Fr Brian D’Arcy and Vocation – Reflecting the Changing Nature of Priesthood?

fr brian darcyI plan to blog later in the week about last night’s BBC One documentary about Fr Brian D’Arcy, The Turbulent Priest. A flurry of media coverage leading up to the documentary had honed in on the controversy around D’Arcy’s censoring by the Vatican, due to his views on issues such as mandatory celibacy, the ban on women priests and contraception.

Some of those headlines included these quotes from D’Arcy:

“Why I’d have been a better priest if I married”

“I felt like giving up when the Catholic Church tried to gag me”

“Will I still be allowed to stay a priest?”

My posts on D’Arcy have been among the most widely-read and commented upon on this blog.

He is widely supported and defended by people who advocate the changes he recommends within the Catholic Church, and denounced as a heretic by those who disagree with him.

In many ways, D’Arcy is in-step with wider thinking about the faith among lay Catholics in Ireland, going by the recent poll by the Association of Catholic Priests.

I’ve also explored these changes in Irish Catholicism in a post about the BBC Radio 4 Documentary, ‘Ireland’s Troublesome Priests.’

In that post, I critiqued a conservative Catholic commentator who asserted that ‘a rush to meet popular opinion can lead to church diminishing,’ citing examples of Christian denominations that have implemented changes such as women priests, married clergy, more democratic cultures, contraception, and liberal attitudes to divorce and gay clergy as having entered into ever steeper decline.

I responded:

It seems to me that Quinn’s argument is based on the rather tenuous assumption that church ‘decline’ can be measured simply in church attendance. And Quinn also ignores the glaring empirical fact that the fastest-growing expressions of Christianity in the world – charismatic and Pentecostal congregations – often have women ministers, married ministers, democratic cultures, weak (if any) denominational structures, and the sort of lay participation that the tired, institutional churches of Europe can only dream of.

Since writing that post, I’ve been reading Phyllis Tickle’s latest book, Emergence Christianity (Baker Books, 2012), which I’ll review soon on this blog.

Among the trends Tickle highlights is the rise to greater prominence within Christianity of what are called ‘tentmakers or the diaconate or bi-vocational clergypersons’ (p. 125).

These are people who choose to work in the secular world while at the same time are ‘credentialed in some way beyond that of laity’ (p. 125).

While many assume Emergence Christianity is a Protestant phenomenon, this is not the case. The movement towards increased lay participation in the Catholic Church and the empowering of laypeople to take on more duties that were previously reserved for clergy is symptomatic of Emergence Christianity. Indeed, Tickle would see Vatican II as symptomatic of Emergence Christianity.

Such changes reflect a general waning in the power and authority of clergy across all Christian denominations. Tickle argues that this is the case both in the West and on a global scale, where Christianity is not declining numerically.

In Ireland, the dilemmas Fr Brian D’Arcy has faced as a priest trying to be true to his conscience resonate with Tickle’s wider observations about the changing nature of the priesthood globally. D’Arcy’s challenges can open Christians in Ireland up to wider questions like:

To what extent can we expect our church institutions (be they Catholic, Protestant or some other expression of Christianity) to change in the ways they define who can become (and stay) a priest?

To what extent can we expect our church institutions to change the ways they define the duties of priests vis a vis laity?

To what extent can we expect our church institutions to engage constructively with people – clergy or laity – who disagree with some of the current teachings of those churches about the nature of priesthood?

To what extent are laypeople across all denominations (be they Catholic, Protestant, or some other expression of Christianity) willing to wait for the church institutions to ‘catch up’ with their current practices, such as relying ever more on tentmakers or bi-vocational clergypersons?

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