During a meeting at the Vatican in 1946, Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montinithe future Pope Paul VItold
Ireland’s ambassador to the Holy See, “You are the most Catholic country in the
world!” The latest figures from the country’s census show that, in some
respects at least, Ireland remains an overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Bucking a trend
all across Western Europe, the census recorded that the Catholic population in
Ireland rose by around 5 percent from 2006-2011. Eighty-four percent of Irish
people now describe themselves as Catholic.
figure, however, masks a Church in deep trouble, with many of her priests appearing
to no longer hold the Catholic faith. This fact was noted in the report of the
recent Apostolic Visitation to Ireland, which mentioned a “certain tendency,
not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious, and
laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the
situation requires particular attention, directed principally towards improved
theological formation,” the visitation report said, going on to point out that
“it must be stressed that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the Church
is not the authentic path towards renewal.”
problem, a recent survey of Irish priests found that 60 percent of respondents
wanted the Church to change its teaching to permit women priests. Just 30 percent
of priests surveyed supported the Church’s teaching on this crucial issue.
insisted that “women priests would have a lot to offer in many ways. They are
good listeners, more understanding, and very sensitive to peoples’ needs.”
are doing a great job in other Christian churches,” he insisted.
In the same
survey, 78 percent of surveyed priests said they thought Catholic clergy ought
to be allowed to get married. Sixty-seven percent said they felt Irish bishops
were “too subservient” to the Holy See.
a fault line, however, 96 percent of those priests who responded had been
ordained for more than 10 years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that younger
priests are, by-and-large, more orthodox.
Association of Catholic Priests (ACP)a liberal pressure groupwas established
almost two years ago, several younger priests signed “not in my name” letters
distancing themselves from the group and its positions. However, the growth of
the ACP has been rapid and the body now represents some 20 percent of the
country’s 4,000 priests.
It was revealed
this month that the ACP’s founder, Father Tony Flannery, is being investigated
by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The CDF has already
prevented Father Flannery from writing in the monthly magazine Reality, published by his Redemptorist
Order. Father Flannery has been a vocal critic of the Church’s ban on
artificial birth control and has called for opening up discussion on questions
like the ordination of women and mandatory celibacy for priests.
David Quinn, director of the religious think-tank the Iona Institute, the ACP
represents a “sub-section of priests who want the Catholic Church to adopt the
failed project of liberal Protestantism.”
Quinn, that project was to adapt Christianity to the ways of the world, or,
“more accurately, to the ways of the liberal, secular elite who dominate
The ACP’s “manifesto”
is a familiar litany. Policy stances include a “re-evaluation of Catholic
sexual teaching and practice that recognizes the profound mystery of human sexuality
and the experience and wisdom of God’s people,” as well as “a redesigning of
ministry in the Church, in order to incorporate the gifts, wisdom, and
expertise of the entire faith community, male and female.”
figures in Ireland remain relatively high (at least by western European
standards). Recent research shows that 35 percent of Irish Catholics attend
Mass at least once a week. That figure rises to 51 percent when one includes
those Catholics who attend Mass at least once a month. Just 5 percent of Irish
Catholics say they never attend Mass.
Davie, a British sociologist of religion, has described a phenomenon in her
home country of “believing without belonging.” That is to say, many people have
faith in God but are not members of a church or religious community. Conversely,
in Ireland a recent survey suggests that many Irish Catholics may be “belonging
without believing”attending Mass regularly, but generally ignoring the
Church’s teaching on a wide variety of issues.
A survey released
April 12carried out by the respected pollsters Amarach Research and
commissioned by the priests’ associationshowed that three out of four Irish
Catholics find the Church’s teaching on sexuality “irrelevant.”
which were compiled from a sample of 1,000 Catholics and, according to
researchers, have a margin of error of +/-3 percent, revealed that 80 percent
of Catholics felt that the Church should continue to speak out on social
issues. However, the survey reveals what theologian Dr. John Murray describes
as “a wide disparity between what the Church teaches and what Irish Catholics
percent believe that priests ought to be allowed to get married, while 77 percent
say that the Church should admit women to the priesthood.
When asked, “To
what extent do you agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching that any sexual
expression of love between a gay couple is immoral?”, 61 percent of Catholics said
they disagreed, while 18 percent believed homosexual acts to be immoral.
Just 5 percent of
Catholics believe that divorced or separated Catholics in second unions should
be denied Holy Communion, while 87 percent said they had no problem with the
reception of Communion in these circumstances.
Father Sean McDonagh,
a member of the leadership team of the ACP, told Catholic World Report
that the survey “confirms that those who are advocating for change in the
Church are not a tiny minority, but are, in fact, at the heart of the Church.”
insists that Irish Catholics are “crying out for change and do not want the
Church to go backwards, but to move forward and change.”
Dr. Murray, who
lectures in theology at Dublin’s Mater Dei Institute, believes the survey
reveals a “crisis in Catholic education.”
in Ireland have never had a thorough presentation of exactly what the Church
teaches and why it teaches what it does,” he told Catholic World Report.
Murray said he
welcomes the survey “if it can lead to a discussion about the Church’s
“There has been
too little discussion of these issues in the past,” he said. “We are paying the
price for this nowthe Church’s teaching is largely misunderstood by many
people in Ireland.”
Murray said he
was “not surprised that many people have difficulties with some of the Church’s
teaching.” However, he did say he questions the thinking behind the research.
“Is this to start
a discussion about why many people reject the Church’s teaching, or is this
part of a campaign to get the Church to change key teaching?” he asked.
Murray said that
it had been his experience that “when people see the depth of the Church’s
teaching, they understand and appreciate it much more.”
He warned that
the Church “cannot sacrifice truth based on an opinion poll.”
Hoban, a well-known liberal priest in Ireland, thinks the poll reveals the
solution to the problems faced by the Irish Church.
“We have been
hearing these things in parishes for years and we hope that the Vatican will
now listen,” he told Catholic World Report.
The situation has
led Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin to warn of a climate of “undeclared
heresy” in the Irish Church brought about by a failure to pass on the Faith.
In a 2011
interview, Archbishop Martin observed that “the crisis of the Irish Church is
not simply a crisis related to sexual abuse of minors.”
“The crisis goes
much deeper,” he said. “It is a crisis of faith, a crisis of transmission of
the Faith, and in many cases a lack of understanding of the nature of the
added: “Ireland is now a highly secularized society, and many look to the
Church through a secularized lens, to the point that, in a sense, one could
speak of what I call ‘a climate of undeclared heresy’ that pervades many
dimensions of understanding of Faith among Catholics.”
Quite apart from
the abuse scandals, many ordinary Catholics have succumbed to the prevailing
relativism, as have many priests, seminaries, and theological institutes. There
is a reason for this; the Catholic Church has become extremely bad at defending
This lack of a
defense has had its effect over time, as more and more Catholics have come to
suspect that the relativists might be right after all and their Church wrong.
In this climate,
David Quinn of the Iona Institute believes that Ireland does indeed need a
priests’ association, but one that is explicit in its efforts to uphold the
teaching of the Church.
“What we need is
a priests’ association that will accept the challenge of defending the Church
against the insistent attacks on it, that will set out in a calm and reasonable
and compelling manner why the Church teaches what it teaches and why these
teachings are humane and are what the world needs to remedy many of its ills,
not least the collapse of the ethic of commitment and responsibility brought
about by modern sexual morality,” Quinn said.
That’s a tall
orderthe climate of moral relativism and secularism is so pervasive in today’s
Ireland, that even a concerted effort to better explain and defend what the
Church has to say won’t reverse the Church’s fortunes in the short term. But,
Quinn believes, “it will improve matters and it will help restore the morale of
ordinary Catholics who are disheartened by seeing their Church constantly
There are already
tentative signs that ordinary Catholics who cherish the faith of the Church are
willing to step up to the plate. A new organization, known as Catholic Comment,
is in its infancy. Independent of the Church hierarchy but fiercely loyal to
the teaching of the Magisterium, the group aims to present the Church’s
teaching in the media.
They aim to have
talented and committed spokespersons available in time for the International
Eucharistic Congress, which will be held in Dublin June 10-17. The congress
will be the largest religious event in Ireland since Blessed Pope John Paul
II’s historic visit in 1979. As he climbed aboard the papal plane leaving
Ireland that bright October morning, John Paul turned toward the Emerald Isle
for one last time. “Ireland, always faithful,” he said. “Semper fidelis!” He could never have imagined what lay ahead: a
combination of secularism, a hierarchy muted by abuse scandals, and a weakening
of faith has left Irish Catholicism in deep crisis and, at least for now, may
have succeeded where centuries of persecution failed.