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How To Fix The Irish Church?

George Weigel says that Ireland has become “the most stridently anti-Catholic country in the Western world.” Excerpt:

 What has not happened, and what ought to happen sooner rather than later, is a wholesale replacement of the Irish hierarchy, coupled with a dramatic reduction in the number of Irish dioceses. Ireland is in desperate need of new and credible Catholic leadership, and some of it may have to be imported: If a native of Ireland could be archbishop of New York in 1850, why couldn’t a native of, say, California be archbishop of Dublin in 2012? The United States and Canada, in particular, have Anglophone bishops who have demonstrated their capacity to clean house and reenergize dioceses evangelically. Thus the Vatican, not ordinarily given to dramatic change, might well consider clearing the Irish bench comprehensively and bringing in bishops, of whatever national origin, who can rebuild the Irish Church by preaching the Gospel without compromise — and who know how to fight the soft totalitarianism of European secularists.

Wait, what? Weigel may be correct about this — I don’t know enough about the situation to say — but I distinctly remember that when I and others said a decade ago that John Paul II should cashier some of the more notorious American bishops in the sex abuse scandal here, there were some prominent Catholic voices (to be sure, I don’t know that Weigel’s was among them) saying that that would be wrong, that the bishop is not merely an employee of the Vatican’s, but rather the bearer of a sacred trust, or something to that effect. Plus, what Father Neuhaus said in early 2003:

As interesting and important as such considerations undoubtedly are, at the end of the day the fact is that Cardinal Law brought down Cardinal Law. Already last April he had offered his resignation to the Pope, but it was not accepted. The approach in Rome was, and apparently still is, that bishops should stay on the job to clean up the messes for which they were largely responsible. Of course, there was also the fear that the Church would be perceived as caving under pressure from the media and, especially, from civil authorities. That concern looks very different when viewed from Rome than from New York or Boston. Of the 180-plus countries in the world, many have governments that are overtly hostile to the Church, and media that do the government’s bidding. Over the centuries, the Church has contended fiercely for the freedom to govern itself (libertas ecclesiae), and what happened in Boston and may be happening elsewhere in this country cannot help but send shivers down the backs of those who were formed by that corporate memory. When the attack comes from the outside, even bad bishops are sometimes kept in place. As a demonstration of the Church’s resolve. As a lesson to them that they must bear the cross of dealing with the consequences of their mistakes.

Again, I don’t know to what extent Weigel shared Neuhaus’s sympathy with Rome’s handling of the scandal vis-à-vis its treatment of American bishops, but I don’t recall him saying at any point in our scandal that the Vatican ought to retire any bishops, least of all a nation’s entire episcopal slate. It would be interesting to know if Weigel now believes, or ever believed, that Rome ought to have sacked any of the US bishops who did what the Irish bishops did.

Weigel’s analysis of the collapse of the Catholic Church in Quebec, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain, is interesting, but, I think, insufficient. He writes:

In each of these cases, Catholic intellectual life withered, largely untouched by the mid-20th-century Catholic renaissance in biblical, historical, philosophical, and theological studies that paved the way toward the Second Vatican Council. And in each of these cases, the local Catholicism was highly clerical, with ordination to the priesthood and the episcopate being understood by everyone, clergy and laity alike, as conferring membership in a higher caste.

He surely has a point about how the Church’s authority suffered because of its over-identification with the Establishment, and for all I know, he is correct about how an airless, rigid, formalistic Catholicism within those cultures proved all too brittle. But where in the Western world is postconciliar Catholicism doing well? Surely one cannot say the Catholic Church in the Netherlands was stiff and archconservative, yet Dutch Catholicism is flat on its back. In France, I’m told by French Catholics, the only real signs of life in the Church are among the traditionalists (who by and large reject Vatican II) and the charismatics, who are not within the mainstream of modern Catholic life. You certainly cannot blame the French Catholic Church for being too close to the state, not after what it suffered after the Revolution, and in 1905. And French Catholicism produced some of the most profound and influential theologians of the 20th century, leading up to the Council. Whatever the reason Catholicism collapsed in France, it’s not because of intellectual decline or authoritarianism.

Catholicism is growing in the US, but as Putnam & Campbell have written, based on the most comprehensive social science data available, the US Catholic Church would be shrinking if not for a large influx of immigrants from Latin America. Anglos are leaving the Church in significant numbers, and are not being replaced by enough converts. Whatever the reasons, it can’t have much of anything to do with Weigel’s rationale for the decline of the Catholic faith in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Quebec.

Besides which, back in the day, Weigel warmly praised the Legionaries of Christ, the militantly old-school religious order that constituted itself along the extremely formalistic and intellectually rigid lines Weigel now criticizes. Weigel and Neuhaus held up the LC and its founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, as pillars of vibrant Catholic orthodoxy. See this 2002 Neuhaus essay for the classic defense of Maciel against accusations that he was an abuser. Eventually, it could no longer be denied that Maciel was a sex criminal, a psychopath, and a fraud, and that the LC was a cult.

I’m not bringing all this up to crack on Weigel, necessarily. The decline of religion — especially the Catholic religion — in the Western world is one of the great historical narratives of our time, and, to me, one of the saddest and most worrying. Senior churchmen must take responsibility for a portion of this disaster — and, in the case of the Irish bishops and the cover-up of clerical pederasty, more than a portion of Catholicism’s fate in Ireland. It is very difficult to believe, as Weigel says, that importing bishops from the US and Canada would begin to fix Ireland’s problems. Is Catholicism really so healthy in the US and Canada? Would that it were so, but I don’t see that the North American Catholic episcopate has figured out how to hold the line against the de-Christianization of Western society.

For that matter, which leaders in which church have?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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