Time for the faithful to choose our own bishops


The bishops meet today. They must rediscover their consciences . . . and slash their numbers by at least 50 per cent

ONCE THE five bishops resign and relevant action is taken with regard to others in high office who failed in their responsibilities, the next question is: where do we go from here? As Cardinal Brady said, action must be taken.

The first action required by the church, it seems to me, is a moratorium on all episcopal appointments. In addition to the three dioceses that will become vacant, the bishops of some seven other dioceses are soon due to retire. They should not be replaced. Apostolic administrators (such as bishops from neighbouring dioceses) could be appointed to care for the dioceses in the interim period.

In the meantime, an honest investigation of the culture of the Irish Catholic Church itself is needed. Scrutinising “traditional Irish Catholicism” would call for a long-term commitment at local and national level. This should begin immediately.

Parallel to this, a thorough investigation into the present structures of the Irish church should take place. Two related observations in the Dublin diocesan report struck me.

First, the poor managerial structures in the Archdiocese of Dublin (and thus poor lines of communication) seem to have been a factor in the cover-up and inaction. Presumably, the other dioceses are not much better managed.

Second, with reference to the Irish Bishops’ Conference, the report quotes a bishop who suggested its modus operandi was to try to achieve a “consensus”. Perhaps the “lowest common denominator” would be more accurate.

The size and the nature of the Bishops’ Conference works against effective leadership at local or national level. Each bishop fears to tread on the toes of the others, not to mention criticise them. Worse still, there is a marked general tendency in the Irish Bishops’ Conference to hide behind the episcopal bench, as I pointed out in a public debate in Maynooth (published in The Furrow, 1994).

The Pope, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, is on record as expressing his concern about the way episcopal conferences in general tend, if I may so put it, to undermine the personal responsibility of each bishop for his own diocese and for the church as a whole. The result is the lack of moral or spiritual leadership at all levels of the Irish church.

Ratzinger says episcopal conferences should not simply aim at making resolutions and producing documents, but work “towards enlightening [forming?] the consciences [of the bishops themselves!] and so, on the basis of truth, making them more free”.

Bishops carry a huge responsibility for the spiritual, emotional, social, and, to a certain degree, physical wellbeing of all the faithful, lay and clerical, practising or non-practising. That is why they are given titles of reverence and are vested in symbolic vestments. Their present disgrace has also brought the sacred symbols of their office into disrepute.

Priests have been found guilty of unspeakable damage done to innocent children and their families, crimes that cry to heaven for vengeance. They have, thereby, also dragged all that is best in our Catholic tradition into the gutter. They have soiled us all. The damage done is enormous. It will take generations to make reparation.

These criminals have caused profound damage to the numerous laity, men and women, who have remained “faithful”, despite the scandals and the failure of the Irish church to nourish them, their children and grandchildren on the riches of this faith.

That is another topic. The present crisis is causing indescribable distress to all Catholics, especially those closest to the church.

Those at the top of the hierarchy as well as many clerics under them, it seems to me, have failed to act responsibly. They failed to listen to their conscience, which is, put crudely, that delicate sensitivity for right and wrong which is innate in all human beings.

But it can be silenced, at least temporally.

Failure to listen to one’s conscience can be due either to weakness of the will (ambition, human respect, cowardice, smugness – the vice of so many Irish clerics in the past) or of the mind, such as the false, subjectivist notion of conscience that reduces it to an excuse mechanism. The result is, at best, moral inaction; at worst, moral turpitude. For evil to thrive, it suffices for the good do nothing.

The unprofessional, inadequate managerial structures of the Dublin archdiocese, it seems, were partly responsible for the cover-up and inaction – plus the tendency to blame others higher up. But the real cause – and it is frightening – is the lack of expected emotional response to reports about the abuse of children. Nowhere, as far as I can see, was there any expression of horror or outrage by those who were told. Horror and outrage are the natural passions of the good person which God gave us to ensure that we get up and do something in the face of injustice done to others.

If we are to take the question of change seriously, the management of individual dioceses must be raised immediately, together with the question of a restructuring of the Irish dioceses themselves. Both are related.

To start with, we have simply too many bishops and too many dioceses. The excessive number of bishops prevents them from giving the kind of leadership needed by the church today. Imagine 33 ministers trying to come to an agreed statement around a cabinet table!

As I pointed out in my book, The End of Irish Catholicism? (Dublin, 2003), we have too many dioceses (26) for such a small Catholic population, one less diocese than for the massively larger German congregation. At the very most, 12 dioceses would be sufficient in Ireland (including a reduction of the size of the Archdiocese of Dublin to the present county boundaries).

Eventually, new bishops must be chosen. Apart from the usual qualifications required by canon law, their suitability for what the Murphy Report calls the secular role of a bishop must be considered. After all, a bishop plays a not-insignificant role in civil society (schools etc).

The system to date has failed. I do not deny that Rome may bear some responsibility. But I would place the main responsibility on the fact that the Irish hierarchy has in effect produced a self-perpetuating mediocracy. Incompetence breeds incompetence.

It is the bishops who, traditionally, propose candidates to Rome. Some bishops may have more influence in Rome – and use it to promote favoured candidates, especially if they can be sold to Rome as “sound men” (in other words, “orthodox”) – or to raise some “obstacle” to blacken an undesirable candidate (who might “rock the boat”).

Such a sterile orthodoxy is as far from the truth of scripture and Catholic tradition as Marxism is from the true plight of workers. (Recent episcopal appointments might indicate that, at last, Rome seems to be bucking the previous trend.)

Some other way of choosing suitable bishops, which will involve some real participation by priests and laity of the newly constituted dioceses, must be found. From my own experience here and abroad, faithful Irish Catholics and priests could, uniquely, be entrusted with this task, without the danger of causing the kind of divisions in the church that would almost certainly happen in most other European countries.

Part of the collective task of coming to terms with our immediate Catholic past must be to explore possibilities for more positive input into church life by laity and priests, including the exercise of a greater role in choosing bishops – successors to the Apostles and major public figures in Irish society.

An awesome – and unenviable – task.

The Rev Vincent Twomey is professor emeritus of moral theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth

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