Irish Catholics: Disobedient Dissidents or Open to the Spirit?

imageThe results of a survey commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), covered in yesterday’s news, reveals that the vast majority of Irish Catholics are out-of-step with ‘official’ church teachings on issues including married priests, women priests, the election and term of office of bishops, and attitudes towards homosexuality.

This of course isn’t news to most people who actually know Irish Catholics – even the 35% per cent of Irish Catholics who still, apparently, go to mass. But it confirms what many have suspected all along, and echoes the finding of the Apostolic Visitation that many Irish priests don’t agree with ‘official’ teachings of the church, either.

As summarised in Patsy McGarry’s report in the Irish Times:

CATHOLIC CHURCH teachings on sexuality have “no relevance” for 75 per cent of Irish Catholics or for their families, according to a survey.

It also found that 87 per cent of Irish Catholics believe priests should be allowed marry, 77 per cent believe there should be women priests and 72 per cent believe older married men should be allowed become priests.

McGarry’s article includes other key results, and the full report (including an explanation of its methodology) is available on the ACP website.

The survey comes in the wake of the investigation of Redemptorist priest Tony Flannery, a founder member of the ACP, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in earlier times, the organ of the Church which did the heavy lifting during the Inquisition) – for publicly writing and speaking about these very issues.

Over Easter, the Pope issued a general warning about ‘disobedient’ priests – seen in part as a reaction to an association of priests in Austria similar (but larger and seemingly more influential internationally) to the ACP.

The Pope’s emphasis on ‘disobedience’, coupled with a tendency to refer to some of the members of the ACP as ‘dissidents’ raises some interesting questions.

For example, David Quinn, writing in today’s Irish Independent, writes:

The press release by the ACP says the survey “reveals a significant disconnect between official Catholic Church teaching and what Catholics actually believe”.

That is absolutely correct, but the question is what should be done about it? Does the church alter its teachings in line with the latest opinion poll or must it instead do a much better job explaining to Catholics and the general public why it believes what it believes?

Quinn thinks the problem is that Irish Catholics haven’t had a proper religious education – that the reason why the Vatican stance on these issues has not been accepted is that people just don’t understand.

But I think that the very nature of Quinn’s questions assume a conception of the Catholic Church at variance with the reforms of Vatican II – which, by the way, have been pretty slow to bed down in Ireland.

For example,, representatives of the ACP have been keen to emphasise, over the last several days, that they are not dissidents. The Irish Times quotes Fr Brendan Hoban:

“We are not leading a breakaway from Rome. The connection is important but changes in line with Vatican II haven’t happened. We have no problem with the fundamental teachings of the church but we are very conscious of the Second Vatican Council.”

Fr McDonagh said “there has always been change in the church”. What the association wanted was “to see the reforms of Vatican II introduced,” he said.

Rather than casting the ACP, Fr Flannery, or anyone else with views that differ from the Vatican Curia as ‘disobedient,’ is it not possible that maybe – just maybe – the views of the ACP and the lay Catholics surveyed represent an openness to a Spirit of change within the church?

Gabriel Daly, OSA, writing in the April issue of the Dominican journal Doctrine and Life, puts it this way in an article titled ‘The Church: Always in Need of Reform’ (p. 3):

An ominous division exists in the Roman Catholic Church at the moment, and ecclesial authority seems simply to ignore it: consequently it is not commented on, still less discussed. One party is now in control and is presenting its views as ‘the teachings of the Church’. Its more voluble members dismiss those who differ from it as ‘á la carte Catholics’ – a witless enough phrase in a legitimately diverse Church. Ironically, the secular press unwittingly encourages this bad theology by identifying the Vatican Curia, and even the bishops, with the Catholic Church, thus failing to recognize the role of the people of God and legitimate differences in the Church.’

In a more populist tone, Fr Kevin Hegarty put it this way in Tuesday’s Irish Times:

There is a tendency of conservative church commentators to argue that liberal clerics are an ageing, disgruntled minority who have turned their misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council into a kind of holy writ.

To them we are castaways on a remote island, brazenly holding aloft the tattered banners of the 1960s. They won’t like this but I have to disillusion them.

…. To paraphrase Gerry Adams in a different context, we are not going away. The Vatican has been a “cold house” for liberal Catholics in recent years. The least we expect is respect for our freedom of speech and conscience.

A reform of the church which excludes these rights is a form of repression. It seems that Pope Benedict thinks “a creative minority” of Catholic conservatives will transform the church in Europe. To me that sounds like a polite euphemism for an assembly of Rick Santorum lookalikes.

Daly writes of the ‘role of the people of God,’ and both Daly and Hegarty emphasise that the Church should be big enough and open enough to acknowledge – rather than repress – its differences.

Anything less means that the ‘people of God’, in Ireland and further afield, will be denied the chance to play their part.

(image: logo of the Association of Catholic Priests)

4 thoughts on “Irish Catholics: Disobedient Dissidents or Open to the Spirit?”

  1. Quinn is correct. I spoke to a lady at a parish meeting recently who saw no reason why divorced and remarried catholics shouldn’t receive Holy Communion. But when me and a friend explained the Church teaching, she changed her mind and accepted it, just like that.

    The reason most RCCs reject the teachings is because they do not understand and it has never been explained.

    Vatican II documents have not been read by the vast majority including priests. Have you read them Gladys?

  2. ”Ironically, the secular press unwittingly encourages this bad theology by identifying the Vatican Curia, and even the bishops, with the Catholic Church, thus failing to recognize the role of the people of God and legitimate differences in the Church.”

    Irony of ironies that priests are complaining that the secular media are teaching the Catholic faith on the authority of Pope and bishops!

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