1994 FR Enda McDonagh

A 12-Step Recovery Programme for the Irish Catholic Church?

imageFr Enda McDonagh, former professor of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, has devised a 12-step recovery programme for the Irish Catholic Church. I’m not sure if some Catholics would be uncomfortable with what might be considered a comparison of the Irish Catholic Church with Alcoholics Anonymous. (Image of Clonmacnoise round tower from flickr photosharing site, by saintinexile)

But these are desperate times for a church that often appears that it cannot help itself.

McDonagh’s 12-step recovery programme was brought to my attention by a former student on our Masters in Reconciliation Studies, David Cahill, who pointed me to this article by Patsy McGarry in the  Irish Times. These are the 12 steps:

  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.

I think there is much wisdom in these 12 suggestions, many of which have been raised previously by McDonagh and others in the public sphere. However, the lack of meaningful action on the part of church leaders makes me seriously question if any of the ‘steps’ recommended for the hierarchy will ever be implemented.

That said, these 12 steps also suggest ways in which the laity – with or without the more distant members of the hierarchy – can go about healing each other and their ‘convalescent church.’

Keeping with the theme of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is also worth remembering the focus the programme has on creating an environment in which alcoholics will not return to their former ways. This includes an awareness of the past, but a refusal to be imprisoned by it. Irish Catholic Church, take note.