Brendan Hoban: Enda McDonagh was a loyal custodian of Vat 11
A loyal custodian of the flame of Vatican II
Western People 9.3.2021
When Lahardane-man, John MacHale died in 1881 in his 90th year – after 67 years as a priest and 55 as a bishop – The Freeman’s Journal eloquently marked the passing of a great churchman, a central figure in Irish Catholicism in the nineteenth century: ‘A pillar has fallen in the Temple . . . John of Tuam was an Agamemnon, king of men; he stood head and shoulders over the crowd’.
A similar tribute can be paid to Fr Enda MacDonagh who died last week in his 91st year, after a lifetime of service to the Catholic Church and, it can be said, to Irish society.
McDonagh was never appointed a bishop – though he was the choice of his priest-colleagues in Tuam on at least one occasion – and in a comment to his students who once teased him about his episcopal prospects he replied simply that be believed academics should remain academics. It was an astute observation because McDonagh was more aware than most of where his abilities and his contribution lay.
But if he had been asked by his students whether he would have accepted the presidency of Maynooth College, I doubt he would have been so coy. Because if ever a role had been designed for him – so suited to his academic credentials and his international reputation and so in tune with both his public image and his private inclination – it would have been not only a great fit for him but an enduring favour to that institution.
The ‘What If’ school of history could have great fun assessing the possible ramifications of such an appointment but the sad truth is that churchmen of McDonagh’s calibre are rarely promoted – often because they don’t make the compromises needed to seek preference but more usually because they tend to speak the truth, regardless of the consequences. It doesn’t take a genius to see McDonagh as the making of an exceptional president of Maynooth – particularly in view of the history of appointments to that position.
Born in Bekan, Enda was a quintessential Mayoman, down to his unabashed obsession with Mayo football, and he displayed in conversation an unexpected knowledge of the trials and tribulations of that often unhappy infatuation. Even though he wasn’t particularly athletic himself, all his life he basked in the unrequited expectation of Mayo glory.
His academic history followed the routine pattern of an exceptionally gifted student who seemed from his early days to be marked out for advancement in the Church. Bekan NS was followed by St Jarlath’s, Tuam, then Maynooth where he achieved B.Sc. and B.D. degrees and a doctorate in theology. It was a template that offered a promising career trajectory in the Church. Later he studied at the Angelicum in Rome as well as being advisor to Archbishop Walsh during the Second Vatican Council and after a second doctorate in Munich, he returned to Maynooth College again, where he was appointed professor of Moral Theology and Canon Law at the age of 28 and where he would spend 36 years on the staff. Later, he would lecture all over the world, including a spell of three years in the famed Notre Dame university in America, where he was offered a permanent post. He decided, in the end, to turn the invitation down out of loyalty to his country. The Bekan man decided where home was.
In tandem with his lecturing, he wrote a series of ground-breaking books of theology, a constant stream of articles in significant journals as well as an ever-growing reputation, including among those who opposed his religious perspective, as a commentator on Irish life and society. Another important dimension to his CV was his international contribution to larger questions like church unity, the AIDS issue, justice and peace issues and his active interest in the arts.
I met Enda first in Maynooth in 1966 but I only really got to know him when I had the pleasure and the privilege of being taught theology by him and later when, with his good friend Kevin Hegarty, we founded and worked together for some years on the magazine, Céide.
Though a man of – what the recent Irish Times obituary described as – ‘towering intelligence’, Enda wore his genius lightly, coupling his academic and professional career with a profound simplicity of life. He carried his dazzling array of personal and intellectual gifts with a benevolence and contentment of life that was a great joy to his ever-widening circle of friends and contacts. There was no grand-standing, no attention-seeking, because his easy-going and benign personality and his self-deprecating style made him not just good company but, as many will attest, a gracious and generous host. Like many others I feel privileged that for many years I was able to count him among my friends.
With his death, I’m even more aware of the enormity of his loss. Apart from the formulaic tributes – including those who had little appreciation of his giftedness – the Irish Church never really valued the substantial contribution he made, much less what that contribution might have meant if his ability to read the signs of our changing times had been given space to help the Church to negotiate them.
The dismal truth is that our Church didn’t deserve him and that some church authorities, with the narrowness and small-mindedness of the clerical mindset, distrusted and sidelined him. An example was a comment made by the late Archbishop Tom Morris of Cashel, who (in answer to a question after a bishops’ meeting) from a Maynooth staff member, as to whether the bishops had appointed James Mackey to a vacant position in the Maynooth theology faculty, replied, ‘No, we didn’t. But we didn’t sack McDonagh’. (Both Mackey and McDonagh had questioned Humanae Vitae, the letter of Pope Paul VI on artificial contraception.)
At a time when the Catholic Church in Ireland, instead of engaging with a changing world, was encouraging a retreat back to the nineteenth century, Enda McDonagh was among those adjudged by lesser lights as a problem rather than a blessing. But for those who shared his vision, he was a loyal custodian of the flame of Vatican Two and he made generous space for those who swam in his slipstream.
Like John MacHale, Enda McDonagh stood head and shoulders over his peers. And though the Church he served so well for so long often tended to diminish his influence and to limit his work, history (I believe) will judge him as one of if not the greatest theologian Ireland has produced.