Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My Numbers Are Bigger Than Yours: Irish Priests' Association Challenges Irish Bishops on Assessment of Mass Boycott

In August, I blogged about a boycott of Sunday Mass on 26 September being organized by an 80-year old grandmother in Co. Cork, Ireland.  Jennifer Sleeman called on Catholic women of Ireland and those who stand in solidarity with them to boycott Mass last Sunday in protest of the Catholic church’s continuing mistreatment of women.

The boycott Sunday has come and gone, and as soon as Sunday Mass was over throughout Ireland, the national Catholic Communications Office issued gloating statements to the Irish media, claiming that the boycott had been ineffective.  Numbers were up in some places, and held steady in others, the official communication of the Irish bishops wanted the public to think.

In light of this press statement, I’m interested to read a subsequent statement of a new association of Irish priests on which Carl O’Brien reports in yesterday’s Irish Times.  The Irish priests’ association criticizes the bishops’ gloating about the purported failure of the Mass boycott as unhelpful and “bordering on triumphalism,” and notes that Ms. Sleeman’s boycott gesture received “substantial support.”

The priests’ association also notes that the Irish bishops are missing a significant point—that is, that “women are at present excluded from many ministries and from all forms of decision-making.”  And it’s important, in the view of Irish priests who have formed this new association, that the church “remain in respectful dialogue with such women [i.e., with those calling for dialogue about the disparity in how the Catholic church treats men and women].”

The new Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland held its inaugural meeting on 15 September, with a turnout six times larger than expected, so that the group had to meet in a different location than it had originally chosen for its organizational meeting.  As Cian Molloy of Catholic News Service reports in U.S. Catholic (and in National Catholic Reporter), the priests’ association published its agenda in the current issue of the  theological journal The Furrow.

The association opposes the new Vatican-mandated English translation of the liturgy, noting that it is being imposed top-down without consultation, that it is clumsy and defective, that the vast majority of laity and clergy on whom it is being imposed do not want it, and that it is seeking to fix a problem that does not exist.  In addition, the priests’ association seeks to work for

. . . full implementation of the vision and teaching of the Second Vatican Council, with special emphasis on: the primacy of the individual conscience, the status and active participation of all the baptized and the task of establishing a church where all believers will be treated as equal; a restructuring of the governing system of the church ... encouraging a culture of consultation and transparency, particularly in the appointment of church leaders; a re-evaluation of Catholic sexual teaching and practice that recognizes the profound mystery of human sexuality.

In my view, the priests’ association’s critique of the triumphalism of official Catholic communications like the Irish bishops’ statement that Ms. Sleeman’s Mass boycott was ineffective is right on target.  This is one of the primary points I wanted to make about the similarly triumphalistic reporting of the mainstream Catholic media about the purported stunning success of the papal visit.

Success measured, that is, in sheer numbers: Catholics standing six deep along the streets of London . . . . As I noted in my postings critiquing mainstream Catholic media coverage of the recent papal visit (and here) and my subsequent posting about Mary Lee Settle, Roger Williams, and Cardinal Newman, there’s an immature and morally obtuse numbers game going on in these gloating macho media reports about how big the numbers are and how well the hardball numbers game is being played.

As my own comments about the overflowing crowds that attended the first meeting of the new Irish priests’ association indicate, one can play with numbers in all kinds of ways.  Ultimately, the success of an organization like the priests’ association, or of a Mass boycott, or of a papal visit, doesn’t depend on how many people line the streets six deep to cheer a celebrity.

In the case of religious leaders, it depends, instead, on how astute and sincere they are about addressing valid and serious ethical concerns expressed by a wide range of people of good will.  It depends on who their friends are, on whom they’re willing to collaborate with as they pursue goals to which they want to spur their followers as ethically desirable goals.

It depends on the coherence of their public actions with the message they preach.

If religious leaders want to talk about respect for the human rights of all, then they need to live that respect, if they intend to be taken seriously.  In the information-driven age in which we are now living, it is increasingly difficult, for instance, for Catholic leaders to make the case that they support human rights for all, when they collude with groups like the ethically slippery National Organization for Marriage in its attacks on the humanity and human rights of a targeted minority.  It’s increasingly difficult to hide the fleas hopping all over one’s high-flown ethical proclamations, when a few google searches can easily allow anyone capable of googling to discover the dogs with which one lay down prior to issuing said ethical proclamations.

And it’s increasingly difficult for Catholic leaders to convince the world that they have the human rights of women at heart, when they continue to participate in gross discrimination against women in the church itself.  And no amount of boasting about how my numbers are bigger than yours, or about papal fanfare with shouting crowds six deep, is going to alter the growing perception of many people of good will, including many Catholics, that in the area of human rights, the church’s own behavior today radically and spectacularly undercuts its moral teaching.

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