It will surprise nobody who has spent any time in Ireland over the past 20 years to learn that, on issues ranging from the role of women and LGBTQI+ people to priestly celibacy and attitudes towards single parents, the average Irish Catholic takes a more open and generous view than the church itself. While church dogma has stood still, the views of the faithful have evolved with those of a once-conservative society that has undergone profound transformation. With that has come a willingness among those who have remained with the church to challenge its precepts and its prejudices.
These shifts are reflected in a new report, published by the Catholic bishops, summarising consultations with lay people in all 26 dioceses on the island. The document, part of worldwide preparations for a Synod of Bishops called by Pope Francis for October 2023, amounts to a call for radical change in the church. It shows a strong desire for change in how the church views the divorced, those who are remarried and members of the LGBTQI+ communities. It appeals for the removal of the mandatory celibacy rule and calls for an overhaul in the institution’s dealing with women, up to and including ordination to the priesthood.
In the short-term, these ideas are likely to go nowhere. The Vatican is controlled by a conservative hierarchy that moves at an almost imperceptible pace and has seldom shown any interest in acting on the wishes of the Catholic faithful. Pope Francis’s refreshing rhetoric of openness has yet to be reflected in real change on any of the issues of concern to members of the church in Ireland. Moreover, the thirst for reform found in Ireland is not necessarily shared in some of the church’s modern-day strongholds elsewhere in the world.
But that is not to understate the importance of the Irish report, in which the Irish bishops have faithfully captured the yearning for far-reaching change among their congregants. By underlining the stark and widening gap between church teaching and the beliefs of the faithful, it lays down an existential challenge: unless the church can change, its survival in Ireland is an open question.