In Underground Cathedrals, Mark Patrick Hederman, OSB, abbot of Limerick’s Glenstal Abbey, has written a brave and timely book. His focus is on the still-unfolding collapse of Irish Catholicism, the one ecclesiastical establishment in Western Europe whose dominance and influence seemed so firmly founded that the Gates of Hell—and then some—would not prevail against it.

To use Yeats’s oft-quoted lines, “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” In the case of Ireland, the change—the almost simultaneous discrediting of the country’s religious and financial establishments, Catholic Lion and Celtic Tiger, old god and new—seems likely to give birth to consequences more terrible than beautiful.

Hederman makes no attempt to downplay the horrific revelations of abuse made public by the Ryan and Murphy reports. Widening his lens to take in the universal church and its history, he casts a cold eye on the church’s suspicion (at best) of women and sexuality, attitudes sanctioned and supported by the blatantly misogynistic writings of (among others) Augustine and Aquinas. At the same time, he acknowledges the complex relationship between Irish state and Irish church, leaving no doubt that, if church was ready to use state to its ends, state was quite content to do the same with church. Citing the Magdalen asylums established to keep prostitutes under regimes intended more for punishment and humiliation than rehabilitation, Hederman underlines that they

became “an indication of another enduring theme in relation to perceived sexual transgression—the collusion of state, society, and religious orders to remove from circulation perceived threats to a conservative moral order.” The mindset of the majority towards such outcasts was condemnatory. No one cared what happened to them, nobody wanted to know.… If all these congregations are to be censured then so too should the other institutions and agencies who put them in this situation and maintained them there. The Irish government first of all is responsible for the total situation.

Hederman’s reluctance to indict individuals and his desire to identify the wider, more deeply rooted causes of the abuses that ran amok in the Irish church are praiseworthy. His is a pilgrim’s soul, not a puritan’s. But at times he seems willing to settle for the notion that no church leader can be singled out because it was the overpowering, self-sustaining nature of the system that was to blame.

There’s no doubt that facing up to the culture of abuse would have required leaders to call into question “their very being and the belief system of an entire country.” Still, the sheer scope of the abuse brought to light raises the question, Why was the system so lacking in prophets? In a country famous for its rebels, for those willing to suffer and die in protest against oppression, why was there such uniform willingness to go along with a regime of calculated cruelty toward the poor and vulnerable? Was there no one capable of seeing the gulf between the gospel preached and the policies put into practice?

Irish Catholics can take some measure of solace in the recent ceremony of repentance performed by Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. Their ritual washing of the feet of eight victims of sexual abuse in Dublin’s pro-cathedral might have been “only a gesture,” as some critics claimed. But it was a humble, much needed, long-overdue gesture, and was backed by Archbishop Martin’s subsequent statement that, “in the face of the terrible damage that was done to children in the church of Christ in Dublin and in the face of how that damage was addressed,” he can’t accept that “no one need assume accountability.”

For Hederman, the rigidity and sterility of Irish Catholicism is symbolized by Galway City’s Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas. Completed in 1965—the year the Second Vatican Council concluded—it stands, he writes, as “an object lesson in insularity,” a “gloomy monument in grey-green Galway limestone” to the failure to live out the promise of the council and wrest the church, body and soul, “from the tomb of medieval Christianity.”

While the Irish church was unique in some ways, becoming in effect the bastion of national identity, the ills and inertia that Hederman believes led it on to its present predicament—a sternly ideological, authoritarian hierarchy; rampant, unapologetic sexism; a willful, purblind refusal to consider any changes in moral teaching, no matter the validity of breakthrough alterations in our understanding of human sexuality and identity—are by no means limited to Ireland.

The crisis being experienced by the Irish church is, to one degree or another, occurring throughout Europe and North America. The momentum of the Second Vatican Council has been lost and, to some degree, reversed. The top-down, do-as-Rome-says command structure is intact. Initiatives to empower the lower clergy and laity have withered. Bishops serve as Vatican emissaries to their dioceses, their sole role to convey orders, not speak for their local churches. Prelates rebuke Catholic politicians for positions on complex issues of public policy that defy easy answers. Dissent is treated as treason. Revelations of sexual abuse continue to be a source of shame and disillusionment.

On a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hederman sought to discover whether the young visionaries who claim to be experiencing daily visitations by the Virgin Mary could be the source of a new simplicity and sincerity that transcends the divisions in the church and offers a way forward. Instead, he found their message offers only “a conservative, reactionary straitjacket.”

Instead of living in the real world of the twenty-first century and carefully reading the signs of the times for discernible messages from the Holy Spirit, such “children of Mary” prefer to ignore the sacramentality of the world they live in and to search for other “messages,” for signs and wonders from another world, for visitations from otherworldly, all-powerful, and reassuring beings. There is a huge difference between genuine spiritual childhood and infantilism.

Hederman rejects the dream of returning to the imperial presumptions, temporal and spiritual, once embodied in “overground cathedrals.” In Ireland and beyond, the old cathedral, a towering, granite embodiment of the church’s claim to absolute authority, has lost its power to awe and intimidate. The church must now seek to infiltrate, animate, and inform, putting to use “the foundations of the underground cathedral which artists have been building since the collapse of the Middle Ages.”

Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessors have directly addressed (in John Paul II’s words) “the artists of the world.” Although given to abstractions, their language has been welcoming. “Beauty, like truth,” said Paul VI, “brings joy to the human heart, and it is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands.... Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world.”

Unfortunately, in practice, the church has preferred to see artists solely as curators and caretakers of a cultural legacy, and to ignore—even oppose—their vital function as rebels and iconoclasts who refuse to settle for empty, exhausted metaphors and who search for new forms of expressing ancient, enduring truths. Artists like James Joyce, who have pioneered revolutionary explorations of modern consciousness, have been far more likely to receive stern rebuke than sympathetic reception.

His mission as a monk, Abbot Hederman states, is “to defend God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But amid the wreckage of the Irish economy and the disgrace of the Irish church, he finds that those who’ve been faithful to the religious mission of plumbing the most profound aspects of what it means to be human—to sifting the sacred mysteries of the soul for the truths no science can decipher or contain—haven’t been prelates, or politicians, or financiers.

They’ve been novelists like John McGahern, poets like Seamus Heaney, painters like Louis Le Brocquy and Anne Madden, playwrights like Marina Carr and Brian Friel—Ireland’s outsized litany of extraordinarily talented men and women—who’ve acted “as secret agents for the Holy Spirit” and, in their creative corpus, constructed “an underground cathedral where the true God might be worshiped, in spirit and in truth, by people in touch with the whole of humanity.”

Over a millennium ago, amid a time of violent disruptions and cultural dislocation, harried and homeless artists found a refuge and a patron in the church. The connection proved incredibly fruitful for both. Today, it is an increasingly isolated church—in Ireland and elsewhere—that needs to take up Abbot Hederman’s challenge and heed the movement of the Spirit outside the cloister walls.


Related: Fraternal Correction: Lessons from the Irish Sex-Abuse Crisis, by Nicholas P. Cafardi

Published in the 2011-06-03 issue: 

Peter Quinn, a frequent contributor, is the author Dry Bones and Banished Children of Eve (both from Overlook Press), among other books.

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The Catholic Novel

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