The Church has failed to face the massive changes which have taken place in Ireland in recent times Fr. Séan McDonagh, SSC

Last week I argued that it would take more than a few questionnaires and short visits from a number of North American Archbishops and Sisters with Irish surnames to bring about effective renewal in the Irish Catholic Church.  My fear is that the visitors will not have the time or orientation to really understand the massive cultural shift which has taken place in Ireland during the past 40 years, since the Second Vatican Council. I trained as an anthropologist and spent many years in the Philippines, teaching Anthropology at the Mindanao State University in Marawi City and after that working as a missionary anthropologist with the T’boli people who lived in the South eastern mountains of Mindanao. Even though I had read almost every ethnography written on the different ethno-linguistic groups in the Philippines, I would be very circumspect about making any definite statements about elements of T’boli culture unless I was working closely, over an extended period, with T’bolis themselves. The participant/observer social science methods employed in Anthropology takes time and patience.

Allowing for the limitations outlined above, we can still get some indication of the changes in Irish society through well constructed surveys, particularly when the results are interpreted by competent people who have had their finger on the pulse of Irish society during the past three decades.  Maureen Gaffney is a well-known psychologist and commentator on the changes which have been happening in Ireland in recent decades.  Furthermore, she does not have any axe to grind with the Catholic Church so her reflections on the changes in value systems deserve the careful attention of everyone in the Irish Catholic Church, especially religious leaders.  In an article in The Irish Times, she reviewed the result of a social poll conducted in recent weeks by that paper. According to her, the implications for the Catholic Church are both enormous and very disturbing.  She wrote “for what was once the most powerful institution in the land, the Catholic Church, the poll result must be deeply disturbing. If the Catholic Church were a political party running for election, and if these survey results were the actual vote, then this could be described as a rout. And this is on top of the on-going outrage about the church’s response to the scandals of clerical child sexual abuse. There is a comprehensive rejection of the position of the church on matters of personal morality and on how the church itself is governed – the issues it most publically embraces. Sex outside marriage, cohabitation, women priests, celibacy, attendance at Mass – the majority of us now don’t agree with the church on any of these positions, with younger people particularly alienated.” [1]

As if that were not bad enough, her next two paragraphs are devastating. She writes that, “we don’t find the church’s position on anything to do with sexuality or women credible. The sexual revolution, the development of effective contraception, the growth of the women’s and gay rights movements – all of these historical shifts have left the church stranded with an archaic psychology of sexuality.

“The Church’s pronouncements on all these issues are so much at variance with the lived experience of most people as to terminally undermine its credibility in the area of intimate relationships. This has profound consequences for the future of the church. Intimate relationships have become central to our sense of self and to our personal identity, so the church has lost the most profound connection it could make with us.[2]

According to Gaffney, the official Catholic Church has lost its ability to connect with the laity, not because people have walked away from the Church. In fact, 58% of those surveyed consider themselves strongly or moderately religious. In these circumstances she is scathing in her assessment of the Church leadership to connect with the real world.

“We look to the church to be a life-enhancing community of equals, to make life better, nobler, more dignified, more full of meaning and love. Instead, what we are offered is an elite, remote hierarchy and a diet of dogma, restrictions and petty institutional rules. And the ordinary foot soldiers of the church – the local priests and religious – seem as powerless as ourselves to change things.[3]

The two statements issued by a spokesman for the Irish Hierarchy in the wake of the suggestion by Jennifer Sleeman’s that women should not  attend Mass on September 26th 2010, in order to protest about the place of women in the Catholic Church, illustrates how out of touch many bishops are with  crucial issues facing the Church and world. These challenges will not go away.


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