ARCHBISHOP Diarmuid Martin is without doubt the most impressive and respected prelate in the country.
This is so chiefly because he has said what the public wants to hear, and needs to hear, on the issue of clerical abuse. But he has not only said what needs to be said, he has also done what needs to be done.
Not that he is the only bishop who has done what needs to be done. So has the Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, and the Bishop of Kilmore, Leo O’Reilly, among others. But they do not speak about the abuse issue in the same powerful, confidence-building way that Archbishop Martin does.
But the pity of Dr Martin is that when he speaks about other issues connected with the Church, he is as likely to undermine confidence as to build it up. There was a very good example of this in the widely covered speech he delivered last week at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties. Having highlighted the vocations crisis in Ireland, he then made some extraordinary criticisms of some of the young men who present themselves as candidates for the priesthood.
He said: “Many of the candidates who present are fragile and some are much more traditional than those who went before them.”
Why did he have to say this in public? It was like criticising your family in public. What effect will this have on their morale, especially if some candidates are indeed fragile? Is this supposed to build their confidence? What does it say about the selection process for those wishing to become priests? How does Archbishop Martin know they are fragile? Has he had access to their psychological assessments? The people in the pews are likely to take little comfort from the information that their future priests are “fragile” and too much in awe of the past.
Archbishop Martin, in speaking so openly, clearly and properly realises that the discretions of churchmen in the past concealed grave crimes and perpetuated the abuse of children. However, being fragile is not a crime. Nor is being conservative. In this instance, discretion might have been the better part of valour if he had aired his concerns to those concerned with the selection process for priests.
Consider what would happen if I spoke at such an occasion about the “fragility” of doctors pursuing a career in psychiatry who had attitudes to mental illness that were more outmoded than those held by their predecessors, or if Ruairi Quinn spoke of student teachers being fragile and overly wedded to traditional teaching methods. The College of Psychiatry would call my comments unfounded and belittling, while the teachers’ union would demand an immediate retraction.
More generally, Archbishop Martin seems to find it very hard to talk about the Catholic Church in an upbeat way. Admittedly, it is hard to do so because of the scandals, but either the Christian message has something to offer society or it doesn’t.
Presumably Archbishop Martin believes Jesus is an utterly compelling figure and the message of Jesus can transform any life for the better. Presumably he believes Christians should belong to the community of the followers of Jesus which we call the Church. Why, in that case, doesn’t he say so, more often and more convincingly?
At one point in his speech, Archbishop Martin spoke of the positive contribution religion can make to society, but didn’t spell out what they might be. It’s as if he is far too conscious of what the critics of the Church, and of religion, might say at any given moment. This cannot be anything but crippling.
The Irish economy is in dreadful trouble at present, and our political leaders can’t shirk the challenges we face or pretend they don’t exist. But they also have to offer us hope and a way forward. Archbishop Martin could take a leaf out of their book.
Or imagine the head of any organisation beset by troubles concentrating more on the negatives than the positives? If even the head of the organisation seems overwhelmed by the challenges, is it not likely that everyone else will feel similarly overwhelmed?
This is not the same as pretending problems do not exist. It is a matter of acknowledging the problems and then showing how they can be resolved.
For example, Archbishop Martin bemoans the lack of vocations but offers no suggestion for increasing vocations. In fact, by insulting many of those considering the priesthood, he does the opposite. If his claim is correct and candidates are fragile and overly conservative how does he recommend this can be changed?
Often Archbishop Martin sounds more like a commentator on the Church rather than one of its leaders. He analyses the problem but does not offer a solution.
There is no contradiction between being honest and offering a path forward, between acknowledging the Church’s challenges and offering hope for the future.
Next time Archbishop Martin gives a speech, he needs to tell people why they should become Catholic Christians and instead of merely analysing the problems we face, tell us what he intends doing about them.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved
More in this section