Irish Church must “change or die”

Fr Harry Bohan in The Irish Catholic - February 11th , 2010

“The truth of recent revelations is this: we are witnessing the demolition of a Church that should never have existed in the first place. An institution that saw itself answerable only to God to whose will its leaders believed they had privileges access has turned out to be a danger to society. Conversely a complete change in the institutional Church’s culture and structures, away from the arrogance of power and towards the humility of openness and service is the only way to make restitution for the terrible damage done.

“There are many strands to the present situation. Of course we abhor the suffering inflicted on the innocent but issuing yet another apology is not enough. We must stand back from getting clouded by issues about whether this bishop or that bishop should step aside. The individual needs of priests or bishops can no longer take precedence over the greater good of the Christian Community.

“What is described in the Murphy Report is a Church culture based on secrecy, one that is hugely resistant to change. Judge Murphy points again and again to failures of communication and the withholding of information. It was a culture that prioritised the protection of the institution and of its individual priests and bishops. A deferential stance towards authority existed even among bishops, so that no one challenged the prevailing culture of silence and cover-up.


“This is a pivotal moment in the life of our Church. It is a moment for purification, cleansing openness, honesty. It is a time to tell the truth about ourselves as church. It could be a grace-filled time of opportunity in which our church would lay aside the preoccupations with protecting itself and come back painfully to a place which will be very different from what has been but one in which we will follow the Way, the Truth and the Life more faithfully. We have to change or die. We used to talk of Renewal. Now nothing short of a total reformation of our structures of leadership and of ministry will suffice.

“People ask where the change is to come from. The Church of the future will have to be defined by its purpose rather than by its structures. What did Jesus leave behind? He would probably be surprised to be told he had founded an ‘organisation’. Organisational structures are needed but they have tended to drift towards power. The Church is above all about the people and the most important church is the local one. He founded a community to celebrate the Eucharist to deepen their understanding of the word of God and to support those in need – spiritually and materially.


“We must now begin by moving away from a clerical culture, that is, a culture dominated by clergy and clerically minded lay-people. We must return to first beginnings, which was a very different place from where ‘those at the top’ came to believe they’re supposed to have all the answers – eventually losing touch with the world – coming up with answers to questions people are not asking at all.

“There has been a failure of institutional leadership at all levels in Irish society. Leadership in the future will have to be participative and accountable. Talking down to, or talking at people will no longer do. People at the top will have to become facilitators and those on the ground have to take responsibility. This won’t happen by just wishing. We have to go outside the ‘Churchy’ circle and identify, invite and train people with leadership capacity to promote a very different model of Church.

“There is a very bruising time ahead. People need to be listened to, especially dissenters.

“His message is very clear. God loved the world so much He sent His only Son. He told us He came to witness to the Truth. That’s the world we too must love and witness to and it will cost. What we call the clerical culture got very removed from that world. To help us do this, we must put structures in place which will reflect what we are about. We can no longer continue to sidestep these.”