Meanwhile, another group had organised a parallel conference called “The Conference for Catholic Families”. This is a movement that was set up in opposition to what some see as the liberalising influences of Pope Francis on church teaching. These groups represent some of the complexities and conflicts in the Roman Catholic Church today.
For many of us though, the question towering over all others is that of how the Catholic Church’s leaders will respond to yet more evidence of a catastrophic failure with regard to the abuse crisis. This manifests itself most shockingly in the sexual abuse of children, but it extends far more widely than that. There is a perception among many Catholics of a high degree of arrogance from some senior members of the clergy in their dealings with the laity, especially women, and in their responses to allegations of abuse. John Allen, a respected commentator on Catholic affairs in the US media, says, “there’s a deep grassroots anger out there, a sense among ordinary Catholics that the status quo isn’t cutting it and those in charge have failed.”
Pope Francis has been unrelenting in his condemnation of clericalism, which in a recent letter he blames for the abuse crisis. He begged for forgiveness when he said Mass in Ireland yesterday. Cardinal Vincent Nichols wrote a letter to the clergy in Westminster Diocese last week, also expressing his deep sense of shame and taking personal responsibility for the evil that has been done and the trust that has been betrayed.
I have no doubt about the sincerity of these men, yet Eliza Doolittle’s lament comes to mind: “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words!” There is no point in asking clerics alone to solve the problem of clericalism. That can only be changed by the action of lay people in the Catholic Church, and thousands of lay Catholics are saying “no more”.
The Christian faith is about the Word made flesh. Faith without works is empty, says the author of the Book of James in the New Testament. In the same way, words without deeds are empty. Writing letters of apology, however abject and sincere, is not enough.
I love the Catholic Church. It’s my spiritual home, and the Eucharist is my food for life’s journey. But what we have learned from the response of ordinary people to the Pope’s visit to Ireland is that growing numbers of Catholics from around the world are insisting on change. They’re not leaving, but they’re not keeping quiet. Like those rainbow-coloured demonstrators on the Ha’Penny Bridge, they are standing up and speaking out.