Wanted: a modern hierarchy

Wanted: a modern hierarchy
The Church in Ireland badly needs a public affairs office, writes David Quinn


The Catholic Church in Ireland needs a full-time public affairs office. At the moment, the response of the Church to issues of the moment is far too hit-and-miss and there is an almost total lack of ‘joined up thinking’ and ‘joined up Government’, to borrow terms from the sphere of politics.

The problem was illustrated last week when the Oireachtas Education Committee issued a report on how Relationships and Sexuality Education should be revamped. One of its recommendations is that the ethos of a school not be to allowed to interfere with the delivery of an ‘objective’ RSE programme to pupils. There was no official response from the Church.

There are a number of Catholic education bodies. There is the Joint Managerial Body, for instance, which helps out Catholic secondary schools. There is the Catholic Primary School Managers Association, whose name is self-explanatory, and there is also the Catholic Schools Partnership, set up by the Bishops to “foster coherence in Catholic education at national level”.

In addition, there are various trusts overseeing schools under the patronage of various religious orders.

Then, of course, there are the country’s 26 dioceses and they are independent of one other, although, technically speaking, each is in an area under the theoretical oversight of the local archbishop.


This shows how extremely diffuse responsibility is. You can see something similar at work in how the State delivers healthcare. It is extraordinarily complex and it is often hard to know who is responsible for what, and when this isn’t clear it is hard to know who to hold accountable when something goes wrong or even to know who is responsible for getting certain things done. This is why you need joined-up Government.

Why was there no response from any of the various Catholic educational bodies to the report by the Education Committee? One reason could be that each was waiting for the other to do it. Or maybe they believed it is too controversial an issue to become publicly involved in.

But in the case of schools under the patronage of the bishops, a bigger problem is that you have 26 bosses and anything you say in public might annoy one or more of them. If and when a response is finally coordinated, it might be too late to have any impact.

In the case of the Education Committee, it did not help that its consultation process with stake-holders and other interested parties was so rushed or that the process had the feel of having a preordained outcome intent on targeting religious ethos.

The Iona Institute (which I head up) did put in a submission, but it was very short because we had to put it together around the time of the abortion referendum last year. The Joint Managerial Body also put in a submission, but it was very short as well, as did Elphin diocese. The JMB also appeared before the committee.

But no other Church body sent in a submission or appeared before the Education Committee, and by Church body I mean not just the Catholic ones, but also the Church of Ireland, the Methodists and the Presbyterians.


Adding all these together, they are patrons of the vast majority of schools in this country, especially at primary level. It should be a source of embarrassment to the Education Committee that they were not a very big part of the RSE review process, seeing as it is their schools that will be affected. If these bodies believed that they would not receive a fair hearing from the Committee, they were probably correct, given its membership.

To return to the problem of a lack of joined-up thinking in the Church (and not just in the education area), a public affairs office would be put in charge of coordination and planning.

Thus, when the Education Committee announced this review, such an office would have flagged it to all relevant bodies, including all the bishops, and found out what, if anything, was being done in response. If there was a view that the process was farcical, someone should have been found to say so. This might have been an individual bishop or a member of one of the aforementioned educational bodies.

Something that is clearly dysfunctional is the Bishops’ Conference itself. It meets only once a quarter and too many bishops seem to delegate their individual responsibility to respond to various issues to it, or to the bishop in charge of any given area who rarely seems to say anything because it might upset his colleagues.

A public affairs office would do its best to ensure that there is a response to issues of importance to the Church. This would mean having an excellent relationship with certain bishops who could be counted on to respond when something falling within their area of interest and knowledge comes up. Some bishops have a particular interest in family and life issues, other in immigration, others still in poverty issues.

If a public affairs office seems impractical or unworkable, that only illustrates the depth of the problem.

It would show how extremely difficult it is to bring about joined-up thinking within the Church in Ireland and this only makes the Church even less of a force in Irish life than it has become.

It simply has to become better at responding coherently, speedily and in a well-thought out way to the things that fall within its sphere of interest and expertise.

Maybe the bishops need to consider bringing in outside expertise to suggest ways of ensuring this happens more often, because the present situation cannot continue.