Fr Kevin Hegarty
The first annual general meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests took place in Dublin last week. It marked its first birthday. The association was founded in September 2010 at a meeting in Portlaoise.
Now it has almost 600 members, about one-eighth of the priests of Ireland. It has made a substantial commitment to religious debate in Ireland in the last year. Its programme of reform which includes opening the priesthood to married men and the development of a holistic theology of sexuality has struck a chord.
The meeting affirmed its confidence in the leadership team. They are a gifted group.
Brendan Horan, the parish priest of Ballina, has been a passionate advocate of a Vatican II style Church for almost forty years. He and Brian Darcy, who also attended the meeting, are the longest-running religious affairs columnists in Irish journalism.
Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist, who travels the country giving missions and retreats, has a deep knowledge of the needs of the Irish Church. Seán McDonagh, is recognised internationally as an expert on ecology, and has written several inspiring and challenging books on the need to nourish the environment. PJ Madden, who in an earlier life, was a trade union official, brings a sense of professionalism to the conduct of the meetings, all done in an engaging and persuasive way.
The atmosphere at the well attended AGM was helpful. Many priests spoke with palpable conviction of their commitment to reform. On the first evening I made my contribution. Here I would like to share with you some of what I said.
Graham Greene has written of the door which opens in childhood and lets the future in. In the sphere of religion that door for me was the second Vatican Council. It promised a church which would engage positively with the human condition in the modern world. It would contribute to the dialogue out of the wisdom of its lengthy tradition but also learn from contemporary seculer developments.
I long for a church in this mould. We need a new council of the church, if only to recall for us the insights of the last one, fifty years ago.
The theologian, Edward Schillebeecx has written:
“I do not begrudge any believer the right to describe and live out his belief in accordance with the old models of experience, culture and ideas but this attitude isolates the church from any future and divests itself of any real missionary power.”
Such a new church would open its doors to married priests and women priests. It would benefit from secular insights on, for example, democracy and human intimacy.
It would accept the validity of homosexuality as a human experience rather than seeing it as a distortion. It would, in sum, develop a healthy and holistic theology of sexuality.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, this is not happening. The hope of change, engendered by the Vatican Council, proved shortlived. It was choked by the Roman Curia.
For over 30 years the church has retreated from reform. It has returned to the incense-filled ghettoes of the past in defence of its traditional, hierarchical structures.
Its procedures are archaic, cumbersome and precious. It is suspicious of lay involvement. Only those who are seen to conform to its narrow views are admitted to the temple of authority. So bishops are chosen on the basis of being in favour of compulsory celibacy, docility to papal teaching and above all against contraception and the ordination of women. It is fearful of the feminine. Mysogyny is dressed up in theological abstractions. The current imposition of the new Roman missal, with its conservative theology and its sexist language is a symbol both of Vatican arrogance and its distance from the pulse of modern life.
Given the authoritarian tone of church leadership in recent decades it is difficult to feel hopeful about reform in the church. For those of us who hope for it the high attendance at the ACP AGM reminded us that we are not alone. It was said of Cardinal Gibbons, a liberal leader of the US church in the late 19th and early 20th century that he kept the door open to the future. That is the task of the ACP in the present regressive and sometimes repressive church climate.