Once the five bishops resign and relevant action taken with regard to others in high office who failed in their responsibilities, the next question is: where do we go from here? As Cardinal Brady said in his interview last Saturday, action must be taken. The first action required, it seems to me, is a moratorium on all appointments to the bench of bishops. In addition to the three dioceses that will become vacant, the bishops of some seven other dioceses are up for retirement. They should not be replaced immediately. Apostolic Administrators (such as bishops from neighbouring dioceses) could be appointed to care for the dioceses in the interim period.
In the meantime, a root and branch examination of the structures and culture of the Irish Church must be undertaken. Leaving aside the second for a moment (scrutinizing the culture of so-called “traditional Irish Catholicism”), which would call for a long-term commitment at local and national level, the question of the suitability of the present structures of the Catholic Church in Ireland must first be examined. Two comments in The Murphy Report struck me as significant. In the first place, according to the Report, the poor managerial structures in the Archdiocese of Dublin seem to have been a factor in the cover up and inaction of those with responsibility for priests in that diocese. Presumably, the other dioceses are not much better managed. Secondly, the tendency of the Irish Bishops’ Conference to go for the lowest common denominator in their decisions, which the Commission also perceptively noted, seems to have contributed to the inaction. The size (oversize) of the Bishops’ Conference certainly mitigates against effective leadership at local or national level – each bishop is afraid to tread on the toes of the others and would never criticize a fellow bishop.
Worse still, there is a general tendency in Bishops’ Conferences to hide behind the episcopal bench, as I pointed out in a public debate in Maynooth in 1994. The then-Cardinal Ratzinger is on record as expressing his scepticism about the way Episcopal Conferences tend, if I may put it, to undermine the personal responsibility of each bishop for his own diocese and for the Church as a whole. In a word, individual bishops lost their voice. The result is the lack of a true moral or spiritual leadership at all levels of the Irish Catholic Church. Ratzinger once stated that episcopal conferences should not simply aim at making resolutions and producing documents but should work “towards consciences [of the bishops themselves!] becoming more enlightened and thus, on the basis of truth, more free. It is the only way that the true liberation of mankind to which the Church is summoned can be accomplished.” Those invested with the highest office in a diocese carry an enormous responsibility for the spiritual, emotional, and, to a certain degree, physical well-being of all the faithful, lay and clerical, practising or non-practising. That is why they are given titles of reverence and are vested in symbolic vestments that carry the weight of thousands of years of fidelity to Christ in the most difficulty of circumstances. Not to act as bishops should act, is to bring all of that into disrepute.
Priests guilty of heinous crimes against young children have dragged all that is best in our Catholic tradition into the gutter. They have soiled us all. Coverage of the same on television has also helped to soil the imagination of most Irish men and women. The damage done is enormous.
But most of all, they have caused profound damage to the numerous laity, men and women, who have remained faith-full, despite not only the scandals but also the failure of the Irish Church over the past decades to nourish them, their children and grandchildren with the riches of the Faith. But that is another topic. The present crisis is causing indescribable distress to all Catholics, especially those closest to the Church, who, to boot, are constantly given the impression that they are only “second-class citizens” anyway in the People of God. Whatever structures are put in place for the future, that situation must be reversed.
On my reading of The Murphy Report, it would seem obvious that those at the top of the hierarchy as well as many clerics under them failed to act responsibly. They failed to listen to their conscience, which is, put crudely, that delicate but deep sensitivity for right and wrong which is innate in all human beings. This failure to listen was due either to human weakness in all its forms (ambition, human respect, cowardice, smugness – the vice of many Irish clerics) or a false, subjectivist notion of conscience. Conscience was reduced to an excuse mechanism. This was compounded by a type of moral theology that denied that there were any actions that were in themselves intrinsically evil. That, too, is a subject for another day. But the result is moral inaction in the best, moral turpitude in the worst. When good men do nothing, evil men thrive.
The unprofessional, inadequate managerial structures of the Dublin Diocese, plus the tendency to put the blame on others higher up, was partly responsible. But the real cause is the lack of the proper emotional response to the abuse of children that was reported to those in positions of authority and responsibility in the Church. Nowhere, as far as I can see, was there any expression of horror or outrage by those who were told, horror and outrage being the natural passions of the good person which God gave us to ensure that we get up off our haunches and act in the face of injustice.
I regret to say that the proposed dash to Rome to see the Pope by Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin, though a significant media tactic, is misguided and potentially damaging to the Church. It is misguided, since it seems to be part of that Irish tendency to put the blame on those “higher up”. It is potentially damaging because anything he does or says will be judged, at best, inadequate. And that, too, is unjust. It can only further the disillusionment of faithful Irish Catholics, who have been led to expect too much from Rome. It also feeds into the anti-papal currents in Ireland which are not insignificant.
In order to make a new start – and be seen to be taking the question of change seriously – the question of the management of individual dioceses is an issue that must be raised fairly soon, together with the question of a restructuring of the Irish dioceses. Both are related. To start with, we have too many bishops. Their very numbers alone would prevent them from giving the kind of leadership needed by the Church today. Imagine thirty-three ministers trying to come to an agreed statement around a cabinet table! As I pointed out in my book, The End of Irish Catholicism? (Dublin, 2003), we simply have too many dioceses (26) for such a small Catholic population (ca 4.39 million in 2007), one less diocese than in the German Church which serves a Catholic population of over 30 million. This means, in simple terms, that we do not have the critical mass of priests suited for high office. (We do, though, have enough ambitious clerics looking for it.) It should be noted that the numbers of active priests are falling dramatically, a fall that the inadequate way this crisis is being handled will exacerbate. The distress of faithful Catholics at present is well matched by the distress of good priests (the majority). And the cause of their distress is directly related to the way their bishops are behaving and have behaved for decades, if not centuries.
At the very most, twelve dioceses would be sufficient (including a reduction of the size of the Archdiocese of Dublin to the present county boundaries).
Eventually, new bishops must be chosen. The system to date has failed. I do not deny that Rome may have some responsibility for this state of affairs. But I would place the main responsibility on the fact that the Irish Church, thanks to historical circumstances, has in effect produced a self-perpetuating mediocracy [sic]. Incompetence breeds incompetence. It is the Irish bishops who, traditionally, propose candidates to Rome. Individual bishops may have more influence in Rome and use it to promote their favoured candidates, especially if the candidates can be sold to Rome as “sound men”, in other words, “orthodox”, or if some “obstacle” can be found to blacken an undesirable candidate (who might “rock the boot”). Their sterile “orthodoxy” is as far from the truth of Scripture and Catholic Tradition as Marxism is from the true plight of the workers. (It should be mentioned that recent episcopal appointments hopefully indicate that, at last, Rome seems to be bucking the previous trend.) The present crisis is the price we are paying for this traditional state of affairs. Some other way of choosing suitable bishops, which will involve some real participation by both priests and laity of the newly constituted dioceses, must be found. From my own experience here and abroad, faithful Irish Catholics and priests could, uniquely, I believe, be entrusted with this task, without the danger of causing real divisions in the Church that would certainly happen in most of the other European countries. Be that as it may, part of the long-term, collective task of coming to terms with our immediate Catholic past, must surely be to explore the possibilities for more positive input by laity and priests alike into the choice of the person who is called to be a successor of the Apostles. An awesome task.