David Quinn: If St Patrick's can't be reformed, it should be shut down
Seminaries have been part and parcel of the life of the Catholic Church only since the 16th Century.
I say 'only' because this means that for the first 15 centuries of the Church's existence, there were no seminaries. Priests did not train in seminaries. For the most part they learned by what was, in effect, an apprenticeship system - that is, they learned by working alongside an experienced priest. A tiny minority attended universities.
What does this mean? It means that the Catholic Church did without seminaries for the great part of its history and it can do without them again. It means that the Church in Ireland can do without St Patrick's College, Maynooth, if needs be.
The key thing is that candidates for the priesthood are well trained. That means they are well trained intellectually, and also that they receive good moral and spiritual formation.
It's probably useful enough for the purposes of this exercise to think about a seminary in the same way we think about a school. Obviously, the students in a seminary will be older than the students in a school, but schools, like seminaries, want to educate their students well, they want to help form their moral characters, and in the case of faith schools, provide them with some sort of spiritual formation also.
A school can do all these thing well or badly. The course material might or might not be up to scratch. The same goes for the teachers. The principal might be good or bad. There are plenty of examples of schools in which discipline and morale has collapsed and therefore the school barely functions as it should. And there are also examples of schools where a new principal has completely restored the fortunes of the school, benefitting the teachers, the pupils and the wider community.
A good seminary, or at least good training and formation of priests, is as necessary to the Church as a well-functioning school is to its local community.
We don't know exactly what is happening at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, the national seminary, but it seems clear it is not in good shape. If it was in good shape, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin would not be transferring his students from it to the Irish College in Rome, our seminary there. The only question that remains is exactly how bad a shape is it in?
This is something every Catholic in the country has a right to know. It is not good enough that the bishops often seem to regard it as their personal fiefdom, and that it is really their business, and theirs alone, how it is run.
On radio yesterday, Archbishop Martin fleshed out somewhat his concerns about Maynooth. He referred again to the "quarrelsome" atmosphere there and to anonymous complaints being sent to the authorities at the college by some students about the sexual misconduct of other students. Some of the behaviour taking place there would be unacceptable among the trainee clergy of any church, including those that allow their clergy to marry.
Archbishop Martin admitted that some of the complaints have been substantiated. So far as I can tell from talking to past and present seminarians down the years, the reason the complaints are anonymous is that the complainants are scared they will be expelled from the seminary for blowing the whistle.
On very rare occasions, a bishop will tell you privately that they have concerns about Maynooth but even they won't say anything in public for fear of upsetting the apple cart. Well, if a bishop is scared to go public about Maynooth, what hope is there of a seminarian doing so? When the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, inspected Maynooth a few years ago, students would only speak to him under conditions of total confidentiality.
One thing the bishops ought to do to start the long process of restoring morale at Maynooth and confidence in it, is to publish Cardinal Dolan's report into it, if that is at all possible.
What's beyond doubt is that Maynooth needs a very strong, reforming president at its helm, someone with the full backing of the bishops. If need be, that person should be imported from overseas.
If this cannot happen, then maybe Maynooth ought to be closed down as a seminary and maybe remain open only as a theological school for the future priests of Ireland. Maybe, as Archbishop Martin suggested, they can spend the rest of their training out in the parishes learning the ropes from experienced priests.
That might work, but then again it might not. The seminaries were set up in the first place because that system didn't always work too well in centuries past. It's hard to get these things right.
Students at Maynooth, however, ought to take heart from the seminaries in other countries in recent years that have been set right and are now thriving. The American seminary in Rome comes to mind. But if that sort of reforming zeal can't be found, then it would be best to close St Patrick's down.