Whereat your host says something nice about Cardinal Schönborn for a change

Don’t worry, I’m not losing my curmudgeonly streak, but for once it’s nice to turn one’s attention to Austrian matters without tearing one’s hair out about Klingon liturgies or such. Rather, we turn our attention to a small matter of real estate in the Ottakring district of Vienna.

This concerns a local church whose congregation has got too small for it to be viable. Well, that happens all over. England is coming down with such churches, which we’ll come to in a moment. However, under a policy instituted by our old friend Cardinal Christoph von Schönborn, the Archdiocese of Vienna won’t sell its churches to property developers, nor let them go derelict. The preference is that a house of worship should remain in the line of business for which it was built.

Thus the matter of the Pfarrkirche Neulerchenfeld. While, as always in these cases, its congregation is none too thrilled at being amalgamated with another parish – nonetheless, there’s a heartwarming little story here of practical ecumenism, as the Count has gifted the church to Vienna’s sizeable, but lacking in accommodation, Serbian Orthodox community. The deed has now been signed over and the building is due to start its career as a place of Orthodox worship this summer, once necessary adjustments to the interior have been made. Moreover, with the archdiocese having previously gifted churches to the Syrians and Copts, Vienna is a bit of a pioneer in this regard.

So, apart from the disgruntled parishioners, it looks like a good move. The Serbs, who’ve up until now had three tiny churches serving a community of about 200,000, are understandably happy. And this magnanimous act of giving a sister church a helping hand certainly makes the Count look good. Nor can this sort of gesture hurt the ongoing Catholic-Orthodox unity discussions.

Now then. This has a rather obvious relevance to the matter of the English Ordinariate. One of the chronic problems facing the good old C of E is that it has too many buildings and not enough people to fill them. Well, it’s one thing for the C of E to respond to the establishment of the Ordinariate with a prickly and legalistic insistence that no Tiber-swimming Anglo-Catholics are going to be allowed to take their church buildings with them. However, as we know, formal ownership of buildings and use of buildings are not the same thing. Indeed, following the last exodus in the early 1990s there were some local moves towards church-sharing, which were scuppered under not particularly edifying circumstances.

I don’t mean to imply that the response of the C of E as such to the Ordinariate initiative has been uncharitable.  For the most part, it’s been quite understanding, and +Rowan has shown the generosity of spirit one would expect of him. Nevertheless, there are those who would rather see churches lying derelict, or being flogged off to developers, rather than have those pesky Romanists actually putting them to use. A little flexibility in this area would not go amiss, and to those of an obstructionist bent (and I’m looking at you, Bishop Chartres), I commend the spirit shown by Cardinal Schönborn. Surely, for the ingenious latitudinarians one finds in the C of E hierarchy, a little imagination is not beyond them.

If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball

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.

Knives out on the North West Frontier

Biffo Cowen’s announcement this evening that he won’t be contesting the forthcoming southern election is interesting in a couple of respects. The first is that this brings to thirty-seven (37) the number of outgoing deputies who won’t be running again, including both taoisigh from the last Oireachtas term. In a Dáil that, taking vacancies into account, only has a membership of 163, that must be unprecedented, and bespeaks something of the raw fear in the Fianna Fáil ranks, for that is the party that’s providing the majority of the retirements, and not all of deputies of pensionable age either.

The aspect, though, that will detain us a moment is that of Mickey Martin’s newly minted leadership of the Soldiers of Fortune. Well, it makes a sort of sense, for a party of desperate men. Of the other contenders, Brian Lenihan was too compromised, Mary Hanafin not much less so, and the spectacle of Éamon Ó Cuív, the living embodiment of Old Fianna Fáil, trying to position himself as the socialist candidate for the FF leadership is the sort of thing that makes you wish Myles was still with us. Martin, being a relatively plausible TV performer and having finally grown a pair and challenged Biffo, ends up leader by default. And if he arrests the FF decline he may yet succeed in turning a total meltdown into a mere catastrophe. After all, he could hardly do worse than Cowen – for that to happen, they’d have had to elect Willie O’Dea leader.

Right so, the last little spate of retirements looks suspiciously like Mickey strong-arming some colleagues into stepping down so as to have a more rational slate of candidates – it may look defeatist for FF to be running a mere two candidates in five-seat Cavan-Monaghan, for instance, but running three or four as in the past would have verged on the foolhardy. On the same sort of theme, Éamon Gilmore must be ruing his strategy of imposing running mates on sitting Labour TDs – it may have made sense with Labour over 30% in the polls, but with a slide back down to the lower 20s there are going to be a whole lot of constituencies where two Labour candidates are chasing one seat, with possible consequences we can all foresee under STV.

One suspects, though, that Biffo’s withdrawal in Laois-Offaly is more to do with the national than the local picture. Back in 2007, he pulled in a whopping 56.4% of first preferences for FF in the constituency and therewith three seats out of five. Given that sort of cushion, Laois-Offaly is just about the only constituency in the state where it’s possible to imagine FF taking a second seat. On the other hand, Biffo is such an albatross nationally that shunting him out of the way might – just might – win Martin a precious point or two in the polls.

There are, though, a couple of other retirements over the last day or two that are indicative of FF’s constituency problems. One is the termination of Noel O’Flynn in Cork North Central, leaving FF with only one candidate (Billy Kelleher TD) in a constituency where it currently holds two of the four seats. Yet, while it may mean a loss of face for FF, it’s the only sane option when there’s a maximum of one seat available to the party. In 2007 FF took two seats with 1.79 quotas – if it’s at or below the one quota mark this time, which is entirely likely, and has become profoundly transfer toxic as well, running two candidates would come close to assuring no seats at all. Fine Gael would certainly hope to bring in a second here, and though Labour running two candidates looks optimistic with the present polls, Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien is a dark horse worth a punt. The one predictable thing is that it’ll be an almighty scrap for transfers at the end, so yes, the only way to go is to dump the surplus candidate, even if he’s an actual sitting deputy.

Things get yet more intriguing though way up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Donegal North East), where Niall Blaney TD has just announced his retirement at the grand old age of, er, 37. This is not just a matter of the opinion polls, but also ties into a long-running saga of banjo-twanging Donegal vendettas.

We could, if we liked, go back to the 1970 Arms Crisis and Uncle Neil’s subsequent departure from FF ranks. We could even, if so minded, go further back. But it’s better to start off from the historic merger young Niall brokered with Bertie Ahern (remember him?) in 2006 to reunify the Blaney clan’s Provisional Fianna Fáil with the main party. Like many of Bertie’s bright ideas, this has come back to bite FF in the arse. Even initially, the merger was not universally popular in Donegal North East. It wasn’t popular with a sizeable chunk of the republican-minded Blaney organisation and electorate, which decamped en masse to Sinn Féin. It wasn’t even popular with the Blaney family, some of whom were moved to openly denounce Niall for his deviation from Orthodox Blaneyism.

The merger also proved to be not universally popular with the pre-existing FF organisation in Donegal North East and in particular with Dr Jimmy McDaid TD, who almost immediately launched himself into a fight to the death with the Blaneyite blow-ins. After much rural factionalising, the Blaneyites came out on top and Niall firmly established himself as the local party baron. Which would have been a nice ending had it not been for the continued presence in the Dáil of an increasingly pissed-off Jimmy McDaid who, though always a mercurial character, now went into overdrive with losing the FF whip, threatening independent candidacies and eventually, back in November, resigning his Dáil seat altogether, at just about the most unhelpful time imaginable for the government.

And so it is that, in a quintessentially loyal Fianna Fáil constituency where the party polled 50.3% of the vote in 2007 – and indeed, where prior to that election it had three seats out of three – Micheál Martin can look at a Donegal North East where there should be certain seats for FG’s Joe McHugh and SF’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, with FF scrabbling for the third. And while one finds it almost impossible to imagine Donegal North East without any FF TDs, all bets are off this year. Again, a one-candidate strategy beckons. Moreover, Blaney’s USP – the rural republican appeal of the Blaney name – has largely been gazumped by the Shinners, while the party baron still has to deal with a legacy of bad blood from McDaid supporters in Letterkenny. So, not only imperative to have one candidate, but imperative that that candidate should not be Niall Blaney. Step forward, Inishowen councillor Charlie McConalogue, whilst the hapless Blaney, who was campaigning most vigorously in Letterkenny just last week, suddenly finds his political career at an end.

They do play rough in Donegal, you know. Even if Micheál Martin didn’t want a night of the long knives, they wouldn’t need much encouragement. And, with FF in every-man-for-himself mode, there will be more and more of this in constituencies across the state.