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.