Issues of Justice, Leadership and Authority in the Church

The church has a long tradition of engaging with issues of social justice. We have come to expect that it will be an advocate for the disadvantaged and those excluded or on the edge of society and will criticise structural injustice wherever it comes to light. The recent uncovering of injustice of the most appalling kind within the church diminishes, for some, even the prophetic voices and actions of those most committed to justice. It disheartens everyone, lay and priest alike. This article touches on some issues relating to justice, leadership and authority in the church and considers some signs of hope for a way forward.

It gave great heart to see and hear the participation of Bishop Kirby in the recent anti-war demonstration in Dublin. Whether or not you agreed with his position, there was no doubt about where he stood and why. The exercise of leadership by an appointed church leader in this way – being with people and speaking publicly on an issue concerning them in great numbers – was appreciated by many.

People are often surprised to learn that bishops were not always virtual strangers to their communities. Church communities did not always first become acquainted with their leaders via a photo or CV in the newspaper, or on radio or television.  Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, describing the practice in the third century tells us: ‘All the local community with its clergy chooses its own bishop, and the person who is called must in principle accept the choice of his own free will. This happened, for example, to Ambrose and Augustine.’i

Seeking Justice.

Today in Ireland the sense of moral outrage about the issues connected with clerical sexual abuse among Catholics is palpable.ii There cannot but be anger and hurt in the face of the damage done to so many by those who held our trust. There cannot but be anger with those leaders who failed to take right action and, in some instances, actively covered up the wrong, compounding this in their treatment of victims who complained. The victims of clerical sexual abuse need to be heard again and again. And it needs to be repeated that what has defied understanding and blown down our notions of how we are in our church is not just the sexual abuse of children but the response of the appointed leaders of the community – our bishops. The question of those with authority being unwilling or unable to do the right thing remains at the core of the immense credibility gap facing the Irish Church today.
However, actively or passively causing hurt because of the absence of the will to do the right thing, or deliberately doing wrong, and incompetence resulting in wrong actions in the face of crisis are not the same thing. For this reason to judge too quickly, or to condemn all our church leaders indiscriminately is merely to add to the injustices.

The courage of the victims who have come forward has been inspiring. Furthermore the service done by some investigative journalists is a debt that we cannot repay. Less than inspiring has been the contribution of some other journalists and commentators who have treated the issue in an irresponsible manner. Justice needs to be seen to be done by the church and by the state. There is no denying that the hierarchies in several countries, our own included, have been dragged, inch by painful and incredible inch, toward acknowledging responsibility and to the beginning of reparation. But you don’t vindicate the rights of one person or group by trampling on the rights of another.

Priests and religious accused of such an evil as child sexual abuse have surely the same right to respond to the charges as any other putative criminal. And there have been cases of false accusations. The inciting of a kind of mob rule by inaccurate or accurate reporting, or the vilification and demonising of sick or simply bad persons, serves none of us well. Human beings capable of the most appalling evil remain none the less human. Like it or not we share more with them than would ever radically divide us. It is understandable that people, journalists included, want and need to express their anger. But even journalists must sometimes consider the possible outcomes of their use of words and images, and, if passionate belief in justice is really their motivation then this must extend to the person who may be wrongly accused – and no less to the one who is rightly accused and rightly convicted. This is the basis on which our society believes itself to work, and the standard to which most of us would want society to aspire were we ourselves accused of criminal behaviour, or indeed guilty of it.

Other issues of justice within the church should not be overlooked. For instance reports some two years of the Dublin Diocesan Women’s Forum and of the Forum for Catholic Women (Belfast) recount how, for many women, the annulment process involves experience of rejection, alienation, and abandonment by the church they believe in and want to belong to.  Individual stories, about how people have experienced the annulment tribunal, make pathetic listening as they recount long years of waiting for their case to be heard and their very real sense of injustice at the hands of our church.iii  These people feel they are the forgotten ones, the marginalized. And we do well to remember that these are the voices of those who have begun to speak.  This injustice too, within our church, is compounded by the fact that too many people have no voice. They have neither the possibility nor the capacity to become involved in lengthy costly and complex procedures, due to lack of money, or education or emotional or psychological strength or stamina or, most often, a combination of these factors.


There is a group which carries considerable responsibility in all of this, and who have for the most part avoided the limelight. The appointers of bishops are, to most of us, nameless. Without addressing the issue of the rightness or wrongness of the current system of appointment, its outcome, as experienced in the Irish Church, is far from satisfactory. This is not to suggest that Irish bishops have no responsibility for their actions, but rather to acknowledge that those who appoint others to senior positions in any organisation carry a share of the responsibility.

Irish Catholics, lay and ordained alike, have for centuries shown great loyalty to their church and to its Roman central leadership, often in times of considerable hardship and at great personal and collective cost. This loyalty to the institution has been taken for granted in a seemingly cavalier way in recent years. It seems as though Rome has lost interest in the people who are the Irish Catholic Church. And, in response, many of those people have returned the compliment. In his book Changed Utterly: Ireland and the New Irish Psyche, Michael O’Connell, using several sources such as Eurostat Yearbook 2000, and the Eurobarometer Survey Series of the European Commission, points out several significant changes which have had a destabilising affect on society and on the church. Some examples are changes in demography, the decline in marriage, the increase in marriage breakdown, the increase in non-marital pregnancy, changing attitudes to sexuality and alternative lifestyles, the declining trust in religious institutions alongside the increased trust in business institutions. Yet the importance of religion, and attendance at church, although declining, is considerably higher among Irish respondents than it is among their European counterparts.iv Despite this it seems that we do not merit being taken seriously by decision makers in Rome, and that the appointment of leaders of our church community has had more to do with some notion of preserving a façade of something long gone than with the real situation of the people who are the Catholic Church in Ireland today.

Keeping in touch with our young, and not so young, people and offering any meaningful guidance through this time of change has been an extraordinarily challenging task for parents, teachers, politicians, and leaders in general. We need the best people we can get for the task in hand. The leadership in the Catholic Church, as presently constituted, has time and again shown itself to be unequal to the task. The bishops’ handling of the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse has been the most shocking aspect of the whole terrible series of events. They have shown themselves to be either unwilling or unable to respond adequately to the reality, even at the fundamental level of relating to people in their care. Without doubt there are exceptions at the individual and personal level but this is not enough given the seriousness of the issue and the fact that the whole church is so deeply affected by it. It is a mater of considerable frustration that, over a period of thirty years or more, some of the most intellectually capable and morally courageous of our Irish priests have been sidelined, leaving the void in leadership that has proved so costly.

Priests who have been deprived of leadership in the church despite their obvious talents may or may not be aggrieved at their situation. Those of us who are deprived of their talents, intellectual or pastoral, feel aggrieved at our own situation, at the fact that we know we are deprived of much intelligent, compassionate and caring leadership which could and should have been ours. This has been compounded by the failure to allow lay leadership to emerge. The despair among many priests and lay people about the state of the church at the present time is frequently, if not publicly, articulated. Among many of those who remain in the church, there are concerns about a number of questions. They include the participation of lay men and women at more than consultative level (a revival of the deaconate for example), the ordination of women, sexual morality, marriage, divorce and annulment and who is excluded, and why, from full participation in the Eucharist. Many have simply stopped participating; the energy being drained from them by ‘hanging in’ is simply too much and the effort to try and be positive in such a climate is beyond many people of good will.


In the New Testament we can see that among the reasons that people listened to Jesus and followed him was that he spoke with authority. ‘The people were amazed at his teaching; unlike their scribes he taught with authority.’ (Matthew 7,29.) The account of the cure of the paralysed man ends ‘the people were filled with awe at the sight and praised God for granting such authority to men.’ (Matthew 9,6) Later he called the twelve and ‘gave them authority to drive out unclean spirits and to cure every kind of illness and infirmity.’(Matthew 10,1) What kind of authority was this? It can’t have been based on a formal office of leadership since he belonged to no organisation. In the gospel accounts the authority of Jesus is not about keeping a system in place, keeping people in line or enforcing systems or rules. It was the authority of integrity, of truth, of understanding and of love. This is this kind of authority that we are invited to share.

What is this authority for? How should it be exercised? Jesus’ view of authority could not have been expressed more clearly. ‘You know that among the Gentiles the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and the great make their authority felt. It should not be so with you; among you whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For the Son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10, 42-45) Authority then, in the Christian understanding, is not for high-handed lording it over others, for making people jump to do what the one in authority orders. Clearly authority is for the service of others.

Service implies the meeting of needs or wants of others in some way, including challenging and inspiring them. In this context the person with authority will exercise the power invested in them to meet the needs of those they have undertaken to serve, perhaps especially the needs of the hurt, the weakest, and those who cannot easily present their needs. Surely it also implies the excluding of vested interests when exercising such authority? In the Christian understanding authority as service is not about an impersonal rendering of services. In John’s Gospel, at the last supper gathering, (Ch.13), Jesus, the master of the disciples, washed the feet of each of them in turn, ‘wiping them with the towel that girded him.’ In telling his disciples to do likewise, to wash one another’s feet, Jesus drives home the essential link between participation in the meal and the notion of service, and this mutual service is one key to understanding the church as a communion.

The absence of this sense of communion is evident in the way that priests, bishops and the pope often use a vocabulary of service accompanied by behaviour patterns of power and exclusion.v Obvious examples here are the experience of many women who are prevented from exercising particular talents on the basis of gender, or the experience of gay and lesbian Christians who are more often considered as objects of pastoral concern than subjects, active in and for the church.

All Christians are called to service, but those in authority have the opportunity to be far more influential in the scope of their service – or in their failure to serve. In this context an article by Gordon Deegan in the Irish Times (22/03/03) is worthy of note. It points out that priests in the diocese of Killaloe have expressed misgivings over the mismanagement of the church. The newspaper report did not include details of whether others in the diocese, sisters, lay men and women, young people, shared their misgivings. None the less the short extracts from the draft, Pastoral Plan for Killaloe Diocese 2003, reproduced in this article suggest that the seeds of real change in the church may at last have taken tentative root. The Plan, according to Deegan, records how priests feel a sense of being ‘abandoned and unsupported’ by the church, and that the church ‘has not provided the necessary leadership and direction to find a way forward’. They acknowledge that they have not received the formation to equip them for the situation they are in. Equally significantly, ‘They know that they cannot deal with this issue on their own, and that the future lies in teamwork among priests and laity, but they do not feel equipped themselves to develop this to the level that is needed.’

Direct and public criticism of the leadership has not been a notable feature of the formal reflection of priests of any diocese, whatever may be known through the grapevine or the content of private conversations or contexts. Although we do not know the names of the priests who contributed to the plan I am grateful for their frankness. This too took courage. The stepping out from the silent acceptance of whatever the leadership puts forward must be welcomed by all who care about the fate of the Irish church, lay and priest alike. Their criticism is direct and public but it is also constructive and loyal to the teaching of Vatican Council II in its acknowledgement that the future of the church involves lay and ordained together, working as a team. This recognition of interdependence is a sign of hope for the future. Many poems and stories from the past in Ireland recount how people have needed their priests. Now some priests at least know that they need us too, and we all know that we need leaders, men and women, lay and ordained, who can bring us beyond the place where we are now. This could be the beginning of a new solidarity.

Solidarity: A Way Forward

Can we extend this solidarity to the leaders we criticise? I believe so. Being in solidarity with someone or some group does not mean that you agree with everything they say and do. It does not mean that you do not continue to voice objection to what you judge to be wrong or mistaken action, nor that you should not speak out in the face of it. You can be shocked at, and hurt by, and outraged at, and disappointed with someone, and still be in solidarity with them. Solidarity does mean that you let them know that basically you are for them and with them at the fundamental human level. And where they are obviously struggling it requires you to offer some practical support – something to help change the situation. It goes without saying that solidarity is at its best when it is reciprocal, when the parties realise that they are interdependent, that they need each other. The priests in Killaloe have set a new standard, which may progress from the grassroots upwards. Karl Rahner, one of the most renowned theologians of the last century, wrote in 1967 that the church of the future will be a ‘church of the grassroots’, ‘a listening church’. We can hope that he will be proved

One part of the way forward might be a Synod or Council of the Irish church in which as many as possible of the groups within the church would be represented. This would help to focus the resources of the local church on some of the burning issues of our time. It is likely that, if all groups within the church were invited to participate, new leaders both lay and ordained would emerge, and relationships between laity, religious and clergy would be enhanced by the very teamwork that the priests of Killaloe diocese are seeking. The combined expertise and experience of men and women, young and older, priest, religious and lay, discussing the issues of our time, and learning together, could then inform the authority of office in such a way that all might better serve in that spirit of humility and shared enterprise characterised by the one whose vision of justice, leadership, and authority is our model.


i Edward Schillebeeckx, The Church With the Human Face, London: SCM Press, 1985, p.134.
ii See Angela Hanley, ‘Moral Outrage – a Gospel Value?’ in Doctrine and Life, Feb. 2003, p.78.
iii The reports of the Dublin Diocesan Women’s Forum and of the Forum for Catholic Women (Belfast) are unpublished to date.
iv Michael O’Connell, Changed Utterly: Ireland and the New Irish Psyche, Dublin: Liffey Press, 2001, 59-73.
v See Remy Parent, A Church of the Baptized, New York: Paulist Press, 1987, p.83.
vi Karl Rahner, The Shape of the Church to Come, London/New York 1974