Comment & Analysis

Broad welcome as Archbishop outlines challenges for Church
Greg Daly speaks to some key voices in the modern Irish Church, as they reflect on Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s Würzburg lecture

Pope Francis.

Fr Gerry O’Hanlon

Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice

Describing Dr Martin’s Würzburg lecture as “a perceptive commentary on the situation in Ireland”, Fr O’Hanlon said that Pope Francis’ vision of a collegial or synodal Church seems the way forward in Ireland as much as the world at large. 

“I think it will be interesting when the Pope comes to Ireland next year to see the extent to which our own Church has taken up the invitation the Pope has extended to the Church worldwide,” he said.

Praising as “quite correct” the archbishop’s focus on mission, and his comments on ‘monuments’, he added that there is “a lot more discernment to be done around those kind of issues”. 

“I don’t think unilateral decisions can be made by those in charge, because as he makes it clear himself, people on the ground aren’t always supportive of those kind of views I think there has to be a lot more talking with people whether they be priests or lay people – parents – and trying to debate the issues more thoroughly, because people value their Catholic schools and very often the problems arise in very few areas.”

Agreeing with the archbishop’s observations about a lack of laity finding their voice within the Irish Church, he said, “It is true that we haven’t had a tradition of intellectually well-formed adult Catholics, but I think that’s changed: there are a lot of people now who are ready, but they don’t find the fora, they don’t find the assemblies, they don’t find the places within the institutional Church for their voices to be heard.”

Limerick’s recent diocesan synod was a laudable exception, he added, and one that has “given great energy to the diocese”.

Prof. Vincent Twomey

Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology, Maynooth

As a sociological description of the state of the Irish Church, Prof. Twomey said, “it’s very convincing and impressive in many ways”.

The main problem, he stressed, is that of the loss of Faith – “why is that?” Key questions remain to be answered, he said. “The archbishop talks about conformist Ireland – why was Ireland so conformist? What is it in Irish Catholic culture that made us so?”

While the Irish Church is by no means short of “keen intellects”, he said, there is a serious question over why they weren’t writing and sharing their thoughts in more permanent forms. This in turn invites the question of what the hierarchy has done and can do to promote Catholic intellectual life. 

“I think the bishops could begin by investing money in Catholic third-level education, perhaps setting up a Catholic University, which Newman failed to do, or setting up institutes of specialisation of which there are none in Ireland. We have no institute for bioethics, for example, one of the major pressing issues of the day, we have no institute for human rights from a Christian perspective, and we have no real research institutes into any of the areas of theology that really make theology what it is,” he said.

Distinguishing between teaching faculties – even ones with postgraduates – and research institutions, he said, “We have nothing comparable to the Catholic academies in Germany, which are not teaching academies but are fora – each city has a forum for dialogue between civil society, political society and the Church.”

The foundation of the Notre Dame Institute for Faith and Reason at the University Church on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green is a sign of hope, he added. “He did ask Notre Dame to provide a priest to set up something around Faith and reason in Newman’s church – that’s a good start. It’s a step in the right direction, and more needs to be done in that direction.” 

Fr Gerry O’Connor

Association of Catholic Priests leadership team

“Any kind of contribution like that has to be welcomed as it gets us all thinking and talking, so first of all I would say fair play to him: it’s an effort to stimulate debate and discussion that should be welcomed – that is one role of leadership,” Fr O’Connor said. 

The big challenge for the Church in Ireland, he said, is that the Irish Church needs to learn to be a Christian presence in a pluralist culture or secular society. “That’s the fundamental issue here and we have not spent much time on that in terms of what does it really mean to have a pluralist state as opposed to a secular state,” he said, noting that there are roles for Christian health and education services in such context, but there needs to be more reflection on such things. 

“One criticism I would have is that in his talk the archbishop has favoured the divestment of schools but he has been unsuccessful. I think one of the reasons he’s been unsuccessful is that both he and the rest of the leadership of the Church, in terms of the Bishops’ Conference, do not sit down with the key stakeholders to agree an approach for that,” he added. 

“For example, if you want to divest schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin, the archbishop himself has to sit down with local communities to talk about the rationale and the reason for it,” he said, continuing, “very often what we have is, for example, a leadership that has been very uptight about ownership, but doesn’t engage with a rich understanding of what it means to be a Christian presence in a pluralist culture.” This, he said, would often entail working with communities and other stakeholders to find the common good. 

Prof. Siobhan Garrigan

Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin

“I would agree with him that one significant problem underlying so much is 

the failure of the Church to involve the laity, as envisaged by Vatican II which laid out this programme of lay activism which hasn’t been taken seriously,” said Prof. Garrigan, continuing, “I think he’s right – I think that’s a really significant lack across most of the Irish Church, except in pockets.”

Going further, Prof. Garrigan said a related problem is a failure to implement the Council’s full vision for the liturgy. 

“If we take, for instance, the question of preparation of children for First Holy Communion,” she said, “which the archbishop also mentions, I agree with him that this should be taken out of schools – it shouldn’t be happening in primary schools – but in many if not most parishes in Ireland the liturgy itself is not the rich, lay-involving, holistically beautiful, aesthetic, actively-attending formative experience in Faith. The liturgy is not the experience in Faith that it would need to be for the Church to really be working.”

Prof. Garrigan added that other dimensions that could be considered when analysing how the Irish Church is where it is and how it might move forward include the effects of abuse in terms of the sense of betrayal and pain many people experienced because of the perpetration and concealment of crimes committed by clergy, ecumenism against a historically sectarian background, and environmentalism. 

The latter, she said, offers a real way forward for young people in the Church: “When they think of where the rubber hits the road, where their Faith hits the modern world – where that intersection is happening, is in facing and adapting and being responsible in the light of environmental catastrophe.”