The Latest Scandal at Maynooth College Seminary

In the midst of the prevailing bad news confronting the Catholic Church in Ireland, ranging from declining Church attendance, constitutional approval of same-sex “marriage,” diminished time allotment for religious education in national schools, and declining number of church marriages, a new controversy has developed regarding the only seminary left in the Republic of Ireland—St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth (a Pontifical university linked to the National University of Maynooth).

The seminary was started in 1795 with a grant from the British Government. It marked the end of the Penal Law era when Catholicism, the religion of the overwhelming majority of the Irish population, had been subject to severe restrictions ranging from outlawing bishops, religious orders, seminaries, and church schools, the exclusion of Catholics from public positions, professions, possession of arms, the suffrage, and severe limitations on their property rights, including purchase and inheritance.

By the end of the eighteenth century, when Britain was allied with the Papacy in combatting the expanding virus caused by the French Revolution, it was assumed appropriate to provide a state funded seminary since Catholics could no longer go to revolutionary France to train for the priesthood.

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For the next two centuries it was the major institution training Irish clergy, and most of the Irish bishops, although several other seminaries had also developed. Today its student body is down to about 80 in contrast to the hundreds in previous years.

The controversy arises from the announcement by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin that henceforth he will have the three seminarians from his diocese study at the Irish College in Rome rather than in Maynooth—the national seminary that is located within his diocese and of which he is a trustee. While not being specific, Martin suggests that a prevailing atmosphere at the seminary implies a tolerance of a gay culture.

Earlier there had been complaints that some seminarians were asked to withdraw because of their being “too orthodox.” Such could mean kneeling during the Consecration at Mass or complaining about the blatant homosexual behavior of fellow students.

To date few Irish bishops have joined Martin in his stand, although most of the 26 dioceses do not have more than one or two students, if that, among the 80 or so presently enrolled. Significantly, Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, whose diocese is primarily in Northern Ireland and which has its own seminary, will continue to sponsor candidates at Maynooth, as will the other two Archbishops in Ireland.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s position has caused much confusion, especially on the part of Irish liberals, who saw him as more flexible and congenial toward the secular world. They had been pleased by his readiness, upon appointment, to furnish public authorities with all diocesan correspondence relating to accusations of clerical paedophilia, his willingness to abandon church management of a certain number of national schools where a significant number of parents wanted such, and his seeming reluctance to criticize the results of last year’s national plebiscite legitimizing same-sex “marriage.”

For instance, Father Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest presently suspended because of his unorthodox position on various issues, thinks “there is absolutely no reason why a gay man should not be a priest,” and has expressed concern about “a big challenge for the seminary system” created by “a small section of young men who are very traditional in their faith, who are looking for certainties and who seem to hanker back to the Church of the early part of the last century.”

Similarly, Father Brendan Hoban, of the Association of Catholic Priests, a group continually pressuring the hierarchy for more flexibility on clerical marriage and female ordination, depicted the Archbishop’s anxiety as comparable to “moving deck chairs on the Titanic rather than getting to the issues that are important.”

On the other hand, Mark Dooley, presently a newspaper columnist, but formerly a philosophy lecturer at University College Dublin and Maynooth, insists the problem is real. His columns about “a culture of excessive drinking and a culture of promiscuity” less than ten years ago let to his removal from the faculty, ostensibly for financial reasons. Dooley insists his views were confirmed by many students who left Maynooth and by senior priests who had studied there earlier.

A similar perspective is that of Anthony Murphy, editor of Catholic Voice, who argued there was downplaying of “the solemnity of the Blessed Sacrament,” “outright denials of the Real Presence,” and “a questioning of the divinity of Jesus Christ.” He noted how, in May of last year, out of a class of 10 seminarians it was recommend that six take time out from formation as they were deemed “theologically rigid.” Three were later readmitted following intervention by their bishops.

Significantly, in the early 1980s a senior dean, Father Gerard McGinnity, expressed similar concerns about the college and aggrieved seminarians to the institution’s trustees, and more specifically about the behavior of the then vice president, Msgr. Michael Ledwith. Father McGinnity was dismissed and returned to parish life, while Ledwith went on to become president of Maynooth, although standing down in 1994 after allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Later he wound up with a New Age cult in the United States.

A completely different perspective is that of an American Canon Lawyer, Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, who was a pioneering whistle blower of clerical sexual abuses, especially the sexual abuse of minors, in the United States. Speaking on Irish radio, he endorsed Archbishop Martin’s decision to withdraw his seminarians from Maynooth.

But Doyle said such should be done not because of alleged theological heterodoxy or sexual immorality at the school. Rather, he blamed the presence there of “a toxic subculture” prompting such accusations. That type of culture thrives, he asserted, in the “very closed” seminary life, such as at Maynooth, but also in many American seminaries. He regards it as a consequence of “a whole crop” of “very conservative and controlling bishops appointed under Popes John Paul II and Benedict.” Significantly Doyle fails to note that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had advanced to senior positions in the Vatican and ultimately to Dublin under St. John Paul II.

The controversy has been a boon for the thriving anti-clerical atmosphere in the current Irish media. Naturally there are the predictable suggestions that large numbers of aspirants to the priesthood are homosexual and/or that homosexuality is an outlet for those unable to cope with celibacy. But one seriously doubts if the secular commentators are the least concerned about helping a troubled aspirant or even ordained priest cope with psychological challenges to his vocation.

(Photo credit: Paresh Dave / Wikimedia)


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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