Ireland’s Bishops Turn Up the Gaslight

Jun 16, 2020 | 4 comments


Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in ‘Gaslight’ (1944). A trusting young wife is in deadly danger of disbelieving her own eyes.

“In recent years in Ireland many bishops have organised assemblies, gatherings and deep-listening processes in their dioceses to help encourage a more synodal, missionary Church throughout the island – a Church which fosters greater ‘communion, participation and mission’ for the benefit of all.” 

 ‘Statement of the Summer 2020 meeting of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference

Currently meeting with their own  lay people on their own ‘synodal path’ Germany’s Catholic bishops will be astonished to learn from the above claim that Ireland’s bishops are way ahead of them when it comes to preparing for a 2022 Vatican synod of bishops on ‘Synodality’ – roughly to be translated as ‘local collaborative decision-making’.

But so will the Catholic lay people of Ireland – who have never had the privilege of their German counterparts – of being invited into frank and open discussion of the many profound questions arising out of decades of heart-wrenching revelations, not least the questions of restoring broken trust and ensuring the continuity of faith and of Eucharistic celebration

Not even in their darkest year, 2009 – when two state inquiries revealed the appalling sufferings of children at the hands of abusive clerics in Ireland’s major archdiocese and multiple residential institutions for children in other dioceses – did the Irish Conference of Bishops squarely face the most obvious questions of their people – despite being called upon by Pope Benedict XVI to ‘establish the truth of what happened’.

Already the Ryan Report of 2009 (on the residential institutions) had attributed the sufferings of those children to ‘ the deferential and submissive attitude of the (Irish State’s) Department of Education’ towards the Catholic religious orders that had run these institutions.

Although this obviously called for a frank discussion of the ongoing dangers of deference to clergy in every diocese and parish on the island, that never happened either. Pope Francis’s many references to the dangers of ‘clericalism’ – the clerical expectation of endless dumb compliance from lay people – have similarly fallen on totally deaf ears.  Never has it occurred to Irish bishops even to admit frankly that the safety of today’s Catholic children in any church-related setting rests squarely on the rejection of deference to clergy by all who have responsibility for children. 

Most tragically, the deep triangular schism caused in the Irish Catholic Church by the abuse issue has never truly healed. In no Irish diocese has it happened that the broken relationship between clergy, victims of clerical abuse, and people has been squarely admitted, faced up to and talked through together.  If Catholic bishops have made any studied attempt to assess the current well being of all of those harmed they have never revealed the results to the rest of us. We simply do not know how the many Irish victims of Irish Catholic clericalism are faring.  

It follows that whatever few ‘assemblies and gatherings’ are being alluded to in the above quoted ICBC statement, they have been clerically designed and controlled – restricted by clergy in almost every case to topics considered entirely safe by the same clergy – and therefore both inadequate and resting on the same expectation of lay submissiveness.  The iron grip of Irish clericalism on the discourse of the Irish Catholic Church has never been either frankly admitted or relinquished by those who claim to lead it.

For decades, for that very reason, ‘communion’ in the Irish church has been vastly outpaced by alienation – and especially the alienation of younger generations.  Sexual abuse by clergy, and the turning of blind eyes to that abuse by generations of bishops, was obviously an abuse of power and contrary to the Gospel –  yet, as late as 2020, we are all expected to defer to that continuing denial  of accountability also.   

And although students in Catholic schools have been ready for decades to respond to systematic research on their reasons for choosing any vocation other than that of ordained priest or professed nun, no such research was ever organised by the Irish Catholic educational establishment.  If Irish bishops have ever systematically researched any of the major problems confronting the Irish church they have never disclosed their findings to the rest of us. 

As for the bishops’ encouragement of ‘participation’, they could not even bring themselves in 2019 to respond to the submissions made on October 1st at Maynooth by ACI – the Association of Catholics in Ireland, re the typical absence of lay co-responsibility in Irish parishes due to clericalism.  They cannot yet even declare their support for Article 37 of Lumen Gentium (1964), the church’s charter for the right of every baptised catholic to have a voice in their local parish. The irony of this was clearly revealed on June 15th, 2020 when the Association of Catholic Priests of Ireland called for parish pastoral councils to take responsibility for the opening of churches in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.  

On the day that the ICBC released this claim of readiness for synodality on June 12th, 2020 it had not even then responded to these submissions by ACI – which could not have been more timely. 

Deference is also therefore also plainly expected of us lay people when it comes to interpreting the above claim that the demands of ‘communion, participation and mission’ are being met presently by our current leadership. As usual, weasel descriptors such as ‘many bishops’ and ‘throughout the island’ are preferred to specific, verifiable claims. In sum, we are, as always, expected to agree that the sun is rising on the Irish Catholic Church, when there was never a darker time – even before Covid-19 hit the country.

However, in 2020 very few Irish Catholics are in any danger of disbelieving their own experience. The claim that Irish bishops are truly committed to open assembly, communion and participation is as transparently false as that of Sean Spicer, President Trump’s Press Secretary, that the crowds attending President Trump’s inaugural address in Washington on January 20th, 2017 were  ‘the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.’

This practice – of official insistence that people must believe the ‘alternative facts’ preferred by those in office to the evidence of their own experience – is now advisedly called gaslighting – derived from the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton and the  subsequent 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. The young wife of the drama is so in thrall to a controlling husband that she is in danger of losing her mind when he alters the brightness of their home’s gas-lit globes while insisting that no change has occurred. 

Irish Catholic clericalism would do well to log the fact that gaslighting is now also a recognised term for a form of psychological abuse – yet nowadays those Irish Catholics in greatest danger of believing the assurances of Irish bishops are the bishops themselves.  Gaslighting clericalism is now a truly creaky Irish movie – and the snapped celluloid is flapping hopelessly as the reels fly.

Sean O’Conaill, June 16th, 2020

ACI Submission to Irish Bishops Conference 01/10/2019


  1. desgilroy41

    One is left breathless by the sheer audacity of this particular assertion by the Irish bishops, who have over the years been totally deaf to the views of their so-called flocks. Let’s take the facts – we have 26 dioceses in Ireland and to the best of my knowledge only three of these have held diocesan synods or assemblies, namely Limerick, Kilmore and Killala. The diocese of Ardagh & Clonmacnoise had planned one for Longford this past May but no doubt this had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Perhaps there were one or two more which escaped my attention but with these numbers how can the hierarchy make use of the word “many”. In truth, their statement should read “ Over all time few bishops in Ireland have organized diocesan synods, assemblies and deep-listening processes or fostered greater communion, participation and mission for the benefit of all”.
    And of those few bishops who did listen and attempt to implement the changes which these assemblies recommended, none succeeded in winning the support of their fellow bishops for radical change. Take for example this news report from the Irish Catholic newspaper dated June 2015.
    “Bishop Leo O’Reilly has said he is “liaising” with other bishops with a view to setting up a commission to discuss the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood as well as appointing female deacons.
    Bishop O’Reilly is making the proposal as a result of an 18-month listening process in his Kilmore diocese which led to a diocesan assembly and a new diocesan pastoral plan to tackle challenges facing the Church, including a declining number of priests.
    Bishop O’Reilly told The Irish Catholic he plans to ask for the idea of a new commission to be put on the agenda for discussion at the next meeting of the hierarchy at Maynooth and “take it from there”.
    “I think the other bishops would be open to the idea of a discussion and we are reaching a situation where we have to look at all the options possible,” he said. Dr O’Reilly told The Irish Catholic that his proposal was in response to Pope Francis.
    “Pope Francis has encouraged individual bishops and bishops’ conferences to be creative in looking at ways to do ministry in the future, so I think we have to consider all options,” he said.
    The proposed commission would be similar to one in Brazil under the leadership of Cardinal Claudio Hummes and Bishop Erwin Kräutler to study the possibility of ordaining married men in response to the shortage of priests.”
    The outcome? When Bishop O’Reilly asked that this proposal be put on the agenda for discussion at a meeting of the hierarchy, he met with a blank refusal and the proposal from the Kilmore Diocesan Assembly died a death. So much for talk of communion, participation and mission for the benefit of all.

  2. Pascal O'Dea

    A clear analysis Sean , in line with the findings of last years ACI pilot survey of lay persons involvement in parish preparedness for the imminent absence of clergy. A recently broadcast RTE documentary covering the history of State and Catholic church relationship in Ireland from Wolfe Tone to Pope Francis serves our purpose well as Michael McDowall with several astute observers Arcbishop Diarmuid Martin included deconstruct the various iterations of Church policy regarding involvement with State and by extension with laity.The apology of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on the publication of a Child abuse report stands out in its tone of humility, and it calls to mind the honourable resignation of Bishop James Moriarty of Kildare and leighlin on the publication of an earlier report.Until there is a change of vision away from a vantage point of clericalism, we are not likely to benefit from lay charism so sorely missed and we can expect only sporadic examples of leadership as instanced above. .

  3. Noel McCann

    I’m reluctant to use the term but have the bishops resorted to using ‘Fake News’ in this latest press statement? Des Gilroy in his comments above has listed the diocesan synods held in this country in recent decades and they don’t involve “many bishops” as asserted by the statement from the ICBC. So how do we reconcile the anomaly between the surprisingly ‘up-beat’ report of the bishops on the progress of synodality on the island of Ireland and the reality on the ground as understood by the lay faithful? The bishops refer to “organised assemblies, gatherings and deep-listening processes” held in their dioceses. I feel for the sake of clarity and, more importantly, credibility, we must ask the questions – when, where and how many in regard to these events? We must also ask how were these assemblies, etc., advertised and promoted, who was invited to attend, who was invited to speak or make submissions to the organisers in advance of the gatherings? Where are the reports containing the findings and decisions arising from the events and more importantly where are the Action Plans drawn up and published following the “deep-listening processes” held in the various dioceses on the island?

    Finally where is the evidence currently of the emergence of any ‘green shoots’ which suggest that we are finally moving in the direction of “a more synodal, missionary Church throughout the island – a Church which fosters greater ‘communion, participation and mission’ for the benefit of all.” A lot of questions for the bishops but I’m afraid the evidence available to the ordinary church member on the ground does not provide answers to the these questions so more detail from the bishops is required. If I ‘wake up’ and discover that I have been ‘asleep at the wheel’ and have therefore missed the commencement of a wonderful, new and progressive era for our church in Ireland nobody will be more pleased and ready to congratulate our Episcopal Leadership.

  4. Tom Finnigan

    To briefly cry from the wilderness of inishowen, my own parish of Malin has a parish council whose meetings are advertised but the agendas and decisions are never published. I don’t know who the members of the council are. The matter is a nonsense.
    In the neighbouring parish of Carndonagh a parish council does not exist.
    Two years ago a new pastoral plan was published by our Derry diocese. No mention of it has been made in our parish. A primary element of this plan was discussion within each parish. That never happened. The plan seems to be dead, adding to the farce. Lay people have no status in this local church.
    Since the closure of our chapels, my wife and I have celebrated our own eucharist on Sunday at home. Perversely, we are not looking forward to a re-opening. Not a very Christian attitude towards the coming together of God’s people to celebrate what we have been handed down over centuries and believe – but a realistic view of mass-going here on the edge of Europe.
    Until clericalism dies from a lack of numbers, I see no hope for a lay voice. Only with its death will there be some kind of renaissance or resurrection. Come Holy Spirit!


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