Politics & Policy

Erin Go Bonkers

A radical proposal for the desperately needed reform of the Irish Church

While America’s attention has been absorbed in recent weeks by domestic affairs, something quite remarkable has become unmistakably clear across the Atlantic: Ireland — where the constitution begins, “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity” —  has become the most stridently anti-Catholic country in the Western world.

Its Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, recently took to the floor of the Dáil to denounce the Vatican as a house of “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . [and] narcissism” and to commit an act of calumny against Pope Benedict XVI, accusing him of being a party to the coverup of the “rape and torture of children.” Ireland’s attorney general plans to introduce a new law that threatens priests with five-year jail sentences if they do not violate the seal of confession when pedophilia is confessed. Polls indicate considerable support among Irish voters for such an unprecedented violation of religious freedom, and the Irish press has indulged its anti-Church phobias with virtually no restraint.

#ad#There can be no doubt that the crisis of clerical sexual abuse — and the parallel crisis of local Catholic leadership that failed to address the problem — has been especially acute in Ireland. Benedict XVI condemned both the abuse and the coverup of abuse in a stinging letter to the entire Church in Ireland 16 months ago, a letter that condemned abusers and their enablers while offering a heartfelt apology to victims. Apostolic visitations of the principal Irish dioceses and seminaries have been undertaken, on Vatican orders, by bishops from the United States, Canada, and Great Britain; their reports, one understands, have been blunt and unsparing.

What has not happened, and what ought to happen sooner rather than later, is a wholesale replacement of the Irish hierarchy, coupled with a dramatic reduction in the number of Irish dioceses. Ireland is in desperate need of new and credible Catholic leadership, and some of it may have to be imported: If a native of Ireland could be archbishop of New York in 1850, why couldn’t a native of, say, California be archbishop of Dublin in 2012? The United States and Canada, in particular, have Anglophone bishops who have demonstrated their capacity to clean house and reenergize dioceses evangelically. Thus the Vatican, not ordinarily given to dramatic change, might well consider clearing the Irish bench comprehensively and bringing in bishops, of whatever national origin, who can rebuild the Irish Church by preaching the Gospel without compromise — and who know how to fight the soft totalitarianism of European secularists.

In the wake of Taoiseach Kenny’s hysterical rant in the Dáil, the Vatican recalled its nuncio to Ireland for consultations, a clear sign of displeasure with Irish politicians who, for whatever reasons, deliberately foment anti-Catholic hysteria. Yet as distasteful and irresponsible as Kenny’s attacks were, they underscore the fact that radical changes are needed in the Catholic Church’s leadership in Ireland — now, not at some indeterminate point in the future.

The deeper question that the past several weeks of Catholic-bashing in Ireland has raised — How on earth did this most Catholic of countries become violently anti-Catholic? — touches on the modern history of independent Ireland; serious answers to that question are likely to offer little comfort to either Irish romantics or defenders of the old alliances between Church and state.

#page#Sixty years into the 20th century, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Quebec were among the most intensely Catholic nations on the planet. Fifty years later, Quebec is the most religiously arid space between Point Barrow and Tierra del Fuego; Portuguese Catholicism, outside the pilgrimage shrine of Fatima, is hardly robust; Spain has the most self-consciously secularist government in Europe; and Ireland has now become the epicenter of European anti-Catholicism. What happened?

Perhaps some comparative history and sociology suggest an answer. In each of these cases, the state, through the agency of an authoritarian government, deliberately delayed the nation’s confrontation with modernity. In each of these cases, the Catholic Church was closely allied to state power (or, in the case of Quebec, to the power of the dominant Liberal party). In each of these cases, Catholic intellectual life withered, largely untouched by the mid-20th-century Catholic renaissance in biblical, historical, philosophical, and theological studies that paved the way toward the Second Vatican Council. And in each of these cases, the local Catholicism was highly clerical, with ordination to the priesthood and the episcopate being understood by everyone, clergy and laity alike, as conferring membership in a higher caste.

#ad#Then came le déluge: the deluge of Vatican II, the deluge that Europeans refer to as “1968,” and the deluge of the “Quiet Revolution” in la Belle Province. Once breached, the fortifications of Counter-Reformation Catholicism in Spain, Portugal, Quebec, and Ireland quickly crumbled. And absent the intellectual resources to resist the flood-tides of secularism, these four once-hyper-Catholic nations flipped, undergoing an accelerated course of radical secularization that has now, in each case, given birth to a serious problem of Christophobia: not mere indifference to the Church, but active hostility to it, not infrequently manifested through coercive state power.

This, then, is the blunt fact that must be faced by bishops, priests, and lay Catholics who want to build the Church of Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI — the Church of a New Evangelization — out of the wreckage of the recent Irish past: In Ireland, as in the other three cases, the Church’s close relationship with secular power reinforced internal patterns of clericalism and irresponsibility that put young people at risk, that impeded the proclamation of the Gospel, and that made the Church in these places easy prey for the secularist cultural (and political) wolves, once they emerged on the scene.

And that is why the leadership that Catholic Ireland needs may have to be imported, at least in part. Men of indisputable integrity and evangelical passion who have no linkage to this sad, and in some instances tawdry, history are needed to lead the Irish Catholic reform for which Benedict XVI has called. I know no serious observer of the Irish Catholic scene, anywhere, who disputes the necessity of clearing the current bench of bishops; I also know no one who thinks that a reconfigured Irish episcopate, even one leading fewer dioceses, can be drawn entirely from the resident clergy of Ireland today. This may be one factor leading to the current languid pace in reforming the Irish hierarchy; and that lassitude is what gave Taoiseach Kenny the opening for his latest rabid attack on the Church, the Holy See, and the Pope. All the more reason, then, to make the reform of the Church in Ireland truly radical by looking outside Ireland for men capable of helping lead this once-great Church back to evangelical health.

— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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