A busy year on the cards for the Catholic Church
Abortion referendum, pope’s visit and new bishop appointments will dominate 2018
Pope Francis exchanges Christmas greetings with Vatican employees on Thursday. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP
While 2017 was one of the quieter of recent years for Ireland’s religious institutions, the comparative tranquillity is unlikely to continue through 2018 – especially for the largest church on the island, the Catholic Church.
In the coming year it will have to contend with an abortion referendum and, more happily, the World Meeting of Families with a concomitant visit by Pope Francis.
The sixth abortion referendum in Ireland is already gearing up to be every bit as contentious as the previous ones.
The Eighth Amendment referendum, recognising the equal right to life of mother and unborn, was passed in 1983. It was followed in 1992 by three referendums held at once: on freedom to travel outside the State for an abortion (passed); freedom to obtain or make available information on abortion services outside the State, subject to conditions (passed); and to roll back the 1992 Supreme Court X Case judgment by removing suicide as grounds for abortion in Ireland (rejected).
In the 2002 abortion referendum, voters rejected a proposal to remove the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion and increase penalties for helping a woman have an abortion.
Next May the Catholic Church will again oppose deletion of the Eighth Amendment. The surprise would be if it were to do otherwise, considering Catholic Church teaching that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception.
Whether this matters anymore is another issue. Ongoing behind-the-scenes polls to date indicate that the Catholic Church and the media are among the least influential voices in the abortion debate.
The report from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, originally due to be published in spring, will now not be published until 2019. Earlier this month, the commission was granted a year’s extension to its work.
Already this report promises to be every bit as scarifying of the religious congregations which ran those homes, as was the 2009 Ryan report, which looked at how 18 religious congregations ran reformatories, industrial schools and orphanages in this State up to the 1970s.
Pope Francis remains very popular with the broader public in Ireland and not just the Catholic faithful. His visit is likely to be greeted by large crowds in Dublin and wherever else in Ireland he may visit, North and South.
Securing the World Meeting of Families for Dublin, which has helped ensure that visit, is something of a coup for Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin.
Such gatherings have taken place every three years since they were begun by Pope John Paul in 1994, but this is the first time it has taken place in Dublin. Martin also helped to bring the 2012 Eucharistic Congress to Dublin.
The papal visit is likely to mark the beginning of the wind-down of Martin’s term as archbishop. He is due to retire in April 2020, it would be no surprise if his successor was appointed coadjutor (with right to succeed) archbishop in 2019. He was himself appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Dublin in May 2003, the year before he succeeded Cardinal Desmond Connell.
Speculation will soon begin on who will succeed him to the post, one of the most influential in the Irish Catholic church.
Meanwhile, the new papal nuncio, Archbishop Jude Okolo, as well as preparing for that papal visit, may set about filling the growing number of vacancies among the Irish bishops as well as replacing those still serving beyond retirement.
Currently in Ireland there are no bishops in the dioceses of Clogher (Monaghan), Galway, and Ossory (Kilkenny), while Bishop of Clonfert (east Galway) John Kirby submitted his letter of resignation to Rome on reaching the age of 75 in October 2013. Bishop of Cork and Ross John Buckley did the same in 2014, as did Bishop of Meath Michael Smith in 2015. They continue in office.
There will be three further episcopal vacancies in 2019 when Bishop of Kilmore (Cavan) Leo O’Reilly reaches retirement age as well as auxiliary bishops of Dublin Ray Field and Eamon Walsh.
That is nine vacancies to be filled in the near future, with a new Archbishop of Dublin to be appointed in 2020 and a new Bishop of Ferns that year also, bringing the number of vacancies by then to 11.
As no auxiliary bishop has been appointed in Ireland since 2001, when Donal McKeown – now Bishop of Derry – was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor (Belfast), it is believed unlikely that new auxiliary bishops will be appointed in Dublin after 2019.
That leaves at least nine episcopal appointments to be made in Ireland within the next two years. It amounts to almost a third of Catholic bishops in Ireland.
Archbishop Okolo will be kept busy – not least as these appointments are to some of the most significant dioceses in the Irish church: Dublin, Cork, Galway and Meath in particular.