There’s a story in the latest Phoenix [subs required] that’s worth a bit of a look, not least because readers outside Ireland won’t see it. Furthermore, this being the Phoenix, it’s worth a bit of critical expansion because, as so often with that esteemed organ, it isn’t actually wrong but it isn’t necessarily right either, and depends rather heavily on putting two and two together and making five.
I refer of course to Goldhawk’s discussion of when and how Cardinal Seán Brady is to step down. The when will of course become clear in due course. Regardless of his minor role in the Brendan Smyth affair, any connection whatsoever to the Smyth atrocities is profoundly toxic; the trouble is deepened by one of the victims he interviewed suing Brady personally; hostility toward Brady goes way beyond the usual suspects of RTÉ, the Irish Times and the Labour Party; Brady is, in essence, damaged goods and, while I do like that the Catholic Church doesn’t order its affairs according to opinion polls, he is damaged goods in such a major way that he’s unlikely to make it to the statutory retirement age. It may or may not be fair, but that’s ecclesiastical politics for you.
As it happens, Brady turns 71 in a couple of weeks and has had some well-publicised health problems, so he may not be averse to taking early retirement. Indeed, he has already asked Rome to provide him with a coadjutor archbishop, which would signal an orderly transition, with the coadjutor effectively running the Armagh archdiocese and Brady himself functioning as a figurehead, gradually fading into the background. The Vatican has not yet responded to the request, but it’s difficult to see how B16 could turn it down.
This is where we come to the question of who will succeed, and it’s very much tied up with the figure of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. As readers will know, Martin has a unique standing as the publicly identified Good Guy in the sexual abuse scandal; because he gets how serious it is, because he’s a good communicator in terms of shame and repentance, and not least because, having been parachuted in from outside the discredited Irish hierarchy, he doesn’t have cover-ups in his own past to live down. In short, he’s the bishop who it’s okay to like.
I don’t actually dissent from that, but it’s important to bear in mind that Martin is also a very wily ecclesiastical politician. Look, for instance, at the narratives that you often find in the Dublin media. We have Archbishop Martin’s lone struggle against the Irish Episcopal Conference, and against Brady in particular; we even have Martin’s struggle against the Vatican, which idea disintegrates after thirty seconds when you remember that Martin is effectively Benedict’s troubleshooter in Ireland. These stories of Martin as an isolated and underappreciated figure alternate with speculation about the rich reward that will be his for cleaning up the Dublin archdiocese. Some of this is wishful thinking, but some of it is so blatantly self-serving that, if it doesn’t emanate from sources close to the archbishop, it really should do.
Now then. A lot of people in Dublin had their noses put out of joint when Brady rather than Dermo got a red hat at the 2007 consistory. This isn’t just a matter of the esteem Martin is held in, it also reflects a Dublin incredulity that the primatial see should be a rural backwater like Armagh. Beyond that, there can be little doubt that Martin would dearly love to be a cardinal. It’s a question of how he gets there. The Irish hierarchy only gets one cardinal elector, and regardless of whether Brady retires from active service, unless you forcibly prise the zucchetto off his head there will be no vacancy until he turns eighty in 2019, by which time Dermo himself will be facing retirement. You’ll remember the last conclave, when it turned out the sole Irish vote belonged to the retired and discredited Cardinal Des Connell.
We can also probably rule out the possibility of Martin himself moving up to Armagh – a native Dubliner would not go down well in a see normally occupied by Ulstermen, and in any case Martin is at the dangerous age of 65 where, if he took Armagh now, he may not get another job before retirement. It’s been spun for some time that he might get a plum posting in the Roman Curia, which would suit him down to the ground, but as I see it he’s too valuable for Benedict to move – he’s about the only Irish bishop the Pope can have any confidence in – so he’s stuck in Dublin until further notice. This is what’s known as a dead stymie.
The Phoenix then goes on to identify the two leading candidates for Armagh, but this seems to me to be missing the point. The big question is whether the forthcoming Apostolic Visitation will herald a rationalisation of dioceses along the lines proposed by Benedict’s old friend Vincent Twomey. There are an awful lot of episcopal retirements coming up in the next couple of years – and already retiring auxiliaries are not being replaced – so that will ease things somewhat. There’s really no need for Ireland (or England for that matter) to have more dioceses than Belgium and Austria combined, and almost as many as the far larger Catholic community of Germany.
But let’s talk candidates, and leave aside the lunatics on the phone-ins calling for Fr Brian D’Arcy to be the new archbishop. The two men put forward by the Phoenix for the Armagh job are Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, and the Belfast-based theologian Fr Tim Bartlett. These two are identified as the candidates of Martin and Brady respectively, but it’s a bit more confused than that.
Tim Bartlett is young, smart, talented, media-savvy and very well-connected. He’s especially close to Brady and basically functions as the Cardinal’s unofficial aide-de-camp. I have no doubt that some day he’ll get the mitre he’s always being tipped for, but for the primatial see he may be a little too young and too nakedly ambitious. My expectation would be that he’d be tried out first in a small rural diocese, although amalgamations might narrow the field there, and remember that Brady himself was a pretty obscure figure down in the wilds of Cavan when he was tapped for Armagh. Only in retrospect did people look at Brady’s extensive connections and join the dots.
As for my local bishop, Noel Treanor… well, he he’s been a fairly low-profile figure at Down and Connor, though at least he hasn’t turned out to be an active liability. Goldhawk identifies him as Martin’s man, largely on the basis that both “had spent years in elite church circles abroad”. Well, Treanor did spend some time at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, but at the time the Vice-Rector there was none other than Fr Seán Brady. He also spent a bit of time on secondment in Brussels doing some justice and peace stuff. It’s not exactly the same as Martin’s long-term background in the Holy See diplomatic service. Which is not to say that Martin may not favour Treanor, nor that he may not try to pull a few strings in Rome… just that the Kremlinology isn’t all that clear-cut.
Anyway, I have no doubt that Noel would think himself a worthy candidate for the big job. When the media furore over Brady was at its peak some months ago, there was a rather amusing sideline where the Irish News kept trying to get a statement out of Treanor indicating confidence in Brady, but Noel proved almost impossible to find.
Two further points. One is that, even if Brady gets a coadjutor archbishop with the right of succession, it won’t necessarily be his favoured successor. The coadjutor wheeze was a favourite of JP2 and Ratzinger when seeking to replace a loose-cannon prelate with someone more orthodox, notably in the famous case of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle back in the 1980s. More recently it was used to install none other than Diarmuid Martin in the Dublin Archdiocese, as Des Connell was diverted towards spending more time with his study of French philosophy. So it’s not just a case of whether, but of who.
Finally, the Apostolic Visitor for the Arrnagh archdiocese is – you’ve guessed it – none other than our old friend Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. Doubtless Cormac will want to discuss with Brady the circumstances of him shuffling off the archiepiscopal stage; it may also help that Cormac sits on the Congregation for Bishops, and if there’s string-pulling to be done in Rome, he’s even less of a slouch at it than Brady or Martin.