Rome Rule

  • 30 November 1984
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IT'S IMPERIALISM OF THE WORST KIND, like the Roman Empire putting a fella into Syria to whip in the slaves." The priest was directing his anger at the arch-conservative Vatican, not at Archbishop-elect Kevin McNamara whom the Dublin clergy see as much the unhappy victim of Roman Imperialism as is the Dublin diocese itself.  By Olivia O' Leary

While no one expects Rome to be democratic, it had oeen hoped that some attention might have been paid to Dublin sensitivities. "It's a bit of an affront to the archhdiocese that Rome thought nobody in Dublin was a good enough candidate and that Dermot Ryan turned his back on his auxiliaries," said an affronted Clonliffe man. With more than a whiff of resentment against their former ultraamontanist boss, some Dublin priests sniff that Dermot, now in Rome, is only too anxious to do as the Romans do.

There's little doubt among the clergy that Ryan's innfluence was decisive in the appointment of his successor, and that he knew in pushing the candidacy of the likeeminded Kevin McNamara, he was perfectly in tune with the Vatican's vigorous policy of retrenchment. When asked at a Clonliffe class dinner earlier this year if the new man would be from Dublin, he replied glumly "Name one." He wasn't joking, as his astounded class-mates were soon to realise. Ryan would seem to have regarded most of his auxiliary bishops as far too liberal for their own good, and is said to have believed that only one of his five auxiliaries, Bishop Joseph Carroll, had been completely loyal to him.

Looking at Ryan's steady advancement as a Prince of me Church, and wondering whether the imposition of a conservative outsider as his successor has gained him still more Brownie points in the Vatican, Dublin priests have oegun to muse cynically on Ryan's ambitions for the chair of Peter. If a conservative Pole can make it, why not a connservative Irishman? "Is Dermot in line for the big job?" a younger colleague asked an old PP recently. "He hasn't got the looks for it," pronounced the old man, "looks are .ery important for the modern day Pope, and Dermot's iaw will fail him." Wouldn't it be galling to be beaten at the post not by a head, but by a rival's jutting jaw?

Still, the tide of retrenchment will lift all conservative boats and Ryan's man for Dublin fits into a series of senior appointments made around the world over the last year: the conservative Archbishop 0 'Connor has been appointed in New York, conservative Archbishop Simonis appointed primate of the Netherlands, two right-wing fingers placed firmly in two possible liberal dykes. The whole climate of rerrenchment was further strengthened by the recent warnings against the excesses of liberation theology by Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the man who keeps an eagle eye out for any careless lapses into liberalism. "It is all," said a Dublin priest gloomily, "part of the grand strategy of the Pole."

Last May, when we canvassed Dublin clergy for their views of likely archepiscopal candidates, there was a general withdrawing of soutane skirts at the mention of McNamara. "The appointment of McNamara would be as bad as you could possibly get," said one man. "He's an old style acadeemician, not the sort of person a big developing city needs."

So what sort of welcome will he get? One south city priest voiced a general attitude: "I will welcome Kevin McNamara, whatever my view of his appointment is. Natuurally we are disappointed that one of our own wasn't chosen, but that's it now. There will be no protest. No body would want to go back over the carry-on and intrigue of the last eight months."

The Dublin clergy are beginning to wonder what the purpose of the consultative process on appointment of bishops is, or whether their involvement in it - and they would have plumped for auxiliary bishops Dermot O'Mahooney, Donal Murray and diocesan administrator Desmond Williams, with Ferns Bishop Brendan Comiskey as a possible outsider - is anything more than window-dressing.

WHILE THEY FEEL THEIR JOB IS TO GET on with preaching the gospel, rather than waste their energies in internal church politics, some of the younger men fear that McNamara's strict interpretation of church law on sexual morality and his determination that the state should reflect that law will accelerate the urban drift away from the church. "We're already losing liberal Catholics at a colossal rate."

Some of them watched with despair as the Archbishoppelect, at his initial press conference, waded straight into the muddy waters of contraception, the anti-abortion amenddment, and divorce. "Does he think about anything but sex? It's about time both church and state got this sex thing off their minds. Aren't there more important economic and social problems? And couldn't McNamara have said that there was more to the church than rules about sex? What people need is some encouragement and some hope."

The main fear is that McNamara is too much in the mould of Ryan. "Kinda gloomy, y'know," sighed one, "All rules, and no hope. We needed a communicator. That's why people started to latch onto Brendan Comiskey, they thought he might have been able to serve with joy. As far as Ryan and McNamara were concerned, Jesus Christ had become a very heavy weight."

There is, however, a deal of sympathy for McNamara himself. He's seen as someone without overweening personal ambition, and someone who had to be pressurised to take on the Dublin job. Initially resented in Kerry because his appointment was announced even before the local consulltation process was completed, he is now seen as a gentle and kind man who is much more personally compassionate than his tub-thumping statements on sexual morality would indicate. "And you have to remember that to be conservaative on sexual issues is hardly a drawback in Kerry," said a priest who had worked with him there.

The Kerry clergy were pleasantly surprised to find him easy to work with, encouraging, and a bishop who had great respect for each priest as a person. "I don't know of anyone who was ever disciplined by him. He wasn't a man for connfrontations. "

He turned out to be much more of a pastor than they had expected and was a constant visitor to hospitals'. and schools. Compared with Eamon Casey, he seemed indeed a mild and modest man. He often used a bicycle, and in his spare time he got up to nothing more exotic than an evenning walk.

Indeed, it's accepted in Dublin that he won't be an interfering or a fussy archbishop. "He may be dull as ditchhwater and a bit prim, but he's a gentleman. In any case this is Dublin, it's not as compact as Kerry. You can't be paraading around Leeson Street at night watching the lads. It's much easier for fellas in a big city to do their own thing without being noticed."

His main problem as they see it, will be to get to know "the lads". "There are nearly a thousand of us. To get to know us at all well will take him the best part of ten years. By that stage he'll be 68. That problem wouldn't have arisen if he'd been a local."

So it's not the man they're worried about, so much as his unyielding pronouncements. They're afraid he'll get into public tangles which will hurt him and the church, tangles which the just as conservative, but more wily, Ryan managed to minimise.

They know he doesn't agonise about moral issues, nor does he debate them. He knows what's right and what's wrong and won't spend time arguing the point, as his fellow bishops discovered on the church/state issue.

Compassionate he may be, but that doesn't mean that he bends the rules. One former student of his at Maynoth agreed to type up the manuscript of McNamara's latest book. With the restricted free time seminarians had then, the student found he had to do his typing during study hours in order to finish the manuscript on time. He negleccted his Moral Theology work for the Christmas exams assuming that his professor in the subject, McNamara, would understand what had happened and give him a pass. The day after the manuscript was finished, the student found a thank you note and a book of church history left in his room by a grateful McNamara. The day after that again he discovered he was the only man in his class who had failed Moral Theology.

Dublin might as well be warned. There will be no special pleading. Black will be black, and white will be white, and Dermot Ryan can sleep sound in his Roman bed. The Empire still rules OK. •