The way forward in Ireland (and elsewhere?)

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The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, is getting praise for a "clear-eyed" address to the Knights of Columbanus about the sex abuse crisis in his country, which has snared his brother to the north, Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, the Catholic primate of Ireland. As a young priest Brady swore to secrecy two children who gave testimony of their own abuse in 1975.

Martin, in a wide-ranging talk on the future of Catholicism in Ireland, noted that clericalism remains part of the problem that led both to sexual abuse and the cover up: "We need to take a radical new look at the formation of future priests. I am working on plans to ensure that for the future in Dublin our seminarians, our prospective deacons and our trainee lay pastoral workers in the Archdiocese of Dublin will share some sections of their studies together, in order to create a better culture of collaborative ministry. The narrow culture of clericalism has to be eliminated. It did not come out of nowhere and so we have to address its roots in seminary training."

I couldn't agree more, and I even wrote about it in my June column, in which I argue for rethinking the current seminary system to include more direct contact with the people of God: "Sending candidates hundreds of miles from their local churches for training does not foster that connection. Neither does it make sense to leave the formation of future pastors almost solely to other priests. Seminarians need the guidance and Christian witness of laypeople every bit as much as they need good ordained role models. Perhaps if families with children had been a daily part of seminary formation in the past, victims of sex abuse would have found a fairer and more generous hearing when they first spoke out."

At the same time, I worry that the opposite of what Martin suggests is happening in U.S. seminaries, which are moving away from mixing clerical and lay students for ministry, presumably to buttress an undermined priestly identity. To me this seems a recipe for disaster that will not only reinforce the more negative dimensions of clerical culture but make it harder for ordained and lay ministers to work together. If formed separately, lay and ordained will end up with different understandings of both ministry and the church, with predictable conflict down the road.