Who is listened to?
Here’s a question: when the Irish bishops decided to actively support the No side in the recent referendum, who actually made that decision?
Presumably there was some kind of consultation, some input from their paid advisors, some assessment of how a particular policy might sit with their priests and their people. In that process, who is listened to? Or more to the point, who is not heard?
I’m being ironic, I’m afraid. There was no consultation (as far as I could see) with priests or people.
Even the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), representing about a third of Irish priests, weren’t asked for an opinion, but then again we’re used to being ignored. There was no consultation either with the Association of Catholics of Ireland. We were not listened to; we were not heard.
The bishops’ decision to support the blunt strategy of outright opposition had all the hallmarks of a policy decided behind closed doors in Maynooth, without testing it against the wisdom of people and priests – and then people wonder why the bishops can get things so unerringly wrong?
That decision, it is now clear, supported by groups like Iona, Catholic papers desperate to hang on to their readers, and right-wing Catholic groups, was disastrous. The bishops, ignoring their people and their priests, got it exactly wrong.
Part of the difficulty is that the bishops, particularly in confronting the prospect of social legislation, seem to have developed a confrontational style and tone that is interpreted – even though this is not been said – as wanting the teaching of the Catholic Church has to be reflected in legislation.
This aggressive stance, as a strategy, in the present dispensation will inevitably lead to opposition (even from those well-disposed to the Church), hostility, a busload of hostages to fortune and even embarrassment.
It’s also playing into the hands of the growing number of people who want to see the back of the Catholic Church and can’t believe their luck when the Catholic bishops adopt such an uncompromising stance. It may gain praise for its populist stance among (some) older and more conservative Catholics but it gives off all the wrong vibes to everyone else.
This assertive tone was clear in the Referendum. Unlike in past referendums, when the primacy of conscience was placed centre-stage, more recently that option was not often underlined or clarified.
This assertive tone was evident too, for example, in the words of Archbishop Charles Brown, the papal nuncio, at a Mass in Dublin a few years ago. It was in the context of the Oireachtas committee hearings on the abortion issue.
Archbishop Brown, at the New Year’s Day Mass for Peace, effectively threw down the gauntlet to politicians, lecturing them on their responsibilities. It had the effect of undermining politicians who agree with the Church’s position and giving solace to those who disagreed. Indeed in the context of the tension between Rome and the Government it was particularly ill judged.
A further comment by another bishop to the effect that the government’s decision to legislate was ‘a first step on the road to a culture of death’ was widely regarded as over-the-top and gratuitously offensive.
At the time Stephen Collins, the widely respected political commentator, wrote: ‘The mystifying aspect of the Church’s strategy is that it has chosen to take such an aggressive stance against a Government and parliament that is shaping up to do little more than codify one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the western world’.
But has the Catholic Church a strategy or is it open season for everyone who wants to shape what that strategy is? And, of course, in such a situation the loudest and more extreme views often prevail.
The difficult truth is that the more extreme and the less nuanced the Catholic Church position is, the more damage ultimately it does to its own position.
If, as a Church, we insist on a kind of Custer’s last stand position, we relegate ourselves to the sidelines because we present ourselves as controlling and demanding, refusing to listen or engage with the issue.
On the other hand, if we had a more on-going companionable presence, reflecting the complexity and multi-dimensional aspects of an issue, teasing out our reservations and placing them in the context of a respectful debate, then I think we would be party to a discussion rather than be a demanding, bad-tempered presence in the corner of the room, garnering glowing affirmation from our extreme supporters but losing both the battle and the war.
Here’s another question: if a radio programme like RTE’s Morning Ireland rings a bishop asking for an interview, is he at liberty to say ‘Yes’ regardless of ability or media skills? It seems so.
So, despite the fact that there’s an office in Maynooth with presumably highly skilled media people who might offer advice or guidance, an individual bishop with an enthusiasm for a particular subject or a particular line can effectively represent the Catholic Church to the nation, off his own bat.
That doesn’t make much sense in today’s world. Every huge institution or organisation now has a public relations department with its nose on the ground sussing out what people actually think, working out a policy, deciding on a strategy and putting its best foot forward in articulating with competence and nuance what it wants to communicate. It especially listens to what is happening on the ground.
In today’s complex and unforgiving world there’s no place for making it up on the hoof. An awkward sentence or a wrong word and the media will dissect, imply, presume and the damage is done, sometimes in a way that can’t be undone no matter what spin is placed on it later. Not every bishop is blessed with the ability to think on his feet or to manage the combination of words that does justice to what he wants to say.
Why is it that, as a Church, with the competence we have at our disposal, with all the expensive public relations personnel we employ, with all the support we still have from Catholics around the country, that unerringly and consistently we manage to get a workable strategy spectacularly wrong?
After the referendum result was announced Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said it was time the Catholic Church in Ireland had ‘a reality check’.
A good start would be if the bishops starting listening to people and priests.