Towards the close of the Pope`s recent visit to Ireland, the equivalent of a bomb exploded in the Catholic church. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former papal nuncio to Washington (the Vatican`s equivalent of an ambassador), published a letter claiming that the Pope had let the Boston prelate, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, accused of sexually abusing seminarians, off the paedophile hook.
Vigano went as far as demanding the Pope`s resignation to permit the Catholic church to exit a “conspiracy of silence”. We will never know what the Pope`s exact thoughts were on learning of this letter, but these can probably be summarized as “holy shit”.
The other day I accompanied a small group of American visitors to a remote seventeenth century village church deep in the Douro Valley wine country. As usual, the side door was unlocked. I pushed it open and we stepped from the intense August heat into the cool interior, that day devoid of worshippers. It took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Behind the altar a bank of flamboyant gold ornamentation rose towards a painted ceiling, while on the altar steps two polychrome plaster figures reached out to us in a gesture of welcome. A tall painting depicted a cascade of naked cherubs tumbling joyously from the heavens.
A sudden rustling sound from the back of the church interrupted the silence. A figure in a black cassock was slipping across the floor, followed by an adolescent boy bearing a candle. Standing in this beautiful church, a marvel of architecture and art, where I might once have found peace, I now experienced a feeling of disquiet.
Although as a rationalist I do not believe in any faith, I have always considered the right to worship to be a fundamental one, a right which should be respected and tolerated by all non-believers.
As a schoolboy in London I attended Church of England services, a denomination in which priests are permitted to marry and in which women clergy are now ordained. During thirty years of living in predominantly Catholic countries I have been able to observe the Catholic church`s intolerance towards the divorced, and in particular towards women and homosexuals. Official Catholic doctrine still considers women`s sexuality to be a form of suspect depravity, while homosexuality is apparently not part of “God`s plan.” Well!
Ireland is a country that has been through a lot, to say the least. Not blessed by fair weather, it was for centuries a land of extreme poverty ruled over by a brutal colonial power, Britain. The other power was the Catholic church which ruled over Ireland`s educational institutions.
In the early twentieth century, the Irish at last succeeded in shaking off the British and establishing a Republic, but it has taken many more decades for the Irish people to become emancipated from the Catholic church. It can however be questioned whether Irish children and adolescents have yet found the dignity that should be theirs.
Over decades many tens of thousands of young people have been sexually and psychologically abused by the Catholic clergy with the full knowledge, and sometimes even participation, of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Not acting on this knowledge amounted to protection for these crimes.
The crimes committed by the Catholic church in Ireland are no longer news and sadly fresh grim revelations continue periodically to emerge.
Last week Pope Francis was greeted at the start of his visit by the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkhar, who “came out” as gay in 2015. In his speech of welcome to the pontiff, Mr Varadkhar pointed out that the Irish people had voted in parliament and by referendum to modernize the country`s laws. He explained to the Pope that failed marriages, the right of women to take decisions for themselves and the co-existence of different types of families, including those with same-sex parents, were all part of the reality of contemporary society.
We certainly need figures and institutions whom we can look up to or turn to for advice and support. But what moral authority can the Catholic church claim today, as it squirms in the swamps of sexual predation? Although a far-too-late attempt is being made by the church to sink arthritically to its knees and ask for repentance, this is not enough and will not repair the damaged lives of its many tens of thousands of victims.
Has not the time now arrived that we take grassroots action to reframe our relationship with the institution of Catholicism? Marriage for priests, stricter legislation concerning sex crimes committed by church officials (including changing the rules applied to proscription, so that scores of priests no longer get let off the hook), and effective prosecution for senior figures who engage in cover-ups, might be some areas to start on.
The Vatican should consider that many of the tasks traditionally performed by the church are now being carried out by civil society organizations, with far more compassion and tolerance.