ANOTHER VIEW; Calvary of Catholic Ireland

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The Independent Online
From time immemorial Ireland has been described as a Catholic country that was hopelessly priest-ridden. "They are all Papists by their profession," wrote Edmund Spenser in the 16th century, setting the tone, "but in the same, so blindly and brutishly informed, for the most part, as you would rather think them infidels." For the next 400 years, outsiders have scolded, berated, persecuted, ridiculed and nagged at the Irish for their extraordinary loyalty to the Roman Church and its teachings. Against this barrage of external pressure Catholic Ireland stood firm.

To the priesthood the Irish people gave a very special trust and loyalty. These were men sprung from a peasant order - and, by virtue of their celibacy, immune from the dynastic temptations of placing their sons in positions of power and marrying their daughters off to rich politicians. Whatever the faults of the Irish Catholic priest, he generally observed punctiliously the chastity that he so sternly preached.

Now, suddenly, Catholic Ireland seems to be collapsing from within. In Dublin, the newspapers, radio and television lead editions and bulletins with priestly scandals, priestly sex abuse, and apparent episcopal covering- up of such sins, for sin is what the Irish Catholic church would have called such lapses from the ideal in its heyday

Some commentators see the root of the crisis in the authoritarianism of the Irish Catholic Church, but my reading of Irish Catholic material from the past 20 years leads me to quite a different conclusion. From about the mid-Seventies onwards, the Irish Catholic Church has been increasingly liberal and even left-wing in tone and attitude. Practically every Episocopal letter and statement from the Irish hierarchy since 1978 has taken up the theme (to rephrase John Major) of "understanding a little more and blaming a little less".

It was not because many of the offenders who have brought the Church in Ireland to such a position of shame were dealt with in an "authoritarian" way - but because they were dealt with in a forgiving, molly-coddling, indulgent way - that the problem endured. Cardinal Daly seems to have believed that saying sorry, with a "firm purpose of amendment", was enough to dissolve the offence of paedophilia; a perusal of the devotional literature from Catholic Ireland in the Fifties would show that pardon was withheld from any penitent until moral restitution was fully assured. Saying sorry was not considered to be sufficient for absolution until the post-Vatican II liberalism.

What the Irish Catholic Church needs today is not more democracy - but more authority and a bit more toughness about right and wrong. It needs to keep its nerve, and accept, too, the Calvary it is now facing. Irish Catholicism was forged in suffering and always found renewal through pain. It will do so again: le cnamh De.

Mary Kenny's study 'Goodbye to Catholic Ireland?' will be published in 1996.