A little hope in a time of indignation

[caption id="attachment_67688" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Cardinal O'Malley."]


Los indignados - the indignant ones - was the name given to the thousands of Spanish youth thronging central Madrid recently to protest the €50 million being spent on the Pope's visit for World Youth Day. Debt-ridden Spain has been forced to introduce severe austerity measures which hit hard on a youth population with 46 percent unemployment.

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Although living in a country traditionally considered "Catholic", the young indignados protesting the bread-and-circus frivolity engendered by the papal visit obviously did not share the church's priorities. For them it was the wrong kind of celebration at the wrong time in the wrong place - another indication of a church out of touch with its constituents.

There are plenty of other "indignant ones" around the globe, protesting against a Catholic Church that seems to be out of touch in so many ways in so many places. Ireland, for instance, shares demographics with Spain: a traditionally "Catholic" country and culture, with a low percentage of practitioners.

These numbers have been eroded further by the revelations of a century of child abuse by nuns, brothers, and priests, recorded in three damning government reports in the last two years.

The national indignation over this was personified in a now famous, historic, speech to the Irish parliament by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, on July 20. Kenny excoriated the whole Irish church hierarchy for failing to comply with the child protection laws of a modern democratic state, the Republic of Ireland.

Aided and abetted by a "dysfunctional" Vatican, church authorities had deemed themselves to be unaccountable, above the law, contemptuous of it even.

Kenny's impassioned eloquence in defense of the welfare of Irish children invites comparison with the oratory of another legendary Irish freedom fighter, Padraig Pearse, the republican leader who gave his life fighting to get the English out of Ireland in 1916. Both men are linked by a common patronage of the Irish saint Enda.

In 1908, Pearse founded his pioneering Irish school named for St. Enda to counter the colonialism of the traditional system, which he claimed raised Ireland's youth to be "good Englishmen or obedient Irishmen." A hundred years later, Enda Kenny's watershed speech addressed a similar colonizing tradition of clericalism that had made Irishmen subservient to an occupying Roman church, "where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world."

But the illicit, illegal, and criminal practices of that church would no longer be tolerated in 21st century Ireland.

Boston has religious and cultural demographics similar to Spain's and Ireland's. Though known as an Irish-Catholic city, only about 17 percent of its 1.8 million "professed" Catholics are actual practitioners.

We, too, have our own homegrown brand of indignados: faithful parishioners who, ever since Cardinal O'Malley began closing their churches in 2004, have been expressing their indignation at destructive governance policies which, they claim, close viable parishes to pay for abuse settlement costs. These grassroots activists have occupied their parish churches for seven years in vigils of protest, pushing appeals all the way to the Vatican Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, in America, there is no catalyzing public advocate like Ireland's Kenny willing to plead the protestors' cause and criticize the Catholic church in the civic arena.

So protests tend to be local and individual, and it is left to the brave Boston vigilers to be the public voice of truth and justice

in their fight for lay rights in a "dysfunctional" church which they (as is the case with their Spanish and Irish counterparts) think is out of touch.

Yet these local indignados may soon become los optimisticos - the optimistic ones. The Vatican recently signaled its increasing concern about the rash of U.S. church closings by supporting the right of parishioners in three states to have their closed churches kept open as places of worship.

It is even proposing that more responsibility be given to American laity. To ensure that dioceses keep existing churches open, "families of the faithful" might be entrusted with their care, keeping them alive until a priest can come celebrate Mass. Déjà vu? When indignation can be converted to optimism, can St. Enda be far away?

Dr. Arthur McCaffrey is retired from Harvard Business School.