The Irish Times View: St Patrick’s College Maynooth - priestly formation and disinformation

Many Catholics will ask simply “what on earth is going on?”

 

That Archbishop Diarmuid Martin can speak of “the closed strange world of seminaries” and of the “poisonous” atmosphere in St Patrick’s College Maynooth, of which he is a trustee, will be troubling to many Catholics. Their faith in the institution of the church rattled by successive scandals, public dissension in the hierarchy over the college and priestly formation can only serve to add new concerns about the seminary’s management, the opaqueness of church governance and its continuing inability to reform. It will do little to foster badly needed vocations.

Many of the faithful will ask simply “what on earth is going on?” The complaints are general and vague, and at least two or three different agendas are being confusingly played out.

Dr Martin complained of “an atmosphere of strange goings-on ... a quarrelsome place with anonymous letters being sent around”. His decision, however, to remove diocesan seminarians to train them in Rome and his broadsides about both the college’s alleged gay subculture and inability to handle internal complaints and critics, suggests a more deep-seated critique. And a personal frustration at his own inability to effect change or persuade fellow bishops that there is a real problem.

St Patrick’s College authorities respond by saying that they share Dr Martin’s “concern” about the “poisonous atmosphere” created by anonymous correspondence and blogs, but insist unconvincingly there is “no concrete or credible evidence of the existence of any alleged ‘active gay subculture’.” They encourage people “with specific concerns to report them appropriately”, an exhortation unlikely to reassure the anonymous letter writers. But they have been given a vote of confidence by the three other archbishops and most of the house of bishops.

Somewhat confusingly, the Association of Catholic Priests has also entered the fray to defend St Patrick’s and launch a familiar attack on what it sees as right-wing forces in the church campaigning to undermine the seminary’s perceived liberal ethos and promoting a traditional orthodoxy.

Yet, apart from the disputed specifics of the management of the seminary, Dr Martin’s move will raise more profound questions about the nature and future of priestly formation. Does it make sense for the Irish church to fund two seminaries for the 67 Irish seminarians currently undergoing formation? Is the character of the formation itself suited to the task young priests face?

However, the hierarchy is also confronted by a much bigger issue. The Maynooth controversy would once have given rise to major public disquiet. That it no longer does so reflects the church’s recent history. Many Catholics have long since abandoned the institution – its princes, priests and politics – and are choosing to interpret their faith according to their own conscience.

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