George Weigel on the Irish Church’s Crisis

George Weigel, a prominent American Catholic commentator, has an article on the Irish ecclesiastical situation in the current Denver Catholic Register – the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Weigel touches on the claim in this week’s Irish Catholic newspaper that the Irish bishops are resisting Vatican proposals for an amalgamation of Ireland’s dioceses.

The article suffers from all the same flaws that have come to characterise the state of discourse on Irish Catholicism. This is a sad legacy of the institutional and intellectual self-decay that has afflicted Catholicism in this country over the last 50 years. Certainly it has not always been this way: the Irish Church once boasted an articulate and robust Catholic intelligentsia, to whom Irish Catholics could look trustingly for guidance and leadership. The last half-century has seen a meaningless and altogether unnecessary disintegration of these once mighty foundations, leaving the helpless faithful discarded to their own devices. It is regrettable (but no less true on that account) that serious and intelligent discussion concerning the future mould of the Church in Ireland is confined to liberal groups, such as Pobal and the Association of Catholic Priests. These organizations are as yet unrivalled by an orthodox analogue, allowing them to exert influence all out of proportion to their miniscule membership. Into this vacuum, an audacious and all-assuming arrogance has supplanted the position rightfully reserved for conservative churchmanship.

Meet Fr Vincent Twomey – Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at St. Patrick’s College Maynooth and a former student of the reigning pontiff. Weigel’s repeated and overstated suggestions for rationalizing Ireland’s dioceses, as if it were a faultless formula, was first popularized by this man. Fr Twomey takes the German Church as his model: why, he asks, does Ireland – with a Catholic population of 4.5 million – need 26 dioceses, whereas the Church in Germany – with a nominal adherence of over 30 million souls – functions with just one more? Surely this anomaly calls out for rectification? Not so fast! The huge dioceses of Germany are exceptional and originate in the missionary provinces of late antiquity. Italy’s 50 million Catholics are lavished with 225 dioceses – and that figure is down from more than 300 in the 1980s, when the Vatican amalgamated around 100 dioceses (and the fact that Catholicism in Italy has declined significantly since then challenges the supposition that diocesan amalgamations will do much to kickstart an ailing national Church). Moreover, Germany’s large dioceses have not immunized it from some of the Church’s most appalling revelations of abuse incidents, and their subsequent mishandling on the part of bishops; allegations have relentlessly poured out of that country over the course of the last two years. The same point is applicable elsewhere: the archdioceses of Boston and Los Angeles are among America’s largest, but this has not prevented them from becoming bywords for priestly pedophilia.

Weigel imputes our sad state to an “unbecoming alliance with political power.” The history of Church-State relations in Ireland offers much to profitably ponder, and on occasion, matter to regret. The same is true of Irish Catholicism in general. But these regrets and criticisms must necessarily be tempered by a spirit of reverence and respect. It is the very least we owe to our faithful forebears and it is an obligation wholly inconsonant with the all-out-assault unleashed by a now retired Maynooth professor, and his even less convincing American imitator. (In Fr Twomey’s case, I am thinking primarily of his disgraceful book, The End of Irish Catholicism?). Besides, the simplistic clichés proffered by Weigel ill-become the complexity of the topic.

Assessing the merits of Ireland’s diocesan structure on the quite cold gauge of functional utility leads logically to this type of irrational thinking, unpleasantly reminiscent of the same minimalistic mentality that has destroyed the Latin Church’s liturgical grandeur. Unlike Fr Twomey, Monsignor Francis Cremin – a predecessor of his at Maynooth – offered a coherent and convincing explanation of the Irish Church’s woes back in the 1970s. It is worth contemplating his contentions. Mgr Cremin decried the collapse of seminary formation and catechesis. Ultimately these two factors, combined with the wholesale disintegration of the liturgy, have acted a million times more to undermine the Catholic faith in Ireland than all the abuse reports combined. Mgr Cremin made those observations when the situation was considerably better than it is now. How sad he would be to see that a once glorious national Church has been reduced to this.

As for importing our episcopacy, I am agnostic about this proposal. On one hand, my contact with the younger generation of Irish clergy (with some exceptions) has done little to inspire any sense of confidence for the future. On the other hand, how likely is it that these foreign bishops will possess the requisite aptitudes for surviving in the Irish milieu? It is here where our small dioceses could be of immense assistance. Small dioceses have many advantages: they allow the bishop to administer greater pastoral care and supervision over his diocese — the lack of which was clearly a contributing factor to the scandals (and the negligent handling of them) in the first place. At a time when Irish Catholicism is facing the prospect of having to turn the lights out, reckless scapegoating of our national ecclesiastical infrastructure is, at best, a misguided indulgence. The dioceses did not get us into this mess, rather it was the individuals who governed them (and those who appointed them). Furthermore, Fr Twomey’s proposal that the Diocese of Dublin should be reorganized in accordance with the (quite arbitrary) county boundaries would be an act of inadmissible historical vandalism.

Mark my words, and make no mistake: if the dangerous and ill-conceived ideas of George Weigel and Fr Vincent Twomey are ever put into implementation (which God forbid), it will not only result in extraordinary and enormous damage – both to the Church’s mission and prestige (or what’s left of it) in this country – it will (and I repeat, will) inaugurate the very death of Catholicism in Ireland. Fr Twomey and his American friend will then have surpassed the achievements of Henry VIII and Cromwell. And with all due respect, it’s not like this sad shower can boast of much else.

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Posted on November 23, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. On the surface and from a distance, it seems that the Irish Church is just catching up to the rest of the Western world. Fr. Cremin’s diagnosis – lack of seminary formation and ineffective catechesis – is spot on. Supervising priests without a strong faith, and the same lack among bishops, produced this inevitable consequence. The same happened in Australia. Don Gaffney

  2. I do respect George Weigel’s commentary on many issues (not to mention his fine books on John Paul II), but he’s way out of his depth on this one. It most certainly is not just a simple matter of “X” works fine in “Y” country so it’ll work in Ireland. That’s a false dichotomy if ever I saw one.

    The proposed casual, wanton vandalism of a diocesan structure that is among the oldest in Europe is breathtaking, quite apart from the fact that it is by no means proven that the current structure is obsolete or, in that horrible phrase, “not fit for purpose”. This proposal ignores totally the fact that Ireland is a country of small, local structures to which are attached often fierce loyalties, the parish GAA club being the prime example. A parallel to show the false basis of this proposal would be to say that a small country like Ireland shouldn’t have 32 counties, and that it’s small enough to be administered on a provincial basis with just 4 super-authorities. Yeah, right… go ahead and try it, mate!

    While I’m not saying that people identify with their diocese as a structure in the same manner as they do with their county or parish, nevertheless they very often identify with and hold in great affection their local Bishop. As you say, Shane, smaller structures can lead (and very often do) to more direct involvement on a personal level. Bigger structures necessarily lead to a less direct engagement. And we are, after all, talking about the care of souls – it’s not just a corporate structure. The peculiar factor that foreigners often identify about Ireland is that “everyone knows everybody” in a neighbourhood (well, in the country anyway). That’s true to a great extent and while it can have its limiting factors these are far outweighed by the community benefits. Smaller structures develop and foster this sort of sense of community. So why dismantle them in pursuit of something that seems as though it were dreamed up by a team of management consultants out of a theory manual, with all the aesthetic charm of a 1970s office block?

    Also, I think our George is well offside on this one: “That many Irish bishops are resisting proposals for downsizing the number of Irish dioceses confirms the impression that the present Irish episcopal bench must be cleared”. Talk about post hoc ergo propter hoc! Might, just might, they not be putting forward valid and reasonable views based on their own experience as bishops and priests over many years actually living in the country instead of commenting from a great distance (and a position of considerable ignorance)? Nah… kill them all, God will know his own!

    As for his contention that because Irish bishops were successful in early American history so by extension English-speaking foreigners should do as well here, well that’s really operating from another false parallel. America in that time was a tabula rasa, mission territory, where new structures had to be built from scratch and everybody was coming in new, starting from the same baseline. That is certainly not the case in Ireland, and I think it would only serve to foster unpleasant resentments on top of an already volatile situation. It is also patronising to an incredible degree. Are US, or other foreign, dioceses so perfect to the extent that they can afford to export their successful models to us? I hardly think do. Even a cursory reading of the more reliable commenters on the blogosphere would reveal certain, erm, infelicities in the majority of them!

    Please think before you spam, George.

  3. Excellent comments, both of you.

    “The peculiar factor that foreigners often identify about Ireland is that “everyone knows everybody” in a neighbourhood (well, in the country anyway). That’s true to a great extent and while it can have its limiting factors these are far outweighed by the community benefits.”

    This is a very good point. And we really don’t need the Church administration to be any more remote from the day to day life of ordinary people.

  4. Mrs. Rene O'Riordan

    The reason the ACP is so “powerful” is because it has the backing of the media, and they have not been corrected by the Bishops. There are priests that I know of, who given half a chance, could put this country on fire again with the Gospel – but if they open their mouths they are hounded not only by the media but their Bishops do not stand by them! The problem from what I understood was the carry-on in Maynooth? The lack of formation for the young seminarians there, the lack of orthodox teaching etc. and the same problem exists in Mater Dei – these problems are not being addressed at all. Or am I missing something here? – Rene

  5. Mrs. O’Riordan, you are entirely correct. And it’s something that needs to be addressed as a matter of high priority. Until then, worrying about diocesan structures is a needless distraction.

  6. A foreign ecclesiological model was imposed upon Ireland and its proxies (which includes England) from the 1960’s onwards. I am not sure how this can be reversed? The latest translations of the liturgy, for example, are nothing more than yet another bail-out for this failed project. We are stuck with decline for another 30 years.

  7. bmcp4tr01, I fear you may be right.

  8. Phil Lawler has a good article in CWN criticizing Weigel’s suggestions: http://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otn.cfm?id=868

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