THE ASSOCIATION of Catholic Priests has responded with disappointment to the dismissal of its call for public dialogue with the Irish bishops on changes necessary to reinvigorate the church and to address the steep decline in vocations to the priesthood. A rejection of such engagement might have been expected, however, in view of a recent Vatican report that urged greater discipline and orthodoxy within the Irish church. Founded two years ago and with a membership now exceeding 1,000, the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has challenged established conventions and offered trenchant support for wide-ranging church reforms based on the letter and spirit of the second Vatican Council.
Responding to these developments, a meeting of bishops declined to meet the leadership of ACP and suggested that future engagement on such issues should take place at local level, using established structures, such as the Council of Priests. Individual councils are composed of both elected members and those nominated by bishops. They are purely consultative in nature. Meetings are called by members of the hierarchy who set the agenda, preside over discussions and decide on statements they consider appropriate.
A very different approach was envisaged by the ACP leadership. They spoke of the need for openness and transparency in formal meetings where church attendances and a decline in vocations would be discussed. There was, they said, a need to inform Rome about the realities of the present situation and to address a disconnect between people and priests, priests and bishops and between the bishops and Rome. In particular, they were concerned about what would happen when more priests retired. Would the Irish church become “a Eucharist-free zone” and face effective collapse?
A turning point may have been reached in relations between members of the hierarchy and these challenging priests. Certainly, there is an increasing emphasis on discipline. Founding member Fr Tony Flannery has been silenced by the Roman Curia because of his writings. Conflicting views exist among churchgoers. Conservative Catholics who advocate priestly celibacy and oppose the ordination of women, accuse association members of engaging in incitement to heresy and schism. Others favour a dynamic church. However, a more dogmatic approach by the hierarchy would be in keeping with the programme of reform set down by the Vatican.