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Little institutional support for intellectual debate in the Church

By Sarah Mac Donald - 16 June, 2016

Fr. Brendan Hoban, PP., Ballina. Picture: Henry Wills, Western People.

Fr. Brendan Hoban, PP., Ballina. Picture: Henry Wills, Western People.

Co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, Fr Brendan Hoban, has expressed frustration over the intimidation exerted by a Catholic ‘stasi’ that seeks to “psychologically bludgeon anyone who doesn’t agree with them”.

Writing in his weekly column for the Western People, the Co Mayo parish priest focused on recent comments made by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin about the lack of ‘people of intellect who can address the pressing issues of the day’ in the Church in Ireland and the need for ‘competent lay men and women well educated in their faith’.

According to Fr Hoban, part of the problem is that there is little if any acceptance in the leadership of the Church for the free flow of ideas, “still less for those who might robustly challenge a given wisdom”.

He said the record so far suggests that only those who “unambiguously and uncritically defend the status quo are entitled to be heard” and that “only those who dismiss the critical voices are regarded as being inside the fold”.

Real intellectuals tend not to see the Catholic Church as an institution encouraging open debate

Elsewhere he said part of the reason why the ‘lay’ Catholic intellectual is an endangered species in Irish life is that ‘clerical’ intellectuals are often the subject of undue pressure to bend their views.

Referring to the Irish priests censured by the Vatican, he said the fact that some of them were effectively explaining in ordinary words the insights of theologians and biblical scholars and were ‘silenced’ because of that was “an embarrassment beyond words”.

“They ended up as the equivalent of sacrificial lambs hunted down by the Catholic ‘stasi’ … who wouldn’t know their theological arm from their elbow,” he hit out.

Fr Hoban said the difficult truth is that there is little institutional support for intellectual debate in the Catholic Church “as distinct from cheer-leaders”.

Recalling Archbishop Martin’s reference to Cardinal Newman, whom Pope Benedict XVI admired and beatified in 2010, the Archbishop quoted the Pope Emeritus’ comment that ‘The service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing subjects of the day’.

However, Fr Hoban said what Benedict XVI remembers is the public protagonist who intellectually argued his way into Catholicism but Newman holding the Catholic Church up to the light has virtually disappeared from the Catholic record, he said.

Expressing his agreement with Archbishop Martin in his views about the place of the Church in the current social and political discussion in Ireland, and the possibility of it becoming increasingly marginal, Fr Hoban said he shared his frustration with ‘negative political commentary’, with a ‘neo-clerical Church, focused just on priests’ and with religious media which are often ‘reduced to mere blogs of clerical gossip’.

However, he underlined that the problem is that if bishops or priests or intelligent ‘lay’ Catholics are not prepared to reflectively engage in the public market-place then that space is left open to “obsessive Catholic extremists who seek to psychologically bludgeon anyone who doesn’t agree with them – and do untold damage to the Catholic faith in Ireland – and to religious media who often seem more anxious to protect their pockets than to engage with the realities of faith in the world.”

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