Benedict gets it wrong – badly wrong

It is difficult for an Irish Anglican to objectively read Benedict’s Pastoral Letter to the Catholics [sic] of Ireland. That said, Burke’s Corner, as an Irish Anglican, detects four major difficulties with the Pastoral.

(i) It appears to uncritically endorse the ‘holy Ireland’ narrative in which nationalist political identity merged with Roman Catholicism:

From the sixteenth century on, Catholics in Ireland endured a long period of persecution, during which they struggled to keep the flame of faith alive in dangerous and difficult circumstances. Saint Oliver Plunkett, the martyred Archbishop of Armagh, is the most famous example of a host of courageous sons and daughters of Ireland who were willing to lay down their lives out of fidelity to the Gospel. After Catholic Emancipation, the Church was free to grow once more. Families and countless individuals who had preserved the faith in times of trial became the catalyst for the great resurgence of Irish Catholicism in the nineteenth century. The Church provided education, especially for the poor, and this was to make a major contribution to Irish society.

This invocation of ‘holy Ireland’ is – at best – somewhat incongruous in a pastoral which apologises for the widespread culture of the systematic sexual, physical and mental abuse of children in Roman Catholic institutions and by Roman Catholic clergy and religious in a society shaped by the ‘holy Ireland’ narrative. What is more, however, the myth of ‘holy Ireland’ undoubtedly contributed to the failure of the secular authorities to protect children from the culture of abuse within Roman Catholic institutions.

(ii) The apology is – at the very least – open to misinterpretation. It appears to suggest now that the Pontiff has apologised, the victims of abuse should forgive the church:

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope … Speaking to you as a pastor concerned for the good of all God’s children, I humbly ask you to consider what I have said. I pray that by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his Church – a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity – you will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you. I am confident that in this way you will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing, and peace.

“It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive” – those words are a chronic understatement. Benedict should not have sought to “understand” the victims of clerical abuse. He certainly should have avoided the declaration that he is “confident” that abuse victims “will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing, and peace” in the church. Can any of us who have not been victims utter such words without suggesting that we have miserably failed to acknowledge the real horror of clerical child abuse?

(iii) The suggestion that clerical child abuse is somehow linked to the liberalising tendencies unleashed by Vatican II is staggeringly inaccurate. The Report of the Ryan Commission reviewed the period 1936 to the present. It went on to state, however:

The complaints come mostly from a period during which large scale institutionalisation was the norm, which was, in effect, the period between the Cussen Report (1936) and the Kennedy report (1970).

1936-1970. Yet listen to Benedict’s words:

In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values … The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse.

Benedict suggests that theological liberals, influenced by secularism, abused children in recent decades. That, bluntly, is a lie – a lie exposed by Ryan. Believing this lie will prevent the Vatican and the Irish Roman hierarchy from effectively responding to the culture of abuse that existed within Roman Catholic institutions. Rolling back a liberal theological agenda will not bring an end to clerical child abuse.

(iv) The culture of clericalism certainly contributed to a weak, at best, response to abuse. Disappointingly, the Pastoral seems to perpetuate a highly clericalised view of the church. This is surely implied in the language Benedict uses when addressing Roman Catholic parents:

You have been deeply shocked to learn of the terrible things that took place in what ought to be the safest and most secure environment of all. In today’s world it is not easy to build a home and to bring up children. They deserve to grow up in security, loved and cherished, with a strong sense of their identity and worth. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person, to be inspired by the truth of our Catholic faith and to learn ways of behaving and acting that lead to healthy self-esteem and lasting happiness. This noble but demanding task is entrusted in the first place to you, their parents. I urge you to play your part in ensuring the best possible care of children, both at home and in society as a whole, while the Church, for her part, continues to implement the measures adopted in recent years to protect young people in parish and school environments.

The clericalism implicit in this statement is quite staggering. Roman Catholic parents have their role, “while the Church” has its role. “The Church” is, therefore, the hierarchy. Roman Catholic laity … well, are they something else?

Forget the experience of other Christian traditions – the Anglican, Reformed and Orthodox traditions. This is not the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which begins its section on the church by proclaiming that the church is the people of God, into which we enter “by faith in Christ, and Baptism” – not through ordination to the priesthood.

The practical significance of this is that it is difficult to envisage the culture of secrecy and complicity in abuse if laity were more fully involved in the governance of the Roman Catholic church at local, diocesan and national level. Clericalism bred and nurtured the culture of secrecy that condemned thousands of children to hideous abuse.

In conclusion, Benedict’s letter fails. It fails to adequately respond to the reality of clerical child abuse. It fails to address the philosophical and theological factors which contributed to the culture of secrecy and complicity. And it fails to recognise that the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland must now endure a time in the wilderness as it seeks to regain the trust of Irish society. In fact, rather than accepting a wilderness time, Benedict proposes something much less:

I now invite all of you to devote your Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to this intention. I ask you to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland [as throughout the document, those of us in other Christian churches will grit our teeth at Benedict’s refusal to recognise that we too are churches].

Healing and renewal for the Roman Catholic church in Ireland will take much longer than one year. It will take a wilderness experience almost certainly lasting decades.

Burke’s Corner has profound respect for Benedict as a philosopher and a theologian. I strongly support the ongoing ecumenical dialogue between the Anglican and Roman traditions, dialogue that should result in inter-communion between the two churches. I have valued time shared with Roman Catholic religious communities in Ireland and parishes in Belgium and France. It gives me no pleasure to conclude that Benedict’s Pastoral fails to adequately address the horrors of clerical child abuse. The witness and ministry of the Roman Catholic church in Ireland will be further undermined by this inadequate response.

Perhaps the only way to end these comments is with an extract from the Ryan Report. This is why the Roman Catholic church should go into the wilderness, with sackcloth and fasting, to seek renewal, forgiveness and healing:

Physical abuse was a component of the vast majority of abuse reported in all decades and institutions and witnesses described pervasive abuse as part of their daily lives … Sexual abuse was reported by approximately half of all the Confidential Committee witnesses. Acute and chronic contact and non-contact sexual abuse was reported, including vaginal and anal rape, molestation and voyeurism in both isolated assaults and on a regular basis over long periods of time … Neglect was frequently described by witnesses in the context of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in addition to accounts of inadequate heating, food, clothing and personal care. Neglect of a child’s care and welfare occurred both by actions and inactions by those who had a responsibility and a duty of care to protect and nurture them … Emotional abuse was reported by witnesses in the form of lack of attachment and affection, loss of identity, deprivation of family contact, humiliation, constant criticism, personal denigration, exposure to fear and the threat of harm. A frequently identified area of emotional abuse was the separation from siblings and loss of family contact.

Taken from Burke’s Corner