Michael Kelly: 'Pray, pay and obey was always wrong and the Pope is right to make the Church more transparent'

Next year marks 190 years since the historic passing of the ‘Roman Catholic Relief Act’ by the British House of Commons. The legislation brought an end to a lot of the cruel restrictions that had been placed on Catholics by the penal laws.

Daniel O’Connell – the liberator – had been a tireless campaigner for the rights of the vast majority of Irish citizens who were relegated to second-class citizenry by virtue of their baptism in to the Catholic Church.

Emancipation marked not only relief for hard-pressed Catholics, but a new beginning for the hierarchy. Soon, a massive building programme was rolled out and churches and chapels of ease started to appear at every crossroads to meet the needs of the faithful.

The same was true of Catholic schools and giants of the hierarchy such as Archbishop John MacHale – referred to as the “lion of the west” – saw Catholic education as a vehicle to build a homogeneous and self-confident Catholic community after generations of persecution.

Priests and the hierarchy became all powerful and a once downtrodden Church expanded its infrastructure widely. The symbiosis between nationalism and Catholicism was secured.

The charismatic Mother Mary Aikenhead and her ‘Religious Sisters of Charity’ founded St Vincent’s Hospital in 1834 and it has served patients in the capital and farther afield ever since.

St Vincent’s and the sisters are in the news at the moment with controversy raging over the ownership of the site of the proposed National Maternity Hospital.

While the sisters announced last year that they intended to relinquish ownership of the hospitals and the land where the new NMH will be built, they have remained tight-lipped about how they will manage restrictions from doing this contained in Church law.

The sisters will require Vatican approval before divesting from the hospitals. The reason?

Well, it’s simple, from the point of view of Canon Law the sisters hold the hospital in trust on behalf of Catholics rather than own it per se.

Assets such as churches and religious-run hospitals and institutions are established for, and are supposed to fulfil functions in keeping with the needs and aspirations of the Catholic community.

Places like St Vincent’s and the Mater Hospital were built on the pennies and half-pennies of the indigent Catholics who survived the Famine and contributed to collection plates at a time when they had precious little.

And yet, nowhere in the discussion is the voice of ordinary Catholics for whom these institutions are supposed to be held in trust. Instead, religious congregations often appear to act as if the property of which they are stewards is their own, to do with as they will.

The same often happens when a religious order decides that it no longer has enough members to run a particular school. Even when laypeople come forward and offer to continue to run the school, many religious would rather close the building if they can no longer control it rather than let it continue the purpose for which it was established by competent laypeople.

For all the talk of reform in the Catholic Church, there remains a huge chasm between Catholic in the pew and those in leadership positions within the organisation.

Cardinal Newman, the convert from Anglicanism who went on to found University College Dublin, diagnosed the issue 160 years ago.

When one of his clerical colleagues observed that laypeople should “pray up, pay up and shut up” the soon-to-be-canonised Newman responded that the Church would look rather foolish without laypeople.

Foolish indeed, but the input of laypeople is still largely absent from decision- making within the Church – particularly when one gets down to the brass tacks of money.

The story of two US nuns who admitted embezzling some $500,000 (€440,000) this week to go on gambling sprees in Las Vegas has circled the globe.

It’s hard to resist the ‘Father Ted’ quips and the story is as amusing as it is cringeworthy for Catholics. But, like the controversy around St Vincent’s, it points to the deeper problem that Catholics have very little say in how their hard-earned funds are spent or disposed of by those in leadership.

At least in the political sphere there is an election cycle and politicians judged to be wasteful can suffer the wrath of the ballot box.

Initial reports from the US suggested that the archdiocese did not want to press charges against the casino nuns. One wonders whether the same medicine of mercy might be applied to lay employees who made off with Church funds.

Those close to Pope Francis say the Pontiff will soon announce a raft of reforms aimed at making the Church less top-heavy.

Good. Chief amongst these reforms should be transparency and accountability around finances.

The Catholic Church is a voluntary organisation that is entirely dependent on the donations of members.

People have donated in good faith for generations because they have seen the tangible fruits of what the Church has been able to do in terms of education, social welfare and solace.

This will continue, but people want to know and want to see that their generosity is being properly stewarded.

Like in the case of St Vincent’s Hospital, they will also want to know that what was built on the shoulders of their ancestors will not be relinquished lightly.

Pray, pay and obey was never a credible way to run the Church.

Nowadays, it’s not only untenable, it’s wrong.

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