Irish Hierarchy being remade in image of Pope Benedict
The most influential person shaping the Irish Catholic Church today is a middle-aged American cleric of Irish and German extraction. In November 2011, Pope Benedict appointed Archbishop Charles John Brown as his nuncio in Ireland.
Along with his role as the Holy See’s Ambassador to the Irish Republic, another of his main functions is to recommend to the Vatican those he deems worthy of being ordained bishops.
Since November 2012 seven new bishops have been appointed to Irish dioceses. Three more are expected shortly.
There are 26 dioceses in the country. Several episcopal retirements are due in the next few years. Should Dr Brown remain here as nuncio, he will soon have recommended for appointment the majority of the Irish hierarchy.
His appointment as nuncio was unusual in that he was not a member of the Vatican diplomatic corps.
Ordained for the archdiocese of New York in 1989, after a short stint in parish ministry, he was sent to study sacramental theology in Rome, with the expectation he would eventually become a professor in a New York seminary.
In Rome, however, he caught the attention of the Vatican mandarins. An English speaker was required for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and he was duly selected.
During the papacy of Pope John Paul II and under the leadership of Cardinal Ratzinger, this congregation attracted the ire of Catholic liberals for its efforts to curtail theological exploration and academic freedom. It removed the faculties from amongst others, Hans Kung and Charles Curran to teach in Catholic universities.
Dr. Brown became the trusted confidante of his boss, the future Pope Benedict. He has spoken of their relationship: “I know him. He knows me. I worked with him closely for ten years. I travelled with him. I worked hard for him. He trusts me, for better or for worse”.
In spring 2010 the Vatican summoned the Irish hierarchy to Rome to account for its abysmal dysfunction regarding the clerical sexual abuse of children, as revealed in the Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports. Dr. Brown’s appointment as nuncio followed as part of Pope Benedict’s plan to restore the authority of the Irish Catholic Church.
Since arriving in Ireland in February 2012 he has maintained a strong public profile. Previous nuncios were usually elderly men, of Mediterranean background, who rarely ventured beyond the nunciature of the Navan Road.
He regularly attends liturgical functions throughout the country. He has paid several visits to Knock. On two occasions he has participated in the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, though there is no sign so far that he has been influenced by the carefree anti-establishment spirit of Celtic Christianity.
Many of those who have met him testify to his charm. He is however, somewhat eclectic in his choice of clerical company. While he has been known to have convivial conversations with conservative clerics in remote rural presbyteries, so far he has refused to meet the Association of Catholic Priests. This organisation, set up in September 2010, now having a membership of over 1,000 priests is dedicated to the renewal of the Irish Church through the implementation of the insights of the Second Vatican Council.
Dr. Brown’s main influence, so far, on the Irish Church has been in the appointment of bishops. There is a pattern to be discerned in his approach to this task. He seems to have abandoned the widespread consultation with clergy on who they feel best equipped to be bishop.
None of the new bishops appointed has been a priest in the diocese they now lead. They are all middle-aged men who have never been known to question publically Vatican orthodoxies as prevailed during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict.
They have the reputation of being careful administrators but are largely without imaginative flair. It is as if the new Manchester United manager was to try to improve his squad by signing a clutch of Irish Airtricity League defenders.
“Spitting Image” used to portray John Major, when British Prime Minister, as swathed fully in grey. It is an apt image for the present Irish hierarchy. One searches in vain amongst them, for the social justice passion of the late Bishop Peter Birch, the pastoral empathy of Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich, the folksy charm and communication skills of Archbishop Joe Cassidy and the outspoken honesty of Bishop Willie Walshe.
Last week the nuncio appointed Dublin priest, Fr Kevin Doran to the See of Elphin. He is the best known of the recent appointments. He was for some years the Director of Vocations where he proved a trenchant defender of compulsory celibacy. He led the team that organised the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 2012. Last October he resigned from the board of the Mater Hospital because it agreed to comply with the provisions of the ‘Protection of Life in Pregnancy’ legislation.
A careful intellectual, it is somewhat surprising that he used to write a column for “Alive”, an extremely right wing monthly Catholic free sheet. Alive’s handling of the depth, complexity and diversity of Catholicism is akin to the lack of sophistication with which ‘The Sun’ covers the European Union.
It is ironic that at a time when Pope Francis offers a refreshing pastoral vision of Catholicism that the Irish hierarchy is being remade in the image of Pope Benedict. Catholic liberals, well used to disappointment wonder, to paraphrase Patrick Kavanagh, ‘will it be thus forever?’
Kevin Hegarty, The Mayo News