Diarmuid Martin: the best person to kick off informed debate about the Catholic religion

Being bilingual can have great advantages in public life. Take the government minister who wants to rush legislation through the Dáil with a minimum of fuss. He introduces the bill as Gaeilge, secure in the knowledge that only a handful of legislators are proficient in the native tongue. Who can object to the national parliament conducting its business in Irish?

Similarly, last week in Italy, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin delivered an address in Italian. According to the Irish Times, the script was available only in that language. No problemo, except he had a little dig at the faithful and wider society in his own native land, which was a bit inconsiderate of him.

Martin was addressing the large Catholic lay organisation, Communion and Liberation, at its annual conference. Earlier in the week, President Mary McAleese also gave an address. Thankfully, she didn't offer any hugs to the 10,000 strong attendance.

The archbishop suggested that many Irish Catholics remain "theologically illiterate" despite going through 15 years of religion teaching in school. He decried the poor standards of Catholic and intellectual debate in Ireland.

"There are no forums for reflection on the relationship between faith and life similar, for example, to the Catholic academies in many German dioceses," he said.

And he said very few writers presented themselves as Catholic "while we have lots of people ever ready to comment on church affairs, often in a sensationalist manner and with little real knowledge of the nature of the Church".

Of course, many if not most Catholics are "theologically illiterate". He is also correct that the standard of debate in Ireland could be found wanting. As for the study of theology, it is practically non-existent outside the confines of academia. But while there are some broader cultural reasons for this state of affairs, there are also historical ones which must be laid at the door of the church itself.

For decades, any form of debate was stifled. Anybody within – or without – the church who voiced opinions or ideas conflicting with the world view of the hierarchy was given short shrift. Debate was not encouraged. As for the theological illiteracy of the flock, how else could it be in an institution which placed very little emphasis on debate, theological or otherwise?

Whenever somebody within the church did raise their heads, it was chopped off. Ask Kevin Hegarty, formerly the editor of the Catholic magazine Intercom. In 1994, after he raised concerns in print about the manner in which the hierarchy was dealing with child sex abuse, he was removed and banished to the outpost of Belmullet.

Issues like sexual morality were always given far greater prominence than theology within the Irish church. Studying the meaning of religion is all very well, but if you want to exercise power over the faithful, beat them with the sexual morality stick.

Things are different today, but not all that different. The most recent matter to exercise the hierarchy and Catholic elements within the media was the civil partnership bill. Tellingly, all surveys suggest that the hierarchy was out of step with the vast majority of public opinion on that issue.

That a man of Martin's ability wants more intellectual debate within the Irish church is entirely understandable. Except, of course, any such debate would have to exclude many issues that are central to the religion.

Pope Benedict has let it be known he wants no more guff about women priests, so that's off the agenda. The basic and human condition of sexual desire and how it might relate to celibacy of priests is not to be discussed either.

Even debate on matters of a more theological bent, like transubstantiation, is frowned upon. Asking a seven-year-old to believe without question that bread and wine is turned into the body and blood of Jesus Christ before their very eyes in the course of mass is one thing. Telling grown adults that they must not question the concept – or miracle – is something else.

In Martin's defence, he spent the bulk of his career in Rome, where theological and intellectual matters are to the fore. His experience in pastoral care prior to his appointment as archbishop of Dublin in 2004 was minimal, something which turned out to be to his advantage in dealing with the difficulties which have beset the church.

He is rightly commended for the job he is doing. And it is entirely understandable that he is seeking to impart a deeper meaning to the religion.

He has a point in his reference to the standards of intellectual debate in society as a whole. Standards have fallen right across public life, in everything from business and education through to politics and the media. Addressing the reasons for falling standards might be a good place to start any debate.

But as far as the church is concerned, the majority of the remaining faithful in this country are into the second half of life's natural span. They grew up and grew into a church that demanded fidelity without any questioning. To turn around now and lecture these people that they are theologically illiterate and incapable of, or disinterested in, rigorous intellectual debate, is a bit rich.

Catholicism still is a major force in the country, particularly through the church's dominance of the education system. For that reason alone, informed debate around the religion is to be welcomed. There is no better person to kick that off than the archbishop of Dublin.