What, if anything, have we got in common with the situation in Ireland?
The Vatican and the faithful
IRELAND REMAINS overwhelmingly Catholic in identity but has become alienated from church teaching on sexual matters. The 2011 census found that 84 per cent of people in this State regarded themselves as Catholics. However, the great majority of Catholics in a more recent survey rejected papal teaching on who should be priests, on divorce, homosexuality and contraception. The emergence of such an a la carte approach reflects a loss of authority within the church caused by sex abuse scandals and extensive cover-ups, along with the emphasis placed on personal conscience by Vatican II.
The fact that a controversial survey involving religious beliefs was commissioned and published by the Association of Catholic Priests is, perhaps, the most significant development. It follows the silencing of Tony Flannery, one of the association’s four leaders, by Rome and the release of an edited version of a “path of renewal” for the Irish church, drawn up by Vatican churchmen who visited here last year. Brendan Hoban may protest they are not dissenting priests and that the association is merely reflecting the views of parishioners. Rome may not regard their behaviour in that light.
There has been an increasing emphasis in recent years on centralised Vatican discipline and religious orthodoxy. An integral part of that process has involved the selection and promotion of suitably compliant bishops in “local churches” throughout the world. Renewed control by Rome and a crackdown on liberal theological discourse has generated resistance in some European countries, but with little effect.
A similar outcome may be expected here. There is no evidence of a willingness to lift the prohibition on the ordination of women or married men, or to alter church teaching on sexual or other issues. On the contrary, the imposition of stricter controls within seminaries; a careful review of training for teachers of religion in schools and improved theological formation for wayward thinkers have been identified as necessary responses to current church difficulties on the road to renewal.
The alacrity with which members of the hierarchy quoted from this heavily edited report, following the implicit challenge from the Association of Catholic Priests, suggests that battle lines have been drawn. Rome may not be listening to the views of ordinary Irish Catholics. But there is nothing new in that. Control, orthodoxy and discipline are the issues at hand. While praising the vitality of the people’s faith in their report, Vatican representatives found “a widespread tendency amongst priests, religious and laity” to hold theological opinions at variance with “the teachings of the Magisterium”. This was a serious situation requiring “improved theological formation”. Dissent from fundamental teachings of the church was not, they declared, an authentic path towards renewal. Fr Hoban and his colleagues may wish for open dialogue and for liberal reforms. Instead, they are being asked to listen humbly to God’s word, as relayed by Rome.