Late last night Australian time the Vatican released the much anticipated Pastoral Letter from Pope Benedict to the People of Ireland in the wake of the clerical abuse scandal in that country. Here at Catholica we looked forward to this Pastoral Letter with a genuine sense of hope and anticipation. In the end we were disappointed. Today's editorial has been written as an attempt to reflect what we believe might be a shared communal view of those who support the objectives of Catholica — an outreach to those who have given up regular sacramental participation in the institution and those still practising who have deep misgivings with the agenda presently being pursued by the institutional leadership.
A pastoral letter to fan the flames of discontent rather than quell them...
The commentary of NCR's man in Rome, John L Allen Jr, in recent days caused us here at Catholica to genuinely shift our hopes that Pope Benedict's much heralded Pastoral Letter to the People of Ireland would be a major turning point for the Catholic Church in the modern world. We have been sadly disappointed in the outcome. This pastoral letter is not going to solve the problem nor restore a sense of confidence and hope to the Church in the Western world. It is an apology written from the flawed theological, Christological and ecclesiological thinking that has generated the crisis in the first place and the program of restoration it offers is "more of the same" that almost guarantees no real healing will take place. This crisis the institution has been facing in the world is not going to go away and Pope Benedict's letter to the people of Ireland almost guarantees that it will fan the flames of discontent building in other parts of the world on the errors of the institution in dealing with the problem of clerical abuse.
To our way of thinking there are four chief flaws in the document:
BLAME SHIFTING or AN INCORRECT NAMING OF THE SOURCE FOR THE BLAME: Benedict's document attempts to lump all the blame for this crisis variously with the Irish people, the Irish Church or with the modern forces of the secularisation of culture. Nowhere is there even the slightest hint that there might be any systemic flaws with the institution or at the leadership level in Rome. We have little doubt that Pope Benedict's expressed sorrow and disappointment is genuine and deep — nor that this letter expresses genuine empathy for the victims in ways far better than the institution has done in the past — but, the overwhelming feeling conveyed by the document is that the moral authority of the central institution has to be upheld at any cost — even at the cost of truth itself or of finding a genuine solution to this crisis that has been like a slow cancer eating the heart out of institutional Catholicism.
There is partial truth in the observation that some people have been figuratively 'sucked out of the Church' by the allures of consumerism and secular culture. That is not the principal reason why so many have left though. Many, and particularly in the more educated and reflective sectors of the First World, have simply ceased to believe that the likes of Benedict and his predecessor "have the correct answers". We are no longer convinced by the theological and moral arguments that are advanced by the people who are supposed to be our "theological experts" and "spiritual leaders". There is a widespread feeling, particularly in the "opinion leader" sectors of society that our ecclesial leaders are incapable of shouldering responsibility themselves for the errors in their own thinking and policy decisions. As a starting point for this Pastoral Letter to have credibility in the wider Western world Benedict had to demonstrate that he himself was prepared to shoulder responsibility not on behalf of the Irish people, or the Irish Bishops, but on behalf of the serious errors of judgment that have been made by himself, his predecessor, by the Roman Curia and the whole of the institutional leadership. That is the only way he could have started if whatever else was contained in the document was to carry credibility and moral force and persuasion. Yes, there is also partial truth in the observation that the Irish Bishops made mistakes but, we humbly submit, those 'mistakes' had an origin outside the bishops themselves in systemic failings in the institution and Pope Benedict makes no attempt in his letter to acknowledge that there even might be any systemic failings let alone proposing ways of fixing them.
PROTECTING, AT ALL COSTS, THE INFALLIBILITY or INCAPACITY OF THE POPE TO ERR: Benedict's document reeks of an underlying belief that the leadership of the Church is incapable of effors in judgment — and beyond matters of dogma alone. What comes across in this document is an attempt to portray the Pope as some sort of Divine Being and Teacher himself who speaks down to everyone else in Creation, including Bishops. The sort of tone that comes across is: "You will follow my instructions because I have been appointed by Almighty God and I will guide you through this crisis the Church is enduring." Your Holiness, most of the people have stopped listening to that mantra — and a long time ago now. Increasingly we see our bishops, and even men like yourself, as flawed individuals like ourselves struggling with the pressures of ego and fear to make intelligent moral judgments in our lives. Popes are not sprinkled with some Holy Spirit dust at their election that makes them superhuman. The "infallibility" belongs to the whole of the "Body of Christ" not to the episcopal leadership alone. Educated people have increasingly grown beyond the fairy tale conception of Church, seeing our episcopal leaders as superhuman and incapable of being swayed by the forces of ego, personal insecurity and psychological fear. To restore moral authority and credibility to the leadership of the institution you need to start acknowledging that the people who hold the office you now occupy do make unwise decisions from time to time. The people at large will begin to respect the institution again, and accord its leaders "moral authority", when they begin to see leadership again that generates respect through the quality of leadership given and not a leadership that attempts to force respect out of some ancient belief that the Episcopal leadership exercises authority by some "Divine Right" or "Investment". The days of the Divine Right of Kings and the Ancien Regime have finished. The last vestiges of those forms of leadership need to be excised from the institutional culture.
SPEAKING ONLY TO 'THE LITTLE PEOPLE': Dr Christine Roussel first drew our attention here on Catholica to the words expressed by then Cardinal Ratzinger in a 1979 homily justifying the penalties imposed on Fr Hans Küng:
"The Christian believer is a simple person: bishops should protect the faith of these little people against the power of intellectuals." [As quoted in John L Allen's book "Benedict XVI" at p130]
The Pastoral Letter to the People or Ireland has all the marks of being written out of the same mindset used by the man who uttered the words quoted above in 1979. The truth is that today the vast, vast majority of lay people are educated — they could themselves be classified as "intellectuals" compared to their forefathers and mothers even just a half-century or two ago. Most Catholics today do not consider themselves "simple people" or "little people" in the sense those words were used in the quotation above. They expect to be conversed with by their political leaders, by business leaders, by their lecturers and teachers, and by their spiritual leaders as equals and not in a condescending way. We submit that the way Jesus himself used the term "little people" or "the children of God" is NOT in the same sense that the similar expressions were used in the quoted passage above. Here at Catholica we acknowledge that institutionally we do have a collective responsibility to that now dwindling minority in the population who process their insecurities in a particular way through needing "authority figures, blind faith and dogma". We submit though that that responsibility is not exercised by pandering to the insecurities of these people or by attempting to constantly appease them and their insecurities. The responsibility we are charged with by none other than Christ himself in the words of St Gregory of Nyssa is to lift all people up "to become more like God". Our collective responsibility is to be educating the insecure out of their insecurities NOT endeavouring to cement their insecurities in ever more deeply. Our collective responsibility is to be always and everywhere attempting to educate people how to think, and act, in the ways modelled by Jesus Christ through the guidance of "our father in heaven" to use the words of Jesus himself. To 'short circuit' the relationship of the individual to God himself by artificial forms of kindergarten level obedience and treating people as "simple" and "little" in ways Jesus never intended is an abomination of what Jesus stood for. The sort of language used in the Pastoral Letter no longer washes with the vast majority of the baptised today and, we submit, more especially with the vast majority of young people. We write that as parents and teachers ourselves with the lived experience of having raised children through to adulthood and having some intimacy with where the communication strategies of the institutional church have been failing so catastrophically.
UNDOING VATICAN II and A FLAWED UNDERSTANDING OF WHY PEOPLE HAVE STOPPED LISTENING OR PRACTISING: In the solutions Pope Benedict proposes as a way out of this crisis His Holiness resorts to some nostalgic sense of piety that the vast majority of people began jettisoning decades ago now. The document is yet another attempt to "turn back the clock". Pope Benedict really does seem to have developed almost a sense of hatred for what the collective wisdom of the bishops who assembled at the Second Vatican Council discerned. In an almost Orwellian "newspeak" way he uses the rhetoric of attempting to better implement the true spirit of Vatican II but the reality is that he seems to want to return the Church, and the faithful, and the bishops and priests to forms of spirituality and piety of a bygone era. Those forms of prayer, spirituality and liturgy do appeal to a sector of the population and, we submit, most educated people have no objections whatsoever with people who choose those forms of accessing God to worship, pray, sing, be pious or holy, in those ways. The sense we pick up — and speaking for a brief moment beyond the domain of the Pastoral Letter — is that most people we know do have a respect for our heritage in such things as the Latin language, the Latin Mass and the old pieties so loved by our parents and grandparents. Most people want to see those things preserved and honoured in some way in much the same way as in the secular sphere through museums and libraries and cultural reanactments and festivals we honour our forebears, their ways of life and thinking and their culture practices. But that is a long way from believing that life today can be lived out of the ways of thinking and cultural practices and folklore used by our parents and grandparents.
Benedict seems to propose the solution to this enormous crisis facing the Church is some return to quaint spiritualities and thinking that might have been appropriate in the time of our grandparents. To put it crudely, as most parents can tell you today, "it ain't gunna work". This pastoral letter is the work of a person who has simply never had the responsibility of nurturing children through to adulthood 24/7 for somewhere between 20 and 25 years non-stop. It is far divorced from the realities of the lives of most people in the Western world today. We submit it is time to abandon this "reform of the reform". It is a flawed and failed policy that has helped drive the vast majority out of the pews. It is time to re-seize that sense of energy and excitement that the vast majority of bishops unleashed across the Catholic world in that brief decade or two in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council before the initiative was stolen from them by the pharisaical successors to the late Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani in the Roman Curia.
An opportunity squandered...
Here at Catholica we were genuinely optimistic in the days leading up to the release of this Pastoral Letter than this crisis would have presented Pope Benedict with a heaven-sent opportunity to start to reverse the decline in morale and participation of recent decades. Our sense is that the opportunity has been squandered.
Brian Coyne, Editor and Publisher