Assessing Diarmaid Martin, and thinking of his successor.

We are coming to the end of the tenure of Diarmaid Martin as Archbishop of Dublin, according to, among others, himself. He says he believes it is time for a change, and he will have reached retirement age in a little over a year. The discussion has already begun (e.g. in today’s Irish Times), and there are a couple of dimensions to it: an assessment of the performance of Martin in the position; what qualities will be needed by the person who succeeds him, and who that person is likely to be.

First of all, let me say that I never met Diarmaid Martin, so my comments are given in that context.

He came to the job at a difficult time. His predecessor, Des Connell, was clearly unsuited to the position and his appointment was a big mistake. He may have managed in an earlier time, but his misfortune was that he had to deal with the storm of clerical sex abuse, where all his inadequacies became glaringly obvious. It meant that Martin, when he took over, had major problems to manage, but also the advantage that after Connell it wouldn’t be hard to appear competent and capable.

He quickly showed himself to be both, especially in his handling of the sex abuse problem. I read that Marie Collins is unstinting in her praise of him, and I can understand why she would, since clerical sex abuse is the issue that she is especially focused on. I would agree that, by and large, he has done well in this area.

It is a serious problem, but certainly not the only challenge facing the Church today. I don’t think Martin’s record in other areas, especially to do with Church Reform, is particularly distinguished. I have always believed that he spoke a good line on reform, but that his actions never quite measured up to his words. He never put his head above the parapet and took a public line on the great need for new thinking around priesthood, women in the Church, teaching on LGBT, and other contentious matters. I always took it that he was careful not to be seen to in any way publicly challenge the official positions of the Vatican, and as a consequence the decline of the Church continued apace during his years in charge. The energy that new attitudes and new approaches would have brought never materialised.

There was no doubt in my mind that he was the one among the Irish bishops who had both the ability and the status to provide leadership. But this did not happen, and it highlights for me two areas where he was weak:

Apparently he had a poor relationship with his fellow bishops, even to the point of not holding many of them in much regard, so he tended to keep his distance from them rather than be the source of unity, which is what was necessary in order to deal with the traumatic times the Church was living through. The Bishops Conference is generally agreed to be dysfunctional, and Martin never seemed to put effort into solving that.

If a bishop is to be successful within the present structures of the Church he needs to have a good relationship with his priests. As far as I am aware Martin never achieved this with the majority of the priests of Dublin diocese. Some of the more impressive priests I know in Dublin are very critical of him. They would suggest that he was more concerned with having a good relationship with the media than with his priests. Some of this would have to do with his handling of the Murphy Report, believing that he sold out on his priests and his auxiliary bishops in order to appear good in the public domain. I am not in the best position to make an assessment of that, but it is something that a good many Dublin priests have said to me.

In order to bring about real change a bishop and his priests must be united.  I have observed over the past half dozen years or so a number of dioceses carrying out listening exercises of various types, some of them really well done and producing pastoral plans for the future. The most notable was probably the Synod in Limerick, which was particularly thorough in its preparation and execution. But the weakness in all of them, as far as I can ascertain, is In the follow up, – implementing the decisions made. The way the system works, the local priest in a parish still has enormous power to block something if he is not in favour of it, and I could see that happening in many places. Because of my years working with the ACP I have got to know the situation with priests around the country. Most, of course, are old, and we inevitably lose energy in later life. Bringing about change involves a lot of enthusiasm, energy and hard work, and very many priests don’t have those qualities any more. In reality at parish level they don’t really have to block anything, just to exercise some silent non-cooperation, and with a compliant or disinterested laity, nothing much happen. The only hope of real change is a united bishops conference, working closely with their priests, driving it on. We are a long way from that in Ireland, unfortunately.

Which gets me to the last point.  Who might succeed Archbishop Martin in Dublin. We have to hope that the traditional policy of appointing safe, orthodox men will be put aside.  We need a man (unfortunately it still has to be a man!) with outstanding leadership qualities, and for that he needs to be mature and free in himself, and willing to push out the boat and take chances. He needs to be a good listener, more concerned with the reality of people’s lives than with the Code of Canon Law. He would want to be devoid of any fear of the Vatican, and be able to stand up to them when the good of the local church demanded it. It must be essential that he be in tune with the vision for the Church of Pope Francis.

I know all that is a lot to ask of one person, but if he was a man who was open to bringing other people, lay as well as clerics, into the governance of the diocese, with all of them having a real voice in the running of affairs, then it wouldn’t be necessary to have all the qualities of leadership present in the one person.

A big obstacle to this is the fact that the new archbishop can only be chosen from among the clerical ranks. And when you consider that the average age of the clergy in Ireland is over seventy, and that many of the small number of younger men are of a very traditional mindset, I find it hard to be optimistic that we will get the type of person I am hoping for.

But then there is always the Holy Spirit!