Ireland’s Troublesome Priests: Promoting ‘Evolution’ in the Irish Catholic Church?

irishpriestLast month (23 September 2012) BBC Radio 4 aired a documentary titled ‘Ireland’s Troublesome Priests,’ which seemingly set out to focus on the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP)and the members of it who have been censored by the Vatican for their views on issues ranging from women priests, the role of the laity, clerical celibacy, and so forth.

But what emerged out of the programme was a picture of an equally ‘troublesome’ (for the Vatican, it would seem) laity, intent on working with their so-called ‘dissident’ priests to reform, renew, and revive the Catholic Church in Ireland.

You can listen to the full programme here:

Presenter Ruth McDonald spoke with a number of ACP priests and activist laity, who explained that they simply see themselves as trying to live out the vision that was promised in Vatican II.

In small ways – such as lay-led services of Word and Communion – McDonald describes them as contributing to the ‘evolution’ of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

But it’s an evolution that is set in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandals and the steep decline in mass attendance across Ireland over the last twenty years. Those leading the ‘evolution’ see the ‘institutional’ church as unresponsive and complicit in that decline, unwilling to embrace the reforms promised by Vatican II. As Fr Bobby Gilmore, an ACP founder, told McDonald:

Reform didn’t take place. And the result is if you don’t reform you die, you lose the vision. … Are we living in the spirit of the inquisition or in the spirit of Vatican II?

Or as Fr Iggy O’Donovan said:

Young people … are simply gone [from the Catholic Church in Ireland]. … If ever there was an organisation that spends its time arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, it’s the Catholic Church.

Last week, the Catholic Church launched its ‘Year of Faith’ programme, which includes a number of exciting initiatives that seem designed to open up the church and empower laypeople to play a greater role in it. I will be blogging more about the Year of Faith in the coming week.

The promise of initiatives in the Year of Faith, coupled with examples from across the island like Down and Connor’s Living Church initiative, offer some hope that there is a greater movement, even within the ‘institutional’ church, to promote a more meaningful role for laypeople.

But one of the most pressing questions that came through to me from the documentary is this:

Does the ‘institutional’ church want to hear what Irish laypeople have to say?

McDonald spoke of the now much-cited survey by the ACP, which demonstrated that the majority of Irish Catholics disagree with official church teachings on married priests, women priests, the election and term of office of bishops, and attitudes towards homosexuality.

David Quinn, described by McDonald as a conservative Catholic writer and columnist, seemed to represent ‘official’ opinion on what the institutional church thinks of those views when he discounted the ACP survey, saying:

‘The church doesn’t decide its beliefs according to a show of hands, okay? … A show of hands on these points is interesting because it shows if people believe or not what their church is teaching … But it can’t lead to change [in the church].’

Quinn added that in his view, ‘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.

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.

I commend all readers to listen to the programme in full, leaving Fr Seamus Ahern to sum up what he sees happening in the Catholic Church in Ireland:

[Previously in Ireland], mass was the place where people met … [it was] a social occasion. … and some of what went on at mass wasn’t mass at all… it was a passive faith, an ignorant faith. … it was a faith that never grew up … and was almost useless. …

[But now] I could write a book every day [about what’s happening in the Catholic Church in Ireland] … it’s exciting, and it’s wonderful, and it’s holy ground. … every day in that church I hear people speak out of their hearts, and I’m moved every day by that.

(Image from the BBC, illustrating the ‘Ireland’s Troublesome Priests’ programme)

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