Ashes to Ashes

Ash Wednesday 2

This afternoon, sitting in the Avalon backpacker’s café I pondered Ash Wednesday and what it might mean. For many today it is a ritual devoid of relevance for life or faith. An RTE radio presenter said this morning, “I have no idea what it’s all about.” Time was when on this day the foreheads of passers by on the street splotched with the ritual ashes were a commonplace. Not so today.

I finished my coffee and headed into the nearby Carmelite church where I knew there was a priest on duty. The church was warm, welcoming and an oasis of quiet in the city. A priest, brown habited and clearly a man of many years, stood near the first pews. A sporadic trickle of people went up to him, crossed themselves, and received the ashes on the forehead. It was an ancient ritual, marked by the apparent casualness of habit but still retaining some connection to the faded beliefs of the past.

As I, too, crossed myself, I heard the priest say the words, “Remember that Thou art dust and unto dust you shall return,” as he signed the ashes on my forehead, I felt myself entering for a brief moment some coincidence of my past, my present and my future life beyond death. The priest said, “Thank you for coming” and prepared himself to welcome the next seeker of cleansing and consolation.

I was reminded of T. S. Eliot making his wartime visit to the village of East Coker in Somerset. A person of strong religious faith that found expression in his poetry, Eliot revealed in The Four Quartets, an acute sense of time, time present and time future, condensed into the discrete moments of transcendence. It was for him a kind of reaching out for the eternal, for cosmic wholeness, in today’s language. The famous often quoted words, “In my beginning is my end … “, echo the words of the Ash Wednesday ritual Are we secularised people still open to this fusion of time and eternity? Eliot thought so. Otherwise, to use his words, we would ‘miss the meaning’.

Ritual, at its best, opens up for us in the casual simplicity of a gesture an intimation of the cosmic eternal moment which alone makes the discrete discordances of our lived experience ultimately meaningful. It bestows a kind of redemption. Eliot sought redemption in language but his poetry often contains echoes religious ritual. He could discern the mystery of things in nature, in gesture, in the pain of life, with which he himself was personally familiar. A light shines in the darkness.

“Be still and let the darkness come upon you, which is the darkness of God” (T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets)

Something to Do
4QuartetsListen to Jeremy Irons read the Four Quartets here. It might help to ritualise this beginning of Lent in a quiet hour.


Something happened to Benedict in the 1960s

A reflective Benedict XVI when he was Joseph Ratzinger
A reflective Benedict XVI when he was Joseph Ratzinger

With the outcomes from the current Synod on the Family, those of a more conservative bent are inclined to look back to the Benedict XVI years with more than nostalgia. The ambiguities arising in some of the Synod statements alarm those who recall Benedict’s Cartesian clarity and his commitment to clear speaking. Social and theological conservatives perceived him as the one person who could confront western liberalism with a heavy duty philosophical and theological arsenal. Francis is seen as popular, non-ideological, and reluctant to take sides. In that sense he is a clear counterpoint to the Ratzinger years. The contrast is inevitable.

I think Joseph Ratzinger will continue to fascinate us, all the more so now that he is secluded in retirement in a villa at the rear of the Vatican Gardens. This casts upon him an aura of a faintly shadowy figure who may be second-guessing Francis from the safety of his Vatican study. On the other hand, it is equally clear that the personal relations between Francis and Benedict are warm. One might wonder whether they have been seen walking together in the cool of a Roman summer evening? Frankly, I don’t know. But I would not rule this out.

There is no doubt that the man who became Benedict XVI in 2005 was a person marked by his past, both his family upbringing and, in particular, the events of 1968 in the university town of Tübingen. Germany’s youth was then in ferment. Those of an older generation will remember Danny the Red, now a respected European MEP.

The 1968 students were vocal, even aggressive, demanding change and unafraid to voice their opinions. One professor has remarked that when the University Senate agreed to meet with the students all the members stayed except one, Joseph Ratzinger, who gathered up his things and left the room (a recollection of Dietmar Mieth, today a Tübingen professor emeritus of ethics, currently teaching at the Catholic university in Erfurt). That image says it all. It suggests an independent-minded contrarian personality. Not someone who can ‘go with the flow’.

There is a very interesting 2005 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein on all of this which can be found here. This article by Bernstein, himself a renowned philosopher and sociology theorist from the States, which suggests that what happened to Joseph Ratzinger in Tübingen in 1968 left its mark. That it may have coloured his later thinking, however, may be somewhat wide of the mark. What is clear is that it reinforced tendencies towards caution in Benedict’s personality that already existed.

The New York Times article says:

The caution drew on his childhood in the fervently Catholic villages of Bavaria, where he saw Nazism firsthand. He attended a state-run school in Traunstein, which had Nazi teachers, but boarded at a church-run institution, St. Michael, where students lived in a seminary-like setting, under the tutelage of priests.

For a shy, bookish boy whose father was resolutely anti-Nazi, according to his elder brother, Georg, the church was a haven from Nazi propaganda. Both boys became priests. The church gave them educations, and, perhaps not incidentally, improved their social status.

”This was the family of a poor policeman in a Bavarian village, with extremely gifted children,” said Professor Obermair. The church was their ticket to social, intellectual, and even cultural advancement.

The Bernstein article paints a portrait of a shy, reclusive and serious-minded academic who was appalled at what he perceived as the excesses of the popular student movements of the time. What intrigues me are the recollection of the Tübingen students of the time, among them Professor Dieter Mieth, that Joseph Ratzinger. although admired for his scholarship, provoked sentiments of anger among the students. I can understand that this may well have been the case as the free-spirits of the sixties ran up against what they experienced as dogmatism. There is a certain irony in this in that Joseph Ratzinger was one of the more open-minded periti at the Second Vatican Council.

Some years ago I attended a concert in the Vatican. Benedict occupied the central place of honour on a raised white podium in the centre of the audience hall. The concert was given by a German orchestra and choir, whose name I have long forgotten. I also recall seeing Benedict’s brother, Georg, the Kapellmeister from Regensburg, now a Monsignor, who occupied one of the seats close to Benedict. Also attending was Benedict’s close female friend, a German physicist whose name I have also forgotten. There was something very human and very intimate about this trio, a reminder that Benedict, for all his reputation of aloof academic remoteness, had a demonstrable human side. This was also in evidence during his UK visit in 2012 when his grandfatherly manner endeared him to many and won over the British press.

Today, Benedict, as the Pope Emeritus, remains something of an enigma. Conspiracy theorists have cast him in a kind of Svengali role, a shadowy presence manipulating opposition to Francis. I, for one, have little time for this view. I think he remains plain Joseph Ratzinger, academic, classicist, musician and cat lover. To die with that inspiration on one’s grave would not be so bad.

Maurice Blondel

Maurice Blondel

When I was a student at the Institut Catholique in the 1980s, I participated in a course by Dominican priest, Bernard Quelquejeu, a course entitled, “Action”. My theological education at that point was eclectic that I failed, at least, initially to make the connection to Maurice Blondel’s 1893 seminal work of the same title. To this day, the word ‘action’ in this context leaves me confused. I had thought of the term as referring to ethics, to the how we answer questions about what is the good and just thing to do. That was a kind of Aristotelian response to my question. More recently, re-reading old essays of mine, I have begun to see that the term refers to some thing more like the ‘work of human hands’ in the liturgy. It is about the connection between the divine and the human in world of human affairs.

However, I now know that it is more precisely about the relationship of human subjectivity to the objectivity of divine revelation. One writer, William Portier, an American, refers to the Baltimore Catechism definition of faith: faith as the assent to revealed truths on the authority of God. My own Maynooth Catechism was equally a reflection of the Neo-Scholastic position on these matters. If I had read Garigou-Lagrange’s Reality (1949) I would have heard exactly the same definition of faith.

It seems that the question revolves around those twin poles of objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, the search for truth presumes that there are objectively knowable religious truths and on the other hand there is the human subject who appropriates these truths. It was Blondel’s historic insight to appreciate, probably one of the first to do so, the fundamental importance of the subject in the assent of faith. I am presuming that Newman was also on to the same thing.

The opposition to Blondel was in large measure prompted by the Church’s total opposition to the turn to the subject that took place in the nineteenth century, a reaction that was in large measure against Immanuel Kant. All of the calamities that the Church experienced in the nineteenth century were laid at the door of subjectivism. It was the Jesuits of La Fourvières in Lyon who were among the first to read Blondel sympathetically, among them the famous Henri de Lubac who published his famous Le Surnaturel in 1940. This book and de Lubac himself contributed significantly to Vatican II.

What I found interesting in reading Portier’s essay was the later connection to John Paul II’s encyclical Fiedes et Ratio which appeared in 1998. This encyclical was intended both to reconnect with De Lubac and also a rehabilitation of Blondel.

See William Portier’s Blondel paper in Communio here.

See the following for notes from Notre Dame on Fides et Ratio.

See also John Fagan’s commentary and summary of Fides et Ratio on the CERC site here.

Pope Francis: Homily


Homily of Pope Francis from his Inauguration

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I thank the Lord that I can celebrate this Holy Mass for the inauguration of my Petrine ministry on the solemnity of Saint Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary and the patron of the universal Church. It is a significant coincidence, and it is also the name-day of my venerable predecessor: we are close to him with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude.

I offer a warm greeting to my brother cardinals and bishops, the priests, deacons, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful. I thank the representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence. My cordial greetings go to the Heads of State and Government, the members of the official Delegations from many countries throughout the world, and the Diplomatic Corps.

In the Gospel we heard that “Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife” (Mt 1:24). These words already point to the mission which God entrusts to Joseph: he is to be the custos, the protector. The protector of whom? Of Mary and Jesus; but this protection is then extended to the Church, as Blessed John Paul II pointed out: “Just as Saint Joseph took loving care of Mary and gladly dedicated himself to Jesus Christ’s upbringing, he likewise watches over and protects Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, of which the Virgin Mary is the exemplar and model” (Redemptoris Custos, 1).

How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand. From the time of his betrothal to Mary until the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, he is there at every moment with loving care. As the spouse of Mary, he is at her side in good times and bad, on the journey to Bethlehem for the census and in the anxious and joyful hours when she gave birth; amid the drama of the flight into Egypt and during the frantic search for their child in the Temple; and later in the day-to-day life of the home of Nazareth, in the workshop where he taught his trade to Jesus.

How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church? By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own. This is what God asked of David, as we heard in the first reading. God does not want a house built by men, but faithfulness to his word, to his plan. It is God himself who builds the house, but from living stones sealed by his Spirit. Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!

The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!

Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened. Tragically, in every period of history there are “Herods” who plot death, wreak havoc, and mar the countenance of men and women.

Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world! But to be “protectors”, we also have to keep watch over ourselves! Let us not forget that hatred, envy and pride defile our lives! Being protectors, then, also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts, because they are the seat of good and evil intentions: intentions that build up and tear down! We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!

Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!

Today, together with the feast of Saint Joseph, we are celebrating the beginning of the ministry of the new Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power. Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it? Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!

In the second reading, Saint Paul speaks of Abraham, who, “hoping against hope, believed” (Rom 4:18). Hoping against hope! Today too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope! For believers, for us Christians, like Abraham, like Saint Joseph, the hope that we bring is set against the horizon of God, which has opened up before us in Christ. It is a hope built on the rock which is God.

To protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves: this is a service that the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out, yet one to which all of us are called, so that the star of hope will shine brightly. Let us protect with love all that God has given us!

I implore the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saints Peter and Paul, and Saint Francis, that the Holy Spirit may accompany my ministry, and I ask all of you to pray for me!


A new hope has dawned


Jesus and the Poor

It is a great joy that the Cardinal electors have chosen Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as our new Pope Francis. Like so many others, I watched the TV broadcasts on Wednesday night. We were at supper when the news came through that white smoke had issued from the Sistine Chapel. My heart sank. Early white smoke after one day of balloting can only mean one thing, I thought: the Curia have succeeded in getting their least worst option elected. I began to think someone Italian, probably Scola.

Later, as French Archbishop Traunon made the announcement in Latin, I was stunned as it dawned on me that whoever the new Pope was it was not Cardinal Scola. But who was this Cardinal Bergoglio. The TV screen went silent. Clearly, the commentators were just as puzzled as I was. I held my head in my hands as I thought to myself: “He’s Italian. It must be some obscure Curia hack. Oh no!” Then, somebody in the room more knowledgeable than I, said,”It’s the Buenos Aires guy!” I raised my hands in celebration. This man I knew. I was aware of his track record in Buenos Aires.

The Buenos Aires Poor

Our new Pope Francis follows his namesake in his care for and love of the poor. A few years ago I visited La Cava, a slum in the heart of one of Buenos Aires’ wealthiest districts, San Isidro. Students from the Cardinal Newman Christian Brothers College, a highly-regarded private college in the district, spend much of their free time with the people in La Cava. It was amazing to me that so much poverty could exist in an otherwise wealthy area. Later, I had the opportunity of visiting a rural barrio where there was also extreme poverty. Archbishop Bergoglio was a frequent visitor to the poor people in these places.

TROCAIRE Talk: Brother Philip Pinto

Brother Philip Pinto, the Congregation Leader of the Christian Brothers, is a kindred spirit to Pope Francis. Like him Brother Pinto sees the Gospel through the eyes of poor people. Recently, Brother Philip was invited to address an audience in Maynooth on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of TROCAIRE, the Irish version of CARITAS Internationalis. You can view his talk here on iCatholic. His talk was, “Who is my neighbour? Building a civilisation of love in an unequal world” (also available as a transcript from the i Catholic website).

We are entering upon a time of great Hope

This is a time of great blessing and new hope for our Church with people like Brother Pinto and Pope Francis as prophetic voices among us. It is time to end the ‘culture wars’ in the Church. It is time to return to the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth. It is time to listen to poor people and do our thinking from that place.

I listened to Sister Julie of the Congregation of Jesus on the BBC World Service on the evening of the election. She quoted Archbishop Tagle of Manila (who had attended the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 2012) as saying that what we need now is a Church that is humble, simple and listening. “Tonight,” she said, “we got all three.”

With our new pope, Pope Francis, there will be a release of new energy in the Church. His voice is authentic. His actions speak volumes. His spirituality is grounded in the Gospel. Don’t expect the kind of changes that the media have been interested in. Some of them will take place – in time. But do expect immediate action on a number of fronts. A man who has spoke out against corruption in Argentina is not likely to tolerate even a whiff of corruption in the Vatican.

Stanley Hauerwas on the new Pope

Stanley Hauerwas, a staunch methodist and highly-regarded ethicist, who once taught at Notre Dame and currently at Duke University, has provided one of the most trenchant and thoughtful interpretations of the implications of the election of Pope Francis for the Church. Hauerwas has little time for ‘liberal Christianity’ but has always been a promoter of ‘authentic Christianity’. Watch the video below to find out more.

Have you seen the film, Mea Maxima Culpa?


Have you seen the film Mea Maxima Culpa?

If you have not seen the Alex Gibney documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa, on clerical child abuse in the Catholic Church, then you need to know that this film will grab you by the eyeballs, make you sit up and pay attention. If you are a Catholic, especially if you value your faith, you will probably say, “Do I need to go see yet another anti-Catholic diatribe and have my night’s sleep disturbed?” The answer to that question is, “Yes, you do. You owe it to your love for the Church to do this.”

Another voice from the wings will say, “But what about those websites that say it is all ‘old hat’ and ‘pure anti-Catholic garbage’?” Yes, it is true that there are critiques of the film out there that draw attention to inaccuracies. Some of these critiques are well founded. But this does not detract from the compelling truth of the narrative.

But, you could legitimately argue that if there are inaccuracies how can this documentary be ‘true’. And how can it possibly merit inflicting it on myself and my peace of mind.

Just imagine you were living in the late 15th century or early 16th century. Just for one moment imagine you are listening to preachers (all Catholic priests) fulminating against the scandal of indulgences, that people, often the poor, had to hand over money to have an assurance of being saved from their sins. How would you react? Would you cover your ears and say, “Basta!”, “Enough!”. Or maybe you might have said, “Well, my priest doesn’t charge very much for indulgences so these people are simply promulgating anti-Church garbage”. Or, would you have said, “Actually, these preachers have a point”. At the time, the Church did not pay attention. That the Church was not prepared to listen at that time led to the Reformation. We are in such a time now, with equally serious implications for the Church.

The Truth will Set you Free

What the documentary does is to tell a story that has the ring of truth about it. Compellingly so. Read any commentary on the issue of child abuse and the Church and the word that will appear somewhere in the text will be ‘crisis’. I can hear you say: “Hang on, there is no ‘crisis!” Or as a famous Irish politician once said, “What crisis? There is no crisis.”

Institutions never admit to crises. Not the European Union, not the Irish Government, not the UK Government, not the ECB, not the NHS, not the HSE, not the banks. About the only group in recent times to admit that a crisis exists have been the agencies involved in the horse-meat scandal. And even in their case much denial took place at first. Until the facts were staring people in the face, few were prepared to acknowledge that there was a crisis. The Church is no different in this regard.

Read the current issue of The Tablet where the editor speaks about an increasing feeling of alienation among the Catholic faithful from the Vatican. It exists. It is real. And the story of clerical child abuse and how the Church has dealt with this issue has a lot to do with this feeling of alienation. As The Tablet puts it (March 1, 2013 issue):

It would be entirely understandable if Benedict XVI wanted “business as usual” signs to go up at the Vatican as soon as possible after his retirement, and for the new man in charge to carry on the good work of the old though perhaps with extra energy. What is emerging is something rather different – a growing groundswell of conviction, apparently at all levels in the Catholic Church, that things cannot go on as they are.

We need to acknowledge that the Church as an institution has failed to address the issue of child abuse in a transparent and forthright manner. In Ireland the Church has found itself compelled to act decisively and openly because of pressure from public opinion and the evidence in State reports (Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne). Similarly, in the States, and now across Europe. Where to next?

What this movie does is it joins up these dots. As the story is told, dispassionately, honestly, compellingly, the audience experiences a sense of dawning understanding. Individual Church people, good people, are seen to be so formed by institutional group-think that it becomes impossible for them to act as they might otherwise have done when faced with horrific evidence. When the evidence was presented (as was the case in the Father Lawrence Murphy story) by a priest (the relief chaplain, Father Walsh), by the victims, by students, by the school dormitory prefect, there was a strong institutional reflex to conceal what had happened by paying people off and consigning the evidence to secret archives. The ‘one bad apple’ narrative was in play. Each case was seen to indicate an aberration, a foul play in a game that was otherwise fair, a Black Swan event . No one was prepared to join the dots. No one was prepared to say, “Hang on a minute, we have evidence of this kind of stuff from all over the place, we have a problem”. In the end, the lawyers, whatever you think of them, forced the issue. All the way to the Vatican. And that story is on-going.

Catholicism and Truth belong Together

One of the dimensions that I admire about Catholicism is its conviction that faith and reason belong together, that whatever is true in the human world is also aligned with divine truth. God is present in the world in our experience of living in the truth. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

As Catholics we have not in recent years been living in the truth. We have been living behind a wall which we have built for ourselves, a wall that kept at bay what we perceived to be hostile forces hell-bent on destroying the Church. Yes, there are hostile forces with destructive agendas (as even a casual reading of some of the blogs will illustrate). But, in the case of child abuse, we have not been prepared to admit that as a Church we have not acted with courage, compassion and resolve. For many, there has been too much grudging acceptance of the facts as they now appear to us.

As I write this piece, the Cardinal-Electors from all over the world are gathering in Rome. This movie is one that they should watch together in the Domus Sanctae Marthae (the Vatican hotel where the Cardinals stay during the Conclave). Bertone (the Camerlingo) should make them do it. They will find that they will begin to understand why faithful people are angry with the Church.

They will begin to have some inkling of why the Vatican failed to address the crisis. When it comes to crises of governance, the Vatican’s failure in regard to the issue of clerical child abuse ranks up there with Enron and Lehman Brothers. It will dawn upon the Cardinals, many of them dealing with the crisis in their own dioceses and jurisdictions, why, individually, they found themselves powerless, unsupported, sometimes undermined, and fobbed off with less than transparent statements from the Vatican. And sometimes an “investigation”. They will begin to understand that often a Vatican investigation is in fact a strategy of concealment.

There is a passage early on in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose where Abbot Abo comes to Brother William by night to inform him that the abbey is in crisis because of dark deeds that have taken place there. The Abbot says:

In this abbey something has happened that requires the attention and counsel of an acute and prudent man such as you are. Acute in uncovering, and prudent (if necessary) in covering. If a shepherd errs, he must be isolated from other shepherds, but woe unto us if the sheep begin to distrust the shepherds.

As the Cardinals gather in this spring of 2013 few doubt any longer that the sheep are beginning to distrust the shepherds. Abbot Abo sees Brother William as an inquisitor who can do two things, uncover the evil and, if necessary, cloak it over lest faithful people lose their trust in the shepherds. Perhaps, and it is only a ‘perhaps’, the reflex to ‘cover things up’ in Pope Benedict won out over his inquisitorial instincts and duties. Or, what may be closer to the truth, he sought to deploy the wisdom and skills of a Brother William to do both. In the end, he discovered that this was impossible. Maybe, his decision to resign was, in part, prompted by this realisation.

Where do we go to from here

It is Benedict’s final gift to the Church that he has opened up a space where Catholic people everywhere can breathe again. The Spirit of God can find some space to influence developments. This past week I have had this overwhelming sense that now courage and truth can win out.

These past thirty years there has been an emerging sense of disconnect between the lives of faithful Catholics and the Church. When Cardinal Keith O’Brien was forced to resign last week because of revelations about past sexual indiscretions involving homosexuality, even the most loyal Catholics began to say “Enough!” The shepherds can no longer be trusted. We are being led into a wilderness where to live as a Catholic is to retreat into a world no longer inhabited by the people among whom we live and work. The Good News of Jesus Christ can no longer be proclaimed clearly and authentically because we have changed it into the bitter wine of scandal, culpable blindness and irrelevance.

It is time for change. Can the Holy Spirit convince the Cardinals of this simple contemporary revelation?

A Book Review (sort of!)


In God’s House by Ray Mouton (2012)

I have just finished reading Ray Mouton’s novel, In God’s House, based on events in Louisiana from 1984 to 1985 in which Mouton, then a lawyer, was involved. The book reads like a John Grisholm novel. It is a page-turner. The dialogue is vivid, racy and at times, brutal in its raw energy. The characters are all believable.

That the characters are believable is no surprise. As I read the novel I found myself recognising the real-life persons who had been participants in the events Mouton describes. Many are dead. Some continue to be highly visible in the landscape of the contemporary Catholic Church.

What the Novel is about

The novel deals with the prosecution of a legal case against a clerical child abuser in the United States which was, to my knowledge, the first ever such case anywhere in the world. Until 1984, it appears, no priest was ever tried in public court for child abuse. Indeed, in strict point of fact, the priest in question was not tried for his crime since he admitted it in open court.

The case which is central to the novel concerned a Father Gauthe (in the book he appears as Father Francis Dubois of the fictitious Diocese of Thiberville). Following this case further cases were prosecuted in the USA. Ten years later, in Ireland, we had the arrest of Father Brendan Smyth which was followed by others and by a series of damning Government reports into the issue of clerical child abuse.

Key Characters

Within a few chapters into the novel I recognised some of the other key characters. One is a priest, Father Michael Peterson (in the book, Father Matt Patterson), the charismatic founder of the St Luke’s treatment centre for priests and religious in Washington, DD. The other is another priest and campaigner on clerical child abuse issues, Father Tom Doyle, a Dominican (in the book Father Des McDougal). Both play key roles in the events described. Father Peterson died in 1984 of AIDS. Father Doyle continues to play a campaigning role despite being marginalised by church authorities.

What emerges in the course of the book is a pattern of behaviour at the highest levels in the Catholic hierarchy. Oddly enough, it is not a denial of the reality of clerical child abuse, but rather a refusal to acknowledge that clerical child abuse is a crime committed by priests that ought to be investigated by the police and punished by the civil authorities. There emerges a familiar pattern of resistance to public scrutiny, an imposition of silence on all church actors involved, and a determination to prevent media revelations at any cost. The ‘at any cost’ is buttressed by a willingness to engage in ‘any means’ to achieve this end. Including, it would appear, a consistent pattern of lies or, if you will, ‘mental reservations’.

Crisis and Struggle

The heroes in the novel, Mouton himself, Father Matt and Father Des, not only understand what is going on but they are also on the receiving end of pretty vicious attempts to silence them and remove them from their roles. Inevitably, it begins to dawn on them that they are involved in a struggle with an institution that is determined to deploy whatever means necessary to ensure that the church, at both the local and the global levels, cannot be held responsible for the actions of clerical child abusers. We begin the decades long struggle to bring the church to the point where the responsibilities and duties entailed by accountability are acknowledged.

According to the novel, insurance companies, corporate lawyers, corrupt public officials and even the justice system itself are all involved in an attempt to deny the reality that clerical child abuse is rampant in the US Catholic Church. To use the cliché, clerical child abusers are just ‘a few bad apples’. There is no ‘crisis’.

Families of victims are bought off, huge payments are secretly paid out and enormous legal settlements are agreed. All legal resources are deployed to avoid public scandal, to prevent damage to the reputation of the Catholic Church. Except, as we now know, it was all in vain. The damage was done and continues to be done.

The Manual

Among the more chilling and disturbing scenes in the novel are those involving meetings with key members of the hierarchy and the Vatican elite. All play key roles. Some Vatican officials who still occupy key roles are only thinly disguised in the novel.

One of the US Catholic bishops who meets with Mouton, Peterson (aka Patterson) and Doyle (aka McDougal) in a crucial meeting that takes place in a Chicago hotel just prior to the a meeting of the US Bishops national conference has been identified by some as Cardinal Levada. The episcopal character in the novel is presumed to have played a key role in the suppressing of a document that has since become known as “The Manual.”

This document essentially anticipated virtually all of the recommendations that today have become standard church practice in most jurisdictions for the safeguarding of children and dealing with clerical child abusers. A key message in the novel is that much damage to children and much harm to the church could have been avoided were the recommendations in “The Manual” adopted and applied back in the late 1980s. It has taken almost two decades for even its recommendations to be accepted in spirit and, increasingly, in the letter.

It should be noted that Cardinal Levada’s career in the church has been described by commentators as “meteoric”. There is more than a suggestion by some that this has been no accident, that his alleged role in ensuring that the recommendations of “The Manual” would never see the light of day guaranteed him a successful ecclesiastical career. Some of his actions as Archbishop of Portland have come in for severe and understandable public criticism. His policies and those of the Vatican would appear to have continued the mistaken and demonstrably untenable view that clerical child abuse involved merely moral failure that can be addressed by prayer, counselling and some measure of therapeutic treatment. Contemporary research suggests otherwise. It was the promotion of an alternative view to the exclusively pastoral and reassignment approach, once the default treatment option adopted by church authorities, that prompted the suppression of “The Manual” and the subsequent failure of church authorities worldwide to deal robustly with the issues. Keeping clerical child abuse at arms length and secret was the preferred option, not only of the church but also of society as a whole. Few wanted ‘to go there’. For some the issue of child abuse in the church has been toxic for ecclesiastical careers.

Secret Archives

Other matters raised in the novel, issues that continue to undermine the church’s attempts to deal resolutely with clerical child abuse, are certain provisions within canon law that allegedly enjoin the strictest secrecy upon anyone who has knowledge of clerical child abuse within the church. John XXIII is often cited as the person responsible for issuing a decree to this effect. The existence of so-called ‘secret archives’ continues to cause problems for church authorities. Recently, the existence of secret archives and the denial of access to these archives to investigative authorities appointed by the church itself has caused an uproar in the German Catholic Church. Similarly, failures in regard to appropriate disclosure of information contained in ‘secret archives’ contributed to the crisis that engulfed the Diocese of Cloyne in Ireland in recent years.


So, what can one say about this novel? It is a great read, a compelling narrative and guaranteed to disturb. It has its redemptive moments that suggest a way forward for all in the church. That it speaks a truth is without question. That the truth that it speaks is close to the bone goes without saying. Maybe we might all learn something from it.