Archbishop Martin's mission to jump-start Church being stalled by myopic clericalism
No room at the inn for priesthood candidates if you're a woman, or a man who can't take a vow of celibacy - and move along please if you're a practising gay. What a chilly Christian family the Catholic Church has let itself become. No wonder there are only 55 trainee priests at Maynooth.
The Catholic Church has been stalled at a crossroads for some considerable time, with dwindling vocations and shrinking congregations. Those who seek to jump-start the institution - such as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin - face obstacles from a doggedly conservative bloc.
This week, we see him isolated among the Irish hierarchy in his stance on Maynooth, with nobody in the Church's management class willing to support him. The Irish Church is inherently traditionalist, and Archbishop Martin (who trained in Rome and spent most of his career there as a diplomat) is not part of that clerical club.
However, the Irish people trust the Archbishop of Dublin and admire his sincerity. That tells its own story.
Perhaps the bishops and archbishops genuinely disagree with his decision to send the Dublin diocese's trainee priests to Rome rather than Ireland's national seminary. Equally, it's possible they are closing ranks and playing old school politics.
What's clear, however, is the Catholic Church is an organisation whose leaders have become serial fire-fighters - no sooner is one crisis doused than another flares up. Consequently, it has lost most people's confidence, with even the faithful resigned to hearing its name coupled with scandal.
The latest scandal has various components. "I don't think this is a good place for students," said Archbishop Martin, setting the cat among the pigeons with troublesome questions about St Patrick's College, Maynooth. Gay sexcapades there have been alleged. There have also been suggestions of clashes between seminary authorities and the Archbishop, and core theological disputes.
The Maynooth storm equates in microcosm to what's happening in the Vatican. A tug-of-war is being fought out between progressives who regard cooperation between laypeople and clerics in parishes as the Church's best future safeguard, and conformists who prefer a rigid and controlling clerical caste. The latter favours the 'pray, pay and obey' model for parishioners.
Stories about seminarians allegedly using the gay dating app Grindr may well have been the catalyst for Archbishop Martin. But the quarrel between Maynooth and the Archbishop is not of recent vintage. His concerns about the seminary centre on the kind of Church he hopes to help usher in.
Previously, he has expressed doubts about the calibre of candidates presenting for the priesthood, with an ultra-conservative young generation emerging from the seminary. How priests are formed could be the real cause for disagreement, underpinning his decision to send this year's intake of three candidates from Dublin to Rome.
Maynooth appears to be turning out theologically inflexible priests, while Archbishop Martin prefers clergy who would work closely with the laity rather than attempt the King Cnut-like task of imposing Church teachings to congregations who choose to ignore them.
Obviously, the Archbishop sees something amiss currently in the Maynooth culture. He is the only senior cleric in the Irish Church to express his reservations publicly, although somewhat gnomically. More transparency would be preferable.
Some of the priests who trained at Maynooth are "more conservative than Pope Benedict was", says Father Brian D'Arcy, who has long been a champion for reform of Church structures. "They are very clerical and want to be called Father and wear fancy vestments, whereas Pope Francis says he would like his shepherds to smell of sheep - to be part of the rough and tumble of life. This doesn't seem to be the kind of training they are getting in Maynooth," he told the Irish Independent.
With only around 20 men going for the priesthood in Ireland each year, bishops are struggling to allocate priests to parishes. Perhaps this shortage means they are less than focused on weeding out unsuitable candidates for the priesthood. In Maynooth, six seminarians from an intake of 10 were asked last year to take time out to consider their vocations because they were regarded as too conservative. Complaints were made to the relevant bishops, who intervened, leading to three men being accepted back by the college.
The bishops need priests. But Maynooth's authorities are obliged to take a more nuanced overview, and their perspective was disallowed. Meanwhile, a colossal problem within the Catholic Church is highlighted: by refusing to use all talents on offer, such as those of women, or men who don't want to be celibate, it must take what it can get. What will be the repercussions?
Archbishop Martin appears to have no tolerance for the myopic clericalism prevalent in Ireland where you don't rock the boat. Instead, he's giving it a good shake. Unlike his brothers in the hierarchy, he has a firmer grasp on reality, and Maynooth is now part of a conversation about how to move beyond those crossroads where the Catholic Church still lingers. "It would be great if Maynooth brought about a decision as regards the future shape of the Church - one that is led both by lay faithful and clerical," says Father D'Arcy.
Certainly, it is a Church in dire need of transformation, as many within its ranks acknowledge publicly, although they are censured and silenced from on high when they do.
Even with Pope Francis at the helm, the Vatican remains a gerontocracy where leadership is reserved for the elders - and if a progressive agenda exists, an observer would need a microscope to find it. While Francis is keen to introduce reforms, he is obliged to move cautiously to avoid alienating the strong conservative wing and possibly triggering a schism.
To his credit, he has shown leadership by setting up a commission of six men and six women to examine the possibility of ordaining female deacons. Female deacons are a far cry from women in key leadership roles, but they are a start.
Unfortunately, with the snail-like pace of reform, an even more beleaguered Catholic Church may be in situ by the time those deacons enter its ranks. If they ever do.