Thursday, 26 November 2009

Uneasy lies the head that wears a mitre tonight

I recently heard a talk by an African Catholic priest who nurtured and inspired me, and I realized how long it has been since I felt nourished in that way. He spoke eloquently, intelligently and compassionately about the HIV and AIDS crisis, he lamented the Church's failure to engage with women at all levels of ministry and representation, and he offered a nuanced and moving analysis of the challenges which HIV and AIDS pose in terms of stigma, prevention and care. He planned to publish his talk but yesterday I heard that he had been strongly advised not to publish, and he had regrettably withdrawn his paper from a magazine which was going to publish it to mark World Aids Day next week. I feel sad, angry and betrayed by whatever anonymous powers silenced that voice of wisdom and hope.

All this makes today's publication of the Dublin Diocesan Report doubly hard to bear. Priests who question the Church's teaching on contraception, priests who express support for and solidarity with the cause of women's ordination, priests who seek a mature and responsible way of accommodating homosexual as well as heterosexual relationships within the ambit of the Church's understanding of human dignity and love, are hounded, silenced, castigated and reprimanded. Women religious in America are being subjected to an odious process of investigation and discipline. Conservative Catholics weep crocodile tears over microscopic zygotes while ignoring horrendous abuse and neglect of fully formed and living human persons.

The Ryan Report and now the Dublin Diocesan report once again expose a culture of deception, hypocrisy, self-interest and devastating moral failure which surely has no equal in any modern institution, let alone one committed to Christ's teachings of love, tenderness and compassion. 'Suffer the little children.' Yes indeed.

This evening on BBC Radio 4's PM programme, Colm O'Gorman, author of Beyond Belief, spoke about his personal experience of rape and abuse at the age of fourteen by his parish priest - a man who was a known abuser even before he was ordained, and whose abuse was covered over and denied by the Catholic hierarchy. I wept when I listened to him. He spoke of his 'boundless belief in humanity', of the need to be open to life's opportunities for healing and wholeness, of the need to have a love of humanity. He spoke of the desolation he felt when he learned that the priest who had abused him had committed suicide and, although he could not deny that he might feel vengeful and violent towards that priest, he also thought of the child the priest had once being, of the humanity of that child, of the fact that by committing suicide the priest had destroyed any hope of redeeming and healing that child's future. If he could, he would want to say to that priest, 'Face yourself. Deal with yourself. Face your truth, face what you've done and resolve it. That's for you to do, not me.' He went on to say, 'Were I to discover that that life had been in some form reclaimed, and that that little boy he had been had found a way back to living a healthy life - yes, I think we need to aspire to that for all of us. That's not to say I forgive what he's done. Actually, that's not in my gift. The only one who can forgive him for what he's done is himself.'

That is the kind of wise voice that finds no place to speak and be heard within the institutions of the Church today. Of course, there are many, many Catholics - priests, religious, lay women and men - struggling day by day to live out their vision of a more compassionate, honest and loving Church. Like that African priest who so inspired me, they are a bullied and silenced majority. How happy the bullying minority would be if we all gave up and left, if we allowed them to have their 'smaller, purer' Church. How much more reason for refusing to go and refusing to keep quiet. Uneasy lies the head that wears a mitre tonight.


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