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A new tribe – the post-Catholics

2011 June 24
by Paul Vallely

I was in Ireland on Sunday when I opened The Observer and read that the man whose obituaries last year called him England’s best-known parish priest turns out to have been a predatory paedophile.

How many more shocks can the system take, I wondered aloud to my Irish friends. They looked surprised. Like so many of their countrymen and women they have lost the capacity to be shocked by the activities of Catholic priests and the response of the institutional church to them. They shrugged their shoulders as, one said, “many Catholics and post-Catholics would”.

Post-Catholics? Apparently so many people have left the church that a new sociological term has been coined in Ireland for those who have abandoned their religious practice but cling to a cultural identity in a country where, notwithstanding all the progress of the peace process, there remains a significant consciousness of denomination as a tribal badge.

So much so that the country’s leading Catholic cleric, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, suggested some time ago that although 90 per cent of Dublin’s primary schools are under his control the percentage of the population who want a Catholic education for their children might be as low as 50 per cent.

This week a national school forum has been discussing a proposal by the country’s Minister of Education, Ruairi Quinn, that half the primary schools under the control of the church should be transferred to the jurisdiction of other bodies. Representatives of the Catholic bishops have been taking a tougher line than their archbishop. But a counter-proposal by the Catholic School Partnership that only 10 per cent of schools should switch from church control nonetheless appeared to concede the principle that change was needed.

Catholics in England and Wales are nowhere near so far down the path of disillusion. Even so, each new disclosure is a blow to the confidence and morale of many Catholics I know. “Every time a little bit of you dies inside,” one said. Each revelation may be the final straw for someone. One acquaintance of mine recently left the church to became an Anglican.

On Tuesday a BBC1 investigation revealed that Fr Kit Cunningham, the parish priest of England’s oldest Roman Catholic church, St Etheldreda’s in Ely Place, in London, was part of a group of priests from the Rosminian order involved in sexual abuse at boarding schools in England and Africa in the Sixties and Seventies.

Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald,  wrote a confessional piece in The Observer last weekend saying he now felt ashamed of a laudatory obituary of Fr Cunningham he had written when the priest died in December. Many such glowing pieces were written about this creepy cleric who was well-known to Fleet St journalists. But Mr Stanford noted that he now felt not only betrayed but also complicit in a culture of cover-up and denial of abuse. It shakes your faith, he said.

Some might say that the abuse is long past. But last September Pope Benedict XVI visited the UK and expressed “my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes”. Yet at the same time the Rosminian order was busy writing to the people whose lives they had scarred, refusing to pay compensation for what it accepted were offences by four of its priests.

Even after that the Rosminian provincial, Fr David Meyers, who knew the extent of the damage Fr Cunningham had done to children in his care, shockingly held a hagiographic memorial service for the priest. Such behaviour can do nothing other than cast doubt upon the Pope’s promises of a new openness and accountability. How long might it be, one wonders, before the term post-Catholic enters the vocabulary in England too?


from The Church Times

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