10Nov Appointment of Bishops; Brendan Hoban

Some commentators have suggested that soon Rome – in the response to the investigation of the Irish Church – will request the resignations of most of
the Irish bishops. And there are suggestions that, as a result, dioceses will be amalgamated. But whatever happens, it is clear that a number of key appointments will be made to direct the Irish Church through the difficult waters of the present time.
Quite apart from any dramatic decision in Rome, changes in personnel in the leadership of the Irish Church will happen anyway. Twenty-three of Irelandąs
Catholic bishops are over 65 years of age; fifteen are over 70 and six Irish dioceses are vacant at present. Indeed if Catholic bishops retired at 65, as
do their Anglican counterparts, only 4 Catholic dioceses in Ireland would have their present bishop.
These are fairly discomfiting, indeed damning statistics. At a time when the Irish Catholic Church has lost so much of its authority and credibility –
and with so much ground to recover – can a bench of elderly bishops be reasonably expected to provide the kind of energetic and imaginative leadership we need in an increasingly demanding and confusing world? Hardly.
Part of the difficulty is in the actual process of appointing bishops. From 1829 to 1911, the process of election was quite open and straightforward. A
meeting was held of priests and three names, in order of priority, were proposed. There was no secret about the voting and the results were published in the local press. For example, when Bishop Patrick McNicholas of Achonry died in 1852, the vote of the nineteen clergy was as follows:
Patrick Durcan (15 votes); Batholomew Costello (3) and Bernard Durcan (1).
While there was what historian Patrick Corish called something of the atmosphere of a parliamentary election about the procedure, at least it was
fairly open. But since the regulations changed in 1911, the process is very secretive. And there are a number of very obvious problems with it now.
First of all, priests generally seem to have lost faith in the process and often feel disrespected when legitimate concerns are dismissed out of hand.
Some priests now, as a matter of course, refuse to become involved in the limited consultation that takes place.
A second concern is around the effective exclusion of the people from the consultation process. It is said that some people are consulted but who they are and why or how theyąre consulted no one seems to know. It is difficult not to conclude that the present consultation of priests and people is disrespectful and patronising.
A third concern is around the kind of candidate the process surfaces. The present template of what is needed seems to be: a priest in his late 50s or
60s, who is very much in favour of traditional confessions, is against the ordination of women, supports Humanae Vitae, has a lively Marian devotion
and never writes or says anything that might be interpreted as critical. Creativity, imagination, an ability to approach reality at an oblique angle,
a prophetic disposition, an independent mind, an ability to connect with the rhythms of our times – are not valued requirements for episcopal office at
In the difficult times we live in we can easily be tempted to believe that there should be a policy of retrenchment, of getting the troops into
defensive mode. So the temptation is to avoid the very qualities we need in bishops – a spirit of openness, imagination and creativity.
For the times we live in, it is a limited and defeatist view. Promoting members of the second squad to the first team just because they achieve the
present criteria is, as we know now, a failed policy. A certain talent for defensive strategies may in the short-term seem to contain the situation but
when captains need to be appointed and players need to move into combative positions, the limitations of a retinue of corner-backs become all too
Even more worrying is that, academically, our bishops at present are drawn from a very narrow gene pool. Interestingly, few of them have any professional qualification outside theology and canon law, and as a result seem to lack the confidence of engaging with others who donąt share their background or beliefs. This means that opportunities to set out their stall
in the marketplace are avoided rather than astutely considered with the result that, on the basis that nothing exists anymore unless it is on television, the Church is effectively disappearing off the public stage.
What might a new template of bishop be? Possibly someone who is holy but not pious, creative but not controlling, decisive but balanced, approachable but
reserved, consensual but clear, agreeable but opinionated, media-friendly but stage-reserved, above all someone who will go where he wants others to
Yes, I know itsa long shot as such paragons probably exist only in the foothills of a pious imagination. And while we have reached a point where those who want to be bishops are the worst possible candidates for the position, those who should be bishops probably don’twant to know. Regardless of the calibre of new bishops appointed in the future, the notion
that they should continue making decisions on their own is a failed strategy. What wisdom can possibly emerge from a group of elderly and aged men getting into a huddle in Maynooth every few months?
What is needed is a group of mainly lay people of proven ability, wisdom and judgement who can help those inside the clerical bunker to understand whatąs
going on outside. What is needed too is a competent lay person, preferably a woman, who can act as spokesperson for the Irish Catholic Church.
For all the obvious reasons, don’t old your breath.

5 Responses

  1. Sean (Derry)

    “…. much in favour of traditional confessions, is against the ordination of women, supports Humanae Vitae, has a lively Marian devotion and never writes or says anything that might be interpreted as critical.”
    Sure sounds like excellent criteria for selecting a Bishop, but I guess it sounds ‘too Catholic’ for the ACP.

  2. Eddie Finnegan

    But, Fr Hoban, was the 1829-1911 PP-system so open or straightforward?

    22 May 1849: Armagh’s 50 PPs voted for Dr Crolly’s successor. They selected three priests for the terna: Joseph Dixon (26 votes); Michael Kieran (12); John O’Hanlon (12).
    Rome parachuted in one Paul Cullen (Kildare but really a Roman)and look what that inflicted on us all for the next 160 years. Given the most ‘democratic’ of systems, HQ can still screw up a local church for its own purposes – though there are still enough dyed-in-the-wool cullenists around to violently disagree.

    Not that the pre-Cullen Irish bishops were any more a premier league of gifted, united, pastoral communicators, ‘in caritate radicati et fundati’, than our current crew. Not, either, that the Armagh PP-electorate were intent on delivering a terna of parish-experienced pastors. Dixon had spent his thirty years on Scripture in Maynooth. O’Hanlon (despite his Armagh-sounding name)was an Ossory Theology professor for twenty years at Maynooth and (as Corish notes) a fierce and forceful O’Connell supporter: he may have got his 12 votes from his County Armagh fans because they didn’t want a Tyrone or Louth man.(Those inter-county factions didn’t totally die out in the mid-19th century!) Dixon got the job two years later when Cullen decamped to Dublin; and Kieran followed Dixon, briefly.
    Democracy after a fashion, maybe – but open or straightforward? Hmm. Maybe no wonder Rome went for centralised secretiveness a century ago.

    But, as for Brendan Hoban’s final proposal: “What is needed too is a competent lay person, preferably a woman, who can act as spokesperson for the Irish Catholic Church.” EXCELLENT! Step forward, Mary McAleese.

  3. Eddie Finnegan

    On second thoughts, maybe better keep to the traditional terna. So, on condition that 2nd and 3rd runners-up will serve as joint deputies my trio, in strictly alphabetical order, would be:
    Keenan, Marie
    O’Loan, Nuala .

  4. Maggie Flaherty

    Thanks, Eddie, for that very informative post, and for taking the time and trouble to write it.

  5. Spencer

    Genuine query here; Why is the world “increasingly demanding and confusing”? (Like Sean, I like the sound of the candidate “with the lively Marian devotion etc.” – the Irish secular press would be horrified which is an excellent thing, if we can’t horrify them then we really are in trouble.)

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