I read Pope Benedict’s Letter to the Catholic Church in Ireland while on a weekend retreat (yes, I know I should have resisted the temptation to hit the web!). My first reaction was one of utter dismay. Yes, there was the acknowledgement of the serious sinful and criminal nature of what had occurred. Yes, the letter recognises the many failures of church authorities. And,yes, it was at least heartening to see some recognition of the need for “a new vision”. But what alarmed me was the underlying assumption that the way forward involves a “restoration”, a return to the Ireland that we once knew where traditional practices of piety routinely shaped our faith and spirituality. Equally, for the second time within the last few months Pope Benedict XVI informs us that it is our adoption of more secular ways is the root cause of what has gone wrong. How can this possible be true?
As a member of a religious congregation that has been prominently associated with the commission of some of the abuses, I can state without fear of contradiction that almost ALL of the abuse occurred in the period when traditional practices, traditional theology and ultra-montane clericalism were at their height. It was the pietistic assumptions of that period with it’s all too facile designation of abuse as “weakness” and “sin”, linked to the adoption of a religious culture of blind obedience, that permitted and legitimated the culture of secrecy and cover-up that we now rightly condemn. Prayer and penance have a role in our response. But, God forbid that we should assume that Vatican II or a culture of freedom in the Church have been to blame for the abuses of the past. What is needed is more freedom, greater transparency and stronger accountability, not less.