Forgiveness, Repentance, & The Pope

Last weekend Pope Francis was in Ireland for the World Meeting Of Families. With such a title, it’s no surprise that the Pope took every opportunity to encourage and emphasise the importance of the family. But if you only saw the news, you’ll wonder what families had to do with it, because the media and internet were only interested in the Pope’s words as far as he addressed the terrible abuses of Catholic power in Ireland.

This, of course, is understandable. Ireland is a nation with strong historic ties to Catholicism, but it is also a nation traumatised by unspeakable abuse at the hands of far too many in positions of Church authority. To make a terrible situation even worse, leaders who held the power to stop the abusers worked instead to protect their own, leaving a trail of suffering and disillusionment behind. So it’s little wonder that the most discussed aspect of the Pope’s visit to Ireland is his response to these open wounds. As Pope Francis himself said,

“I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the Church charged with responsibility for their protection and education.”

Cannot fail, indeed: The issue is far too large to ignore. He had to say something. In fact, he touched on the subject several times, expressing his sorrow, shame and outrage, and even asking for forgiveness:

“…I wish to implore the Lord’s mercy for these crimes and to ask forgiveness for them. We ask forgiveness for the cases of abuse in Ireland, the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse on the part of representatives of the Church…”

Forgiveness. If ever there was a thoroughly Christian virtue, this is it. The entire Christian faith is build on the costly forgiveness of our sinful rebellion against God through the blood of Christ. And this vertical forgiveness is supposed to work its way out in our horizontal relationships with each other as well. Jesus himself made it clear that if we cannot forgive each other, we have no business claiming to know his forgiveness.

And yet.

This?

What about justice for those who have been so deeply wronged? Crimes have been committed. Can forgiveness really just brush over them with a bit of white paint and call it a day? What will be done about the rottenness underneath? Thankfully, the Pope recognised that there is more to the story when he ended his prayer for forgiveness this way:

“May the Lord preserve and increase this sense of shame and repentance, and grant us the strength to ensure that it never happens again and that justice is done. Amen.”

Repentance. If ever there was a thoroughly Christian virtue, this is it. It is the unqualified admission of wrong, the recognition of a need to change direction, and the the act of doing so. According to the Bible, no one can receive God’s forgiveness without it. God is certainly willing and able to forgive anyone of any wrong, no matter how horrible, and he does not even require payment. He paid the high price himself on the cross, and it is enough. But there is a requirement that still remains: We must admit our wrong, renounce our rebellion, and turn away from our life lived in selfish independence from God, turning instead to live a God-centered life fueled by strength that God himself supplies. This is repentance.

There is no doubt that Pope Francis drew on excellent words during his visit to Ireland: repentance, justice, forgiveness. But words are not enough. What the nation needs now is a living example of what true repentance looks like. When the cheating tax collector Zacchaeus met Jesus and repented in the gospels, he did not stop at asking forgiveness from those he had stolen from. He gave the money back, times four! The Catholic Church right now has an opportunity to show Ireland and the world that repentance means more than just saying sorry. But to do this, it will take more than well-chosen words on a weekend visit: We need to see a Church that is so committed to the healing of those she has hurt that she would spare no expense and shy away from no humiliation in her quest to make things right. We need to see people who have done wrong coming forward, willing to take the full legal consequences for their crimes and make what restitution they can. We need to see a hierarchy actively and aggressively bringing dark deeds into the light and dealing with them in justice. In other words, we need to see a Church that takes repentance seriously. Not only with words, but with a true change of direction away from self-protection and towards giving herself for the sake of others.

Jesus preached a message of repentance often during his ministry on earth. The Catholic hierarchy has an opportunity right now to show the world what he meant.

Is Ireland Free?

There is a dispute opening up in Ireland between the government and Catholic hospitals, who have recently said they have a moral objection to performing abortions. The government, who is working now to legislate for abortion, has responded that hospitals who receive public funds must follow the law of the land, and that only individuals can be recognized as having the ability to hold conscientious objections. In saying this, the government seems to have forgotten that hospitals are not merely buildings full of inhuman healing machines, but are rather associated groups of individuals – individuals who do in fact hold moral beliefs. The government has also ignored the precedent set in 44 States in America, the American Medical Association, and a 2010 resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stating that “No person, hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion.”

What these allowances recognize is the fact that groups of people are (not surprisingly) still people. If a union of government employees, living off government money, agrees to demand higher wages or better working conditions, their desires are not disqualified from being real desires simply because they are presenting them as a union. If an aid organization who receives government grants decides to challenge the government on their work policy for refugees, their moral concerns are not invalidated by the fact that they are holding them together as an organization. As a more direct example, let’s say the Irish government builds a charity hospital (with some funding from the host country) in a place where female genital mutilation is the law of the land. Will the government of Ireland submit to provide this service in their hospital? Will their moral objection be disqualified because, as a government, they are acting as a group so cannot be said to have a conscience? No. Yet if the government reserves for itself the right to hold moral opinions, how can it deny the same to other groups? It seems that in every case except this one, we recognize that groups of people are still people who can hold opinions, moral beliefs, and yes, even have conscience.

Ordering Catholic hospitals to provide what they believe is the intentional destruction of innocent children turns out to be no less tyrannical than ordering the doctors individually, because in ordering the group you are in fact only ordering individual people after all. Is it really so surprising that a group who associated itself for the express purpose of healing has an objection to being told it must destroy? Would a truly free and tolerant society enforce such a thing with all the weight of government power? Can Ireland continue to call itself a free republic if we limit when and where people are allowed to have a conscience?

What’s New About New Ireland?

Hello! My name is Seth, and I live on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland. Ever since I was a child I have found that writing is the best way for me to collect my thoughts and process what I see and experience, so I’ve done a lot of it. I find that the world is a bottomless depth of wonder and intrigue, and this blog is a small attempt to scratch my way under the surface. So welcome to my new blog. These days, new things are usually considered to be the best things, so this might be the best blog you’ll read today. Anyway, it will almost certainly be the newest. And speaking of new-ness, you’ve probably heard more than a few people saying that the recent referendum landslide in favour of legalising abortion is proof that we are living in a New Ireland. No one denies it.

So what is new about New Ireland? First and foremost, New Ireland is Not Catholic. Except when she is.

According to exit polls, 74% of those who voted in the referendum described themselves as Catholic, although it’s obvious that a large percentage of these voted against Church teaching. This reflects the reality that although a strong majority of the Irish population is happy to participate in the rituals that have shaped Irish life for centuries, these rituals actually mask the real change in Ireland, which is not so much in Church participation as it is in Church authority. The change there has been drastic: the Church that used to have unquestioned authority over the halls of Irish power now has trouble asserting meaningful influence over the hearths of Irish homes. There are reasons for this, of course. The Church has shown Ireland that even those who dedicate their lives to God are not immune to the corrupting influence of power. Her power was shockingly abused by some of her leaders, and the Irish people rebelled in what our Taoiseach has called “a quiet revolution”. Although the majority of individuals in Ireland are still Catholic, the nation as a whole has set a new course. Ireland may be hung over on religion, but she is not listening to the Church anymore. New Ireland is not Catholic.

But defining things only by what they are Not isn’t enough. A black hole isn’t a planet, but it would help us more if we could figure out what it Is. New Ireland isn’t Catholic, but what Is it? Just like a black hole, it’s hard to say. So far, New Ireland seems determined to be as European as possible, substituting the goals and morality of Brussels in place of the hypocrisy she saw in Rome, and media presenters in place of the priests who used to teach her how to live. But New Ireland is still just that: New. New-ness comes with the smell of progress, by the simple virtue of being different from the broken past. But once the New has established herself firmly, her flaws will also become apparent, and it may turn out that they are not so very different from those of the broken past.

What was it, after all, that caused the fall of the Catholic Church’s power over Ireland? At the heart of it, there were selfish people, using power for selfish purposes. Will New Ireland be free from this? Don’t hold your breath. Examples already abound of bankers, politicians, and private citizens using whatever power they have for themselves alone. The question is: What can be done about it?

Old Ireland tried to cure selfishness by teaching people a system of rules to encourage them to submit themselves to God and sacrifice themselves for others – but the rules were not enough to stop some of her teachers from abusing the submission of others for their own selfish goals. In the end, we saw that rules alone couldn’t cure us. So New Ireland proposes a new and radically different solution. In fact, New Ireland completely re-frames the question: what if selfishness wasn’t the problem after all? What if the real problem was all the self-restrictive rules and talk about self-sacrifice, which made it impossible for the self to flourish freely? New Ireland proposes a new definition of the problem: we are suppressing ourselves. And so New Ireland proposes a new solution: the absolute freedom of self.

Who can argue with freedom?

Self-determination sounds incredibly liberating. The problem, of course, is that when we celebrate Self above all things, we end up selfish. If our personal freedom to make personal choices for our personal good is the ultimate goal of all things, than what is left to motivate us to give up any of these rights for the sake of the people around us? We find ourselves, in fact, right back at the very problem we were trying so hard to run away from: we become selfish people doing selfish things.

What we need is not more restrictive rules that try to mold the self from the outside. We’ve seen already that this doesn’t actually change our selfish hearts, it just makes us hypocrites.

What we need is not to liberate ourselves from all restrictive rules so that we can mold the world to suit ourselves. This will only make selfishness easier to act out, and harder for anyone to question.

What we desperately need is an entirely new self. There’s a reason Jesus said “You must be born again”. He knew that no external system, and no amount of external freedom, could cure us of our passionate, relentless, and yet ultimately self-destructive self-focus. His solution was the most radical of all: he gave up his own self entirely – even to death – to buy us the cure for our selfishness. He offers us an entirely new identity. An identity that places incalculable value on each individual self, while simultaneously re-focusing our eyes on Someone much bigger (and far more satisfying) than our tiny selves. Can we humble ourselves enough to stop staring at ourselves and start looking up? If we do, we’ll find that Jesus’ paradox is true:

“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”