The Irish Apostolic Visitation: To what end?

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What’s the mission of the Apostolic Visitors who, the Vatican announced last week, will be parachuting into the Emerald Isle next fall? According to the official press release, they are supposed to deal with the abuse crisis:

The Apostolic Visitors will set out to explore more deeply questions
concerning the handling of cases of abuse and the assistance owed to the
they will monitor the effectiveness of and seek possible improvements to
current procedures for preventing abuse, taking as their points of
reference the
Pontifical Motu ProprioSacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela
and the norms contained in Safeguarding Children: Standards and
Document for the Catholic Church in Ireland
, commissioned and
produced by
the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.

But according to a report in yesterday’s Irish Independent, the real mission is to reestablish the auld time Irish Catholicism: doctrinal strictness, regular sacramental observance, and ancient devotional practices. Not to mention “to restore a traditional sense of reverence among ordinary Catholics for
their priests” and “counteract
materialistic and secularist attitudes.”

That does seem to be the approach being promoted by the Visitor responsible for seminaries, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who recently  told a
gathering of
Irish priests “to return to basics” and to ground their ministry in “prayer,
humility and a rediscovery of identity.” Not surprisingly, his talk pleased the Irish Primate, Cardinal Sean Brady, the staunchest defender of the past.
On the other hand, it seems profoundly out of step with the ideas of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has become the champion of progressive reform in the Irish church. A few days ago, he gave a talk at the Newman Club at Oxford University in which he called for greater lay participation and, indeed, leadership in the church, to challenge “any remnants of a culture of clericalism.” The church, he emphasized, could not and should not expect to play its old role in Irish society.

Stressing renewal of the sacramental and spiritual dimensions of the
Church does not mean that the Church intends to retreat into the
sacristy. The Irish Church may once have dominated social reflection. Those days are gone and the Church must recognise that the weight of its
voice in a much more secular society has changed. To return to my
friend’s analogy, the Church must change its clothes, not just as
cosmetic change or to look more fashionable, but to have clothes which
make us more agile for the task that is ours.

The Visitor for the Archdiocese of Dublin is Boston’s irenic Cardinal Sean O’Malley, but whether he’s there to strengthen or stay Martin’s hand is hard to say. O’Malley, as Lisa Wangsness suggests in today’s Boston Globe, is Rome’s go-to guy when it comes to dealing with abuse-plagued dioceses. But, as Michael Rezendes also makes clear in the Globe  today, Martin’s the odd bishop out in Ireland.

The Vatican can’t have it both ways. So which is Ireland to have once the mess is cleaned up, a reinvigorated clericalism or a lay-led revival? You’d have to give me very good odds to bet on the latter.

  • Norman

    Mark, I do not believe it is a settled fact that dealing with the abuse crisis and strengthening orthodox Catholicism are mutually exclusive, nor that dealing with the abuse crisis and favoring the approach of Abp. Martin are one and the same. Further, I do not believe our choice as Catholics is limited to that between dread clericalism and a rainbowy wonderland of lay-led awesomeness.
    As a traditional Catholic I do like reading your blog, but I had to challenge what seems to be the assumption of this post.

  • Mark Silk

    Norman,I’m really not assuming anything, although I do think that there’s a relationship between clericalism and the episcopal cover-up of clergy abuse. And that there is a tension between revealing the names and actions of the abusers and restoring reverence for priests. It’s nice to know that you, traditional Catholic that you are, enjoy reading the blog.

  • Norman

    I do agree that there is a correspondence between clericalism and episcopal cover-ups, and the pope has said as much. The question is whether a visitation that includes among its goals strengthening traditional Catholicism is ipso facto pro-clericalism. Saying it is so, as some progressive Catholics do, does not make it so. Also, I note that “tension” is a nebulous word. I and all Catholics want abusive priests named and removed from ministry. Again, the pope himself favors this course of action. The time for purification is now. Clearing out predatory priests does no harm to reverence towards the priesthood. When people are certain that abusive priests will not be protected I rather believe that reverence towards the priesthood will increase.
    What is necessary is changing the culture of the priesthood towards one of service and away from any feeling of entitlement. This does not require radical change to the governing structure of the Church in the view of myself and many others, but a return to a proper understanding of ministry and hierarchy. Benedict had much to say about this in his May 26 General Audience:
    Don’t be surprised that somebody to your right enjoys your writing, Mr. Silk, and I hope I haven’t come across as nasty or mean-spirited here.

  • Mark Silk

    Fair enough–and you’ve come across as the opposite of nasty or mean-spirited. I would only propose that the issue of what’s called clericalism needs to include the bishops. The Vatican now seems very ready to get rid of abusers (up to and including bishops) but almost (e.g. Bernard Law) never to discipline the bishops who did the covering up. Since 2002, the “crisis” has had far, far more to do with the covering-up than the abuse itself, but this is something the Vatican continues to elide. In this regard, you might want to take a look at C. Colt Anderson’s 2004 Theological Studies article, “When Magisterium Becomes Imperium” (, dealing with Peter Damian’s approach to the sexual abuse problem, including his belief that it is, in the final analysis, the laity’s responsibility to discipline bishops. Of course, Gregory VII didn’t cotton to that idea. Ni Benedict XVI non plus, I’d say.