THE CATHOLIC CHURCH in Ireland is under attack from all sides.
It has to be admitted that it has brought most of this on itself. And yet there are forces within society that would happily see the total destruction of the Church. It had such a position of power in the past, and it abused that power in more ways than just child sexual abuse, so there are inevitably, and understandably, people who have deep resentment and bitterness towards the Church.
If the present troubles result in the total destruction of the Irish Catholic Church I believe that Irish society will be the poorer for it. Though it can be argued that it has done it inadequately, the purpose of the Church is to keep the rumour of God alive, to preserve the spiritual dimension of our existence, and to be the structure within which the message of Christ can be passed on from one generation to another.
During the Celtic Tiger years we saw a glimpse of what can happen when people lose the spiritual dimension, when their focus becomes material wealth and success. Greed becomes predominant, and society develops a hard, inhuman face. The survival of the fittest, of the strong and wealthy, becomes the prevailing philosophy, and people turn in on themselves and greedily want more and more material things, far more than they could ever possibly need. Crime and violence increases, as people lose respect for each other and for human life.
The Christian message softens that side of human nature, and gives us a broader outlook, raising our eyes to higher things than just wealth and success. I know that people can be spiritual without belonging to a church, but history would seem to indicate that where the church as an institution collapses the faith does not survive for long. So there is a great deal at stake here for the future generations of Irish people.
Educating those in need
In the present climate the great work done by the Church in the past is being overlooked by many. The present Government is looking for more money from orders like the Mercy sisters, who ran orphanages. But for generations the Mercy nuns educated the poor people of Ireland in their many schools, who otherwise would never have had a chance of education, and who made a great success of their lives as a result. The sisters taught without any financial remuneration for many years, and even when the State began to pay salaries much of that money was ploughed back into the schools. Many people, even some who got their education from the nuns, have forgotten all that.
In parishes priests still work away, being available seven days a week to their parishioners. They are particularly available at times of suffering and death, and for those struggling with grief and loneliness. Whatever its other failings, the Church does the rituals around death very well, making no distinction between those who attend church regularly and those who only come at those difficult times. The cold, impersonal, non-religious service in a crematorium would be a poor substitute for the Catholic funeral.
The priests are available to hear confession, and assure people who have failed that God still loves them. In that way they keep alive an essential part of the Christian message, that there is hope for everyone, and that the harsh judgments and condemnations so much a feature of modern media do not reflect the nature of a loving God.
In these, and so many other ways, a society without religious belief would be a poor legacy to leave to our children. If the message of Christ is forgotten can we depend on humanity to know the meaning of love? I don’t think so.
Fr Tony Flannery is a member of the Association of Catholic Priests.