'This is an Irish Reformation -- Catholics turning quietly Protestant, but without necessarily changing church'
'Priests were not needed in Ireland, where for every vacancy there were 20 or more applicants." So wrote Bishop John Joseph Hogan when he recalled why in 1848 he had left his home in Bruff, Co Limerick, to become a pastor on the US frontier in Missouri. How times have changed.
Then people were starving in the Great Famine and there was no shortage of applicants for parishes. Today only a few dozen men are preparing for the priesthood in Ireland.
Yet the Vatican's summary of reports on the Irish church written for Rome by cardinals and other senior church figures who visited this island at the request of Pope Benedict, and which was issued last week, reads as if little has changed.
Those senior church figures are described by Rome as "The Visitators" -- a rarely used word that sounds like the title of a horror film. But Rome's people left no blood on the floor in Ireland. If their reports for the Pope named names and blamed anyone, the summary issued by the Vatican is anodyne. We may not read the full documents. The Holy See does not do freedom of information.
Reading the Pope's summary as a lay person who met one of the visitators, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston, I am struck by its clear assertion of top-down hierarchical authority.
It does identify the need for "a new focus on the role of the laity, who are called to be engaged both within the church and in bearing witness before society, in accordance with the social teachings of the church".
But it is not otherwise evident from the summary that Rome is excited about learning from the laity, or engaging with the everyday dilemmas that are darkening people's souls. The document issued last week in Rome reads like an organisational management brief.
Of course the summary again includes expressions of dismay and regret about sex abuse. It could scarcely do otherwise. Mind you, there is nothing to suggest the Vatican takes a scintilla of responsibility. The causes of the crisis are implicitly determined to be procedural failures and poor training of clergy, rather than a systematic abuse of power in the church or a failure of theology. This is a conservative and minimalist interpretation of what happened in Ireland that least disturbs the preconceptions of the Pope or his minders.
It is a way of seeing the problem that leads to the erection of locks and barriers around seminaries, so those training to be priests may not be corrupted by easy contact with the outside world. Presumably they will also unplug the internet. And then what?
One of the most significant paragraphs in the report comes towards the end and has received little notice. It states that: "Since the Visitators also encountered a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, Religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium, this serious situation requires particular attention, directed principally towards improved theological formation. It must be stressed that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the Church is not the authentic path towards renewal."
What this paragraph recognises is that many people who describe themselves as Catholics scarcely agree with some of the key teachings that have defined the Catholic Church in recent times. Even Irish Catholics who continue to go to church have found a way of relating to God that does not depend on Rome's version of what is acceptable. This is truly an Irish Reformation -- Catholics turning quietly Protestant, but without necessarily changing church.
The Visitators come to that conclusion based on conversations with people whom they "encountered". These constituted a relatively narrow section of Catholics and one that included some of those most likely to know best what the teachings of the Magisterium are. So chances are that the tendency is more than "fairly widespread" among the population as a whole that describes itself as Catholic.
I teach a course at Dublin City University called 'Belief and Communication'. Most students who take it describe themselves as Catholics when I distribute an anonymous questionnaire about their beliefs. Yet nearly all of these students indicate that they have read nothing or next to nothing of the Scriptures and many are ignorant of theology of any kind.
It is not surprising that the Pope's summary identifies a "need for deeper formation in the content of the faith for young people and adults". But any effort to lay down the law in that context will not work.
And when a document like last week's report uses the word "magisterium", does anyone in Rome ask or care how many Catholics know what that even means? Googling it does not help much. It appears to involve accepting that the Pope is infallible and that whatever he says, on social matters or on sex or on women or on communion, is the last word.
This is a Roman pontiff who still finds that God wants a disproportionate number of cardinals to be Italian (seven of the latest 22 in February). It is a hierarchy that still clings to a form of church organisation that has at least as much to do with the Roman Empire and medieval Europe as it has with the needs of men and women in the modern world.
The reference to "dissent" in the paragraph above suggests that those who wish to be priests may have to toe the line clearly, and that visionary thinking will not be welcome. Lay people who want their children to attend Catholic schools or to take the sacraments may also come under pressure to conform to whatever historically determined view of creation that Rome currently approves.
It is difficult to see what, if anything, last week's papal summary of the report by Rome's visitors adds to what we already know. Rome, like Brussels, now regards Ireland as a bit of a busted flush. We disgraced ourselves and we can do our penance on their terms.
Rome long valued Ireland as a source of missionaries and of Catholic settlers in new lands. Ireland no longer has that value for it. If Pope Benedict speaks to Irish pilgrims at Croke Park during the Eucharistic Congress in June, it will be by a top-down video link. More school than Skype for the Irish.