Catholic prophets who dare to advocate change

Gabriel Daly and Willie Walsh both believe the church should allow dissenting voices

The Church: Always in Need of Reform
Author: Gabriel Daly
ISBN-13: 9781905604265
Publisher: Dominican Publications
Guideline Price: €19.99

Old age often deepens a person’s perspective on life. The authors of these two books are now entering their twilight years and are well-known and respected figures – one as a theologian and author, the other as Bishop Emeritus of Killaloe – which gives their testimonies a distinct and somewhat wistful resonance.

Both are unabashed fans of the spirit and documents of Vatican II, both are unafraid to express their disquiet with the church’s position on issues such as contraception, the public admonishment of certain priests and theologians by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the treatment of women, and the harsh stance adopted in relation to homosexuality. Neither was happy with the direction the church took throughout the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a period during which the curia, in their view, dismantled many of the “progressive” aspects of Vatican II. They see signs for hope in what Pope Francis is attempting to achieve, while recognising the difficulties he is encountering with keeping both the conservative and liberal sides of the Catholic family happy.

In the preface to his new book, The Church: Always in Need of Reform (Dominican Publications), Gabriel Daly declares that more than 60 years as a priest have led him to share the French theologian Yves Congar's conviction that "one must always protest when one feels by conscience or conviction that there are grounds for doing so". From the moment the Augustinian order sent him from the Gregorian University in Rome to read history in Oxford, the young priest's intellectual path was clear: "Where Rome had taught me all the answers, Oxford taught me to ask questions and to think for myself." Clearly, the Oxford experience is the one that left a more lasting imprint on Daly's evolution.

Willie Walsh comes from a farming background in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, and ended up at the national seminary in Maynooth, where he was one of 90 first-year students in September 1952 – a stark contrast to the significantly smaller numbers one finds there now. He too was sent to Rome to complete his studies and he experienced a more relaxed attitude there, which may well have hardened/strengthened his own view that rules, while necessary, should never blind one to the importance of Christian compassion when dealing with others.


Subsequently, in his work as a bishop, Walsh called for further discussion of family planning and of the role of women in the church, an action that many in Rome and elsewhere viewed as dissent from official church teaching.

Walsh grew up in an Ireland where “faith and practice were simply part of life”. The laity’s role was to “pray, pay and obey”. Excessive deference to the clergy created a church “which was rigid in its teaching and sometimes oppressive in its ministration”. A life-threatening illness in 2014 (Daly has also had serious health problems in recent times) revealed to Walsh how the Christian path inevitably involves suffering, both physical and existential, and demands “the questioning of some of what we thought were the certainties of our faith”.

Challenging the church leadership, calling for change, does not automatically indicate disloyalty but, as Walsh’s memoir exemplifies, can also be born out of a genuine love for Catholicism and its rituals.

The tone of these two books is discernibly different. Walsh's No Crusader (The Columba Press) is written in a simple style, with no footnotes and few references to other writers. Daly is far more attuned to the dialectics and hermeneutics that characterise philosophical and theological discourse. He is as comfortable discussing neo-scholasticism as he is treating of existentialism; he cites regularly from both Catholic and Protestant thinkers and he assembles a very convincing, and academically satisfying, thesis about how essential reform is for the survival of the Catholic Church.

There are times when his writing can become obscure for those with no grounding in theology. Nevertheless, his book is full of gems such as the following: “Authentic Christian teaching needs to be commended, not commanded”; “The church should be a sanctuary of healing, and not a place where condemnation has been the instinctive response to perceived doctrinal or moral failure”; “Petty laws and mean-spirited restrictions at a sacramental level, together with a generally glum outlook on the world, give a counter-image to the church’s true vocation”; “Thoughtful Christians should always be aware of the true character of religious language, which is nearer to the condition of poetry than it is to that of science”.

Any one of these observations could sustain a heated discussion for a long time.

Daly exhibits a passionate commitment to debate and analysis, which he clearly believes are essential for the successful operation of an institution such as the Catholic Church. He admits that the election of Francis while he was writing the book forced him to review some of his gloomier prognosis as to the direction the church was heading. The current pontiff’s interview with Antonio Spadoro shortly after he assumed office showed a refreshing emphasis on compassion and understanding. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucratic officials,” Francis noted, which was “a stirring call to change” in Daly’s estimation. But it is no easy task to instigate change in an institution as complex and vast as the Catholic Church. Popes come and go, whereas the curia, the Vatican’s civil service, is a permanent fixture. Francis has reiterated on several occasions how his approach is closely aligned to that of his immediate predecessors, but his emphasis is unmistakably different.

Walsh and Daly are men whose opinions will be well-received by those who believe that the Catholic Church should allow for dissenting voices from within its ranks. The conservative lobby will undoubtedly adopt a more critical stance with regard to the views they express. While the title of his book declares that Walsh is No Crusader, I think he and Daly most certainly fall into that category, if by "crusader" one means someone who advocates change. Another noun, and perhaps an even more apposite one, is "prophet", a person whose pronouncements are not always appreciated during their lifetime, but whose witness comes to be seen as significant with the passing of time. In this reader's estimation, history will view these two men favourably.

Eamon Maher is director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies at the Institute of Technology in Tallaght. He has co-edited five books on contemporary Irish Catholicism with John Littleton