Two days ago the Catholic bishops of Scotland issued a statement on the Gender Recognition Bill which is presently working its way through the Scottish Parliament. Interestingly, the statement was not issued directly through the bishops’ own Twitter feed, but through that of the Archdiocese of Edinburgh. This Bill seeks to remove the need for medical agreement before a person is able to legally identify as a different gender and gain a certificate to this effect. It is perhaps the most contentious Bill the Scottish Parliament has looked at and debated, if the news since last night is anything to go by.
In their statement, the bishops note on two occasions their belief that “Children must be protected”.
Now, there are many who will agree with what the bishops say and the reasons they give, and there are also many who will disagree – each for their own particular reasons one way or the other.
However, what struck me was the public response to the statement.
It is well-summarised in this comment from a respondent – “Imagine being a catholic bishop and trying to talk about child safety”. Another respondent added – “We are gravely concerned by the church’s tendency to shelter child abusers on a regular basis. Perhaps deal with that.”
These two comments were a broad reflection of the response the statement garnered, at least on that particular platform. And they very clearly indicated a view – expressed so publicly – that Catholic bishops are perhaps not best-placed to offer lessons on morality and on the protection of children, given their collective culpability in the clerical sexual abuse crisis which has so devastated the Church over the past thirty years and which continues even now.
At the same times as this statement was being issued, the Vatican was under pressure because of a scandal involving a prominent priest, in which it seems to appear that maintaining his clerical status far outweighs other minor considerations such as the abuse inflicted on women religious and the abuse of one of the sacraments. An automatic excommunication was incurred through the latter, and was rescinded within a month. For the former, the voices of those women appear to have been very deliberately silenced over a long period. Each day, new details seems to be revealed in that case, all more concerning than those already known.
For a Catholic watching all this, it is almost impossible to juggle these two sides of the Church – on the one hand, a moral voice in the world, and on the other, a hypocritical institution interested only in self-protection and ‘circling the wagons’. Can these really be two sides of the same thing? How is this even possible?
This question has been troubling me greatly these past couple of days.
I do not think the Catholic bishops – not simply here in Scotland, but across the world, from the Vatican to every diocese on every continent – have any reasonable expectation of the majority of Catholics listening to and heeding their moral pronouncements.
The bishops have not so much lost their moral authority, rather they have thrown it away, discarding it all too casually through much of what they have done and not done, said and not said, over the course of the abuse crisis.
And yet despite this, it seems to me that the bishops simply have no sense of this, as though their individual and collective insight is now so greatly blunted that it has ceased to be of any worth.
And the whole Catholic Church should be greatly troubled by the silencing of that voice.