Denial is not an option for bishops
Some months ago the then Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan dismissed the recent Garda whistle-blowers as ‘just 2 out of a force of over 13,000’. Once he said it we instinctively knew it had to be untrue. It wasn’t just common sense. A defensive circling of the wagons always has denial written all over it.
The papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Browne, recently said that, after a winter of twenty years in the Catholic Church in Ireland, a new springtime is beginning. He sees ‘green shoots’, a renewed enthusiasm among young Catholics, ‘a new generation who will lead the Church forward into the next decade’. Again, once he said it, we knew it to be untrue.
At best such comments betray a naive belief that in our present circumstances as a church we can jolly up the troops by pretending things are better than they are; and at worst they betray a disrespectful patronising of Irish Catholics and their priests – because we know that what he says is simply untrue. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, you can get things exactly wrong.
At present, in the Irish Catholic Church, we have a huge problem with denial – sheer, unadulterated denial. We skirt around crucial issues, refuse to analyse them, reject empirical data without bothering to refute them, imagine we’re turning some mythical corner, pretend that the situation is not as critical as it is and, worst of all, smother everything in piety.
Recently the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) met the Irish Catholic bishops. We talked to them about the crisis in vocations. We quoted statistics from their own web-site. We explained in graphic terms that in 10 to 15 to 20 years time Irish priests – apart from a tiny cadre of aged individuals – would have virtually disappeared. In Dublin diocese (with 199 parishes to pastor) there are now just two priests under 40 years of age. The crisis is now mathematically certain. If we keep going the way we are, the future of the Irish priesthood is now unsustainable.
In fairness, the bishops accepted that the vocations situation was critical. So we asked them, in view of the fact that bishops (by virtue of their office) are responsible for ensuring that Mass is available to the people, what was their considered response to this train coming down the track at great speed. They pointed to three strategies (i) the clustering of parishes; (ii) praying for vocations; and (iii) organising weekday Communion services in the absence of a priest.
We respectfully suggested that (i) clustering is a short-term management strategy for the decade or so that we have priests to cluster; that (ii) praying for vocations hasn’t worked (that maybe God is pushing us in a different direction); and that (iii) weekday Communion services will not solve the weekend loss of Masses.
It seemed to us that the prospect of attracting sufficient male celibate vocations is so remote and that the implications of the crisis so far-reaching (the imminent closure of hundreds of parishes) that the triple solution proposed by the bishops was a wholly inadequate response to the crisis.
We proposed three strategies; (i) ordain married men of proven responsibility and virtue (there are thousands available in the parishes of Ireland); (ii) invite priests who ‘left the priesthood’ to get married to return to ministry (many would be happy to respond to the call); and (iii) to extend to women ordination to the Permanent Diaconate.
We knew we were pressing buttons that the bishops would prefer we left untouched. We knew that our proposals would give added authority to the belief that we had lost the run of ourselves. But the situation is so serious, the implications so potentially disastrous for our parishes, that we felt a huge responsibility to name the truth as we saw it.
When the ACP was founded five years ago, we were dismissed as malcontents, dissidents, trouble-makers, heretics, anti-Catholic – all because we sponsored a programme of reform and argued trenchantly for it. Then when our numbers grew to over 1,000 priests (between 25% and 30% of Irish priests) it wasn’t quite as easy to rubbish our ideas. Or dismiss our proposals when so many Irish priests and eminent theologians, who had given such sterling service to the Irish Church over several decades, rowed in behind us. We had earned the right to speak.
Yet the Nuncio didn’t want to meet us. ‘Catholic’ papers consistently did everything they could to blow us out of the water. The bishops kept us at arms length and even still some try to depict us as ‘negative’ because we hold up their solutions to the light.
We wanted to say, and we said, to the bishops that (i) the crisis in vocations is now clear from the bishops’ own statistics; (ii) that it’s obvious to everyone that there won’t be sufficient male celibate vocations to pastor the Irish Church in the future and anyone who thinks there will be is whistling past the graveyard; (iii) that it’s intellectually incredible to try and pretend that we can solve the vocations crisis without ordaining married men; (iv) that it’s disrespectful to try to jolly priests up in an effort to boost morale by pretending that the situation is other than what it is; and (v) that it’s unacceptable for bishops to blame others when it’s their responsibility to analyse the problem and to propose workable solutions.
Over the last few years I’ve listened to several bishops explaining that there’s a vocations crisis because the people have lost their faith, because priests are not encouraging young men towards the priesthood and because no one is praying enough. In essence, because it’s someone else’s fault.
I’m afraid that’s not good enough.
If the bishops don’t bite the bullet on this one, we will really know who to blame. Doing nothing is not just irresponsible but a counsel of despair. Denial is no longer an option.
We need pragmatic leaders in tune with the expectations of their people, and ruthless in their perception of reality. Fantasising about failed strategies is a waste of time.
When will that self-evident truth be accepted?