In a frank and very honest assessment of the future of the Irish Catholic Church, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, makes some very interesting comments about the state of the church, the nature of Catholic education, and how that the Scriptures need to play a more central role in the life of the church.
He sets out clearly the reasons for his current sense of discouragement:
Why am I discouraged? The most obvious reason is the drip-by-drip never-ending revelation about child sexual abuse and the disastrous way it was handled. There are still strong forces which would prefer that the truth did not emerge. The truth will make us free, even when that truth is uncomfortable. There are signs of subconscious denial on the part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up. There are other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened. There are worrying signs that despite solid regulations and norms these are not being followed with the rigour required.
Many people in Ireland and across the world will understand why these matters would cause him to be discouraged. But he goes on to outline another reason which may actually begin to point in a different direction and may begin to address the underlying causes of widespread sinful behaviour within our culture and even among those who claim to follow Christ.
The second and deeper root of my discouragement is that I do not believe that people have a true sense of the crisis of faith that exists in Ireland. We have invested in structures of religious education which despite enormous goodwill are not producing the results that they set out to do. Our young people are among the most catechised in Europe but among the least evangelised. (my underlining)
What Archbishop Martin seems to be saying is that in spite of all the apparent Christian teaching and education that has gone on in Ireland among Catholics, it has not resulted in the changed hearts and lives which the Gospel of Christ calls for. It is possible for people to know a lot about religion without being changed by that teaching. Evangelism is about people not only hearing the message of Jesus, but about them responding in faith and repentance to that message, so that their hearts and lives are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Archbishop Martin continues to evaluate the situation in a way which may sound a bit surprising to some Protestant ears. He says that the moral teaching of the church is not adequately situated within the overall teaching of Jesus, and that Christian morality belongs within the broader context of the teaching of Jesus Christ. It is that broader context which appears to be lacking in the Catholic church in Ireland.
This immediately brings us to the deeper question about the level of understanding of the message of Jesus Christ which exists in our Catholic Church and in our society in Ireland today. What do we really know of the message of Jesus? The Irish Catholic tradition has greatly neglected the place of the scriptures. Catholics do not know the scriptures. They do not know how to use the scriptures. We do not take the time to encounter Jesus in the scriptures.
The traditional reformed critique of Roman Catholicism is that it has failed to endorse the reformation principle of sola scriptura, and by giving equal status to the authority of the church’s tradition alongside that of the Bible, it has in practice, marginalised the Bible and its message. Archbishop Martin seems to want to address this matter of biblical ignorance among Catholics by promoting the Bible, and he has a very positive and practical plan to do that.
One of the initiatives in which I place much trust in the pastoral programme of the Archdiocese of Dublin is the distribution this year of the Gospel of Saint Luke throughout the Archdiocese. I have said that I should really have charged one cent for each copy and then I would have been able to say that the Gospel had been sold and it might, therefore be at the top of the bestsellers list in Ireland this year. We have distributed 250,000 copies of the Gospel and we are backing the distribution up with e-mail support material month by month.
I believe that the encounter with the Jesus of the Gospel of Saint Luke could be an important answer in the process of healing which is needed by people who in the past encountered the Church as an insensitive, arrogant and dominating institution. I would appeal especially to those who say that they are disillusioned by the Catholic Church in Ireland as an institution but say also they still wish to share the message of Jesus, to take up the scriptures. They will not find the authentic message of Jesus simply on the talk shows.
Everyone should read the Bible, whatever their background. It is not only Irish Catholics who need the message of the Gospel of Luke. In spite of much Bible teaching, and easy accessibility to the scriptures, biblical knowledge is not at a high level in the Protestant community. And the talk shows and the media are not going to address the issue adequately. People must read the Scriptures for themselves.
But more than simply knowing what he Bible says, we need to be changed by the One of whom it speaks. The message of Christ is a grace-filled, life-transforming message which is accessed through the Bible and made effective in our lives by the Holy Spirit. Publishing, distributing and reading the written Word are helpful and important steps to us encountering and being changed by Jesus, who is the Living Word.
Archbishop Martin’s initiative is to be encouraged. Perhaps it may be the first step toward a new reformation in Ireland?