Priests rise up in quiet revolt against Rome
Hundreds of priests gathered in Dublin this week in defiance of the Vatican. Might they be the Church's salvation, asks Malachi O'Doherty
Priests can't have a trade union - and they know it. This week's meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Dublin represented a surprise re-emergence of protest among priests - just four years after their total humiliation.
Until 2008, Irish Catholic priests convened an annual Conference of Priests of Ireland (CPI). That fell apart, because the priests themselves were so demoralised and felt that no-one was listening to them.
They were over-worked and under-manned. They were also getting used to a new feeling that they were not only being ignored by most people, but were actively reviled.
In an effort to persuade priests that they were being heard by their bishops, the CPI invited the Irish bishops to come and meet them and hear their grievances. Only four turned up.
I was at that conference, reporting on it for BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence, but I was barred from that session.
Afterwards, I met a Jesuit who had attended the meeting. He was livid. He said: "You would think some people would be aware of the danger that, in their profession, they might be Pharisees."
The Pharisee in the Gospels is the priestly hypocrite; the one who is a stickler for rites and routines, but has no spiritual feeling. If you take your Bible seriously, it is probably the worst thing you could call a bishop.
The next year, there was no meeting of the CPI. The conference had tried to appoint a new chairman, but couldn't find a single priest in the whole of Ireland who would take the job.
The indications were that the priests were the unhappiest people in the country and that they lacked any hope of pulling themselves out of the sorry state they were in - where ordinary Catholics were afraid to let them near their children and the bishops were inflexible and more concerned with doctrine than with the relationship the Church had with the people.
Yet, this week, a group of priests calling themselves the Association of Catholic Priests showed a lot more energy and courage than any priest seemed capable of such a short time ago.
It is impossible to predict how far their declared resistance - their word - will take them, but there is no mistaking the passion and the organisational skills which they are bringing to it.
This week's meeting was the start of a project to create an assembly of Catholics - something like a democratic synod. The core motivation is an understanding the Church is out of touch with the people and in rapid decline.
An ACP survey shows huge support in the country for the ending of priestly celibacy and for the ordination of women. These aren't just attractive, liberal ideas; they may be the only measures that will save the Church from collapse as recruitment to the priesthood dries up.
The question is: how are these demands to be advanced? What prospect is there of them being met? And what happens if they are not met?
There is clear anger with the Vatican, which has silenced priests like Fr Tony Flannery, one of the leaders. But Flannery is obeying his orders from Rome, as are the others.
Fr Brian D'Arcy, who wasn't at the conference, is submitting his articles for approval as instructed. For revolutionaries, these are quite compliant and good-natured people.
Normally, if you go to a rally, the organisers inflate the numbers for the Press. The ACP is happy to claim that nearly a thousand people joined them in Dublin.
My conservative estimate, having counted heads in rows and then multiplied by the number of rows, was that there were 1,500 people there. I wouldn't argue with an estimate of 1,700.
Any political party could teach these people a few tricks for pressing their case more assertively.
Strategy will be more awkward. They want to rally people around the idea that the Vatican's authority can be resisted, but they don't want open confrontation.
They need to retain their individual authority as priests, or they remove themselves from the whole argument. So they are obedient, still.
The next stage is to pass on the baton of the campaign to lay people. They hope to establish an assembly that will discuss how the Church should be managed in Ireland.
The next meeting, at the end of the month, will bring together lay groups and encourage them to establish an umbrella body, which will represent the broad opinion of Irish Catholics, including the arguments that priests should be allowed to marry, that women should be ordained, that gay and lesbian people are not 'disordered', as the Church says, and that the Pope should not silence priests who air these opinions.
But then what? Either that assembly becomes a mere sharing of opinion, or it seeks to find a way in which the Catholic Church can conduct itself with less concern for the Vatican and the hierarchy.
Sooner or later, they will find that the only way for them to challenge the power of Rome is to take some of that power onto themselves.