Church Reform: National and International
For the past six years I have been actively involved in the movement for Church Reform. My involvement began with a meeting to consider setting up an association for priests whose purpose was to give priests a voice in church and society, and to support them in the many challenges priests face today. The meeting was quickly followed with the founding of the Association of Catholic Priests In the autumn of 2010. I was one of the founding members, and for the first few years I was very involved at many levels in the ACP. From the very beginning it had an international dimension, with a delegate from Austria and from the United States coming to lend their support. That was when I first met Helmut Schuller, the leader of the Austrian Priests Initiative.
In early 2012 I was informed that the Vatican were ‘on my case’, and before the end of that year I was suspended from all forms of public ministry. That year also saw the beginnings of a network of priests associations, involving Australian, American, Swiss, German, Austrian and Irish representatives. I was the Irish representative, and we had our first gathering in Austria early the following year. At this stage it was not just a priests’ network, as, from very early on the network began to expand and include representatives of lay groups. This was based on theology and practicality—the theology that the Church is fundamentally the entire people of God and practically because if it was confined to priests it would not have a very long life span. The age profile of priests testifies to the latter point. At that meeting in Austria, we had people from FutureChurch in the U.S., and from We Are Church in Germany. Out of that came a Skype network, which continues to come together online every six weeks or so. The next meeting of the network, by now greatly expanded, took place in Limerick in the spring of 2015, and the number of representatives from reform movements in Ireland was heartening.
A further meeting is planned for Chicago next October. I can’t deny that I have benefitted at a personal level. As a result of international contacts I got an invitation to do a speaking tour of the U.S., which I did in Autumn 2014, covering twenty cities in all. That was a fascinating, once in a lifetime, experience and, given that I was not allowed to minister within the institutional church, it gave me a great opportunity to meet with people and foster relationships. It also gave me a focus for a few months—something that, as an unemployed person, I valued.
During 2013/’14 I also went on a speaking tour around Ireland, speaking on various aspects of Church Reform. Again, I must have done about twenty venues on that tour.
So, in the couple of years after my suspension by the Vatican, my life changed dramatically. Instead of travelling around Ireland preaching at missions and novenas, I was now actively involved in promoting Church reform first in Ireland, and then internationally. It has been a really interesting and stimulating time.
The other connection I have made is with the Women’s Ordination movement. This began with an invitation to speak at a meeting in England about two years ago. It has developed from there, to the degree that I attended and spoke at the Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Philadelphia last September, and I am going to Rome in a few weeks time to participate in another conference on the subject. That movement has influenced me greatly, to the point where I now have very little patience with the notion of a priesthood that is exclusively male.
Comparing the experience of national and international involvement.
The first couple of years of the ACP were busy and interesting. The initial meeting, held in Portlaoise, drew a lot more priests than we expected, so we could see immediately that we had tapped into something that was welcomed by many.
At the same time, and indeed even before our launch, we discovered that the local catholic media, especially the Irish Catholic, could scarcely be described as supportive. Within the first few months we were quickly inundated with requests from priests for help and support. These had mostly, though not all, to do with allegation of child sexual abuse.
This has been a very difficult and complex area for us. By and large, the pedophiles, the one who had done untold damage, did not come near us. What we got were instances of old men who were dealing with historical cases, often dating back forty years. Most of these men could hardly be described as pedophiles, in the normal sense of that word. Rather their abusive behaviour had more to do the fact that they had not developed a normal healthy sense of their own sexuality. This stemmed from the seminary training which also had the effect of leaving them emotionally retarded. Many of their abuse of sexual boundaries occurred with adolescents, most likely because they were adolescents themselves in terms of their development. Many of these men were very insecure, had low self esteem and these factors were often compounded by loneliness, isolation and various forms of addiction. One of the saddest things about them was their inability to experience any sort of real intimacy with another human being. We tried to help them as best we could.
We also became aware of a substantial number of false allegations against priests. Indeed, one good friend of mine has just recently managed to clear his name, having carried the burden of a false allegation for eight years. The most notable case of a false allegation was Kevin Reynolds, and our legal team was able to win a significant, and highly publicised, case.
In those early years we quickly assumed a public profile, and began to raise issues around priesthood, celibacy, over-centralisation in the Church, the general decline of the Church, and it’s causes, the introduction of the new missal, and many more. The Irish bishops initially ignored us. They really didn’t know what to do with us, since we were an independent body that was not looking to them for leadership or for permission to speak. A great many members joined after the Reynolds case, because they could see that, if they got into difficulties, we were able to provide support whereas their bishops would not. So our numbers increased to over one thousand. I question how many of these members have a strong commitment to the principles of the ACP. How many see it as a safety net rather than as a real reform movement? On occasions, as leaders, we have found ourselves sitting on the fence on issues lest we offend the membership.
When I was suspended from ministry I stepped down from leadership, though I have continued to work at various levels with the leadership.
In the last couple of years I find myself losing enthusiasm for the priests associations. I’m sure some of this has to do with the fact that I am now somewhat outside the whole system, and the more you stand back from it, the more dysfunctional it appears. Also I have got tired of trying to have dialogue with bishops. We have had a few meetings over the years, but they were of very poor quality and did not lead to any change. However, a more formal meeting is happening in about ten days from now. I will not, of course, be at it, and I wish our delegation well, but experience leads me to have little hope or expectation from the meeting. I suspect the motivation of the Bishops Conference is to quieten us, and stop us from saying that they won’t meet us. Of the four who are coming, one is very senior, one is a recently appointed archbishop, and there are two young bishops. Again, based on previous experience, the two young bishops will say very little, the archbishop will play a small part, and the senior man will dominate. In the past, I experienced him as a very traditional, conservative man. And it will be a once-off meeting.
That is what I expect. The ACP delegation is strong, and maybe they will be able to get something more useful out of it. I hope so. But in order to be anyway worthwhile it would have to be the first of a series of meetings. And that is unlikely.
I think that it is fair to say that the Irish clergy, and indeed the Irish Church, are tired and demoralised. There is a terrible dearth of leadership. Trying to bring about any meaningful change seems more and more to me like beating one’s head against a stone wall.
I find the international work far more stimulating and satisfying. At international gatherings there is much greater freedom of discussion. We are not looking over our shoulders at church authorities, or our membership, to the same extent as we are at home. Many of the international movements are also more lay driven, and as such have greater energy and idealism. I have met and come to know people of enormous ability and courage. I have been able, recently, to be part of a letter containing a critique of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and signed by fifteen people who had been censored by that body. This letter has got through to the heart of the Vatican, and has been published in Catholic media around the world, and more significantly, in the Italian media. At a time when the CDF is under pressure from Pope Francis, we know that our efforts have been an embarrassment to them, and increased the pressure.
At the international level so much more can be achieved and one also gets the sense of a universal church. I have learned about the situation for Catholics in India when they are in a mixed religion marriage. I have seen how the church in Germany and Austria has reached out to the refugees. So, while I am conscious of the opportunities that that the international reform movement has given me, much more than that I am grateful for the insights that I have received. I look forward to the Chicago meeting.