The voiceless Irish bishops at the Second Vatican Council
The reluctance of the Irish bishops and their failure to make an impression at the council despite their intellectual firepower was a mystery requiring reflection. Some of the answers must lie in Irish church history, with its loyal ties to Rome.
A former rector of the Irish College, Paul Cullen, who died in 1878, was regarded by the curia as a loyal and orthodox Irish cleric, and was chosen by it to return to Ireland as archbishop, later cardinal, to stabilise, renew and “Romanise” the Irish church. Cullen played a big part in firmly anchoring the primacy of loyalty to Rome in the psyche of later generations of Irish bishops.
The legacy of loyalty to Rome, orthodoxy and the curia must have been in the bloodstream of the Irish bishops at the council.
The senior bishop in the Irish College, Archbishop McQuaid, had little interest in debating the reforms proposed at the council. It was reasonable to surmise that he and the other bishops felt the local church was in good shape and in no need of updating.
Each day I had lunch in the college and was seated beside Cahal Daly, the future cardinal, then a young philosopher in Queen’s University. A graduate of the Sorbonne, he had an insight into the storm for reform being raised by the French bishops.
I shared with him my enthusiasm for reform and my disappointment with the Irish bishops. He was empathetic but also the epitome of discretion. He suggested that the Dominican theologian Yves Congar was a gift to the French church and had no intellectual equal anywhere. I took this to mean the Irish bishops lacked an intellectual and charismatic giant who might have led them along new paths. Cahal didn’t elaborate.
The first session of the council ended on December 8th, 1962. A few days later I was on a bus with the Irish bishops to Ciampino airport to fly home to Dublin. As we waited to board the aircraft, the elderly Bishop Denis Moynihan of Kerry said to me: “I envy you your youth. You will see great changes in the church. I hope it will be for the best.”
Fifty years on, the jury is still out and the curia and the reformers have not quite agreed on the best way forward.
Seán McEntee was ordained in Rome. In the 1970s he was one of the leaders in the renewal of religious education in Irish primary schools. In the 1980s he was director of the Centre for Travellers in Clondalkin, Dublin. In the 1990s he was senior careers adviser in Alexandra College, Dublin. He is married with two adult children.