Church needs to take radical steps

Church needs to take radical steps
To mark Christian Unity Week, Dean Robert MacCarthy offers a remedy to current woes


This is winter time for the Church and unlike the climate it is not soon going to be succeeded by spring and summer. The evidence of sexual abuses in America and Europe has triggered a worldwide decline in the Roman Catholic Church and it is natural that the reaction of the Church is to circle the wagons and hope for the best. It was not always so.

Many of us remember the days of the Vatican Council (1962-65) which was called by Pope John XXIII against all official advice. The council revealed a confident and hopeful Church which was happy to see real power being delegated to the bishops and so to local Churches.

It was a confident Church which set up the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) which brought out agreed statements on authority and the Eucharist. They spoke of convergence in the not too distant future in respect of these thorny doctrinal matters.

What happened? The Vatican took fright and we have not heard much more of the international commission. In fact, since the time of the council in the 1960s we have seen a rowing-back by the Vatican on all the concerns of the council — the recent ‘reform’ of the liturgy is merely the latest example.

Here in Ireland all the Churches are failing to pass on the faith to the under 30s, but since the great majority of Irish Christians belong (at least by baptism) to the Roman Catholic Church it is that Church that this article will be mainly about.

The Church is belatedly doing what it should have been doing all along — led by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin it is being entirely open with the civil authorities about particular cases of sexual abuse.

But the damage has already been done in the eyes of the majority of Irish people. The general approval for the Taoiseach’s speech demonstrates that this is so.

Mass attendance is what really counts — in Dublin it is down to 30 per cent in the middle class areas and much less in those of the working class. The Church is in freefall even if its leaders refuse to face facts.


So what should the Church be doing in the next 20 years when, if it continues as at present, the roof will fall in on it for lack of priests?

Remove the obligation for celibacy from Priests of the Western Rite (the Eastern Rite has always had married Catholic priests). This will not in itself, as many imagine, solve the problem.

The Church of Ireland has always had married priests and now women priests, but it too is scraping the barrel for clergy. Since I have to meet many of these scrapings I know what I’m talking about. What is needed is a more fundamental reform of what a priest is for vis-à-vis the people of God.

The bishops need to engage with the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) instead of ignoring it.

The association consists of 500 of the more forward looking Catholic priests and according to an article in the current edition of Phoenix its agenda includes cutting back the power of the Roman curia vis-à-vis local Churches and developing the structures of participation and accountability at parish and diocesan levels.

A start on this might be made by reforming the appointment and role of bishops.

At present the only criteria seems to be a willingness to implement the conservative Vatican line and recent appointments in Austria and the low countries show how disastrous this can be.

In fact, this centralising of all Episcopal appointments in Rome is a relatively new thing. The construction of a Terna of three names chosen by the diocesan clergy is of course still done, but it is now a mere formality.

Contrast this with appointments to the See of Dublin in the later 19th Century when the names on the Terna and the voting were published in The Irish Times!

Clearly the decisive decision was one made by the diocesan clergy which was then forwarded to the Pope for his approval.

The number of Irish bishoprics should be reduced — it is ridiculous that about one quarter of Catholics in the Republic should be in one diocese, Dublin.

But the recent filling of the tiny diocese of Achonry, when it could so easily have been joined to Killala, shows that there is no appetite for reform on the part of the powers that be.


As Bishop Willie Walsh has pointed out, the parish priest is still well regarded in his local area, even by people who say they have no time for ‘the Church’.

The Church needs to build on this popularity at grass roots level. At my home near Clonmel, I was recently visited by the local parish priest.

He was able to tell me that they were making progress with a parish finance committee and a pastoral council, but he was depressed that this was not being replicated at diocesan level.

In the Church of Ireland we have had diocesan councils for nearly 150 years. Why doesn’t the Catholic Church have any?

Archbishop Martin has grasped the nettle of Catholic patronage of almost all primary schools and has indicated his willingness to stand down from being the universal patron in his diocese.

But the Church needs to grasp the much harder nettle of preparation for first communion and confirmation being left to the schools. Both need to be done by the parishes.

Until this happens, these sacraments will continue to be treated as rites of puberty with no possibility of excluding non-church goers.

A recent Would You Believe television programme spelled out the current situation in Lucan, Co. Dublin. There is a clear need for a diocesan policy on this matter to protect parish priests.

I’m not at all clear that the above will avert the hurricane which is fast approaching, but at least it will show that the Irish Church is making serious reforms and that it deserves peoples’ loyalty.

The Very Rev Robert MacCarthy is Dean of St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Dublin.