Slugger O'Toole

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The Brendan Smith case and the church’s strange relations with the power of law

Thu 3 May 2012, 8:12am

Just caught up with the latest on the Cardinal Brady story. Whatever way you cut it, it remains deeply disturbing. All the more so for Catholics because of the explicit connection between their faith and the authority of the church. But, I suspect, given the grim detail, only just. One passionate caller to Nolan yesterday morning called Seamus recalled one of the most powerful passages of the New Testament: Matthew 18:6.

Look it up in whatever version suits your Catholic (or non Catholic) taste. But the meaning strikes me as being as unambiguous as much now as it when I first heard as an impressionable young child back in/of the sixties/seventies. The image is exceptionally brutal.

However, Cardinal Brady’s defence is well worth reading. I won’t try to parse it. But it alludes to a power structure within the church and one which has echoed more widely in what passed back then for secular society.

Father Brady was a notary. A note taker. He may be head of the Catholic church today. But in the 70s, he did what every other clergyman did, and did exactly what he was told to do by his church within the church.

In yesterday’s print edition of the Belfast Telegraph, Malachi O’Doherty (mar is gnach leis) wastes not time in cutting directly to the real chase here:

He has say that he wants to stay in his job, to mend the church and heal the damage caused, but he could do far more by acknowledging that a priest is answerable to the whole of society and the law – not just to a hierarchy, or even a flock or congregation.

By leaving he would prove that he is properly answerable to the civil order and secular society which has basic principles and expectations of those who hold office.

But, and this is the most difficult bit to admit for anyone who retains even the least affection or even gratitude to the Catholic church, for the many good things it has gifted its followers over the years, the truth is that, shocking as it may be, the church felt at the time, that it had taken the case as far as it was required by cannon law. There was no court of appeal.

Then Malachi takes a very precise cut:

He should not resign to declare himself guilty of shameless management of cover up. In a sense, he has almost nothing to be ashamed of there anyway, because he acted within the limits his church imposed on him. If we don’t think we would ourselves have been up to such a brave act of rebellion, we shouldn’t criticism him either.

But he should resign as the man who should now better understands than anybody just how dangerous the church’s limitations are. [emphasis added]

The argument points back a particularly problematic early moment when Benedict picked with with the historic separation of the book of god and the book of nature. What reverberates with me, rather more closely and mundanely to home, is my old school motto: “Lex dei in corde meo”.

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