Critics see it as attempt to muzzle radical voices
The current move to centralise Catholic Church agencies in Maynooth represents a revolution in the operation of the church, but one that has gone virtually unnoticed.
To the church, it offers a chance to streamline its various activities and achieve better co-ordination and cost-savings. As its spokesman, Father Martin Clarke, says: "It means having one receptionist instead of 10 receptionists for 10 agencies."
However, internal critics see the move just as much as an attempt to muzzle radical voices in the church and to exercise greater control over the activities of the various agencies. They fear the caution and conservatism of most bishops will hold greater sway in Maynooth than it does with many of the agencies operating in Dublin.
More than 40 different commissions and agencies operate under the aegis of the Catholic bishops. Covering a wide variety of areas, they developed piecemeal in the period after the second Vatican Council as the church threw itself into a variety of social and religious issues. Most are based in Dublin, but Dundalk and Athlone are other towns which host church agencies.
Tr≤caire, with more than 55 staff, is the largest agency, followed by Veritas which, because it operates a number of bookshops, is less affected by the relocation.
At the same time the decline in vocations has left the church with large numbers of empty buildings in Maynooth. The former infirmary building at the seminary is being converted into offices for the relocated agencies.
No one denies that this jumbled structure was in need of reorganisation, but the manner in which the rationalisation is being effected has angered many staff. However, none was prepared to express dissatisfaction publicly.
Officially, the exercise is about achieving greater coherence and co-ordination in the work of the various bodies. Privately, many of those affected feel other agendas are involved.
This view is summarised in the view of one observer: "It's all about putting them back in Maynooth and showing them who's boss."
Another source acknowledges that many of the problems relate to the practical difficulty of commuting to Maynooth, but insists there is also "a certain control element involved".
"You can operate very efficiently for the broader good of the church if you don't have freedom to comment and you have to go through endless administrative hoops."
The new structures are already having an impact; a new protocol on communications has been introduced and there is increased vetting of publications and statements. Sources say it takes months to get agreement on the content of bishops' statements and there is increased pressure on the more outspoken church organisations to water down their publications.
The consultation process has also drawn criticism. "They haven't handled it very well," says the representative of one commission. "There has to be proper consultation and this hasn't happened. There is no trust left in the process."