Moving On

We have got to move on from here. The Church in the 16th century took the bull of corruption and abuse by the horns and moved on to the Catholic Reformation. It must do the same now. Another tranche of documents – 10,000 pages of them – are in the headlines in the US this week, detailing more records of abuse. Mind you not all 10,000 pages will be disturbing. Some of them record complaints about the long hair-styles or Elvis-style sideburns of some of the clergy of the time. But some of them are indeed disturbing. This time they come from the files of the diocese of San Diego, California. Good. Read then, beat our breasts sincerely and contritely – but then move to do what we should have been doing when these ugly heinous crimes were being committed. We are not doing a service to anyone, least of all the victims of abuse, by just continuing to beat our breasts. If the corruption within the Church in the early modern age was the occasion of driving good men out of the Church, the corruptions of our own age have had no less drastic consequences. It is time to address these consequences.

Moving on is not the same as forgetting. We must never forget what has happened – we cannot, in fact, ever forget it. It is and always will be part of us. It is part of our fallen condition, the effects of which we have all inherited.

We were reminded of this by Pope Benedict in his address at Oscott College in Birmingham in September. “As we reflect on the human frailty that these tragic events so starkly reveal, we are reminded that, if we are to be effective Christian leaders, we must live lives of the utmost integrity, humility and holiness. He then quoted an Anglican priest to express his hope for the future: ‘O that God would grant the clergy to feel their weakness as sinful men, and the people to sympathize with them and love them and pray for their increase in all good gifts of grace’” Those words were the prayer of the Rev. John Henry Newman, now Blessed John Henry Newman, delivered in a sermon on 22 March 1829.

The Pope made no bones about the impact of the scandal on the moral credibility of Church leaders. “I have spoken on many occasions of the deep wounds that such behaviour causes, in the victims first and foremost, but also in the relationships of trust that should exist between priests and people, between priests and their bishops, and between the Church authorities and the public.”  But he went on to acknowledge the new awareness “of the extent of child abuse in society, its devastating effects, and the need to provide proper victim support should serve as an incentive to share the lessons you have learned with the wider community”. He did not make the obvious point that clerical abuse was but the tip of the iceberg of child abuse. He sees no point in that kind of defence but those looking on should be ready to concede it, if they are at all interested in fairness. What he did propose was much more positive: “Indeed, what better way could there be of making reparation for these sins than by reaching out, in a humble spirit of compassion, towards children who continue to suffer abuse elsewhere? Our duty of care towards the young demands nothing less.” At the heart of the response must be, he said, “Integrity, humility and holiness”.

Looking forward, with the supernatural vision that is the hallmark of his office, he said that his prayer would be that among the graces of his visit to Britain “will be a renewed dedication on the part of Christian leaders to the prophetic vocation they have received, and a new appreciation on the part of the people for the great gift of the ordained ministry. Prayer for vocations will then arise spontaneously, and we may be confident that the Lord will respond by sending labourers to bring in the plentiful harvest.”  

Finally, as if to underline that essential platform of the spiritual and supernatural on which that harvesting work can only be based, he spoke to them of the Eucharist – in the context of the imminent publication of the new translation of the Roman Missal for the English-speaking world. “I encourage you now to seize the opportunity that the new translation offers for in-depth catechesis on the Eucharist and renewed devotion in the manner of its celebration. ‘The more lively the Eucharistic faith of the people of God, the deeper is its sharing in ecclesial life in steadfast commitment to the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples’ (Sacramentum Caritatis, 6).

Then, in final words of encouragement the Pope seemed to echo back to that age when the failures and corruption of churchmen five centuries ago drove good men into a revolt which still divides Christendom. He spoke about the generosity needed for the implementation of the Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, that apostolic instrument by which members of the Anglican Communion might be reunited with their fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. “This should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics. It helps us to set our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion in the context of which the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all. Let us continue to pray and work unceasingly in order to hasten the joyful day when that goal can be accomplished.” Now that is moving on.

Seeds of Faith and Reason sown by “a gentle scholar, swathed in white”.

It is always the same. Why were we surprised? I suppose it is a bit like the Olympics cycle, the World Cup cycle and all those other high profile recurring events which travel the world every few years. Prior to it all taking place the predictions are dire. This time it really is going to be a disaster – the stadiums are not ready, the security nightmare will scuttle it, the infrastructure of the chosen country will never cope with the crowds. But as always – well, I can’t remember  any predicted disaster which actually materialised – it works out well on the night. If disasters occur – like in Munich in 1972 – they are never predicted.

So what was the dire prediction this time? The Pope’s visit to Britain of course. For months we had been fed stories of impending disasters – poor planning, big security problems which were going to cripple the whole event, embarrassing protests by brigades of the New Atheism movement and the disaffected “faithful”. They were at it up until the very eve of the visit when the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper got lost in translation. He seemingly suggested that to land into Heathrow was to land into a place rendered third world by multiculturalism.

And what actually happened? Did it all go pear-shaped? Emphatically no. It was, in the words of a number of Vatican people, the best trip of the pontificate so far. Certainly, in the shorter term view it could hardly have been better. In the longer term view we can also say, at the very least, it is full of promise. As always with promises – or to be a bit evangelical about it, the sowing of seeds, – time has to pass to see what the effect will be. There is no question but that there was a very widespread sowing going on – tens of millions throughout the Anglophone world  are estimated to have watched and  heard what the Pope said over those days. And the response was palpably positive for all but the die-hard sceptics.

The Guardian, one of the most hostile organs prior to the visit was reduced to a grudging concession in the wake of the event. “The pontiff’s taking of tea with a Queen whose coronation oaths swore her to defend ‘the Protestant reformed religion established by law’ is quite something. The papal praise poured on Sir Thomas More – the martyr who died defending the pope’s power against the crown – in Westminster Hall would once have been likened to the gunpowder plot. The 5 November celebration is a reminder of the historic reach of anti-Catholicism in popular culture, just as the Act of Settlement is testimony to the sectarian origins of Britain’s high politics. Yet the rapprochement required today is not so much between Protestant and Catholic as between the religious and the rest, and Benedict leaves without denting that divide.” They probably hope so, but one feels that there can be something more than a dent in this if the necessary cultivation and harvesting is attended to. There are already reports of many lapsed Catholics coming to parishes and asking for baptism for their children. There are reports of enquiries from people who want to know more about the faith they saw witnessed to by those few hundred thousand attending events during the visit. Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ reflection on the visit gives some insight into this and what needs to be done now.

The New Atheists of course saw the whole thing as a big opportunity for them to spread their gospel. What happened? Firstly, their fellow-travellers were profoundly embarrassed by their antics and are probably now deserting them in droves. Their so-called rationality revealed itself to be the height of irrationality.  Ross Douthat in the New York Times observed that “All in all, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain over the weekend must have been a disappointment to his legions of detractors. Their bold promises notwithstanding, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens didn’t manage to clap the pope in irons and haul him off to jail. The protests against Benedict’s presence proved a sideshow to the visit, rather than the main event. And the threat (happily empty, it turned out) of an assassination plot provided a reminder of what real religious extremism looks like — as opposed to the gentle scholar, swathed in white, urging secular Britons to look with fresh eyes at their island’s ancient faith.” That image, as a counterfoil to the hate-filled rants which spewed from the motley crews on the protest platforms, spoke volumes to all men of good will.

Threatened but Never Vanquished

In some ways it is hard to know what to think about the Irish Times survey, Sex, Sin and Society, the details of which were landed on our breakfast tables last week. The one thing that it is not hard to do is to suspect the choice of week in which to publish it – coinciding with the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain. On the surface it represents nothing less than a slap in the face to the Pope and anyone who might be hoping for a society of the future which might be prepared to re-embrace the values of Judaeo-Christian civilization.

If it is a true reflection of the state of public opinion in Ireland on sexual morality – and there have been good letters to Madam Editor questioning the credentials of the survey – it has revealed in all its stark reality the abysmal desert of moral relativism of which Pope Benedict spoke to us on the eve of his pontificate in 2005 and which he has reminded us of again this week. If this is the new norm of morality then we really have gone a long way down the road to a neo-pagan society.

It is shocking to some of us but clearly not to the majority – if, again, the survey can be taken as an accurate reading of what the majority of Irish people now think sin and sex are all about. The process by which this has happened – is happening – was outlined by Peter Hitchens in his column in the Daily Mail on Monday  (13/08/10) when he reminded us that shock always fades into numb acceptance. He was writing in the context of the reception being accorded to the Pope in Britain but what he said can apply equally to this island. “Much of what is normal now would have been deeply shocking to British people 50 years ago. We got used to it. How will we know where to stop? Or will we just carry on forever? As the condom-wavers and value-free sex-educators advance into our primary schools, and the pornography seeps like slurry from millions of teenage bedroom computers, it seems clear to me that shock, by itself, is no defence against this endless, sordid dismantling of moral barriers till there is nothing left at all.”

What is the defence? Teaching should be the defence, but when has any of your readers last heard a teacher, clerical or otherwise, comprehensively explain the unadulterated moral teaching of Christ on the sixth commandment of the Decalogue? Milton’s words seem as relevant today as they were in the 17th century:

The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,

But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,

Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread…

There is no doubt but that there is a great deal of rank mist in the air. The Irish Times misread the Pope again today headlining its front page story, “The Pope Fears for the Future of Christianity”. He does not. He believes Christ two thousand year-old promise that He would be with us for all time, even to the end of the world. What he does fear for is mankind cut adrift from Christianity and he spelt out in no uncertain terms what things that can lead to. That is what we must all fear.

But we must also hope. Remembering that in a certain sense and at a certain point in human history, Christendom was reduced to three people standing around the foot of a Cross, we surely have grounds for hope. Despite all the negativity and rank mist we have witnessed over the past weeks, months and year, the demonstration of Christian faith, liturgical splendour and ecumenical good will we have witnessed in Britain over the past few days, show us that what was happening at the foot of that Cross is happening still and all the ugly demonstrations of bad will – or just plain blameless ignorance –  which seem to threaten it will never vanquish it.