Facing the challenges for the Church

Facing the challenges for the Church Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany, speaks at the Church and Pluralism conference of the Loyola Institute at Trinity College in Dublin. Photo credit: CNS

Cathal Barry reports from a major international conference addressing the role of the Church in society

It’s not every day, even as a journalist specialising in Church affairs, one gets to sit down to bounce questions off one of Pope Francis’ closest advisors. 

Such an opportunity was afforded to this reporter at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) during a three day international conference on the role of the Church in a pluralist society hosted last week by the Loyola Institute. 

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a member of the council of nine cardinals hand-picked by Pope Francis to advise him, spoke to members of the media after addressing the topic ‘The Church and the Challenge of Freedom’.

While Cardinal Marx, who serves as the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, is adamant that states should be secular, he insists this does not mean that the Church cannot have an influence on society.

“I think that the state must be secular. The state is not a Christian state, but the society is not secular. The society is Christian or religious, non-religious, multi-religious, or whatever, and that is necessary,” he said.


During the course of his address, the cardinal said it was not possible to have freedom without pluralism, and the challenge now was to build a stable, unified community and social cohesion whilst accommodating a plurality of religions and value systems. This, he said, was not an easy task, and one, he maintains, is made even harder today in a world where people are more concerned about security and identity than they are about freedom.

As an outsider in the Irish context, Cardinal Marx said he was “hesitant” about making a judgment on the situation of the Church here and refrained from offering “council or advice”. 

He was confident, however, that despite the challenges the Church faces in the modern world, that Christianity “is the religion of the future”.

“I think the Christian faith is the religion of the future. I’m very clear about this. When you see the great moments of the Christian faith, the Bible, the universal approach, I think no other religion has this great universal vision of every person, religious or not, Catholic or not. That is very, very good and the Church has to live,” he said.

When asked by The Irish Catholic about declining Mass attendance and the fall off in vocations to the priesthood, the cardinal drew comparisons to the situation in his native Germany. 

“When I see the German situation that is similar, perhaps in Ireland it was a very quick development. My impression is that it was a quick development after this crisis, more than in Germany,” he said.

Noting that the Church must learn from its mistakes in the past, Cardinal Marx insisted that the Church must not “look back” but be forward thinking.

He scolded clerics and the faithful who consider the greatest achievements of the Church to be in the past.

“You cannot find enthusiasm from such a position,” he insisted. 

“We have to think of the future of the world, about the future of others in our communities, the signs of hope, not of distrust, not of complaining.

“I think the Irish Church and the German Church, the Catholic Church of Europe, has to look forward in the future, not what can be held from the past. That’s just not possible,” he said.

Cardinal Marx was clear that the Catholic Church has a “battle” on its hands. He said the responsibility of the Church to show people a “better life”.

“Until the Lord comes back, that will be the fight,” he said.

Also speaking at the conference, Professor of Law at TCD Gerry Whyte insisted that the process of secularisation that Ireland appears to be undergoing “should not be a matter for regret” for people of faith.

He suggested that the power the Church wielded in Ireland the past had been responsible in part for the scandals that have emerged in recent years.

“Lord Acton’s dictum, that power tends to corrupt and that absolute power corrupts absolutely was, of course, directed at the Catholic Church and one could argue that the Irish experience with clerical sex abuse cases bears out the validity of Acton’s views to a certain extent,” he said.

“From a faith perspective, I do not believe that this model of Church was effective, as witnessed by the dramatic change in social attitudes towards Catholicism in this country and so I say ‘good riddance’ to that model,” he added.


In contrast, Prof. White said it was his opinion that “religion is most effective when it is prophetic and where people of faith lead by example”. 

“In the context of the growing secularisation of Irish society, I think that there is greater potential, in time, for this model of Church to be a good influence on Irish society,” he said.

Among the other distinguished speakers at the conference was American journalist and co-founder of the Fordham Centre on Religion and Culture, Peter Steinfels. 

He too spoke about the abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years, this time in the American context. 

As a trained historian and journalist who covered the abuse scandals in the US at great length, Prof. Steinfels admitted he had “contemplated writing a history of the scandals” himself. However, on reflection, he has concluded that he lacks “both the strength and courage” to do so. 

“The project would require extensive interviews with bishops and other Church officials, with lawyers and prominent advocates for victims, with psychiatrists and directors of treatment facilities, with fellow journalists who brought the abuse to light, and with experts who have studied it,” he said, adding that “nothing else would tax my strength like spending a few of my remaining years immersed in the heart-wrenching tales of young people cruelly violated by those last expected to do so”.

“As for courage, I have a good sense of how easily the indignation and denunciation stirred by the abuse itself will be directed at the historian whose explanations do not fit preconceived ideas. 

“I pray that stronger, braver souls will take up the challenge,” he said.

During the course of his address, Prof. Steinfels said he believed “sexual predators constitute a special vulnerability for the Catholic Church compared to other religious groups”. 

“This is because of chancery secrecy and appointment of priests to parishes without congregational participation. Perhaps I am wrong. In any case, the future historian who struggles with the avalanche of 2002 revelations will have to keep more than one paradigm in mind, both the serial abusers who usually came to the notice of both Church officials and police, and the single offenders who often flew under,” he said. 

Speaking to The Irish Catholic following his address, Prof. Steinfels said the abuse crisis in the US had done unspeakable damage to the Church and historical cases continue to be “disruptive” to people of faith, distracting them from “other things that they need to do”. 

“The reality is that all of us in life have different ups and downs and troubles without faith and so in some ways this terrible abuse becomes the kind of ace in the hole for resolving questions like that… especially for young people going through parts of life where they are in disaccord with Church teachings,” he said.

Prof. Fáinche Ryan, who is Assistant Professor in Systematic Theology at the Loyola Institute at TCD, addressed the conference on the subject of consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine.

Noting that consulting faithful Catholics had been an age-old practice of the Church, Prof. Ryan said insisted more emphasis needs to be put on theological formation.

“I think you can consult the faithful but they have to know what they are being consulted about. If you are building a bridge the engineers don’t consult me. So, on matters of Church we have to have formed people that you can consult with,” she told The Irish Catholic.

“People can be very outspoken but they might not actually know the background to the tradition from which they are speaking. I think we should have people involved in formation in every diocese, people actually employed. There needs to be a real solid adult formation available,” she said.

The limited availability of people due to busy schedules was also something that needed to be considered, Prof. Ryan said.

“We need to look at the availability of people. Life, as we know, is very, very busy, so we cannot expect people to fit into our schedules. We have to make things available to them,” she said.

Prof. Ryan said there was still a great “commitment” on the part of Irish people to the Church. 

“There are huge numbers of people who still go to Mass in Ireland. There are huge numbers of people, relative to mainland Europe, who go to Mass every day. There is a commitment to faith. There is a culture of it around. “If you go to a funeral, people mightn’t know exactly what to do but they still go to the funeral, they still go to the church,” she reasoned.

Preaching, she said, also needs to “improve drastically”.

Prof. Ryan also said she had a “query” with religious studies for school-going children.  

“I think it is very important that we learn about other faiths and traditions but you have got to have some sort of anchor first of all otherwise you have nothing to compare them with.

“I find some young people you meet would know more about the pillars of Islam than they would about their own Christian faith for the precise reason that they are not taught those kind of things,” she insisted.

Prof. Ryan said courses such as the proposed Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics course were “a reacting to the culture that we are in”. 

“It’s responding without have the adequate roots or foundations built. It’s understandable because we are trying to put plasters over problems but I think if you were a properly intelligently formed Catholic you are much better able to engage in debate,” she said.

Prof. Ryan noted that there are “occasionally” calls for philosophy to be taught in secondary schools, but think that theology should be taught instead. 

“Religious studies is a separate area of studies and I think it should be regarded as such. I think we need theology in secondary schools as an exam subject. You have got to have some anchor, then you can engage with the others,” she said.


The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence? was hosted by the Loyola Institute at Trinity College Dublin from June 22-24.