The Catholic crisis is damaging inter-church relations. Does anybody care?

The Vatican may be terrible at PR but it may be more politically adept in a corner than its critics give it credit for. The refusal of the Pope to accept the resignations of two minor players who may be guilty by association has a certain train of logic to it. The Irish Times followed the train in both directions, one with a theologian saying it would be better if all Irish bishops quit (but where would that leave the outspoken Archbishop of Dublin?): the other accepting the logic but concluding that mass resignations would ” collapse the system.” We may assume that the Primate is now safe on the throne of St Patrick  for some time to come.

By drawing a line at the cliff edge, the Pope is challenging the faithful to pull back from the abyss. I would make a wild guess that many will, while others will just quietly creep away – to the Church of Ireland or secular limbo.

An urgent priority now should be to avoid widening the rift  with Protestants. I recently listened to one of the most ecumenically minded Church of Ireland rectors imaginable excoriating the Pope for his recent encyclical bracketing the ordination of women with child abusers but exempting clerical criminals from the excommunication he would impose for the very idea of  ordaining women.

Warming to his theme, the rector added that consideration should be given to boycotting the Pope’s visit to the UK next month. “Deeply insenstive to bracket the two.  I don’t buy the idea that the Vatican was just bad at PR. They knew what they were doing,”  was his gist.  This is a sentiment Paisley would applaud. It only goes to show how deep the offence the Pope is causing by  persistently relying so narrowly on Catholic apologetics.

Presumably the rector’s outspokenness would give his episcopal superiors a fit. The C of I Abp of Dublin preferred to support his increasingly isolated Catholic counterpart Abp Martin against the Abp of Canterbury when Rowan Williams blurted out that the Catholic Church had ” lost all credibility” over the child abuse scandal. Williams is also bruised by what he sees as Vatican opportunism in seeking to capitalise on the Anglican split over ordaining women bishops.

Down the decades the Church of Ireland in the Republic thought it politic to adopt the cringe position in order to survive in independent Catholic Ireland. But times have changed dramatically. They should get off their knees and join northern counterparts in straight talking – while giving support to Martin and great numbers – probably the majority – of the Catholic laity. Do they fear being misunderstood as Paisleyites? Probably. But as ever, misunderstanding comes from a failure to speak clearly with charity.

Speaking  in a common language is needed to boost languishing ecumenism in the face of the Catholic hierarchy’s chronic loss of credibility with its own people – an aim which is opposite of Paisleyism and other forms of die-hard Protestantism. The time is ripe – indeed long overdue – for a new social mission from all the churches to encourage a more cohesive society.  For as long as they exert influence, this should be their preoccupation.. While the clerics are locked in casuistry, it’s up to the laity on all sides. We are all protestants now.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London