Pope in Ireland: faithful must put faith in god not the church

Out on his own: Pope Francis is too far into papacy to deliver the reform the Catholic Church needs

Even if we don’t know who said it, we all know the quote: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The words belong to the Victorian historian Lord Acton who went on to say: “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”

And there is evidence enough to support his generalisation – and it is a generalisation. History is full of despots who have abused their power for personal gain regardless of the human cost.

What has been lost to us is the context of Acton’s remarks.

Acton, who was refused entry to Cambridge because he was a Catholic, was a leading Liberal, for a time the Member of Parliament for Carlow, and a close friend of Gladstone who secured his elevation to the peerage.

Acton succeeded John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, as editor of the Catholic monthly The Rambler in 1859. It later became The Home and Foreign Review and was critical of the Church, but it folded after the pope issued an edict saying Catholic writers were subject to the authority of Rome.

This was a period when the papacy was flexing its muscles. Acton travelled to Rome to campaign unsuccessfully against the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility which was promulgated at the First Vatican Council in 1870.

And this pernicious act of papal aggrandizement was the prompt for Acton’s most famous statement, made in a letter to an Anglican bishop and intellectual.

He wrote: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

“There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

It is worth reflecting on those words as the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland enters its afterlife, and the memories fade into history.

From what I can see, Francis is an honourable man and a man of deep humanity.

But he is also the holder of an office which transcends him, an office that bases its authority on divine right, but an office that has been debased by many of those who have held it.

The Church Francis leads has failed its people on so many fronts. In the pursuit of power it has lost its moral authority, and it has negated the very real and transformative work of many individual priests, religious and members of the laity.

Bishops, cardinals and popes have confused their own self-interest with the interest of the Church. And they have shown themselves ill-equipped for the job at hand.

One of the things said to be attractive about Catholicism is the way it has held the line about moral truths in the face of contemporary decadence, but many of these so-called truths are man-made not God given. They are declarations designed to exercise command and control. Acton saw that all too clearly almost 150 years ago.

These edicts have resulted in the suppression of women, the oppression of people who love members of their own sex, the abuse of children and exploitation of adults.

When Luther ushered in the Reformation he had right on his side. Francis had the opportunity to usher in another Reformation, but he is too far into his papacy now I fear to deliver.

He is a prisoner of his own upbringing and conditioning, and that affects his room for manoeuvre. But worse he is a prisoner of the curia. The Vatican bureaucracy has got him where it wants him.

That he lives in comparative humility in a hostel rather than a palace, and drives round in a Skoda, may be refreshing. But it is not enough. The men (dispiritingly they are all men) in a position to effect change are the ones responsible for the current crisis. They are hunkered down and hoping the storm will pass.

Francis’s visit to Ireland might prove a turning point. He got some things right, including his meeting with those let down brutally by their church. But if the past is any predictor of the future, the Church will continue to fail, and – more than ever –  the faithful will need to put their faith in god rather than prelates.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on August 29 2018


Edward Daly represented all that is good in the world



Edward Daly – an inspiration to a generation

Last month I found myself in the crypt at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. There lie the bodies of the city’s bishops – including, it is said, the first among them. The bones under the basilica’s great altar are said to be those of Peter, the ‘rock’ on which the Catholic Church is built.

No longer there is Saint John Paul II. He was ‘moved upstairs’ after his beatification in 2011 and his tomb is now one of the main attractions in the basilica itself. You can even see it on a webcam.

‘Attraction’ is perhaps the wrong word, but as anyone who has been to Rome will know, the Vatican has become more a place of tourism than pilgrimage.

It had been a long and tiring day, mostly spent marvelling at the riches of the Vatican Museum. Thousands were doing the same thing – most of us in pursuit of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s ceiling masterpiece.

St Peter’s Basilica was the family’s last stop before heading to Roma Termini and the 19.40 back to Florence where we were staying.

With my pedometer showing I’d managed more than 20,000 steps on my blistered feet, I gave up looking for John Paul II’s tomb. Life’s too short and, to be honest, neither he nor his successor, Benedict XVI, struck me as being the right man in the right place for the challenges of the modern day Church. (In the case of JPII, I suspect I am in the minority on that, but no matter.)

I was, however, moved to find myself standing by the tomb of his predecessor, the ill-fated Pope John Paul I – supreme pontiff for one short month in what has become known as the year of the three pope’s. He rests not far from the Blessed Paul VI – whose last minute U-turn on contraception in Humanae Vitae has left the Church with a continuing problem over its approach to human sexuality.

The lurid conspiracy stories over John Paul I’s untidy death have clouded the breath of air he brought into the Church. He rejected a coronation and the triple tiara; he abhorred the use of the Royal ‘we’ (though Vatican flunkies wrote it back into his speeches), he referred to God as ‘our mother’ as well as ‘our father’, and he seemed ready to take on the corruption that had turned the Church into a corporation rather than a community of sinners.

It is a scandal that almost 40 years on, Pope Francis is fighting the same fight, and against the same forces within.

While many bishops, archbishops and cardinals find it difficult to relate to their flocks and the challenges they face; a few stand out and, with quiet dignity, uphold the values that underpin many of the world’s great religions.

One such man was Edward Daly, laid to rest in the city he loved yesterday afternoon.

Much has been written over this past few days about his life, and his commitment to the cause of peace and reconciliation.

To a generation, he was an inspiration. The image of him carrying out his ministry in the midst of the carnage of Bloody Sunday is one of the most iconic of the twentieth century – and one of the most complex too. It can be read in so many ways – the futility of violence, the courage of an individual and a community, the power of prayer, the gulf between the British and the Irish, and the brutality of war in all its guises. Its companion piece is the picture of the late Fr Alec Reid praying over the body of Corporal David Howes. Fr Reid was another witness for Christ.

Not everyone was enamoured of Bishop Daly’s outspoken renunciation of violence. He was principled and robust. He feared nobody.

For most of us, the best we can hope for is that we leave this life having done marginally more good than harm. Edward Daly was not man who lived on the margins.

He gave people their dignity and their place; he spoke for those oppressed by the state, and those cowed by men who wielded power within their own communities.

He held out the hand of friendship when it was not the done thing. He presence throughout the troubles was a reminder that there is good in the world, and good must triumph.

If anyone deserves to rest in the Vatican crypt, it is he. But given the choice we know he would pick the rich earth of County Derry in the shadow of the Cathedral he served so well. May he rest in peace.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on August 12 2016

‘Vatican Five’ trial and the threat to freedom of the press

Vatican trial

Journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaidi on trial at the Vatican

Freedom of the press is one of the essential attributes of a civilised society, or so we say, yet it is always open season on journalists.

Governments distrust the press, and journalists are often the targets of oppressive regimes. I have touched before on the risks faced by reporters, photographers and cameramen and women around the world. But it is not just conflict zones where they are at threat.

An alarming number of journalists are disappeared by repressive regimes; and in our own more benign democratic environment the rich and powerful flex their muscles (or get the courts to flex muscles for them) to minimise public scrutiny.

I doubt there is a single journalist who has not been the victim of intimidation and threats. Many have risked their personal safety to bring us the news.

It is unsurprising perhaps to see tin pot Latin American dictators, jumped up Russian oligarchs, and repressive regimes such as those in North Korea, China and the Middle East turn on the media.

This week, the Holy See joined the list of countries incapable of differentiating between the importance of a free press and its own narrow self-interest.

The Church has form. Silencing dissidents has been stock in trade of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since its foundations as the Inquisition. (Don’t mention Monty Python). Denunciation by the Church was a sign you had something worthwhile to say. From Galileo to the theologian Hans Kung independent thinkers have been viewed with suspicion.

The Church doesn’t burn heretics now. If it did, the current pontiff might be investing in a fire-proof cassock. He is a bit of a free thinker himself.

Although on paper he is one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchs, his reign is testimony to the limitations of papal power. His opponents (and he has identified ‘enemies within’) know they just have to dig in and wait for regime change. Given Francis is approaching 80, and has himself spoken of the spectre of death, they have time on their side.

The Holy See’s decision to put on trial five people – two of them journalists – over the publication of embarrassing leaks seems out of character with the more open regime Francis has embraced. Since his election as successor to Benedict XVI (who as Cardinal Ratzinger was the Church’s Silencer-in-Chief) he has ploughed a more socially liberal furrow.

If the decision to prosecute was taken with the active approval of the pope, he was badly advised. The Vatican Five include two investigative journalists, a PR woman, a Spanish priest, and his secretary.

In their books, drawing on the leaked information, the journalists accused the Curia of financial mismanagement and waste. According to them, prelates promoting the pope’s vision of a Church of the Poor did so flying business class, spending money on lavish private apartments in Roman palaces, and splashing out on expensive furniture.

Quite what the Holy See hopes to achieve by these prosecutions is difficult to discern. Yes it has been embarrassed. But more people now know of the allegations than would have been the case if it had taken the criticism on the chin.

The Church has been made a laughing stock. Rather than rooting out corruption, and cleaning up its act, the Holy See is indulging in that popular past time – shooting the messenger.

It’s been open season on ‘messengers’ since the dawn of time. Sophocles wrote about it in Antigone, and Shakespeare too. In modern times, it is the media that carries the load: newspapers are regularly vilified for shining the light on corruption – large and small. It’s all the fault of the press.

Embarrassment is not a good basis for prosecution, and a show trial does nothing for the Vatican’s crumbling image. Next month, the Church begins its Holy Year of Mercy – there are better ways to launch it than this prosecution.

In his Lives, Plutarch tells the story of the misfortunate soldier who was murdered for bringing bad news to the general, Tigranes. In the story, Plutarch writes: “No man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”

A Church relying on flattery and deaf to criticism – not matter how harsh – will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past; and will continue to lose credibility. Surely there must be someone of influence within the Vatican with the wit to see that.

‘Not inspired’ the crisis in Ireland’s hierarchy


Overwhelming support for same sex marriage in Ireland

Every once in a while a small thing happens which reveals a deeper truth. There must have been quite a few priests in Ireland trying to work out what to say on Pentecost Sunday in the wake of the referendum vote on same-sex marriage.

On the face of it, the second reading – St Paul raging about “orgies and similar things” – offered an open goal. But overnight the spirit of Yeats had descended on the country. “All changed, changed utterly”.

The priest – I will spare his blushes and save him from the wrath of the Irish hierarchy – took a deep breath. “Today is Pentecost,” he intoned. “The day the disciples were inspired to preach the Gospel to the world.” It was not the most imaginative introduction to a homily on such a day, but it was a beginning.

“It’s the Church’s birthday. On birthdays you get a present, and you are going to get one today,” he told the congregation.

“I’ve not been inspired,” the priest said, apologetically fumbling his way into the profession of faith.

If ever there were a metaphor for the Irish Church’s response to the cataclysm in the Irish Republic, this was it. “Not inspired,” sums up the Church in Ireland. And it’s not inspiring anybody either; as Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin ruefully reflected, the vast majority of those who had voted Yes had been educated for 12 years in Catholic schools.

There is an alternative view of the vote; not that it was a rejection of Christian values but an endorsement of Jesus’s teaching that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbour as yourself.

The scale of the vote – only one constituency had a majority against – showed this was not just an issue that excited the Dublin intelligentsia. Rural Ireland was gay friendly too. Archbishop Martin told Irish television: “We have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities.”

Those realities are that the majority of people, in what was once one of the most conservative countries on the planet, don’t care what people do in bed. It’s what happens in people’s hearts that matters.

If the Church focused its attention on love rather than genitalia, it might find a way of dealing with human sexuality in a way that respects the right of people to fully express their humanity, while reaffirming its commitment to the love as the defining principle of the Gospel message.

Rather than taking time for reflection, the Vatican jumped in with an ill-judged post-referendum intervention when the Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Paralan described the outcome as “a defeat for humanity”. So much for reality checks.

Much was made during the referendum of the ‘law of unintended consequences’ and there will undoubtedly be some. The no campaign put significant emphasis on the possible impact on family life. That cut little ice in a country that has seen at first had the effects of dysfunctional families headed by fathers and mothers.

The unintended consequences are as likely to be positive as negative. I am prepared to bet that Ireland will be a better place as a result of the vote. If the Church in Ireland finds a way of responding positively too, it might well end up in a better place too.

As a member of a ‘universal Church’, that might not be easy. The Church in Africa is in a very different place with regard to human sexuality. The Vatican is all over the place, with its clumsy handling of the French ambassadorial appointment somewhat at variance with the Pope’s public pronouncements on homosexuality.

During the referendum Archbishop Martin said he would be voting no, but he was not going to dictate how anyone else should vote. His predecessor John Charles McQuaid, who wrote most of the constitution the voters have now amended, would have been less circumspect.

The big question now is whether or not the archbishop, and his brother archbishop in Armagh, Eamon Martin – nominally leaders of the Church in Ireland – have the vision and leadership qualities needed to respond to a vote which presents an enormous Yes for equal rights and a rejection – by believers and non-believers alike – of the traditional teaching of the Church in Ireland.

Pope Francis opens fire on ‘the enemy within’



Pope Francis takes on the might of the curia


He makes an unlikely superhero. Mild-mannered and bespectacled, like a septuagenarian Clark Kent, but when he puts on his white cape he is fearless. Not yet two years into his term (reign seems an inappropriate word) Jorge Mario Bergoglio has confronted the rich and powerful.

He has taken on the Mafia, governments and dictators, condemning their excesses in no uncertain terms, and denouncing their indifference to the poor, the weak and the hungry.

But now he has taken on his most fearsome enemy yet – and the confrontation will shape the future of his papacy, and the Catholic Church.

This pope nailed his colours to the mast when he chose Francis as his papal name. It was a declaration of intent.

The rule of St Francis is simple: “To follow the teachings of our lord Jesus Christ, and to walk in his footsteps.” It was radical in the 13th century. It is a revolutionary idea today, particularly for a Church that has lost touch with its purpose and its people.

The pope has used Francis’s rule as the standard by which he measures people, leaders, institutions – and the decisions they make. Many have been found wanting – some shockingly close to the See of Peter.

Last week he turned the spotlight on one of the most entrenched, self-aggrandising and self-absorbed power blocks in the world today. And he did not miss and hit the Sistine Chapel wall.

The curia is the Catholic Church’s equivalent of the Soviet Politburo or the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. It shares with them the distinction of being dominated by conservative old men who quash non-conformity and embrace change with reluctance. Some, no doubt, still believe the Church was hasty apologising to Galileo in 1992 for insisting the earth revolved around the sun.

Since his election, the curia has been blocking the pope’s change agenda. Every time he opens a window, a cardinal jumps up to shut it again. If there are feet to be dragged, the curia will drag them.

Its most brazen move was thwarting reform at the Bishops’ Synod on the Family. Other popes might have played for time, manoeuvred behind the scenes, and tried another tack. But this pope – 78 years old – does not have time on his side, and he knows it.

Deciding attack is the best form of defence, he has laid into the curia and its wicked ways, in a speech both shocking and audacious.

The Church has not been short of critics, and it has denounced them. But when the pope joins the critics, you know something is seriously wrong.

His words were somewhat overshadowed by the shopping, partying and unbridled hedonism that marked last week’s festival of Saturnalia (the revival of an ancient Roman feast that now replaces Christmas).

It’s worth revisiting what he said.

The pope listed 15 “ailments” – enough to suggest the curia should be on life support. Perhaps the most devastating was that it was suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.

He said: “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias; in those who build walls around themselves, and become enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

“Spiritually and mentally hardened,” he accused the curia of lacking coordination and trying to thwart “the freedom of the Holy Spirit”.

The pope sees clerics who are boastful and jockeying for position: men (yes they are all men) worrying over their appearance, the colour of their vestments and their titles.

He attacks the sickness of “those who live a double life… losing contact with reality.” And he condemns the “terrorism of gossip”, and the sickness of sycophancy. Hoping for advancement, clerics “honour people who are not God”. And he talks of a Church whose leaders are indifferent to others, and who take “joy in seeing another fall”.

The curia promotes a Church of “theatrical severity and sterile pessimism”, forming a closed circle that seeks to be stronger than the Church itself, men who “insatiably try to multiply their powers”. This the pope described as “a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body”.

It had to be said: tough love and all that.

The risk for Pope Francis is that the old guard – the enemy within – will bide their time and wait for regime change. The danger for the Church is that they will succeed.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on December 30 2014