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Tom Clonan The Catholic Church can either reform itself after the Maynooth mess - or risk looking like a Fr Ted episode

Change is hard in big organisations – but the Catholic Church’s approach to the problems in Maynooth have been less than encouraging.

MY PARENTS DIDN’T like Father Ted. They didn’t get it. If my Mum and Dad were alive today they’d be in their 80s. They were a generation that grew up in an Ireland dominated by the Catholic Church. For my parents, Fr Ted was like a fly on the wall documentary about priests. They couldn’t laugh at it. They couldn’t enter into the comedic spirit of it. They simply couldn’t suspend disbelief in order to laugh at Fr Ted, Fr Jack and Fr Dougal.

It was as though you ‘couldn’t make it up’. And yet, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews had made it up. They had conceived, devised and constructed an elegant satire that eloquently described the comic, dark reality of the organisational culture of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

I have been reminded of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews in the recent media coverage of the controversies that have engulfed the national seminary at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. Media reports of a ‘gay subculture’ at the college and the alleged widespread use of the gay dating app Grindr among seminarians read like the script of a Fr Ted episode.

The news value of these stories have pushed them to the top of the news agenda. This dynamic may have obscured the real story however. To be honest, I believe the sexual orientation of seminarians or priests is largely irrelevant in the context of the grave challenges that confront the institution of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Indeed, much of the coverage has been voyeuristic and gay shaming – perhaps unwittingly revealing a deep-seated homophobic bias among some commentators.

The Church of Ireland approach 

The requirement for celibacy among Catholic clergy is however an issue that dogs that institution. In other Christian churches, celibacy is not a compulsory obligation. Many Catholic priests and nuns have spoken eloquently about the pain and isolation that such an arbitrary requirement causes. As seminarians struggle with their formation as priests, no doubt they equally struggle with their sexuality and the unnatural, unjust – I would say un-Christ-like – diktat for absolute sexual abstinence.

Fourteen men have commenced their studies at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth in the last week or so. This brings to a total of 41 the number of men preparing for the Catholic priesthood at the national seminary. Nationwide, the number of Catholic priests has fallen to around 1,900. The age profile of these priests skews towards older rather than younger. Most must now work in full ministry until they are 75 – and beyond. In twenty years, this number will have shrunk to almost nothing.

In comparison, the Church of Ireland has 539 ordained clergy serving a nationwide congregation one-tenth the size of the Catholic Church. 111 of these are women. Currently, the Church of Ireland has 35 ‘ordinands’ – men and women who are in training for ordained ministry. Clearly, the Church of Ireland does not share the same crisis in vocations that is now experienced by the Catholic Church here. Men and women alike – irrespective of sexual orientation – are free to answer their calling to Christ within the Anglican Church and may marry and have children if they so wish. As clergy, they share the same challenges and struggles as their congregation.

The problematic response from the seminary 

Meanwhile, in response to the crisis at Maynooth, it is reported that St Patrick’s College has decided to restrict and isolate the seminarians further. Apparently, the Seminary Council will eat breakfast with the seminarians each morning. In addition, attendance at evening meal with the Seminary Council has become mandatory with compulsory nightly rosary at 9pm each evening. If true, this challenges my ability to suspend disbelief. Such responses are retrograde, regressive and indistinguishable from the satire contained within an episode of Father Ted.

Seminarians need to be fully integrated into the student body on campus. ‘Training’ them in isolation – away from the communities they will live among and serve – makes no sense and will further institutionalise and harm them. The steps taken by the Seminary Council are typical of an organisation in crisis and under threat.

In such circumstances, secretive, closed institutions – like the clergy, armed forces and police – retreat further into themselves. They tend to subordinate the public good to misplaced self-interest and internal loyalties. Such strategies, designed to ‘circle the wagons’ in order to preserve ever-diminishing prestige and status, are ill-conceived, ill-considered and inimical to the long term interests of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Such strategies failed to solve the clerical child sex abuse scandals. In fact, such strategies have compounded the abuse and added to the pain inflicted on women and children by a male-dominated and deeply misogynistic organisational culture.

What I saw in the Defence Forces

As a retired officer within Ireland’s armed forces, I have first-hand experience of the defensive organisational culture of closed and secretive Irish institutions. When I uncovered evidence of widespread misogyny and inappropriate levels of sexual violence within the Defence Forces, I experienced whistleblower reprisal and a defensive and adversarial response from the general staff.

After an independent government enquiry confirmed my research findings however, the military authorities have since embraced transformational organisational change from within. Army officers and other members of the defence forces are now educated alongside their civilian peers in Institutes of Technology and university campuses across the country including NUI Galway and NUI Maynooth. The military authorities have now targeted women for recruitment to the organisation and understand fully that diversity and integration are crucial to the success of any military organisation. An army that does not reflect the society from which it is drawn will fail in its mission and will fail as an organisation.

Similarly, the Catholic Church will fail in its mission if it does not reflect the society which it purports to serve. The Catholic Church will fail as an organisation if it does not ordain women and allow for marriage among its clergy. This reality is reflected in the statement issued by the Trustees of the National Seminary in the wake of the recent scandals. In their statement, the Trustees – who include Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin – state that St Patrick’s must form priests ‘after the heart of the Good Shepherd’. This call for integration is reflected in Archbishop Martin’s observation that the Catholic Church in Ireland is in need of transformational change and has reached the ‘end of an era’. If his colleagues in the conference of Irish bishops ignore this reality, the last chapter of the Catholic Church in Ireland will resemble the final episode of a surreal and tragic-comic Fr Ted series.

Read more from Tom Clonan:

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