Church divisions on Irish College


WHEN THE Vatican in March released its summary of the the findings of apostolic visitation teams to Ireland, there was in it an echo, a hint, of the extraordinary report of one of its teams on the Irish College in Rome whose details were published by The Irish Times yesterday.

Underlying the assumptions of the March summary on new pastoral priorities was a concern for orthodoxy and its enforcement. There was a sense that the church’s failings on priestly abuse were rooted, in part, in a loss of control of priestly formation and the dilution of the authority of the Magisterium which many conservatives saw as a result of Vatican II. There was also a concern at what it saw as the loss of distinctive priestly identity, of their essential separateness and aloofness, that some liberals see as fostering the culture of clericalism.

In essence, what seemed to be the distinctive message of Pope Benedict himself, was that liberalism, what he sees as the relativism of à-la-carte Catholicism, was to blame. A return to old ways was needed. The summary complained of a tendency “fairly widespread among priests . . . to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium . . . this serious situation requires particular attention . . . it must be stressed that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the church is not the authentic path towards renewal.”

That the Pope’s Irish College visitation team led by Archbishop, now Cardinal, Timothy Dolan, should reflect such an approach and agenda in their scathing report is hardly surprising, although the apparent crudeness of the group’s methods do the church no credit. The report and its findings of “anti-ecclesial bias” in the formation of priests has the hallmarks of a preordained conclusion fleshed out with retrospective justification. It contained “serious errors of fact”, according to Ireland’s four archbishops. Their draft response to the Vatican spoke of the report prioritising “its own view of orthodoxy, priestly identity, separation and devotion” and of its “harsh judgments on staff members . . . unsupported by evidence.” And four priests, removed or returning voluntarily from Rome, have paid a heavy price for this agenda-driven report.

While the process of a church internal inquiry is not a judicial one expected to be conducted to judicial standards, yet there must still be an onus on it to proceed through fairness and due process. The moral authority of the church itself cannot but be affected.

Whether or not the Irish College was indeed a hotbed of liberal subversive methods – a notion difficult to reconcile with its distinctly unradical patrons’, the four Irish archbishops – it has become an unfortunate pawn in the church’s internal war for orthodoxy. Other examples include those Irish priests recently muzzled and the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most of America’s 57,000 nuns, now placed under theological receivership. At the same time, the Pope now proposes to bring back the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X, followers of French bishop, Marcel Lefebvre, into the fold. Our cards are marked.

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