A Theologian’s 12-step Recovery Program for the Church

Enda McDonagh is one of Ireland’s foremost theologians, with a particular interest in prayer through art and poetry. (I once attended a short retreat he led got our Soho Masses group, using this approach.) Now, he has turned his attention to the crisis of the Irish Church, and how it might regain the trust and respect of the Irish people. It needs, he says, something like a 12 step recovery program.

This could usefully be adapted for the wider, global church, too.

Theologian maps 12-step recovery for church

ONE OF Ireland’s most distinguished theologians has recommended a 12-step programme of recovery for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Fr Enda McDonagh, former professor of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, calls for the church leadership to repent more convincingly their failure “in dealing with the crimes of clerical and religious sexual abuse”.

He says “the intellectual weakness of the Irish Church will also require attention” in a contribution that, he says, was prompted by watching excerpts on the TV3 Tonight with Vincent Browne programme of the Catholic bishops’ press conference in Maynooth last Wednesday and, having attended the Tom Kilroy play Christ Deliver Us! at the Abbey Theatre earlier that evening.

The 12 steps are as follows:

“1. All Catholics must remember who the Irish Church is: the whole People of God in Ireland and that it is the whole People of God under the direction and by the energy of the Holy Spirit who will enable the Church to become a ‘recovering’ Church.

“2. Those in official leadership positions in the Church, bishops, clergy and religious, must acknowledge more openly and repent more convincingly the failure of that leadership over many years in dealing with the crimes of clerical and religious sexual abuse.

“3. The process of ‘recovery’ will only effectively start when serious and public involvement of the whole Church with the ‘abused’ and their representatives is initiated.

“4. This involvement may have to develop in stages among small groups at parish and diocesan level, using all the groupings available from parish councils to justice and peace groups to Legion of Mary presidia to ad hoc gatherings.

“5. The natural difficulty which many of the ‘abused’ may experience in accepting to attend such meetings should be greeted with loving patience and understanding.

“6. Bishops, priests and religious should encourage such meetings but should not attempt to dominate or manipulate them. The absence of episcopal or clerical encouragement or approval should not prevent the believing people from pursuing such initiatives. Neither should the continuing refusal of some of the abused to attend as long as some people expert or experienced in these matters participate. The understanding and energy generated by such meetings are also directed towards educating and energising the wider Irish Church .

“7. Critical to the value of these meetings is the growing understanding of the depths of the suffering and anger of the abused who were for so long rejected. The widespread anger at the official failures and the disillusionment of the faithful with the episcopal responses so far will also have to be exposed and explored.

“8. As much more openly repentant officials join the conversation the way to a recovery programme may be taken beyond the necessary guidelines in relation to clerical sex abuse and their implementation, beyond any talk of mismanagement and managerial reform to the radical restructuring in relationship and decision-making which the recovering Church will badly need.

“9. These meetings and discussions will also need to be nurtured by prayer, in particular prayer services at least sometimes of a penitential kind. However too quick and easy declarations of repentance and hasty requests for forgiveness and reconciliation will prove empty. There is a long and difficult path to tread here.

“10. The intellectual weakness of the Irish Church will also require attention in the path to recovery. Local and national theological ‘think tanks’ including experts from other disciplines and engaged lay people should be studying and promoting the various needs and possibilities of recovery based on the scriptures, the traditions, doctrines and the history of the Church and the insights of contemporary culture.

“11. Meantime regular sacramental worship and the practical works of charity and justice, of peace and care for environment at home and abroad, will continue to strengthen the convalescent church. These activities should include the practices of ecumenism as other Christian Churches come to our aid.

“12. At some stage the Irish Church as a whole, attentive to the gifts of the Spirit which its more localised gatherings have revealed, may be ready for a truly representative assembly. Only in such an assembly can the fruits of the earlier consultations be synthesised and stabilised.

“The ‘recovering’ Church for all its continuing fragility may be then enabled to address anew its divine mission to Irish society and the wider world.”

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