Holy See maintains tactical silence on Maynooth ‘goings-on’

Analysis: Vatican stance is to interfere when it suits – but leave well alone otherwise

The controversy in Maynooth has not gone unnoticed in the Vatican, even if there is no official comment. Photograph: Giuseppe Ciccia/ Nurphoto via Getty Images

The controversy in Maynooth has not gone unnoticed in the Vatican, even if there is no official comment. Photograph: Giuseppe Ciccia/ Nurphoto via Getty Images

 

A week has passed since the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin went public over his concerns about the national seminary in Maynooth.

He told this newspaper on Monday of last week that he “wasn’t happy with Maynooth” because of the “atmosphere of strange goings-on”. He has since repeated his concerns about allegations of a homosexual subculture and of sexual activity in the college, inappropriate for an institution preparing men for a celibate priesthood.

So how is this playing out in Rome? First of all, there no official Holy See position. Informally, the Vatican line is that an issue like this is one for the local church, the Irish Bishops’ Conference and the Maynooth trustees to handle.

When it suits, the Holy See can closely follow the “subsidiarity” principle, namely that issues – controversial or otherwise – are best handled by the smallest, least centralised competent authority.

Not, mind you, that the Holy See always sticks to this line. Just ask any Catholic dissident priest about the interest the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith takes in unorthodox opinion and you would get a different picture. Basically, the Vatican stance is that, when it suits, we interfere and, when it does not, we leave well alone.

Clerical community

Fr Míceál O’Neill is the rector of the Rome’s Carmelite-run International Centre of St Albert, a community of about 25 Carmelite religious from different countries. He speaks for many when he talks of “not understanding” Archbishop Martin’s relationship with his fellow bishops: “I don’t understand why it the [Maynooth controversy] has suddenly come to the surface now . . . If it was already well-known, it should have been looked into and solved long before now.”

Given Archbishop Martin’s widely respected record in combating clerical sex-abuse, several of the Rome-based Irish are more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. One senior Holy See figure pointed out Archbishop Martin knows all too well the implications of “going public” like this, adding that while the initial media hype may be negative, some positive change may come about in the long term.

Veteran Vatican commentator Gerry O’Connell of America magazine, someone with insight into the inner workings of the Francis pontificate, said Archbishop Martin was right to shake it up if he had serious concerns. “He is doing what Francis would do . . . he is pulling the rug from under people’s feet. He is shaking it up, trying to change it.”

Robust procedures

Many people also wonder if the Maynooth-style seminary, described by some as a “glorified boarding school”, is not something long past its sell-by date. Boarding schools, after all, can be breeding grounds for bullying, physical intimidation and sexual harassment.

Fr O’Neill said the Carmelites had tried different approaches such as having three or four novitiates live in an apartment in a parish with a director of formation. The idea is to combine real, “coal-face” parish work with study. He said, however, that the system, tried above all in Spain, broke down largely because of a lack of manpower.

Another question – albeit less frequently asked – concerns the future of two seminary colleges themselves. Is a move from Maynooth to the Irish College in Rome a case of frying pan to fire? After all, when the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, led an apostolic visitation to the college in 2011, he not only called for substantial reform but also expressed concern about the atmosphere of the college, concluding that it “suffers from the reputation of being gay-friendly, however unjust such a reputation might be”.

Many observers would argue that Cardinal Dolan’s visitation report was unfair and inaccurate, even though it led to the departure of a number of staff.

Healthier environment

Archdiocese of Dublin

Sharing with men like that (last year they came from 18 different countries) creates a different atmosphere, said Msgr O’Carroll, offering possibilities and opportunities that might be lacking in Ireland as well as being a fair reflection of the “universality” of the Catholic Church.

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