In Rome, some commentators describe the child abuse scandal as the worst crisis to hit the Catholic church since the Reformation. That’s way wide of the mark: the current situation, which was the focus last week of a four-day summit of Catholic leaders from across the world, is far worse than the fallout from the emergence of Protestantism 500 years ago.
This is a true day of reckoning, and whatever theologians are saying about the ability of this institution to have survived 2,000 years of turbulent history, the stakes have never been higher.
So you might have thought there would be only one topic on the agenda at the thousands of Catholic parishes in the UK last weekend; or even that the organisation’s churches would be empty, with the so-called faithful staying away in disgust. After all, the event in Rome cracked open the sad and sorry depths to which the church has sunk.
Pope Francis and 190 leaders, mostly pink- and red-skullcapped prelates and cardinals listened in stunned silence to testimonies, including one from an African woman who relayed her experience of being raped by a priest throughout her teens: three times she got pregnant, and three times he forced her to have an abortion.
Another survivor from Chile said the church’s leaders had discredited victims and protected the priests who abused them, while a Nigerian nun, Sister Veronica Openibo, called out the church’s leadership for its hypocrisy in parading themselves as the custodians of moral values, while covering up atrocities that blighted the lives of the most vulnerable members of its community.
Meanwhile one of the pope’s most trusted advisers, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, admitted that files documenting abuse had been “either destroyed or never created”.
But my parish in south London appears to exist in a parallel universe, and a quick straw poll among friends who (reluctantly) attended mass at their churches at the weekend revealed it was the same in theirs. There were about 70 people at the morning mass I attended. Some of them were very elderly, and maybe deserve some understanding; but others were in their 30s, 40s, 50s. What on earth are they doing, standing up and sitting down by rote, parroting prayers that, in the light of last week’s revelations in Rome, ring so hollow?
There was not a word about the horrors from the priest. In his sermon he talked about how lucky we were to be hearing that day’s reading from St Luke’s gospel, since it had last been read at Sunday mass in 2007. The only mention of the churning tumult in our institution came in a prayer read out by a layperson, which called on God to grant “wisdom” to those making decisions in the Vatican about the safety of young people and vulnerable adults.
There has been little wisdom so far; and though Pope Francis did the right thing in calling the meeting, and is picking up the pieces from other pontificates in the recent past, when these issues were not properly addressed, he made a big and sadly revealing mistake in the final session. Francis framed the abuse crisis as part of a wider problem that has affected all cultures and societies. The church has also failed to convince survivors that a “zero tolerance” approach to paedophile priests and the bishops who cover up their crimes is truly being enacted.
Meanwhile in my cosy parish in south London, the newsletter is crammed with information about the arrangements for first confessions, Friday adoration of the blessed sacrament, a diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes and a meeting for altar servers.
Five hundred years ago, if Catholic parishes existed in blissful ignorance of what was happening at the rotten centre of their church, they had an excuse: horses didn’t deliver news as quickly as the internet. But every single adult in my parish, and certainly the priests who led the services, must have known what happened in Rome last week. Why did I feel as though I was the only person who was angry, the only person who wasn’t putting money into the plate, and the only person who no longer felt it was right to say I believed in the holy Catholic church? Why aren’t we having a meeting next week to discuss what we as laypeople can do to cut out this cancer in our church: couldn’t it take the place of the charismatic prayer group, or perhaps the parish bingo?
Why, I hear you ask, do I keep going at all? Many Catholics have left the church: in the UK mass attendance fell by 30 per cent between 1993 and 2010, and continues to fall. But there are some good things in Catholicism. At its heart it has a wise and humane spirituality — the spirituality of writers and thinkers such as Julian of Norwich (a medieval woman, despite her name), Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day; the vision of luminaries such as Jean Vanier, Helen Prejean and Teresa Forcades. Unfortunately in recent years too many of its main players — its priests, its bishops, its cardinals — have been men who have been attracted into the church at least partly because it’s a haven from problems and personality issues of their own.
But there’s one thing we know for sure, and if I’d been a priest saying mass at a Catholic parish last weekend I would have based my sermon on it. Jesus Christ, the founder of the Catholic church, didn’t often get angry. But once or twice he got absolutely furious, and it was always about the same thing: the religious elite, who in his day were the Pharisees.
“Do not imitate their actions, because they don’t practise what they preach,” he warned, telling them they were “like whitewashed tombs, which look fine on the outside but are full of bones and decaying corpses on the inside.” (Matthew 23 v3, and v27).
If Jesus had been at last week’s abuse summit, he’d have been furious again; and he could have used those same lines. We, the Catholics who still have even a smidgen of faith in anything at the heart of this organisation, now have to be furious, too: we have to force change, and then we have to work out whether there is anything worth preserving in the whitewashed tomb that calls itself the Catholic church.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Joanna Moorhead writes about religion and family life for the Guardian.