Is Vatican III the answer?

The Cardinal Sean Brady case shows only root and branch reform can deal with the issue of abuse in t

How much has the Catholic Church really changed in addressing questions such as child abuse?

Not very much, if the recent BBC programme The Shame of the Catholic Church implicating Cardinal Sean Brady is to be believed.

The question that such programmes constantly bring up is whether on the abuse question the Church has not just conducted a damage limitation exercise, taken some public relations advice, but in reality continues pretty much as before. 

Guidelines have been brought in and child protection has rightly been given a higher priority. However, as this BBC programme showed there is still much atoning to be done for what happened in the past.

The role of Cardinal Brady also raises the question as to how much those now in the top positions of authority in the Catholic Church knew about what was going on over the dark decades of child abuse. These people were clearly considered to have performed well in order that they were subsequently rewarded with high office. A safe pair of hands.

It might prove helpful to compare the Church with other institutions. Take the army. General Sir Mike Jackson, as he later became, was a captain at the time of the Bloody Sunday atrocity in Derry in 1972. General Jackson played an important role in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday; taking accounts and generally tidying up the story for the army. Not to suggest it was this role that led to his later advancement: but had Captain Jackson spoken out then - at the time - he would not have advanced far.

Then there is the police. A number of those who were middle-ranking officers at the time of the miscarriages of justice like the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four later advanced on to become senior officers in the service. While none were found to have done anything wrong, would they have advanced so far if they had stepped out and denounced the wrongdoing at the time? To do so would no doubt have invited a quick exit.

The Church has been badly hit by the abuse crisis. It has turned many, particularly in Ireland, away from it. Fulsome efforts have been made by some to deal with what has gone on in the past, but there is a growing insularity about the Church today.

Instead of looking out and opening the windows in the way that Pope John XXIII called for at the time of Vatican II in the 1960s, now there is a closing in. Vatican II was all about opening the Church up, making it more accountable in a changing world. It was to be of the world, seeking to bring gospel values to bear on daily life. Accountability, subsidiarity and democracy were to be watchwords.

There have been unscrupulous efforts from some in the institution of the Church to indicate that abuse was in some way linked to the Vatican II process. This group seek to turn things back to pre-Vatican II days where clericalism was rife, the priest apart all powerful, the laity simply there to obey. The good old days, when everyone knew their place.

The problem is that it was this very unaccountable clericalism that brought about the child abuse scandals in the first place. The lack of accountability of the position of priest presented an opportunity to abuse; the culture of "Deference" and "Father Knows Best".  Much of this still exists, though less so in Ireland where the abuse scandal has so rocked the nation.

The way in which a young priest coming into a parish suddenly becomes every mother’s adopted son shows a touching human warmth but also an unwarranted respect.

There have certainly been moves made to address abuse in the Catholic Church across the world. In Britain, guidelines are in place and a well resourced regulation system exists. The hierarchy - President of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, down - have committed to dealing with the issue of child abuse. There was a fulsome apology made last year for child abuse. However, without accompanying actions, apologies are just hot air. 

There needs to be a root and branch process undertaken - perhaps a Vatican III. This should include a truth commission-type process looking at abuse across the church, listening to, understanding and compensating the victims.

After what has gone on across the Catholic Church, there needs to be substantial change in the institution itself. This would mean once again opening the windows and letting in the light. The structure of the hierarchy much change significantly, bringing in accountability and democracy.

Fundamental to all of this has to be the role of the priest. This position must change to a position of one among equals, accountable first and foremost to the local people in the parish. Too many priests remain aloof, undertaking a policing rather than pastoral role regarding their flock. 

Neither are women priests the answer. Women can just as easily be authoritarian and unaccountable as men. It is the nature of the position itself that needs to significantly change. These changes would start the process toward restoring the Church, but there is a very long way to go.

Paul Donovan blogs at paulfdonovan.blogspot.co.uk 

How much did those in top positions of authority in the Catholic Church know about the dark decades of child abuse. Photo: Getty Images
Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change