The Diaspora of a Disconnected Church

Nov 16, 2018 | 6 comments

(Email addressed to the ‘Letters’ Editor, The Irish Times, Dublin, Dec 12th 2018)



Could your editorial, reporting and commissioning staff seriously consider discontinuing and discouraging usage of the term ‘the Catholic Church’ as though there were still in existence a unitary entity in Ireland that can coherently and fairly be so described? (As in, for example, ‘The Wrong Country review: fluent study of modern Irish writing’, by Claire Connolly – November 12th 2018.)

Irish Catholicism has been to my eyes (and many others) for some years in fact a Diaspora – so divided within itself that no single part of it can justly claim to represent, or to speak for, the whole.

This is especially true of the Irish Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has never even attempted to measure the degree of Irish Catholic alienation from itself that has burgeoned here since 1994 – or even the effectiveness of Irish Catholic schools in forming faith. No Irish Catholic diocese – not even the archdiocese of Dublin – has developed those regular structures for internal communication between bishop and people that were clearly envisaged by Vatican Two over half a century ago.

This makes even Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s references to ‘the Catholic church’ either a synecdoche or far more self-referential than good Catholic theology should permit – given that ‘the Church’ is defined by Vatican Two as the whole people of God, and far more baptised Irish Catholics are now tuned out – for very good reasons – from what any Irish Catholic bishop has to say than are tuned in.

The clear indifference of the Irish Bishops’ Conference to what Pope Francis is saying about the need for radical change – in the direction of genuine co-responsibility of clergy and people – is further reason for discontinuing the practice of referring to those bishops as though spokespersons for ‘the Irish Catholic Church’. Increasingly they speak only for, and to, themselves – a situation arising out of a crippling fear of any assembly that they cannot be sure of controlling, right down to parish level.

When baptised Irish Catholics have been at last convened in every parish and diocese, and allowed to express their true feelings about all of the clerical skeletons uncovered since 1994, and their bishops and clergy have at last become accountable to them on a regular basis – as, for example, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, is currently advocating – it may again be sensible to attribute some specific generalisations to ‘the Catholic Church’ on the island – other than that it is now in critical disarray.

Until then, when all baptised Irish Catholics have at last been convened, listened to and trusted by their bishops, what their bishops say on any subject, (including ‘sin’, e.g. ‘Teachers and the belief barrier’ – Barry O’Rourke, Nov. 11th 2018) should surely be attributed only to themselves.

It is misleading and increasingly absurd to have a major Irish secularist newspaper referring daily, in so many of its news reports and commentaries, to the separated clerical head of a disconnected church body (the largest on the island) as though there was no disconnection whatever.

Yours etc.

Sean O’Conaill



(On querying with the Irish Times Religious Affairs correspondent the failure of the paper to publish this letter, I learned from Patsy McGarry that, in his view: “the general reader … would see each church and indeed faith grouping as “a unitary entity”, and relevant clerics as valid spokespeople“.

And: “It is how the RC, other churches and faith groupings describe themselves that we follow in the main and which would be our house style.  Should they or membership change this, we follow suit.

How, I wonder, would ‘the membership’ go about this – other than by writing to the Letters Editor of a national newspaper?  Comments please!)




  1. Noel

    Your observations and comments are so depressingly accurate. The fact is the bishops can claim to speak on behalf of the Irish Catholic Church but who is listening? Most Catholics in this country have ‘grown up’ and now make conscience-informed decisions on the key issues in their lives which are seldom influenced by the views of the bishops. The bishops have long since lost that all encompassing power and influence over the lay faithful for all the reasons you highlight. This is the logical consequence of the failures of episcopal leadership over recent decades in particular the manner in which one clerical sex abuse issue after another was mismanaged.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    This is what I would call an “eagle eye view”. Careful observations are all that is needed to chart another course, Sean.

    As you continue to make them, should your lay association here not feel called to push this into the activity of having in camera conversations with hierarchy.

    You all continue to invert the hierarchy in your approach and once those “leaders” are asked to come against it, I’m positive that they will start to see you all as doctors and nurses in the hospital Francis has been calling for.

    • soconaill

      I fear you have a more fortunate experience of the readiness of ‘hierarchy’ to collaborate with anyone other than themselves, Lloyd Allan – especially when it comes to what might be called the ‘Francis programme’. As the Irish hierarchy does not even recognise the representative credentials of the ACP, and there is no ‘Irish Catholic Council for the Laity’ – and most dioceses (including Dublin) don’t even have diocesan pastoral councils – there is strong reason to believe that Irish bishops are still stuck mentally and organisationally in 1962 – i.e. in a hierarchical mindset that in 1980 led the Irish Bishops Conference to tell a a lay organisation in Dublin that bishops did not need advice from such organisations on the needs of the laity.

      Here in Coleraine my PP is operating without a parish pastoral council and while my bishop knows this he is apparently taking the view that canonically the PP cannot be challenged on this, due to the tiredness and shortage of clergy.

      Please learn to think of our clerical system, from top to base, as closer to the invalid care home than to the dynamic power house that can shift everything!

      • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

        Well Sean if Pope Francis “proclaims” it, then it shall be. The Irish hierarchy doesn’t have to recognise anything other than what is put in motion by the Vatican – it’s up to you all to push the envelope of where their thinking is.

        If there were an “Irish Catholic Council for the Laity” what good would it do if it were simply observing from the sidelines and not engaging hierarchy.

        A pastoral council, this council, that association – it’s just people assembled. I think your idea of them being stuck in 1962 is accurate because it’s quite possible that they’ve grown comfortable in this clericalism state. Yes, for sure they didn’t need advice in 1980 – so how has it been doing since then.

        I can’t jump into that clerical system Sean because I’m a foreigner in many ways to Catholicism – I can only look from the outside and see where is perhaps the strength you all possess in negotiating a case based on current doctrine and direction supported by the Vatican.

        The problem is that it is “your” clerical system and not one currently supported by the Vatican – all these “managers” have been given a directive and if they are not working towards it, then they need to be exposed and the only way to do that is with up-front and personal conversations with them. Three bishop meetings in 7 years, alone, putting him in a position to answer questions he was hoping no one would ask.

        Has it done anything? You’d be surprised how people react when confronted with the truth.

  3. Noel McCann

    Sean, All is not lost in terms of the hierarchy!! Very occasionally a bishop speaks out and provides evidence that the message of Pope Francis has support, at least in some quarters. One such example is Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen. He spoke recently in Auckland to an assembly of priests from Australia and New Zealand. He left them in no doubt about the devastating impact of clericalism and the need for the old model of church to die and make way for a model of church which acknowledges the equality of all the baptised. He speaks of the “apple being rotten to the core” rather than a case of “a few bad apples” and describes the crisis in the church as being “deep seated”.

    He acknowledges that Francis will have “to weather both the storm and the mutiny onboard” to achieve the “deep and comprehensive reform” needed to “restore confidence and trust in the church.” He doesn’t, however, mention the impact of a ‘stealth weapon’ which is potentially more damaging to the voyage Francis has embarked on – outright apathy on the part of those who should be leading the way in support of Pope Francis. Leading the way as Bishop Long is attempting to do in his address to the assembly of priests.

    Bishop Long’s full address can be found at the link below.

  4. soconaill

    Thanks for this, Noel. That is, as you say, encouraging. Have I heard yet from any Irish bishop such a full-scale assault on clericalism? I don’t think so. Fish don’t remark on the water they swim in and lay clericalism is entirely inarticulate and submissive – untroubled water.

    Besides which, Catholic canon law institutionalises and copper-fastens clericalism and unaccountability. Enough already!


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