Two Versions of Toughness

The Economist
March 6, 2013

FATHER Brendan Hoban is a priest in a remote Irish village who is also active in the national and international Catholic scene. In the midst of this busy life, he told me, he often reflects on something he heard from a professor when he was in seminary 40 years ago. "Irish people", the professor remarked, "have a great sense of the usefulness of things. When things are not seen as useful any more, they are discarded. In the era when the Irish language was seen as not useful for people's lives and careers, they stopped speaking it. And that may eventually happen to the structures of the Catholic church."

At the time, it seemed an extraordinary thing to say; Ireland was still a pious country, and hundreds of new priests were being ordained every year. Proud of having kept the faith in the teeth of oppression, the whole Irish nation, so it seemed, turned out to welcome the newly elevated Pope John Paul II as a superstar when he visited in 1979. But since then, of course, the professor's words have turned out to be prophetic. This is a land where the church's institutional prestige has fallen more vertiginously than almost anywhere else in the Western world, thanks mainly to a series of reports that have documented horrific suffering in church-backed schools and institutions, and to an ever clearer picture of scandalous cover-ups. By rich-world standards Ireland is still quite a devout nation—nearly half the population attends church regularly—but its religious orders are in their death throes and the annual number of ordinations is now in single figures.

It was partly in the Irish spirit of tough-minded practicality and "usefulness" that Father Hobhan and several colleagues founded the Association of Catholic Priests a couple of years ago, with the open intention of revisiting thorny questions like priestly celibacy, the possibility of women priests and church teaching on contraception. They say the response has been overwhelming. When they organize events, far more people attend than they expected. The aim is not, he stresses, to overturn any of the core doctrines of the church; what he and his fellow clerics are calling for is a faithful implementation of the second Vatican council which raised hopes, in the mid-1960s, of a church that was more responsive to local bishops, priests and ordinary believers.

From the viewpoint of Father Hoban's west-of-Ireland flock, mostly pretty faithful Catholics who expect the church to minister to their needs, mourn their dead and accompany them in life's hardest moments, the present order of things simply seems to have outlived its usefulness. In one large nearby parish, the number of priests has fallen by natural attrition from four to two; but there are seven ex-priests in the locality who left the clerical state to get married. They would help out again if the rules allowed them. In Dublin, "permanent deacons" (many of them married) have been ordained, with the authority to perform most rites except the Eucharist. That looks like a significant step on the road to letting clergy marry.

I was struck by the huge differences (and one or two points of convergence) between Father Hoban's liberal perspective and that of George Weigel, who is one of America's most influential lay Catholics and a staunch conservative; I interviewed him recently for an Economist podcast. Both claim to be strong supporters of Vatican II but they interpret that council in very different ways. Mr Weigel hails the fact that Vatican II fully endorsed the liberal-democratic idea of religious freedom, renounced theocracy and made peace with the Jews; he sees the last two popes as faithful implementers of the council. Father Hoban, in line with liberal-minded Catholics across the world, feels that the ideals of the council were badly let down during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Mr Weigel is hoping that the next Pope will build on his predecessors' legacy, but with even greater emphasis on re-evangelising an increasingly decadent and secular world; Father Hoban believes the "new evangelism" may fail, as everything else risks failing, if it is directed from above, with no understanding of the reality of people's lives at the base of the church.

Mr Weigel is at his most mischievously articulate when he excoriates what he regards as the soft-minded liberalism of historically Catholic universities and some religious orders, such as the American nuns who have long since discarded their habits and earned scoldings from the Vatican. Such people would be far more honest if they simply stopped calling themselves Catholics, he often implies. But neither Father Hoban nor the people of Moygownagh are in the slightest bit soft-minded; they are firmly rooted in the realities of life in a beautiful but tough corner of the earth where the soil is stony and emigration has often been a harsh necessity. Perhaps Mr Weigel should make a fishing-trip to the Irish West and start up a conversation with some local people about the meaning of toughness. The proceedings of that dialogue might make a useful briefing-paper for the next pope.


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