The Murphy Report One Year On and the State of the Irish Catholic Church: Does it Matter?

The one year anniversary of the Murphy Report was 26 November. It’s been a year of almost unremitting crisis for the Irish Catholic Church, as revelations about the scale of sexual abuse in the church – and the collusion of church and state authorities to keep it behind closed doors – have shocked almost everyone on this island.

This year has seen a stream of stories in the media about particular cases. These have included:

Just to name a few …

Yesterday’s Irish Times reported on the remarks of the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, which were posted last week on the Dublin archdiocesan website as, ‘The Murphy Report One Year Later.’ Martin said,

“I see more clearly that the catastrophic manner in which the abuse was dealt with was a symptom of a deeper malaise within the Irish church. … The church in Ireland had allowed itself to drift into a position where its role in society had grown beyond what is legitimate. It acted as a world apart. It became self-centred. It felt that it could be forgiving of abusers in a simplistic manner and rarely empathised with the hurt of children.”

Martin preached a similar message in what the Catholic News Agency calls a ‘brutally honest homily about the state of the Irish Church’ on 20 November. Martin seems to go further than any other Catholic leader in Ireland when he condemns and criticises the abuse. While he has disappointed some Catholics, including victims and survivors, I think he has more moral authority than most clerics when calling for reform in the church.

At least he has the right starting point, which is articulated in his comments on the archdiocese website:

“In my encounters with survivors I have encountered insight into faith which leaves me humbled. But perhaps humility is not the worst starting point for renewal of the church and recognition of past wrongs.”

Among the many suggestions for renewal in the Irish Church have been structural reforms, such as reducing the number of bishops, increasing the significance and power of lay parish councils, or having a national conference of clergy and laypeople to make a plan to reform and revitalise the church.

But Martin also criticised the ‘cultural expectations and outward obedience’ of a spiritually disengaged laity. He seemed to say that the leadership of the Irish Church could be culpable for failing to educate or ‘evangelise’ people about what it really means to be a Christian.

I’m not certain what Martin’s personal thoughts are on structural reforms but his 20th November homily focused on what might be called spiritual reforms. He said the Christian message of sacrificial love cannot be reduced to “being nice to each other.” He also said that only a rediscovery of Jesus’ real call to discipleship would enable the Irish Church to have a positive impact on the lives of people on this island.

Of course, this begs the question of what is the ‘real call to discipleship’? Recent research conducted by myself and colleagues at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, demonstrates that Catholics in Ireland are not really looking to the leadership of their church to articulate that call to discipleship for them.

Rather, in research for this project, called Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism, I’ve interviewed Catholics who are dismayed by the cultural – rather than living – faith of some of their fellow Catholics, both clerical and lay. (These interviews have been conducted as part of on-going case studies with people in the Fermanagh Churches Forum, Slí Eile, and who visit the Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor.)

Many of these Catholics seek a more intellectually engaging faith that speaks to real problems in the real world (like Jesus did), such as alleviating poverty, bringing ethics into economics, or encouraging people to encounter their God in a meaningful way through Scripture and prayer.

This research project also included an online survey of laypeople in Ireland in 2009, with one of the findings being that Catholics were the least likely of people of faith to say that their ‘faith leaders’ influence their thinking about faith, religion or God. People from the Church of Ireland, Methodists and Christians from other smaller denominations were the most likely to say they were influenced by their faith leaders.

This might seem a grim portrait of the Irish Catholic Church and it is legitimate to ask why it really matters. Some readers may be thinking that the Church is just another failed institution that has abused its power and let people down badly.

But I find a glimmer of hope from the evidence that there are some Catholics who are taking responsibility for their own faith and getting on with it, in spite of what sometimes looks to be an uncompromising and uncomprehending leadership that is unable to envision or instigate change. I find another glimmer of hope in Martin’s call for humility – as long as it includes a willingness to take responsibility for messing up and putting things right. (No matter what Martin says, this of course may not happen.)

You don’t have to be a Catholic or a person of faith to appreciate this sort of initiative and wish to see it spreading to other sectors of society, especially where there has been a culture of deference to authority and a blatant abuse of power.