Tuesday, October 11, 2022

60th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council

 At 5pm this evening (Roman Time), Pope Francis will be celebrating Mass in St Peter's Basilica to mark the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. I was looking at the liturgy booklet and thought that it might be interesting to share the conciliar texts included at the start of the booklet, along with a few personal thoughts in italics.

From St John XXII's address opening the Council Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Mother Church Rejoices)

Mother Church rejoices that, by the singular gift of Divine Providence, the longed-for day has finally dawned when -- under the auspices of the virgin Mother of God, whose maternal dignity is commemorated on this feast -- the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council is being solemnly opened here beside St. Peter's tomb.


 In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.


The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven.


[T]he Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a Magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

It's worth noting that there isn't yet an English translation of Gaudet Mater Ecclesiae on the Vatican website. Instead it's presented in Latin, Italian, Spanish and Portugese.

From the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 1-2:

Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith, the sacred synod takes its direction from these words of St. John: "We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:2-3). Therefore, following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on, so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love. 

In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4). Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col. 1;15, 1 Tim. 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself. This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.

 To my mind, Dei Verbum deserves more popular attention and would be my starting point in terms of explaining the theological signifiance of the Council

From the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8; 10

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord's glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory. [...]

[T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord's supper.

The liturgy in its turn moves the faithful, filled with "the paschal sacraments," to be "one in holiness"; it prays that "they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by their faith"; the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire.

Given that the liturgical changes that followed the Council are, perhaps, the most immediately visible (and contentious!) results of the Council, I often think that a serious reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium would be a good examination of conscience for everyone responsible for shaping and debating the liturgical life of the Church. It sets out a vision that has yet to become manifest in many of our parish liturgies.

From the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 1,8

Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils. The present-day conditions of the world add greater urgency to this work of the Church so that all men, joined more closely today by various social, technical and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ. [...]

Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.

There has been a huge emphasis on the Church as understood as the People of God in the post-conciliar period. My own perspective is that whilst that theme is important, what Lumen Gentium has to say about the Church being "like a sacrament" (a sign and instrument) is more theologically important and needs to be grasped before engaging with other ecclesiological expressions such as communion, People of God and, for that matter, synodality.
Note also how Christological the selections from Lumen Gentium are. One of my professors of ecclesiology took great pleasure in asking the following question to unususpecting undergraduates: The Second Vatican Council speaks of the Lumen Gentium, the Light of the Nations. Who or what is the Lumen Gentium? Often the unsuspecting student, knowing that LG is about ecclesiology, would say that Vatican II teaches that the Church is the Light of the Nations. The professor would then point to the opening of this document: Christ is the Light of nations.
I also remember that my ecclesiology exam ended up being an interesting discussion with that same professor about the analogy between the Incarnation of Christ and the visible Church in service to the Holy Spirit - how does this analogy work and how does it break down. Another point of the Council's teaching that deserves more attention. 

 From the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes 1; 10

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds. [...]

[I]n the face of the modern development of the world, the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions or recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it? What follows this earthly life?

The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved. She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history. The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. Hence under the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.

In some ways, because it is in dialogue with the philosophy and outlook of the world of almost 60 years ago, Gaudium et spes has "aged" less well than many of the other conciliar documents. It seems to be responding to the questions and challenges of a society that has been changed beyond all recognition. That's why it deserves to be read with particular care and an attentiveness to context. That being said, it sets out a great deal about the mystery of the Church, her mission and her response to the questions of the world that is perennial. It also has an antopological approach that greatly inspired the outlook of St John Paul II. It could be argued that much of his teaching was rooted in this document, whilst being ever-attentive to the changes in the world in which the Church has her mission-field.    



Saturday, January 8, 2022

Clergy Mortality in Ireland

More than 20% of priests and brothers have died in past three years? I was interested to read this in the Irish Examiner. My first reaction was to doubt the headline figure as being implausible - or at the very least giving a misleading picture of the situation in Ireland. That being said - and I have been saying this for years - most people both inside and outside the Church don't have a good grasp of how quickly the cohort of clergy in Ireland is aging and how quickly the numbers of serving priests in our dioceses will decline over the next 5 to 10 years. 

However, it seems to me that the article is playing fast and loose with the numbers. It speaks about a total number of deaths from amongst priests and brothers of 556 over the calendar years 2019-2021 inclusive. It says this represents "more than 21%" of "priests and brothers". If 556 represents 21%, then the total number of "priests and brothers" is 2,648. If it represents 22% of "priests and brothers", then the total number is 2,527. The figures given in the article say that between "working priests" and "retired priests", the total number of priests in Ireland in Ireland at the end of 2018 was a little over 2,500. The article is very vague about the details, but this seems to be a count of diocesan priests, whereas the count of deaths seems to include not just diocesan priests, but also religious priests and religious brothers. It's a basic rule of statistics that the numerator and the denominator for a percentage must be counting the same thing. You can't take the number of deaths from a larger population and then express it as a percentage of a smaller population, and then claim to be making a meaningful statement. Granted, the article suggests that the 556 is an undercount of the total deaths between priests and brothers, but without a good argument, you can't just assume that the undercount of deaths justifies using the wrong denomnator.

I decided to try and come up with a more accurate picture of what might be going on. Online I found what purport to be the latest statistics reported by Irish dioceses to the Vatican regarding clergy numbers. Most of the statistics are from 2019, with some dioceses reporting figures from 2018 or 2020. Anyway, according to THOSE figures the number of diocesan priests (with no distinction between active and retired) is just shy of 2,400, and the number of religious priests is just over 1,200. I wasn't able to find good figures for religious brothers, but they are relatively few in number. Consequently, the total number of priests in the country should be in or around 3,600. That would make a death toll of about 550 represent 15.5% of priests over the past 3 years. However, that figure is unsatisfactory. I'm not totally sure how reliable the figures reported to the Vatican are. I know that the numbers listed online for my own diocese seem to undercount the number of religious priests in the diocese. Plus, the number of deaths does have a question mark over it. 

I'll add one more data point in terms of national figures - I had a look at the list of authorised solemnisers of marriage in the Republic of Ireland as of this month. I counted those nominated by the Catholic Church. The number is over 4,000. Given that the number of permanent deacons in the country is numbered in the dozens, and given that many clergy whose ministry is primarily in Northern Ireland won't be included in this list, unless there are a huge number of deceased clergy on the list of solemnisers, it could well be that the 'official' 3,600 priests is an undercount. 

I might add that it is profoundly disappointing that basic statistics about the number of clergy and clergy mortality doesn't seem to be readily availible from official sources. 

I will add one other observation - the number of clergy deaths in Ireland expressed as a percentage of total clergy will probably give a misleadingly pessimistic picture of what is happening. It is not uncommon for Irish priests serving abroad - either for foreign dioceses or with missionary orders - to return to Ireland due to age or ill-health. Their deaths will therefore make skew the figures as they will be included in Irish clergy deaths even though they might not have ministered in Ireland. 

Finally, over lunch, my colleagues and I decided to see what the numbers for the past 3 years look like in our own diocese. By our count, 7 of our diocesan priests died over the past 3 calendar years. This is from out of a population of just under 80 priests, counting both active and retired. This gives a mortality rate of just under 10%. Neither the sample size nor the length of time is enough to produce statisitically significant results, but the loss of those priests - some of them unexpected - has been a challenge for us as a diocese & is indicative of what the future has in store for us. Even though I take issue with the numbers produced by the ACP and the Irish Examiner, and argue that any numbers we come up with must come with a 'health warning', the challenge for the Irish Church is very real.

Friday, September 3, 2021

The New Irish Lectionary

I was disappointed by this statement from the Irish Episcopal Conference this morning. The bishops seem to be moving towards the decision to adopt the Revised New Jerusalem Bible (RNJB) for the production of a new lectionary for the Irish Church. Now, I'm not a biblical scholar, and I'm not really qualified to have an expert opinion on whether one translation is better than another. However, I am a priest with over a decade's experience in parish ministry, in addition to some time doing postgraduate studies in theology, and on this question of a new lectionary, I'm primarily drawing on my experience of the pastoral and adminstrative work of an ordinary priest in a parish. 

The key issue here is not the abstract question of what translation of the scriptures is the best, but rather the practical question of how the Irish hierarchy can best use their resources to deliver a suitable and usable lectionary that will meet the needs of parishes and parish clergy. With that in mind, it makes very little sense to go down the road of soliciting other English-speaking episcopal conferences who might want to join forces with the Irish in producing a lectionary based on the RNJB when our nearest neighbours (Scotland and England & Wales) are already well-advanced on producing their own lectionary based upon the English Standard Version: Catholic Edition (ESVCE). They're doing this piggybacking on the work of the Indian Episcopal Conference which has already received Vatican approval for their ESVCE. Why aren't we collaborating with our nearest neighbours in their lectionary project? Surely it would make sense to invest our financial and human resources into the development of a common lectionary with them rather than re-inventing the wheel with a speculative lectionary project using a translation of the bible that has no guarantee of receiving Vatican approval?

From my own pastoral experience, it is of great benefit to me that the Irish Church uses the same liturgical translation as the English, Welsh and Scots. It means that resources produced for parish use in Britain can also be used in Ireland, and vice-versa. In my own work with, for example, bereaved families in planning funeral Masses, I have found some of the most useful resources have been produced in England, but can be easily adapted for Irish use precisely because the lectionary we use for funeral Masses in both countries is identitical. This doesn't simply make life easier for me, it has implications for Irish publishers who produce common materials for use in this country and in Great Britain, and for those religious congregations who administer their work in Ireland and Britain as a single unit. 

I made a submission making this point as part of the consultation process, and I think that my main point is worth expressing in very simple terms - we need to have a good lectionary in Ireland, and unless the ESVCE is genuinely unsuitable, there seems to be no good reason to waste the limited monetary and human resources availible to the Irish Church at a time when she is facing huge challenges on a speculative lectionary project, when every practical reason points to collaboration with our neighbours as the obvious way forward.        

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Bishop Dempsey's Reflection...

 I must confess to a certain unease with the recent reflection of Bishop Paul Dempsey of Achonry in the way it deals with the recent CDF statement regarding the blessing of unions of persons of the same sex. As a priest in ministry, I thought the CDF document a very useful and straighforward clarification on a live question that is attracting a lot of debate. I appreciate that not all my brother priests think the same way for a variety of reasons, and I don't feel especially well-qualified to enter into the nuances of the debate. However, I know enough about theology and about the way the Church works to know that when the Pope himself approves a decision of the CDF on a topic that is being widely discussed and that he knows will be considered controversial, then it's deserving of particular respect. There are important issues here and the Successor of Peter has made his voice heard. I don't buy into the whole narriative of this being the CDF hoodwinking the Pope or this simply being the voice of the Curia setting itself against some imaginary Church of the future. Cardinal Ladaria is a well-respected theologian, a man of great meekness and fidelity, and a Jesuit. I can think of few people less likely to try and deceive the Pope. Finally - and this is something I'm adding as a revision to this blogpost, Donum Veritatis clarifies that CDF documents approved by the Pope share explicity in his teaching authority. 

18. The Roman Pontiff fulfills his universal mission with the help of the various bodies of the Roman Curia and in particular with that of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in matters of doctrine and morals. Consequently, the documents issued by this Congregation expressly approved by the Pope participate in the ordinary magisterium of the successor of Peter.(18)

I do appreciate that in many cultures bringing people to an understanding of the Church's moral teachings and vision of the family is a challenge. And there will be cases where what looks like harsh language may need to be explained in gentler terms, particularly when strong language can lead to aggression against individuals and groups. However, there is also a danger that we soften our language to such an extent that fundamental moral truths are overlooked. The Irish Church can hardly be accused of breathing fire over the past few decades. 

Anyway, I'll confine my commentary about Bishop Dempsey's reflection to two precise points which make me uneasy. I'm confused by the fact that he seems to say that the language used by the Church is more important than the realities to which the language refers. I can't quite believe that he can mean that, but he certainly seems to give that impression. He writes, "Some agree with what the Church proclaims as truth, others do not.  The deeper problem arises in the sphere of language, at best it is experienced as cold and distant, at worst hurtful and offensive." I can't wrap my head around how the question of language is "deeper" than the issue of whether the Church is believed or not. I'm not going to understate the significance of language - in some senses any use of language is inadequate to the expression of dogmatic truth, but making the eirenic use of language more important than the realities to which language refers strikes me as bad theology. The good use of language is essential to the teaching of moral truths, but it cannot be seen as more imporant than those truths itself.
I'm reminded of the words of St John Henry Newman when he reflected on the dangers of the Church being too slippery in her use of language: "If the Church would be vigorous and influential, it must be decided and plain-spoken in its doctrine, and must regard its faith rather as a character of mind than as a notion. To attempt comprehensions of opinion, amiable as the motive frequently is, is to mistake arrangements of words, which have no existence except on paper, for habits which are realities; and ingenious generalizations of discordant sentiments for that practical agreement which alone can lead to co-operation. We may indeed artificially classify light and darkness under one term or formula; but nature has her own fixed courses, and unites mankind by the sympathy of moral character, not by those forced resemblances which the imagination singles out at pleasure even in the most promiscuous collection of materials. However plausible may be the veil thus thrown over heterogeneous doctrines, the flimsy artifice is discomposed so soon as the principles beneath it are called upon to move and act." While the Church MUST be careful and kind in her language, I can't help thinking that on this hot-button issue, the issue of language is often exploited by those who dissent from the Church's teaching to pressurise those who are committed to it. If we accept Bishop Dempsey's apparent premise that language is the deeper question, then we run the risk of being able to say nothing at all!

The second issue that worries me is Bishop Dempsey's use of a statement by the Belgian Bishop Johann Bonny. He is reported as saying, with reference to the Synod on the Family: “there were frequent discussions about appropriate rituals and gestures to include homosexual couples, including in the liturgical sphere.  Naturally, this occurred with respect for the theologically and pastoral distinction between a sacramental marriage and the blessing of a relationship.  The majority of the synod fathers did not choose a black and white liturgical approach or an all-or-nothing model.” 
Now, Bonny is not the man I would have chosen to quote on this issue, given how outspoken he was in opposition to the statement. If one quotes part of what he says as having authority, then I think there's a responsibility to distance oneself from the more incendiary parts of his statement. Anyway, if I wanted to know what the Synod said, I would actually look at the documents of the Synod rather than the recollections of a participant who has his own idiosyncratic position. What did the Final Report of the Synod actually say     

76. The Church’s attitude is like that of her Master, who offers his boundless love to every person without exception (cf. MV, 12). To families with homosexual members, the Church reiterates that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his/her dignity and received with respect, while carefully avoiding “every sign of unjust discrimination” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition To Unions Between Homosexual Persons, 4). Specific attention is given to guiding families with homosexual members. Regarding proposals to place unions of homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family” (ibid). In every way, the Synod maintains as completely unacceptable that local Churches be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies link financial aid to poor countries to the introduction of laws to establish “marriage” between people of the same sex.

When the Synod uses the words about these unions not being "even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family" - making the words of a previous CDF declaration her own - she sounds a lot more like Pope Francis and the CDF than Bishop Bonny. The Holy Father, incidentally, repeats the same language in Amoris Laetitiae 251. Let us not be gaslit into believing that there's an alternative Synodal or Papal Magisterium on this point. 

I'm sure this debate will go on - as all debates do. However, let them at least proceed in a manner that is theologically responsible and that reflects the reality of what the Church actually teaches. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

On the Case of Fr PJ Hughes

I must confess to mixed emotions around the ongoing saga of Fr PJ Hughes, particularly with regard to his being fined regarding a public Mass that seems to have been conducted in contravention of Ireland's current COVID restrictions. I don't like the idea of a priest being fined in these circumstances, and if he can make an argument that allows him to escape legal penalties, then fair play to him, as we say in Ireland.

However, even though I feel sorry for him, I'm not at all convinced that he's legally or morally in the right. Yes, freedom of religion is protected by our Constitution, but whether that justifies Fr Hughes legally or philosophically is not so easy to parse. The Constitution expresses the right as follows: "Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen." Issues of "public order and morality" can lead to legal restrictions on religious practice. After all, not everything can be justified on the basis of it being religion.

Even the Second Vatican Council (in Dignitatis Humanae) which asserts in the strongest possible terms that religious freedom derives from "the very dignity of the human person", points out that "just public order" may lead to restrictions on religious practice. 

Given that the State has a legitimate interest in restricting public gatherings in a time of pandemic, it is ultimately a matter for the courts to decide the legal question of whether the current restrictions are fair and constitutional. The theological and moral issues of whether the State is justified in its current approach are a matter for experts in that area to discern, taking seriously the input of public health experts and scientists. 

My own instinct is that that both legally and morally the current restrictions are justifiable, although I am glad that the Irish Bishops are pushing back somewhat by arguing that when the current restictions are being lifted that the resumption of public worship be given priority. Maintaining the status quo indefinitely is not an option; both legally and morally, the timely restoration of religious worship in as safe a manner as possible is worth arguing for. I would also argue that it is not to the Irish Government's credit that they seemed to have chosen the path of imposing these restrictions on religious communities without the kind of consultation that would have better respected the position of religious freedom in our Constitution and perhaps allowed for a more collaborative approach in formulating and implementing restrictions.

All that being said, reasonable people will have different opinions about what regulations are most appropriate to deal with the pandemic, and what trade-offs need to be made. However, the sake of the common good and the recognition of the legitimate authority of government in protecting the public health will mean that the normal Catholic response will be to co-operate with the regulations when they are made rather than undermining them because they are not precisely what we want. The gravity of the issue - public health in a time of pandemic - means that extraordinary actions may be justified and extraordinary sacrifices may be asked of us. Now, there will be times when a Catholic, or indeed any citizen, will be justified in conscience to engage in civil disobedience. A refusal to participate in the unjust laws regarding the termination of pregnancy is one area where the issue is clear. An unjust law does not bind and an individual is deserving of every support when the coercive force of the state tries to force him to do evil. 

I'll go one step further - the question of the freedom to assemble for worship is the kind of serious issue where civil disobedience might be justified. We have plenty of examples in history where the Church has resisted the State precisely so as to be able to worship. However, that does not mean that Fr Hughes is in the right or that I can see myself supporting him. 

The fact is that the Bishops of Ireland have as a body - in accordance with the leadership given by Pope Francis - respected the State's approach to this matter. In a matter like this where the issues are serious - involving matters of public health and freedom of religion - their united leadership counts for a lot. A basic respect for their role in the governance of the Church means that the presumption is very much in favour of respecting the current COVID restrictions. People will perhaps agree or disagree with them to a greater or lesser extent, but the thing is that on a national issue like this, it is up to the Bishops to make the decision. Certainly clergy and faithful can make their disagreements known to their Bishops, but with the presumption that the Bishops are taking a global view of their responsibilities before Christ and would not agree to such a drastic change in the life of the Church without serious reasons.

More significantly, Fr Hughes freely admits that he is not "obeying his bishop" in what he is doing. This - for a Catholic - should be a huge red flag. When we Catholic priests are ordained, we promise obedience to our Bishops and their successors. When a priest takes up a new position as Pastor/Parish Priest he swears an oath to follow the "common discipline" of the Church. Now, that obedience isn't absolute. A Bishop can't demand obedience of a priest in matter that are beyond a Bishop's authority, or that would involve a priest violating the laws of the Church, or committing a sin or doing something impossible. A Bishop's authority is not tyrannical and there are well-established principles of what can and can't be reasonably asked of a priest. However, I can see no reason for arguing that the Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise has gone beyond his authority in regulating the celebration of Masses in his diocese. 

Cardinal Sarah (himself no shrinking violet or accommodationist!) and the Congregation for Divine Worship confirmed that Episcopal Conferences and individual Bishops are justified in going beyond what is normal as regards the regulation of the liturgy in the context of a pandemic. 

A sure principle in order not to err is obedience. Obedience to the norms of the Church, obedience to the Bishops. In times of difficulty (e.g. wars, pandemics), Bishops and Episcopal Conferences can give provisional norms which must be obeyed. Obedience safeguards the treasure entrusted to the Church. The measures given by the Bishops and Episcopal Conferences expire when the situation returns to normal.

As I say, there might be times when a priest might be justified in going beyond the strict command of his Bishop or resisting unjust episcopal authority, but this is not one of those rare occasions and I see no reason to join in with those who are cheer-leading for Fr Hughes. Obedience to one's Bishop is about more than the efficient running of the Church or the kind of responsability that anyone might have to their employer. It touches on the very core of the life of faith.

One of the most interesting collections of letters to survive from the early Church are the Epistles of St Ignatius of Antioch. St Ignatius was Bishop of the city of Antioch and was said to have known St John the Apostle. So far as we can tell, he was arrested and taken to Rome for execution about the year 108 AD. In other words, he was within living memory of Christ's Apostles and the letters of encouragement and advice he wrote to various churches while he was being taken from Antioch to Rome contain within them some of the very basics of our Catholic faith. St John Henry Newman pointed to them as evidence of how well-developed the "Catholic system" of belief and authority was within a few decades of the death of the Apostles against those who would argue that primitive Christianity was unstructured and inchoate. Catholicism was not an invention of later Emperors or Churchmen - it flowered forth naturally and organically from the words and actions of Christ and the Apostles. One of the principles that St Ignatius insisted upon was the importance of obedience as being fundamentally to the individual Christian life and to the healthy life of the Church as a whole. Again and again he came back to the principle that Christ Himself sets the example in this regard. To the Church of Tralles, for example, he wrote: "For whenever you are subject to the bishop as unto Jesus Christ, you appear to me to be living not the ordinary life of men, but after the manner of the life of Jesus Christ, Who died for our sakes, that believing in His death you might escape death. It is necessary therefore that you should act, as indeed you do, in nothing without the bishop." Just as Christ was obedient to the Father, the life of faith calls us to obedience according to our particular station. For diocesan clergy, the normal way that obedience will be lived out is in obedience to our Bishop.

I remember my professor of Canon Law Fr Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ talking about the vows made by religious and the promises made by Diocesan priests. He linked them directly to the life of Christ and our vocation within the Church. He argued that just as it was impossible to imagine Christ as not being poor, chaste and obedient, then we religious and clergy should see our own commitment to those principles as fundamental for our life in Christ. Lord knows we diocesan priests frequently fall short in so many ways, but there's something perverse when a failure of obedience is something that sincere Catholics are encouraged to recognise as heroism. 

I can't see into Fr Hughes's soul. He argues that his conscience led him to this drastic step, despite his duty of obedience to his Bishop and the promises he previously made in this regard. Indeed, I have a lot more sympathy for him than I do for clergy who compound disobedience with the teaching of false doctrine. However, I cannot see my way to supporting or encouraging him. His disobedience seems clear; his previous statements about COVID suggest that he has some very superstitious ideas about the relationship between faith and reason; the fact that he chose to do an interview with poor Gemma O'Doherty means that he's swimming in some very dubious political and philosophical waters. Catholics will feel sympathy for Fr Hughes, of course, but we would be well-advised not to take him as our standard-bearer in some kind of crusade against the State. His relationship with his bishop speaks volumes and his public statements do not bear close examination. We can do better than hitch our wagons to this particular campaign.   

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Interview with Cardinal Ladaria on the Amazon Synod

There's an interesting Vatican News Interview with Cardinal Ladaria, Prefect of the CDF. I have prepared a rough translation. The transcript shortens the Cardinal's answers somewhat, so I have elaborated in a few places based on the recording present on the website.

Ladaria: In the immense Amazon territories where there are few priests there is the need to develop other forms of ministeriality, according to the necessities of the time. This is just good sense. One must encourage the growth of something which is already present in the Church, which already exists in these territories, but which must be better developed for the pastoral good of all the community.

Q. Are you thinking of some ministry in particular?

A. Yes, for example the ministry of catechesis which has been explicitly cited. Also the Ministry of the electorate, of lay ministries. The Synod does not make decisions but there are questions which can be considered and which the Holy Father can evidently consider.

Q. A theme of discussion in the minor circles was that of the inculturation of theology and liturgy. Do you think it is possible to accomplish that in Amazonia?

A. I have never been in Amazonia and therefore I do not know that concrete reality. Inculturation is a desire which is not only a problem specific to this region.
In substance, it is a desire that the message of the Church, which is always and everywhere the same, is expressed in a mode adapted to the culture of the people.
How to accomplish this inculturation in Amazonia is beyond the competence of those who are not in Amazonia.
We can lay out the general principles: there must of course be an inculturation which keeps present the content and the tradition of the faith, and this is clear.

Q. A proposal of many Synod Fathers is that of improving seminary teaching so that the missionary desire can flourish more abundantly. Is this doable?

A. It is always possible. Thinking that priests should have a missionary spirit seems to me a fundamental principle. This is clear.
There is something lacking in the Church when it is not missionary. And therefore something is lacking in the priesthood when this missionary spirit is lacking.

Q. The Synod has also emphasised the exploitation of Amazonian resources and the aggression undergone by a land devastated by avarice and cupidity. In what way can the church better aid indigenous peoples in the defence of their own environment?

A. Certainly through a collective action of all the Church, with appropriate declarations by local episcopates. But also with ethical investment, not directed towards companies that exploit these regions.

Q. There has also been talk of the creation of an international organisation for the defence of local populations...

A. Yes. But these are concrete decisions that the Synod cannot take.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Pope Emeritus Benedict weighs in on Abuse Crisis

This article by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, prepared for a Bavarian clergy magazine is well worth the read.

Now, in an ideal world, I'd like a Pope Benedict essay with my breakfast every morning, but when he resigned from the Papacy I thought that it would be better for the sake of his potential successor & the unity of the Church if he didn't publish anything new for the rest of his lifetime. Given a tendency to set him up as a counter-weight to the magisterial and moral authority of our actual Holy Father, I haven't changed my mind on this point. However, Benedict felt a calling to write something and seems to have prepared this article before the international meeting of Bishops in Rome this past February, and is publishing it with the agreement of the Pope & the Secretary of State.

A Testimony Rather than a Magisterial Document

Despite my reservations, it's a joy to read Ratzinger again, despite the tragic circumstances that provoked his intervention. Contrary to what some people are saying, it is not written like an encyclical or a papal document - it's more in the manner of a personal reflection on the past and a theological reflection on the context and ecclesial dimensions of the current situation. It's also very much a testimony - an account of what Benedict himself witnessed.

Limited Scope of the Essay

Because of this - and I think this point cannot be made too strongly - it deals with part of a larger issue. It doesn't really deal with abuse in itself - but rather the situation of the Church. There are a lot of essential topics that he doesn't address in this essay, and, in fairness, he couldn't be expected to do so in such a short reflection. So, the fact that he doesn't mention, (for example) clericalism, shouldn't be an excuse to suggest either that those who do mention it are wrong or that Benedict is at fault because he doesn't. As American columnist Ross Douthat observes, “There is plenty of interest in the letter! But it still answers one partial analysis with another when the church needs synthesis.”

The Possible Criticisms

Even though I fundamentally agree with BXVI, I think that one could make some reasonable criticisms about how the historical events he chooses to describe fit together and how they relate to each other and the Church's current situation. I don't think this essay will change many minds - however, I think it may be invaluable in terms of deepening reflection within the Church. His exegesis regarding the 'little ones' and regarding Job is valuable and worth pondering.

An Important Historical Point

Benedict's 'political' analysis regarding why abuse cases were moved to the CDF and what was going wrong inside the Congregation for Clergy is hugely significant. It confirms - from the horse's mouth - what was certainly guessed at (with good reason) in Roman circles that the dominant ethos at the Congregation for Clergy was simply incapable of handling abuse cases rigorously. I remember hearing an official from that Congregation address a group of priests in about the year 2010 and I was shocked at how he failed to grasp the seriousness of the crisis and the damage it was doing to so many people. The fact that an official of the Congregation was so slow to catch on was a huge disappointment.

Some Interesting Points

The point about God taking Franz Böckle to Himself as an act of mercy before he could launch an  assault on St John Paul II's document, Veritatis Splendor also says a lot about what was happening in the Church & Benedict's own understanding of Divine Providence. It's also interesting how he does strike a balance by acknowledging that the Church's magisterial role in matters of morals isn't quite identical to that exercised in matters of faith. Benedict writes, "There is probably something right about this hypothesis that warrants further discussion." Also of interest is the following: " I think that even today something like catechumenal communities are necessary so that Christian life can assert itself in its own way."

The Question of Seminaries and Priestly Formation

There's some worthwhile stuff in there about seminary formation too - and I don't think what he says sits easily with the proposals floated by +Fintan Monahan in the Irish Catholic recently. For example, whilst abolishing a so-called 'monastic' model is treated by some as a panacea, Benedict is less sure:
In one seminary in southern Germany, candidates for the priesthood and candidates for the lay ministry of the pastoral specialist [Pastoralreferent] lived together. At the common meals, seminarians and pastoral specialists ate together, the married among the laymen sometimes accompanied by their wives and children, and on occasion by their girlfriends. The climate in this seminary could not provide support for preparation to the priestly vocation. 

How do we understand our Problems?

I also like that how Benedict is critical of treating Church problems as political problems - an attitude that is fundamentally pelagian and implicitly denies the source of Christian hope.

Indeed, the Church today is widely regarded as just some kind of political apparatus. One speaks of it almost exclusively in political categories, and this applies even to bishops, who formulate their conception of the church of tomorrow almost exclusively in political terms. The crisis, caused by the many cases of clerical abuse, urges us to regard the Church as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. But a self-made Church cannot constitute hope. 

He makes it quite clear that the issues are theological and spiritual, within the context of an apocalyptic horizon. To understand what the Church is, we must remember the call to witness and the faith of the martyrs and everyday Christian witness:

 Today there are many people who humbly believe, suffer and love, in whom the real God, the loving God, shows Himself to us. Today God also has His witnesses (martyres) in the world. We just have to be vigilant in order to see and hear them.

Concluding Thoughts

Anyway, please read the whole thing & take it on board. I fear that Benedict is going to get a lot of flak from within & without the Church because he's pointing in a different direction than many commentators & ideologues. I'm sure as well that he'd much rather what he wrote be used to support the ministry of Pope Francis rather than foment attitudes of suspicion and schism. And I doubt that he'd want anyone saying that he had the full answer. The whole thrust of his writing is to point us towards the One who provides the answers that we cannot humanly manufacture ourselves!  Benedict is contributing what he can as one of the great theologians of our day. Let us welcome that contribution with attention and care.