Thursday, 6 September 2007

"Let the children come to me!..... Oh, and bring your baptism cert!"

"The Catholic education system has been far-seeing and has provided Catholic schools for Catholic parents. We have done our job, if there are others who are left without schools they should not blame us."…Archbishop Diarmuid Martin….Irish Times 6th September 2007

The current debate on school enrolment policies sparked by the shortage of places in our national schools for non Roman Catholics and the new Irish has once again brought matters religious into the headlines. The Roman Catholic Church finds itself accused of discrimination and is not surprisingly uncomfortable and unhappy with the defensive position it has been cornered into. In the interests of fairness it should be said that the Church of Ireland could equally be accused of this discrimination and perhaps has only escaped censure because of its small size and perceived vulnerability. Its enrolment policies are largely equivalent, giving priority to Church of Ireland students and only allocating places to children from other traditions when all Church of Ireland children have been placed.

The Archbishop’s response as reported in the Irish Times clearly articulates his frustration at taking the hit for a lack of forward planning in the Department of Education. However there are other voices within the Roman Catholic Church who seem to have a very different understanding of the Church’s responsibility in the sphere of education. Most notable among these is Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe who for some years has overseen a very different enrolment policy in the schools under his patronage. Between 5 & 10% of places in the diocesan schools are reserved for the Traveller community and non Roman Catholics. It seems Bishop Walsh has a much more generous view of the responsibility of the Church.

The way in which the two Bishops have responded to this aspect of the increasing cultural and religious diversity in Irish society represents both sides of a fundamental debate that is going on in all Christian denominations. How does the Church perceive its relationship to the world in which it finds itself?

It is clear that Archbishop Martin sees the extent of the Church’s responsibility as largely defined by membership of the Church. While he has provided temporary patronage to schools catering for the new Irish he does not see this as part of his responsibility. He is right not to let the State off the hook for the provision of universal education but his vision of “Catholic schools for Catholic parents” is very telling. It is very much in harmony with the recent State of the Nation sermon delivered by Archbishop Brady at Knock. Underlying that wide ranging and much commented upon sermon was a very insular model of Church. The theme seemed to be that the Church will flourish despite the world and that the Church is a safe refuge from the shallowness of the increasingly secular society. There was an unspoken assumption in the sermon that the Roman Catholic Church and the domain of God were interchangeable and overall a very pessimistic notion of the world beyond the Church, quite out of sync with an incarnational faith! The assertion that the Church “holds the answer” is the final nail in the coffin for any notion of the Church engaging with the world, let alone serving the world. If we have the answer why bother looking beyond ourselves? It may be of course that there is another reason for this retreat from the world and that is the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church in recent years and contributed to a rising tide of anti-religious sentiment. If so it is understandable but not necessarily a positive or appropriate response

But not all Bishops see it this way and Bishop Walsh’s vision seems to reflect a view of Church that exists for others and not simply for itself and its own membership. It is not as tidy a vision of the Church as the ‘traditional’ one. The boundaries are not so clear and the sphere of responsibility of the Church seems to be more open ended, but underlying this vision is a much more positive attitude towards the world and a greater optimism for the world beyond the boundaries that the Church might wish to build around itself. It is a more humble Church more comfortable in operating in spheres where it does not have control or even desire control. It is a Church which is not about boundaries but bridges; not about division but reconciling.

But what about other churches? The Anglican Communion to which I belong finds itself in an almost identical tension. In the current debate on human sexuality it is dangerous to generalize about the motivations driving the conservative and liberal elements within the Communion. However one of the major fault lines is between those who see the Church as a refuge of purity and perfection and those who see it as a hospital for the broken and damaged people that make up the richness and diversity of humanity. The former is a place for those who wish to avoid the contamination of the world and use sanitizer spray to wash their hands when they have to engage with the world outside the Church; the latter is a place where hands get dirty and stay dirty; where the Church brings hope into the world rather than projecting hope beyond the world. It is messy but it is Incarnation!

In the current climate of militant secularism and anti-religious sentiment it may be tempting to follow Archbishops Brady and Martin in retreat to base camp but the only choice for a Church that wants to be true to its calling is to follow Bishop Walsh’s example and rediscover the edginess of the Gospel in pilgrimage through and conversation with the world. To do otherwise is to become a church that exists for itself alone and so loose that very thing that makes it ‘Church’! As Jesus Christ is so often described “The man for others” so the Church is called to exist for others and not for itself! The only way that the Church can overcome the cynicism and negativity it is experiencing today is to demonstrate that it is not about self-preservation and control but rather about selfless Love and liberation.


Allen said...

It saddens me that sectarianism seems to be used a defensive tool against the so called "outside world".

As Bishop Tutu professes "God loves everyone. ALL. Protestant, catholic, black, white, gay, straight, Muslim, Hindu. ALL!" To say as a Christian that you are only interested in looking after your own denomination is hypocritical to say the least.

What happened to “Love your neighbor as yourself”?

What gets to me is that there are so many lost people out there. People who are so unhappy with the secular world and what is has to offer. The vacuous offerings of the consumer driven world causes so much suffering in our world. When are our Churches going to learn the gospel message of love and open their arms to loving all?

Stephen Neill said...

Allen - You have summed up exactly what I was trying to say but with a much greater economy of words :-)