Church's sexual theology in 'deep crisis'


THE SEXUAL theology of the Catholic Church is in deep crisis, Fr Kevin Hegarty, a former editor of the church magazine Intercom, said at the Merriman Summer School yesterday.

The majority of Catholic couples were ignoring its teaching on contraception, while its teaching on homosexuality had, rightly he thought, attracted much criticism.

He also said the sexual scandals had dealt the church its worst blow in Ireland in living memory.

“The Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports . . . highlight the acute level of dysfunction in the church. The church’s leadership is now divided and, consequently, rudderless. Not since the 19th century has there been such public disagreement between bishops,” he said.

Fr Hegarty, who was ordained in 1981 and has ministered in the parish of Kilmore-Erris on the Mullet Peninsula, Co Mayo, for the past 15 years, said he had spent three years as editor of Intercom “before the priests found me out”. It was his greatest experience of disillusionment with the institutional church. For someone shaped by the influences of democracy, free speech and academic dialogue, the church had been a cold house in the past 30 years, he said.

“Since the 1980s the church has been in the grip of a restorationist mentality. The ‘glad, confident morning’ that followed the Vatican Council has long faded into the distance. Reform has stalled, and some liberal theologians have been silenced.

“In appointments, passive docility to papal teaching in all its aspects is valued way above creative fidelity to the work of ministry in today’s complex world.”

It seemed to him that there were two kinds of Catholic Church in Ireland: the parish, where he found a kind of fulfilment, and the institutional structure, from which he often felt alienated. He was part of the greater number of clerics going about their work quietly, and was happy to live in a community where he felt valued.

“We are still welcomed as participants in local events. We are the ones who share the joy of couples at weddings and baptisms. We are central to the excitement of First Communion and Confirmation day. At times of death, we are the ones who, in the words of the poet Thomas Kinsella, seek to give ecclesiastical discipline to shapeless sorrow.”

With the decline in priest numbers, Fr Hegarty wondered how long all this would last. Compulsory celibacy compelled priests to live a lonely existence, he said, and while they were told celibacy was good for them, they were never asked about their experience.

He added he would like to see a church that was prepared to engage seriously in dialogue with the modern world; willing to learn from secular insights, for example in democracy; willing to open its doors to married and women priests; and that would develop a healthy and holistic theology of sexuality. He did not believe he would live to see any of this.

“It seems to me that the Vatican’s main concern is to preserve the male hierarchical character of the Catholic Church in its present form. Its procedures are archaic, cumbersome and precious, utterly out of sync with the ways of the democratic world.”

Also speaking at the school yesterday was barrister Michael McNamara, who said the move from a Christianity-based natural law had not brought Ireland closer to the legal certainty required for such sensitive areas as reproductive rights.

Even when the courts had defined the constitutionally permissible indications for abortion, as in the X case, the government had failed to realise these rights through legislation.

He said that despite the large number of TDs for a state of such size, the legislature was “unfit for purpose”. “It fails to legislate in a number of complex areas that it is required to legislate in, particularly those areas that are sensitive.”