Belfast Telegraph

Irish church at the crossroads: reform or bust

The autocratic approach of Pope Benedict has brought the Catholic Church in Ireland to the brink of schism, argues Malachi O'Doherty

A revolution is brewing within the Catholic Church in Ireland. It is coming from the only stratum of the Church that has the power to affect radical change: the priests. The question is: will they have the numbers, the coherence, or the energy to force major change?

They know what has to be done, because they have already recognised the difference between the character of the Church in Ireland and the kind of church Rome wants it to be.

Last week, the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) published the findings of its own research, which found that most Catholics think that the Church is somewhat, or completely, subservient to Rome.

A majority called for bishops to be appointed on fixed terms. Most lay people and nearly half of priests said they wanted to be involved in the appointment of bishops. Even larger majorities said they thought women should be ordained and that priests should be allowed to marry.

This report describes a local Irish church that is so much out of step with Rome that tensions are inevitable.

And the priests know that they are at war, because Rome has already silenced some of their leaders. One priest was even told that the disciplinary measures taken against him had to be kept secret or he would be stripped of the right to practise.

The tactic of 'disappearing' priests means that we can't now know how many others have been shut up, too.

The possible trajectory of the current revolt is towards a breakaway from the authority of Rome, the ordination of women priests and the permitting of priests to marry.

There is no clear manifesto yet that any coherent group is currently asserting, but there is the makings of one in that report into Catholic attitudes compiled by the Association of Catholic Priests.

The problems for the ACP are many. For a start, Rome is on their case. One of the association leaders, Fr Tony Flannery, has been ordered to stop making public statements and to take himself off to a monastery for six weeks to 'reflect' on his position.

Members of the ACP believe that someone in Ireland is reporting to Rome the sayings of priests who are off-message.

Another problem is that the morale of priests is on the floor.

Priests are pledged to obey their bishops and, when they disagree with their bishops, they haven't much scope for protest.

Yet another problem is that the theological space they would step into if they broke from Rome is already occupied - by the Church of Ireland.

The Church of Ireland knows this and has already welcomed several priests across and invited others. The Dean of Christchurch in Dublin, Dermot Dunne, was previously a Catholic priest. So was Mark Hayden, now a vicar in Gorey, Co Wexford.

One prominent former priest, now married, was told over a game of golf with a CoI bishop that he would be welcome and that there would be a parish for him. But the reality that priests live with is that they have to connect a traditionalist hierarchical Church to a laity which has little interest in the theology.

On the one hand, they are dealing with ordinary Catholics who think much of the literal teaching of the Church is daft and dangerous. On the other, they are answerable to a hierarchy which demands that they teach things that affront the common sense of ordinary people.

Virtually no priest in Ireland today would stand up and preach against artificial contraception, or sex before marriage. So they are silent on these issues by choice.

On other concerns, like the question of whether women should be ordained, they are silent by diktat. They are forbidden to discuss the question, though those who have done so include the former Bishop of Derry, Edward Daly.

Yet priests are a dying breed in Ireland and ordination of women and permitting married people to become priests is the obvious answer to the fall in numbers.

But Rome isn't listening. The Vatican takes the view that the biggest problem in the Catholic Church in Ireland is that people are being selective in what they believe and that priests are not driving home the defined laws of the Church.

And the solution to the problem of child abuse, as the Vatican sees it, is a push to bring Irish Catholics back to core principles. And priests have to be more obedient for that to work.

There's to be no more of what is common throughout the country, priests being privately more amenable than they are in public.

Now they have to say if they are old school or out.

It is hard to imagine how this can lead to anything but their humiliation, or a schism.

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