October 2020: The Old Paternalism is Still Killing Us

Oct 9, 2020 | 6 comments

Maynooth College – Alma Mater of Ireland’s Old Clerical Paternalism


54 years after Cardinal William Conway foretold the end of the ‘old paternalism’ in the Irish Catholic Church – in the year that the pope’s own closest adviser on the progress of child safeguarding in the church warned that the same paternalism is still endangering children everywhere – Ireland’s Conference of Catholic Bishops is still, in October 2020, behaving as though Cardinal Conway had never spoken.

In October 2020 that ‘old paternalism‘ – characterised by secrecy, lust for control, denial of dialogue and even of reality – turns its back to the cliff edge facing Catholicism in Ireland and yet again issues its usual look-the-other-way post-conference statement – the very image of the blind and decrepit cartoon character Mr Magoo.

Where is it? asked Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in April 2019. ‘It’ was ‘Share the Good News – a 2011 plan for a revolution in the Irish church’s strategy for ‘passing on the faith’ – to replace an obviously failing over-reliance on schools. That over-reliance – originating in the collapse of  frank clerical dialogue with parents following the papal instruction Humanae Vitae in 1968 – is now in 2020 leaving Irish seminaries and chapels virtually empty and ensuring that Confirmation in early adolescence has become the Goodbye Sacrament for Catholic children educated in those same schools.

If the archbishop of Irish Catholicism’s largest diocese does not know what has happened to his church’s only known programme for its own survival – and says so in Ireland’s newspaper of record, The Irish Times – how come that a year-and-a-half later the Irish Conference of Catholic Bishops still cannot give us an answer?

Must we simply content ourselves with an episcopal pat on our little heads for our resilience and compassion in the midst of a pandemic – the major business, it seems, of the bishops’ autumn 2020 conference? Who feels more resilient  when plamás is preferred to honesty and realism by church leaders apparently scared witless of the largest and most obdurate elephant ever to take over the Irish Catholic living room?

That elephant needs simply to be named to be shifted. It is the difficulty of admitting that school-centred faith formation doesn’t happen in the absence of parental commitment, that the parents of today’s schoolchildren are mostly absent when it comes to ‘sharing the good news’, that clergy are exhausted by what they already have to do – and that the challenge of facing up to all this is now unavoidable by the rest of us, especially when our faith is tested to the limit.

That we are well capable of facing up to it was well proven on the second day of the bishops’ autumn conference  – by Margaret Lee, parishioner in Newport, Tipperary – writing in the Irish Times. With next year’s Communion services threatened by unknown continuing dangers to public health, Margaret proposes a trial of family-based preparation for communion, with volunteering families presenting their children for the sacrament on an ordinary Mass date arranged with clergy.

Tartly Margaret observes: ‘This would also eliminate the spectacle of a church full of adults screening the event on their phones and holding conversations throughout the entire Mass.’

To object that few families would feel confident enough to take this on is to miss the point. It is the delusion that childhood faith can develop without a family faith envelope that is killing us off. There is simply no future for what prevailed before the pandemic. Furthermore, families are often now linking the generations more closely than ever online, and it would not be rocket science for every diocese to provide online the basic instruction that parents and grandparents need – if they feel so minded – to instruct the child.

Given that Catholic faith was passed on in Ireland long before mass literacy and the construction of the Catholic school system, who is to say that it was not the turning of faith formation into professional rocket science, the clerical refusal of dialogue for half-a-century and the removal of responsibility from the home, that lies at the root of the Irish Catholic crisis,

That and clerical paternalism – especially the denial by bishops that there was ever an iceberg even when the ship is sinking, and their abiding terror of owning up to the total failure of this manner of governing the church.

Cardinal Conway on the Necessity of Dialogue (1966)

“The priest is speaking to a different kind of congregation… more developed intellectually, more aware of what is going on… The priest of today must take account of this important change…More than ever it is important that he should know what his people are thinking and saying… He must preach by dialogue — by a readiness to listen and hear what others have to say … If you do not know this your preaching… may be in vain.”

Sean O’Conaill
9th October 2020

For other ACI articles on Faith Formation, click here!


  1. Aidan

    Sean, I strongly agree with you.
    A lot of children and young people in the past continued to attend Sunday Mass because they saw it as their parents’ accepted and strongly felt norm. It wasn’t because their parents had successfully informed their faith. That was the point made by many Irish friends of mine when we all lived and worked in London in the 1960s and occasionally discussed why so many of our group no longer attended Mass on Sundays and yet admitted doing so as soon as they returned home on holidays. Today I suspect that pretence no longer exists as I see young people in my current parish who are still living at home and yet failing to any longer attend Sunday Mass.

    • Mark maguire

      Why has share the good news not gained much traction? Why and how is the gospel message gaining traction in your parish? Has the lay faithful even every heard of it never mind been educated and enlightened by it?.

      • soconaill

        Re the 2011 national programme ‘Share the Good News’ my understanding of what happened is that the all-island executive structures that were to be launched first never got to the stage of triggering the trickle-down phase into dioceses. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s question ‘Where is it?’ seems to bear out that tragic tale – he must have been waiting for something – maybe printed materials for parishes and other planned resources that never came?

        When I showed the initial elaborate A4 book defining the plan for clergy and teachers to our own PP here in Coleraine – I think around 2013 – he had never seen or heard of it prior to that. And here we are seven years later with no sign of it!

  2. Noel

    I agree with the arguments articulated in Sean’s article and with Aidan’s associated remarks. The faith in Ireland in my lifetime reminds me of an impressive river which is very wide and very long but, beneath the surface its not very deep. Yes, of course just as there are pockets of deep water in every river, there were, and still are, many ‘pockets’ of rich faith across our country, but for many the faith was never nurtured and developed in any meaningful way. Our episcopal leaders over the years appeared more concerned with quantity rather than quality. Putting young people through the school-based faith formation ‘system’ certainly produced the desired quantities [‘year in and year out’] but what can we honestly say about the durability, or depth, of the resultant faith of the individuals graduating, for example, from confirmation classes? Sean has advocated for a change to this system for years. There are models of faith formation available and worthy of at least a ‘pilot project’. Margaret Lee’s suggestion [Irish Times – 6/10/2020] is so appropriate for the times we live in – given the Covid Pandemic. Why can so many committed and concerned Catholics, lay and clerical, clearly see what the problem is and are capable of making sensible suggestions to try to address the issues and yet our bishops speak and behave as if the ‘wind was in our backs’ when in fact we are already enveloped by a colossal storm?

  3. Peter Mulholland

    But what was behind that ‘old paternalism’ – was it, perhaps, narcissism: . In 2008, the Vatican issued Guidelines for the use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates
    for the Priesthood. Those Guidelines referred back to Pope Paul VI’s 1965 Decree on Priestly Training and to John Paul II’s 1992 Pastores dabo vobis ‘exhortation’ on religious vocations and the formation of priests. They also quoted from a 1974 Guide to the Formation in Priestly Celibacy where it was stated that ‘errors in discerning vocations are not rare, and in all too many cases psychological defects, sometimes of a pathological kind, reveal themselves only after ordination’. The 2008 Guidelines advised that ‘the path of formation’ should be interrupted if candidates exhibited ‘strong affective dependencies; notable lack of freedom in relations; excessive rigidity of character; lack of loyalty; uncertain sexual identity; deep-seated
    homosexual tendencies, etc.’11 Nevertheless, thirty years on from the Baars Report Fr Thomas Doyle and Stephen Rubino published a paper on the legal (civil and religious) aspects of clerical child sex abuse in which they observed that even though Baars’s findings concurred with those of the Eugene Kennedy Report of 1972, the Church’s official response was devoid of any further investigation or proposals for action. They also noted that the psychological profile of the ‘underdeveloped priests’ as outlined in both of those Church-commissioned reports resembled that of clerics who
    sexually abused children and adolescents (2003: 568)…. See https://www.peterlang.com/view/title/61592?format=EPDF

    • soconaill

      There has never yet been attempted in Ireland a measuring of the depth of disillusionment that set in almost three decades ago with the first dramatic Irish revelation of episcopal and ordained narcissism in the TV era – the Bishop Casey affair. Humpty Dumpty – the persuasiveness of ordination as a means of making men spiritually mature – is now in so many pieces that the prospect of its rehabilitation is too remote to take seriously. Studied indifference to all of that is now what passes for policy on the part of the Irish magisterium, so we are in a different era in which the ultimate responsibility of the state for child safeguarding – within what remains of the church – is taken for granted. The covid crisis must surely accelerate declericalisation also.


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