When Will Irish Bishops Get Serious About Synodality?

Feb 23, 2021 | 6 comments

In 1964, just three years short of ordination to the priesthood, the Jesuit scholastic Ken McCabe spent a week in Daingean reformatory, Co Offaly. Shocked at what he saw as the under-resourcing of the institution and the consequent impact on the staff and the boys incarcerated there, he quietly sought contact with Ireland’s Minister for Justice, C J Haughey – to report, confidentially, what he had seen.

What followed was possibly the greatest tragedy to befall the Irish Catholic church in the period of the Second Vatican Council – ongoing in that very year.

To summarise, Ken McCabe’s initiative was eventually to lead to a serious and long-overdue Irish government investigation of the Irish residential institutions described in the Ryan Report of 2009 – and their closure forever. However, most tragically for the church it also led to a hopeless response from the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid – when news of Ken McCabe’s initiative was leaked to him in the wake of Vatican II.

Outraged by what he saw as a lack of due discipline on McCabe’s part the archbishop complained so strongly to McCabe’s Jesuit superiors that McCabe withdrew from his long course of Jesuit training before ordination in 1967 and left Ireland to serve as a priest in the Catholic Church in England.

Far worse from the church’s point of view, Archbishop McQuaid’s policy of secrecy and silence on the tide of scandals waiting to be revealed in Ireland from 1994 was not finally repudiated by Irish Catholic bishops until after the publication of the Murphy report in November 2009.

In short, Archbishop McQuaid had gifted to the cause of secularism the fruits of the conscience of Ken McCabe, a conscience nurtured in an Irish Catholic family, school and Jesuit seminary.  Directly out of McQuaid’s understanding of how a conscientious Catholic should behave, the Irish Catholic Age of Scandal 1994-2021 became inevitable.

What awful mistake had Ken McCabe made? He had forgotten his place in the chain of command and abandoned the deference to a higher authority that must, in McQuaid’s view, rule the church. Whatever his misgivings about what he had seen, in the archbishop’s view it was not for a Jesuit seminarian to communicate directly with a minister of state – over the heads of the religious superiors of the Oblate order who ran Daingean.

It was therefore left to the Ryan Commission to identify the root cause of the abuses that indicted Ireland and Irish Catholicism in 2009 – the deference of civil servants in the Irish Department of Education to the religious orders that ran the residential institutions.

Yet as late as 2021, with the principle of ‘synodality’ supposedly now to apply to the working of the Church in Ireland, it is far from clear that Irish bishops are truly committed to that principle.  They have never yet clarified their position on the proper role of ‘plain speaking’ – of conscience – in the church itself – or on the Ryan Report’s indictment of the deference to clergy that bound Irish Catholic civil servants in chains.  They have also denied to Irish lay Catholics all means of raising a voice of conscience within the church itself, as promised by Vatican II.

If Irish Catholics – lay people and clergy – are ever to ‘walk together’ in mutual confidence Irish bishops must finally say where they stand on the role of conscience and the case of Ken McCabe. If there is no room for whistleblowing in the church there is no room for conscience either – and the Holy Spirit of truth must remain stifled.

To say that the abuses of the past could never happen again – for example, because of the existence of the National Board for the Safeguarding of Children – is to be utterly naive.  Already cases of neglect of NBSCCC standards for child safeguarding in parishes have been reported to ACI – for example in regard to the timely vetting of parish workers and the keeping of credible records of personnel attending the sacristy for Mass. The reluctance of too many clergy to facilitate open discussion of the issue of safeguarding in the church is in itself a nurturing of the secrecy that perpetuates the abuse of procedures – which will in turn inevitably lead to abuse of persons.

And, as the Irish Conference of Bishops directly controls the financing of the NBSCCC, the latter cannot be called truly independent either.  No diocese can be audited by NBSCCC personnel without the giving of notice to the bishop, and no NBSCCC diocesan report can be published without the bishop concerned having first sight of it.  In all of this there is far too much room for the maintenance of the culture of ‘whatever you say, say nothing‘.

Until Irish bishops show respect for the principle of the primacy of conscience – and the freedom of the Holy Spirit – they cannot persuade the Irish church they are ready for synodality. Never to have acknowledged the depth of distrust and alienation caused by that disastrous policy of secrecy, and never to have invited the people of God into a deep discussion of the roots of that alienation, is in itself a signal that speaking out is still unwelcome and dangerous.

Here is Pope Francis himself on this issue of conscience:

“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.Amoris Laetitia 37

Fr Ken McCabe, d. 2013

Do Irish bishops agree? Why is it that more than half-a-century after Ken McCabe’s stand for the individual Irish Catholic conscience – and the tide of scandal and disgrace that followed Archbishop McQuaid’s disastrous reaction – no one truly knows?


  1. Mary Vallely

    You could weep for the suffering endured by so many innocents and boil with righteous anger at how they were treated by so called men and women of God.
    ‘Where have we gone astray?’ asks Pope Francis in “ Let us Dream.” He claims that setting oneself above the people leads to elitism and clericalism, that rigidity and fundamentalism does not lead to dialogue.
    There is a mindset that needs to change both within the clergy and within the people who are far too deferential. We can only change that mentality by learning to listen, firstly to the voice of the Spirit within each one of us and then to each other. That listening process is something that takes time but without it we will never learn from the mistakes of the past. Pope Francis emphasises time and time again about the need to respect the dignity of each person. A Synodal path seems to me to be the only way forward.
    God rest Ken McCabe SJ ( died 2013) and I see another good priest died today after a long life spent encouraging reform, Enda McDonagh. Go dtuga Dia suaimhneas síoraí doibh.

  2. Gerald Donnelly graceB4meals.net

    I was not aware of Fr. Ken McCabe (a well known whistleblowing name) and commend him on not allowing his treatment to dissuade him from priesthood. All these facts are very difficult for the faithful to hear and process. We are ordered to bring our faith to the next generation and yet we have so many misgivings of the Church to which we bring them.

    A nun friend of mine said recently that it was because people like me did not send our children to be religious that the Church was in decline. If she were not a friend of mine I might have taken offence. How can we send our children to a situation which may have danger, manipulation and helplessness along the line?

    The news from Belvedere College is frightening! Clergy are trained in Spiritual matters and lay people in civil matters. Priests may not be good managers. All Churches are cash cows open to abuse. One does not often see cash registers with official till receipts in Churches. A series of checks and balances are required in every organisation.

    The solution seems to be for each to use their talents and work together for the betterment of the Church. Solidarity as Sean says.

  3. Peter Torney

    When will the Irish Bishops get serious about Synodality?
    This is a good question. And as usual, you put a serious question to the Irish Catholic Church establishment, as you usually do on this site, a question of truth to power – which seems to be your calling on this website and may God bless you for your perseverance!

    Alas, I have given up hope that these men in charge of our Church have any ability to respond in a meaningful manner to the demands of the times. I could elaborate on this at great length but now is not the time.

    I am so sorry that I have to say this, but I feel deeply as an elderly layman, that it would be wise for you to pitch your expectations realistically low in relation to the Irish Episcopate, and redirect your energies in more fruitful directions.

    Personally, I have lost all faith in these men – they lack all credibility. Best to leave them to manage Church property and arrange the liturgy with a diminishing staff and attend pointless meetings at Maynooth, where they speak to themselves about whatever they fancy. They do that very well.

    But what are we as laity and members of the body of Christ to do in these circumstances? You are right to illuminate the lack of ‘voice’ given to the laity – and that is not going to change any time soon. Even if it did it would take years to implement in any meaningful way. So, let’s accept the fact that we have no voice and start talking among ourselves and not getting into the pointless demoralising experience of hoping that maybe this time these Episcopal gentlemen will listen. They will not for they are deaf!

    We must accept the sad truth that these men have failed us miserably, and have no ear for our concerns and questions. They are locked in their narcissistic ecclesiastical bubble, talking only to themselves and their fellow Vatican apparatchiks.

    As I said in an earlier comment on this website related to the United States Episcopate’s support for Trump – the Church seems an organisation of the Bishops, by the Bishops, for the Bishops, their Presbyters and Acolytes. The laity’s only role is to pay for the whole show and turn up once weekly to create the illusion that these gentlemen are ‘good’ shepherds. We have no meaningful voice in this frame.

    What a tragedy!

    But what are we to do? This is the real existential and important question in my view. Put more precisely – what is the Holy Spirit calling us to do and be?

    The answer to this question is central for it requires us to develop a quiet spirituality that enlivens our hearts and focuses our minds on better things. To continue to criticise the officials in our Church is to be like the tide bashing against the stone of the harbour wall. Far better to focus on the great wealth of spiritual riches that exist in the treasure house of Church history, Patristics, modern Biblical scholarship, histories of the many Christian spiritual traditions, numerous varieties of theology, etc. The riches are immense. We can share our insights and views.

    Let the Bishops carry on being irrelevant, living as they do in the nineteenth century – let us discover a spirituality for the 21st century from the spiritual riches of our Christian cultural tradition.

    We will no doubt find it difficult, but the Spirit is with us. I finish my comment with a few quotes from the great Bernard Lonergan SJ – perhaps the greatest Catholic thinker since Aquinas – I have been trying to reach up to his mind for the past 45 years – as he tried to reach up to the mind of Aquinas – but he succeeded in depicting the crisis in which we are living in eloquent terms in his essay on Dimensions of Meaning. Here are a few quotes –

    ‘The classical mediation of meaning has broken down. It is being replaced by a modern mediation of meaning that interprets our dreams and our symbols, that thematises our wan smiles and limp gestures, that analyses our minds and charts our souls, that takes the whole of human history for its kingdom to compare and relate languages and literatures, art forms and religions, family arrangements and customary morals, political, legal, educational, economic systems, sciences, philosophies, theologies, and histories. ……. But judging and deciding are left to the individual and he finds his plight desperate. There is far too much to be learnt before he could begin to judge. Yet judge he must and decide he must if he is to exist, if he is to be a man.’

    Further on in this essay he remarks –

    ‘The crisis that I have been attempting to depict is a crisis not of faith but of culture. There has been no new revelation from on high to replace the revelation given through Christ Jesus……. But Catholic philosophy and Catholic theology are matters not merely of revelation and faith but also of culture. Both (the former) have been deeply involved in classical culture……… The breakdown of classical culture and, at last in out day, the manifest comprehensiveness and exclusiveness of modern culture confront Catholic theology with the gravest of problems, impose upon them mountainous tasks, invite them to Herculean labours………Classical culture cannot be jettisoned without being replaced; and what replaces it cannot but run counter to classical expectations. There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development, exploring now this now that new possibility. But what will count is a perhaps not numerous centre, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half-measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait.’

    There is much work to be done! Let us pray and support one another. Let us encourage one another over the sometimes-harsh Exodus desert on our way to the promised land and the completion of our baptism!

  4. Neil Bray

    No one has yet defined synodality. No one has informed us of how it will work. So why bother with it?

    • soconaill

      I see no mystery whatever there, Neil, in ‘journeying together’ to learn from one another how to be a church ‘on mission’ in our own time, in our own society.

      What I do find mysterious is why this ‘journeying together’ has apparently paused indefinitely and unnecessarily after identifying common concerns across the island – that younger generations are increasingly missing and that so far we seem to lack a common understanding of, and language for, adult faith formation, without which ‘mission’ becomes surely impossible.

      Just last Sunday Archbishop Kevin Farrell called on us all to learn to stand on our own two feet in regard to faith, as St John Henry Newman did in detaching himself from Anglicanism and converting to Catholicism.

      He said:

      “Mature faith is a faith which is owned, “which has been worked through. It is absolutely essential for the mature Christian to acquire personal, inner convictions in order to be a serious proclaimer of the gospel in a pluralistic world buffeted by conflicting opinions” (Martini, Incontro al Signore Risorto, 94)…This journey to adulthood in the faith demands a type of conversion, what one might call a conversion of our vision, a conversion which is “proper to one who has learnt to reason [for themselves], to grasp the reasonableness of faith thanks to a journey, perhaps a tiring one, that makes them capable of enlightening others.” (Martini, Incontro al Signore Risorto, 91)”


      Archbishop Farrell is surely correct in saying at the end of this homily that to be sure we understand one another we need to do this ‘working through’ to an adult faith together – but apparently our clergy are extremely shy about leading synodal discussion of this kind at parish level.

      Are you yourself not concerned about those two issues that have been surfaced so far? If we do not need to be together discussing them, how can they be resolved and how can the church survive?

  5. Pascal

    Neil surely we have learnt that Synodality is a process acknowledging each other’s view, which of itself is a departure from a failed Church system built on the false certainty of clericalism and a weak foundation of “Father knows best“?


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This