people who were struggling in their own lives.”

To the climate of fear, add a pinch of hypocrisy. Time and again, outside the church and in it, these come home to roost.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999