Okay, by popular demand we’re going to turn our attention today to an ongoing story that isn’t getting an enormous amount of coverage on the blogs. Yes, it’s the Irish Apostolic Visitation, which has stepped up a gear these last couple of weeks, and which raises all sorts of fascinating issues.
First up, the context. The Visitation was of course announced by Pope Benedict in his open letter to the Irish faithful last March and, having taken the usual lengthy period of time to get organised, started work back in November. For those of you who aren’t well versed in Catholic jargon, a Visitation is effectively an inspection from head office. A team will arrive, do a root-and-branch inspection, and report back to Rome with recommendations. There are always a few of these ongoing at any given time – we’ve recently seen the conclusion of the Visitation into the notorious Legionaries of Christ, and there’s a long-running one into female religious orders in the US – and, like the mills of God, they grind somewhat slow but they grind exceeding fine. This is why the targets of Visitations tend to be a little nervous.
Thus the Irish Apostolic Visitation, on foot of the sexual abuse crisis, with an extremely high-powered delegation whose official remit involves assessing the Irish Church’s child protection norms, whether they are fit for purpose, and making sure that they’re being fully implemented. At the core of this are the visitators who have started work in the country’s four metropolitan archdioceses, from which they will radiate outward. These are Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, emeritus of Westminster, who is taking on Armagh; Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, who is dealing with Dublin; Archbishop Tom Collins of Toronto in Cashel and Emly; and Archbishop Terry Prendergast of Ottawa in Tuam. There are further teams dealing with seminaries, which we’ll come on to presently, and both male and female religious orders. Moreover, it’s not merely that the visitators are high-powered, but that they have specific expertise: +Cormac was deeply involved in the Nolan process in England and Wales, +Seán has had to clean up Bernie Law’s mess in Boston, and so on.
So that’s the basic scenario. If the visitators stuck to a minimalist interpretation of their official remit, they wouldn’t have much to do. The Irish Church does, after all, have very tough child protection norms monitored by an independent ombudsman who issues an annual report. But of course it’s not about that. The crimes of the past can’t be ignored, which is why the visitators have been making a point, early on, of holding meetings with abuse victims, as well as doing some rather pointed preaching at the cathedrals. And this is exactly as it should be. If there’s to be some sort of healing process, the outside inspectors should be taking the lead; at any rate, it will do the Visitation a power of good for them to hear victims’ stories at first hand.
This has also provoked something of a division in what we may term the victims’ community. There are those abuse victims, including a few of the most prominent, who are totally invested in the idea that the Church as a body can do no right – which may be entirely understandable from their individual point of view. Hence the statements that came out prior to the Visitation declaring it a whitewash in advance, and calling for a boycott. On the other hand, many have been going along to the meetings – though often expressing their distrust of official Church channels, they’ve been keen to have their face time with the visitators, tell their stories and make whatever contribution they can to preventing this happening again. I make no moral judgement here: the victims are a diverse group of people, and it’s up to each individual to do what feels right for him. From the other side, it’s an extremely delicate task, and it’s been requiring O’Malley et al to use all the diplomatic skills at their disposal.
But as ever in Church affairs, there is politics. In this case, watching the spin tells you a lot. About a year ago, following the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports, when the reputation of the Irish hierarchy was squarely in the toilet, a very curious thing happened. All of a sudden, the Dublin media went all Ultramontanist, practically arguing for an imperial papacy. One would not have been entirely shocking in that period to have opened up the Irish Times of a morning and found Tintin O’Foole calling on the Pope to dispatch a crack squad of Swiss Guards to gun down malfeasant Irish bishops.
And then the Apostolic Visitation was announced, and all of a sudden, the trenchant critics of the discredited Irish hierarchy were suddenly demanding, er, that Rome keep its hands off our discredited Irish hierarchy. Not only that, but they were using phrases like “retrograde ecclesiology” that may have caused some cynics to suspect that the discredited Irish hierarchy was actually briefing against the Visitation.
Such cynics will have had their case strengthened by the leaking of the Storero letter just as the Visitation was entering its busiest phase. Two things are worth bearing in mind here. First, while the Holy See leaks, it leaks to the Italian media or well-connected parts of the international Catholic press; it doesn’t leak to RTÉ. This leads one to suspect that the leak came from within il circolo magico irlandese. Second, whilst one can say a lot about the current crop of Irish bishops, nobody can accuse them of being stupid. It doesn’t matter that the Storero letter, while embarrassing, is not the smoking gun being claimed (see John Allen and Jimmy Akin for analysis); whoever leaked the letter, at that strategic time, would have been able to predict exactly how it would have been received by the media, that there would have been some pretty big claims made about it by SNAP, and that it would serve to shift the blame from Dublin to Rome. Since at least some people tried to push that exact line with Judge Murphy… yes, it looks suspiciously like an attempt to derail the investigation.
This leads us to the question of why, when the Irish hierarchy is so completely discredited, there should be any motivation in trying to derail a Visitation process that offers at least the possibility of a fresh start. I put this down to the standard reflex of any bureaucracy trying to protect itself, especially since the visitators’ report to Rome will undoubtedly lead to some shakeup of Church structures in Ireland.
Most immediately, there’s the issue of Cardinal Brady’s retirement. Brady himself has asked Rome for a coadjutor archbishop, which indicates that he’s amenable to allowing himself to become a figurehead, before perhaps retiring on health grounds. But of course, as Hosni Mubarak could tell us, it isn’t simply a matter of an orderly transition. Who exactly gets the Armagh job is likely to be an area of much contention. It also impacts on Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s chances of getting that red hat, or the plum job at the Holy See that his supporters have long been briefing the Dublin press their man is in line for. In any case, a vacancy at the top stokes factionalism.
On a more structural level, I draw your attention to the distinguished moral theologian Prof Fr Vincent Twomey. Twomey has got a reputation for being outspoken about the deficiencies of the Irish Church, due not least to him being too old to hope for advancement in the hierarchy. What is more, Twomey’s doctoral supervisor was one Prof Joseph Ratzinger, and the two remain close enough for Irish bishops to get a nervous twinge whenever Twomey does his outspoken thing. One of Twomey’s themes of late has been that 26 dioceses are far too many for a country like Ireland, when Germany gets by with a mere 27 serving far more Catholics. He suggests a more rational number might be, say, eight. I think this may be too radical – and the enormous German dioceses have their own problems of bureaucracy – but let’s allow that there are lots of depopulated rural dioceses that aren’t really sustainable. With three currently sede vacante, and three or four more due to become vacant in the near future, there’s certainly scope to knock it down to, say, fifteen. One also notices that some retiring auxiliaries have not been replaced. That’s certainly a possibility to watch out for.
But our local hierarchs seem especially unnerved by this guy:
This is Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who is heading up the visitation of seminaries. This last week, +Tim has been in Maynooth, having previously dropped in at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. Why has Dolan got people so jittery?
I would suggest that the abuse crisis tells us there has been something badly wrong with priestly formation in Ireland for a long time. Certainly, the great vocations boom of the 1950s and 60s was taken as an uncomplicated sign of the Church’s strength, without much attention being paid to quality. This meant that a lot of people were ordained who should never have been allowed near the priesthood. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the brightest young priests joined the orders – the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits – and were no sooner ordained than they were put on the boat to Ayacucho or Zamboanga. That’s without even getting into our long list of Irish bishops who should never have risen above monsignor.
So, formation is evidently an issue, and demands serious attention. I would point out here that not only does Dolan have the invaluable experience of having picked up the pieces of the Milwaukee archdiocese after the debacle that was Rembert Weakland’s reign, he is being assisted by Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, who ran a visitation of US seminaries a few years ago. Get that: the Archbishop of Baltimore is the assistant. That, I think, counts as taking the matter seriously.
But this is where we encounter not only bureaucratic but also ideological resistance. I know I have this occasional argument with Shane over the importance of Irish Jansenism – I think it’s still a significant cultural factor – but the fact is that, today, Maynooth has a well-earned reputation as a stronghold of hardline Modernism. It’s the sort of place where seminarians caught reading Balthasar or Ratzinger are sent off to be interrogated by a Modernist star chamber on their ideological deviations; and if you don’t satisfy them, you’ll be questioned by a feminist psychologist about your sexual preferences. The result is a generation of priests who are much more au fait with the thought of Wilhelm Reich or Immanuel Velikovsky than marginal, eccentric thinkers such as, um, the Pope.
And this is why the spinning against Dolan’s part of the Visitation has been the most intense. Even such a publication as the Phoenix, not known for being a partisan of the Irish hierarchy, has been fulminating against Dolan, cast as B16’s hatchet man imposing a narrow theological worldview on those poor Maynooth seminarians. Dolan’s presence has also aroused the ire of the “Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland”, an organisation of flared-trousered hippies currently waging a battle for gender-neutral language in the new Missal. This, after all, is not merely a matter of pushing a few elderly bishops into retirement; it’s about the future direction of the priesthood in this country.
Personally, even if attitudes in Irish society have changed, I think a more rigorous and orthodox priesthood would be no bad thing, certainly in comparison to the free-for-all that developed in the 1970s. And the Irish hierarchy have so disgraced themselves that, really, a serious investigation followed by reorganisation is long overdue. We’ll have to wait for some time to get a sense of what’s going to come out of the Visitation but, if it’s annoying the ecclesiastical bureaucrats, it must be doing something right.