Personal reflections on the bishops and the Government

The Bishops, the Government and the Sacraments

I was quite surprised, indeed taken aback, when bishops first announced that they were going to ignore medical and governmental directives, and begin to celebrate the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation. 

The fact that among the early ones out of the traps were Elphin, Waterford and Meath made it a little less surprising. They would typically be the ones on the more conservative end of the hierarchy, and, especially with Elphin and Waterford, with a tendency to go it alone.

I believed from the beginning that it was a big mistake. To ignore official advice, and to begin celebrating events that potentially could put peoples’ health at risk, and could give cover to more extreme elements in our society, didn’t seem like a sensible thing for bishops to do.

The situation changed significantly when Dermot Farrell, Archbishop of Dublin, entered the fray in support of the others. A few things I observed about his statement. It was quite confrontational, seeming to want to provoke direct conflict with the government. That was even more strange when, having told his priests that they could begin to celebrate the sacraments in their parishes, he went on to say that his preference would be to wait until September or October. This seemed to be in agreement with what the medical and civil authorities were asking the Church to do. So, what exactly was this dispute about, what was the precise issue? There was, I think, a clue in the language he used. He referred to what he called ‘the Merrion bash’. That was, I thought, the sort of language that would be normal for an opposition politician, or for some media commentators, but didn’t seem to me to be appropriate for someone in his position. 

He complained about not being consulted, that the Church was not being treated with the respect it deserved. In my view that was a very unwise line to take. After all, he is a senior figure in an institution that has dominated, and to a large extent controlled, Irish life for most of the last century. It made him sound that he was piqued that he no longer had that power and control. Also, that same institution doesn’t have a great record in consulting people. It is a pyramidal structure, completely controlled by male clergy. Nobody else has any say in decision making, least of all women. So maybe Church authorities are not in a great position to complain about lack of consultation.

So now it has become an open battle between the bishops and the government. There are indications as I write that the government, which is fairly weak, might concede and give the bishops what they are looking for. In which case they will have won the battle, but, I believe, will decidedly lose the war. The Church still controls the management of the great majority of schools, and teaching the faith and preparing for the sacraments is being done in the schools. This cannot last. I would love if the bishops would be proactive, and move on handing over the schools to the state, and relocating instruction in the faith and preparation for the sacraments to family and parish level. But the indications from this dispute are that they are going to hold on to their power and control in education for as long as they can. This again, I believe, is a major mistake.

My last point, and the one I have mostly focused on in my media interventions over the past few days, is that the present way of celebrating First Communion and Confirmation leaves a lot to be desired. And that is a fact that almost everyone accepts, but the bishops do not seem to recognise. The large majority of the parents of today’s candidates for these sacraments are not committed to the Catholic faith, or to attendance at church. And the celebration of the sacraments is often followed by a major social event, and the collection of substantial amounts of money by the young person. I think it is fair to say that the spiritual dimension of these events is minuscule, or non-existent, for most of those who take part. This only serves to trivialise, even demean, the sacraments. If I was a bishop I definitely would not be fighting with the government for the right to perform these ceremonies. I would be glad to see them abolished, and replaced by a preparation done in the parish and family, which would involve only those who really believed. This is especially true of the sacrament of Confirmation. That sacrament is meant to be the occasion on which a person, having reached the stage in life when they can make personal decisions, would commit themselves to living the Christian life. How could anyone say that what happens in our churches at a confirmation ceremony with a class of eleven and twelve year olds bears any semblance of that? It doesn’t.

So there are a lot of issues around these sacraments that urgently need to be attended to by Church authorities, and would be much more fruitful than provoking confrontations with medical and civil authorities.