A God of love or a God of vengeance? Well, it can’t be both

“Our reality is our Church is besieged, not from a secular culture, but from within, from what Pope Benedict famously called ‘filth’ in his letter to Irish Catholics,” writes Garry O’Sullivan.

In a recent speech at Maynooth, Archbishop Eamon Martin said that “The Synodal reflections so far have merely skimmed the surface. It is clear that we need to go much deeper in our listening, reflection and dialogue, and much wider in our conversations”. This is a major challenge and the archbishop did not suggest how that could be done but clearly he understands we can’t have a national Synod process that rests on the feedback of less than 10% of Catholics.

The archbishop wants a Church in Ireland that is more confident and prophetic in its dialogue with culture; that has conviction and compassion in proclaiming the good news, that witnesses to life and listens to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, and that promotes peace. He added: “The Synodal process can help in developing such a vision and manifesto for the future which is both ancient and new, and which can bring afresh to our troubled world and its many lonely and wounded people, the joyful message that ‘Christ is alive’, ‘Christ is our hope!’” It’s a positive vision but it’s heavy on the Church in the world and a little light on reform in the Church.

While a confident Church plugged into the issues of our time is important, the archbishop also spoke of ‘atonement’ but didn’t elaborate. This is key, and to use that well known phrase, ‘the stone the builders rejected has become our corner stone’ is to say that our wound as a Church is paradoxically our opportunity to build new.


Let me explain. Our reality is our Church is besieged, not from a secular culture, but from within, from what Pope Benedict famously called ‘filth’ in his letter to Irish Catholics. Once again abuse is in the headlines in the Irish papers; in France the Church is rocked again by abuse revelations, this time about a cardinal and allegations against a number of French bishops. Notre Dame burning to the ground is a symbol of the credibility collapse of French Catholicism. Just when we start to think about a future for the Church, we are all dragged down again by another wave of scandals.

Clearly, we need to understand why the Church became so rotten with abuse and corruption? We cannot build on rotten foundations but need to tear them out if we want to build a structure for the future. So the foundation for the future has to be built on understanding abuse, listening to those abused, not just sexually but by power abuse, theological and sexual morality abuse. Heavy burdens were placed, people got hurt.

The abuse of power in the Church in all its forms, understood, healed and transformed, must be the building stone for a new radically better Church. The Irish Synthesis report said it was the lens through which all else is viewed. The greatest atonement or reparation the Church can make is to understand the systemic causes and root them out completely. We’re way past apologies.


Otherwise how can a Church of the future go out and be missionary as the archbishop envisions if it doesn’t deal with its disconnect with most Catholics? Archbishop Martin rightly wants to consult a wider group of Catholics but the issues will be the same. If the older people in the pews are calling for radical change, how much more those who have left or don’t practice or are angry and discontented?

The Catholic Bishop of Aachen, Helmut Dieser, is pleading for the Catholic Church in Germany to take a new perspective on sexuality and homosexuality. “Same-sex feelings and love are not an aberration, but a variant of human sexuality,” he said in an interview recently. Homosexual people have a right to Church support and blessing, said the bishop, who is also the spokesman on abuse issues for the German Bishops’ Conference.

The current state of Church teaching does not do justice to certain realities when it comes to sexuality: “The thinking is too simple” he said. The Church can no longer signal to homosexual people that their feelings are unnatural and that they therefore have to be celibate: “Homosexuality is – as science shows – not a glitch, not an illness, not an expression of any kind of deficit, and by the way it’s not a consequence of original sin either”. If two lesbian women approached him today to have a child baptised, he would do it, said Bishop Dieser: “Where is the problem, I ask” he says, a phrase reminiscent of the Pope’s ‘Who am I to judge?

The Church’s teaching on sexuality needs to be reformed with a new theology of the body. “The Synodal Path is, after all, a consequence of the uncovering of sexual abuse scandals. And reliable scientific studies show that these scandals have systemic causes in the church,” Bishop Dieser said. The German bishops have asked the Pope for a further development of the Church’s teaching.

Will the Irish bishops follow suit, and other bishops’ conferences? Here in Ireland we had the huge reaction to Fr Sean Sheehy and his controversial ‘hell fire’ homily. Since the 1960s, the Church has quietly shelved the “fire and brimstone” moral theology, and the notion of a vengeful God, (the stock and trade of the Redemptorists among others in their parish retreats) in favour of a God who is love and mercy and compassion.

Where love is, God is, as the American theologian Ilia Delio has said. And if gay men or women are sharing lives of love, then God is in the midst of their love. And if God is in the midst of their love, then logically their relationship can be blessed by the Church. Logical, but not for the bishops, cardinals and Pope Francis who preach this God of love while keeping the catechism’s medieval teaching on homosexuality.

So which is it – sin or love? The Synod of Bishops in 2023 needs to decide. People have walked away because they can see through the double-speak. Older Irish Catholics are often way ahead of their clergy and have a ‘live and let live’ approach and have no time for the teaching of the Church in this area, just read the synodal reports!

Will the Church do what it has done with Humanae Vitae and stubbornly proclaim the teaching even though the majority of Catholics do not receive it? And where then is the respect for the people of God and the Holy Spirit if teaching is kept but not received by the vast majority? Isn’t this what Jesus talked about when he condemned the religious authorities for tying up heavy burdens on people?


As one Irish writer wrote over 10 years ago in the Furrow on this subject: “Human experience is as valuable as scripture, as Saint Ignatius Loyola, for one, affirmed. ‘The word became flesh…’ (John 1.14). God still speaks….For those who don’t like the above, the great consolation is that it’s all God’s fault. Why? For creating diversity instead of uniformity, as we see all around us in – guess where? – nature, for making some people different from others. Or did God make a mistake?” Interestingly, that writer, a priest was silenced by the Vatican, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the same Congregation where the French Cardinal who sexually abused a 14 year-old, worked.

As Fr Gerry O’Hanlon has written in this publication, there is already at this point in the Synodal pathway, a significant divergence on some issues between official Church teaching and ‘the sense of the faithful’ in many, though not all, parts of the world. While Gerry was writing about the role of women his rationale extends to other so-called ‘hot button’ issues.

As Gerry says “Our culture prizes authenticity: when a bishop is asked about questions like this (women in ordained ministry) on the national airways and answers by merely reasserting current teaching with a generalised reference to ‘scripture and tradition’, something jars, there is a perception of a lack of authenticity, an ostrich-like denial of what is in front of all our faces, and this becomes an obstacle to mission”.

In order to move our concerns out beyond intra-Church issues to the wider world as Archbishop Martin wants, we need as he points out more Catholics to join the Synodal journey and we need as a national and international Church to speak with authenticity, tackle the difficult issues and have our bishops, like Archbishop Martin, lead us in the renewal and reform to remove the obstacles.

Without authentic reform that comes from the people for the people of God led by the bishops, there is no Gospel-led mission to the wider-world, at best the Church is an NGO without Christ.

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