Hierarchy criticised at priests' first agm


THE FIRST annual general meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests was told last night that if people had a vote on such matters church leaders would be swept out of office.

If Irish Catholics had a democratic way of reflecting their feelings “church leaders would suffer a defeat as cataclysmic as that administered to Fianna Fáil in the recent general election”, Fr Kevin Hegarty said.

What was needed was a church which would open its doors to “married priests and women priests”. It would benefit from secular insights like, for example, on human intimacy and democracy, he said. It would work at developing a “healthy and holistic theology of sexuality”.

The Mayo priest said church leadership now seems divided and rudderless. Not since the 19th century “has there been such public disagreement among the bishops. Cardinal Cullen’s Tridentine temple has come tumbling down”.

Fr Hegarty is a priest of Killala diocese who serves in Carne parish on the Mullet peninsula. He was speaking at the gathering in the Green Isle Hotel on the Naas Road, Dublin, where the attendance was put at 300 – including some lay people who wished to give support.

There was “a torpidity about the Catholic Church in Ireland today. Take the preparations for the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress” with “earnest emissaries from the congress office . . . travelling throughout the countryside valiantly trying to drum up some enthusisasm”.

It reminded him of a description applied to former British Tory party deputy leader Willie Whitelaw, as he canvassed in an election: that he was going around “stirring up apathy.”

Fr Hegarty added that for those whose lives were shaped by the influences of free speech, democracy, accountability and respectful academic dialogue, the church has been a cold place for the last 30 years. For those who believed in a Vatican II style of church there has been considerable disillusion.

Fr Hegarty was ordained in 1981 and said he was “like most priests in Ireland . . . merely a hod carrier for the kingdom. We have no real input into leadership decisions.”

In the association, he said, they had found that once again the hierarchy had dismissed their concerns about the conservative theology and the exclusivist male tone of the new Roman Missal as “first premature and then irrelevant”.

He said that “in my 30 years as a priest, the sea of Catholicism has receded. I have heard its long withdrawing roar . . . I have worked in a crumbling church. In 1981 it seemed as if it might be different.”

Then “the golden glow of the papal visit still enveloped the institution. Now we recognise it as the last ard fhéis of traditional Irish Catholicism. It induced as sense of complacency and hubris; a deadly combination.”

Basking in the reflected glow of papal adulation, he said, church leaders dropped from their calculations the effects of social change. “In the age of the sat nav they hung on to antiquarian maps.”

Church structures were a barrier to conversation and “despite the promise of the Second [Vatican] Council . . . the church in Ireland failed to evolve a strategy that could learn from and contribute to the new consciousness”.

An authoritarian hierarchial structure “is contemptuous of intellectual challenge and is fearful of leaps of the imagination. The consequences have flowed.”

It was “a sign of a church in crisis that so few men and almost no women are prepared to offer it lifetime vocational service.”

The Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports “highlight the acute level of dysfunction in the church”, but he didn’t sense “that the majority of Catholic leaders in Ireland have actually got the extent of the breakdown in trust that these reports have engendered”.