Why would anyone intending to have sex stay in a seminary for celibates?
That's the most puzzling but not the saddest aspect of current controversy about St Patrick's College, Maynooth.
The saddest is the damage that the continuing failure of the Irish hierarchy to cope well with crisis has inflicted on Ireland’s oldest spiritual organisation.
Some welcome that damage. There is hostility towards the Catholic Church, and by no means all of it from active secularists. The aggressive and punitive behaviour of bishops after Irish independence, when they had unassailable political and social power, has left a legacy of bitterness (not least among women).
But Christianity is an intrinsic part of Irish culture. For most people, that faith sustained their ancestors though centuries of fierce oppression and poverty. It was sometimes beautiful.
If people cannot find a way to adapt their Christian heritage to present needs and realities then the Irish State is poorer and weaker for it. It is a part of who we are, just as Islam also is for Irish Muslims.
Maynooth College has never sat comfortably with the popular grasp of religion, symbolically expressed once through the compassionate image of the Sacred Heart in almost every Irish Catholic home. This was a faith closer to a hunted priest than to a bishop.
Celtic myth of Christianity
An enchanting idea of the early church in
is that it was pure and simple and quite independent of Rome. If romantic and even misleading, this idea appeals both to those who wish to stay within the Catholic Church to see it reformed and to those who prefer to relate to Christ’s message in other ways.
The Celtic ideal or myth of early Christianity, and the images of deserted holy sites by sparkling stream or sea that are now associated with it, poses an enduring challenge.
The establishment of the Royal College of St Patrick at Maynooth in 1795 was of a different order. Endowed by the British as a national seminary, it adopted a rigorous approach to moral issues and an overtly loyal attitude towards the monarchy. Both were facilitated by a reactionary French influence due to the college employing French priests fleeing revolution and to Irish teachers educated abroad in the Gallican royalist tradition.
It is said that French was even for some years the customary language of the professors’ dining table, except for one end where Irish was spoken. Until 1868, Maynooth staff took an oath of allegiance to the monarch in London.
Before long, newly trained priests emerging from Maynooth became the spearhead of a burgeoning phalanx of clerics, monks and nuns. The total of all these rose from 5,000 for a Catholic population of five million in 1850 to 14,000 for just over three million in 1900. It was a job.
Ireland became a baby factory or breeding ground for the spiritual and imperial ambitions of Europe. No wonder Rome never wanted family planning.
More recently, the grey buildings of Maynooth have been a grim backdrop to meetings of a hierarchy that the public associates with scandal. Its corridors are lined with flattering portraits of princes of the Irish church. These include, already, a shockingly defiant one of Cardinal Desmond Connell, despite his controversial handling of child abuse matters.
The current controversy suggests once more that the Irish bishops, of whom there are more than needed, should shake the dust of Maynooth from their feet and find ways to reinvigorate what’s left of their church if they can.
Their response to crises in recent years displays little convincing sign of deep renewal. If their institution has a future beyond birth, marriage and death services and empty churches then much more is required.
If there really are Catholic seminarians who regularly seek sex – either gay or straight – they are cowards or something more sinister. They should walk away. The question of a married priesthood is another day’s work. Celibacy can be an adult, if difficult, option. Meanwhile, if men are unable or unwilling to adopt it then they should go elsewhere.
But the problem for Maynooth and for the Irish Catholic Church is far deeper than the twin obsessions of Ireland’s hierarchy. It is not a matter of sex, or of rigid theology. It’s not about conservative or liberal.
It is a question of the spirit, a challenge to be converted to a new order of witness and theology – one that can help Irish people of Catholic background who have rejected outdated dogma and practice as empty forms to live spiritually in the modern world.