The paralysing effects of negativity in the Church

The paralysing effects of negativity in the Church Glenstal Abbey

The former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey Dom Mark Patrick Hederman provoked the ire of the leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) recently when he accused them of being too negative.

It’s a charge that’s been levelled against the leadership of the group before and it’s one that they’re understandably sensitive about.

It’s a symptom of a wider debate within the Church, and probably has as much to do with personality as ideology of theological outlook.

Black and white distinctions are simplistic, but people by-and-large divide into being either fundamentally optimistic of fundamentally pessimistic.

And here it’s important not to confuse optimist with hope. One can be extremely optimistic but lacking hope, at the same time one can be profoundly pessimistic but motivated by a deep hope and belief that all things will be well.

The Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmud Martin is someone else who is often accused of being overly-pessimistic or negative. I suspect that the archbishop would see it as realism, and there’s certainly something to be said for people within the Church being willing to face up to realities.

The problem is that negativity runs the risk of descending into paralysis. Or worse, we end up in the cul-de-sac of endlessly analysing the shortcomings of the Church while appearing unable to do anything to address those shortcomings.


An over-emphasis on the obvious challenges facing the Church here also obscures the great work that is being done in parishes across the country and the tiny (yet significant) ways in which the Church here is being renewed.

The reality is that renewal and decline are happening side-by-side. I fear that when people think of the renewal of the Church, they have in mind a single moment where renewal will be declared and the impetus will start from there. Authentic renewal, of course, starts from people becoming more consciously aware of their responsibility for the building up of the Church; of Catholics becoming intentional disciples and choosing to deepen their relationship with Christ,

In an interview with The New York Times published at the weekend, the Archbishop of Dublin – emphasising that he didn’t want to be nasty – described Massgoers as a “dying breed”.

It was an unfortunate choice of phrase and a clumsy use of language by a man often lauded for his media savviness.

In media training, one technique that participants are taught is the art of ‘reframing’ – taking a potentially negative perspective and turning it into an opportunity or a challenge. An example might be rather than referring to practising Catholics as a dying breed, highlighting the fact that the challenge for the Church is to attract a new generation of believers to replace those who are getting older.

It’s not a matter of spin, or happy talk or trying to avoid reality. But, people in leadership in wider society as well as the Church have a responsibility to address the lived reality without contributing to a culture of paralysing negativity.

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