The best way to resolve tensions between Irish Catholics and Rome is a good, old fashioned schism
As a historian of early modern Irish and British history, there aren’t many things that capture my attention quite like the potential for a schism, and the events currently unfolding on Ireland are impossible to ignore.
To say that it has been a difficult time for the Catholic Church in Ireland is somewhat of an understatement; clerical abuse, sex scandals, Papal tyranny, and archaic notions of society that have finally begun to catch up with those who once knew absolute power on the island.
Some say the Church has headed down a road of terminal decline, “haemorrhaging previously committed members and surrendering its moral authority”, all the while refusing to acknowledge the gravity of the issue and remaining unwilling to alter the status quo.
And needless to say the press is all over it with articles like: ‘Church in Need of New Direction to Avoid Drift Towards Oblivion’, and ‘Republic of Ireland Abandoning Religion Faster Than Almost Every Other Country’
But when stepping back from the hype and looking at some cold numbers, the more diligent researcher will quickly discover that the notion of ‘terminal decline’ is somewhat inaccurate. Last year’s Irish census results reported that 84 per cent of people described themselves as Catholic.
Furthermore, a survey commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) , carried out by Amarach Research in which 1,005 Catholics throughout the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were interviewed, found that 35 per cent (one of the highest rates in Europe) reported attending Mass weekly. Over half of the participants said that they attend Mass at least once a month, and only 5 per cent reported that they never attend.
On the issue of sexuality, three-quarters reported that they do not view the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality as relevant to them or their families. Sixty per cent disagreed with the statement ‘that any sexual expression of love between gay couples is immoral’, while just nine per cent strongly agreed with the Church’s teachings on homosexuality.
The research further found that nine out of ten were in favour of allowing priests to marry. Fifty-five per cent want bishops to serve a fixed term as opposed to serving until they are 75 years of ages, as is the current practice. Up to 77 per cent of the study group also want women to be ordained.
Most interestingly, perhaps, is that a significant proportion of churchgoers and nearly one-quarter of its clergy are experiencing a shift in collective values which may very well lead to the ultimate change; a break with Rome in favour of an independent Irish Catholic Church.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Catholicism remains dominant in Ireland, but no longer do all Catholics support its core tenets. This revolutionary shift in lay attitudes puts well-meaning priests in an increasingly uncomfortable position; namely to what extent do they follow the tenets of their faith versus the increased awareness of modern social values. Furthermore, who wants to sign up for a vocation which predisposes many to view you as a potential threat to children?
On the other hand, priests remain answerable to a Vatican which demands that the clergy teach things that are anathema to the laity’s common sense. Priests who defy these expectations are being silenced by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a body tasked with investigating and dealing with errors in doctrinal teaching. Priests who defy these expectations are being silenced by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a body tasked with investigating and dealing with errors in doctrinal teaching. This is the same body required to investigate clerical abuse, but judging by the Cloyne Report, it appears it is less pressing to seek out abuse than to gag priests who express a desire for reform and a more liberal approach to Catholic doctrine.
And then there is the issue of life outside the confines of Mass.
If ACP is to be believed, in a modern Ireland with issues like STDs and the like being a legitimate concern, there are few priests who would preach against artificial contraception or who would chastise a congregation with regard to sex before marriage. Here we find another rock and a hard place as priests cannot openly preach acceptance of social promiscuity, so instead opt to remain quiet on these and similar topics.
So if Rome won’t budge and a hefty number of both the clergy and laity are at odds with the doctrine of the Church, what are the options?
The Irish Catholic Church and specifically members of the ACP can ignore the problem and go on as they have been, doggedly accepting the direction of Rome and attempt to bring people back to the fold through the hard line the Vatican wishes priests to take. But this is risky, with even the most ardent believers tarring the Church – as opposed to the religion itself –as an oppressor.
Another option is they can bide their time and patiently wait for Pope Benedict to die. Yet this process is of indeterminate length and in the meantime many more parishioners may drift away. Even if the current Pope was to die there is no guaranteeing that his successor would entertain the idea of reform either.
Finally, and the most effective option as this writer promotes, would be a good old fashioned schism (shock, eh?). The Irish Catholic Church has a historical precedent for being at odds with the doctrine of Rome, and has been ‘corrected in its errors’ since well before the time of Saint Patrick. In thought and belief it has already begun, and it only remains to be put it into action publicly. This, of course, is much easier said than done.
Whatever path is ultimately taken, one thing is for sure, if no reforms are enacted, people will vote with their feet and abandon the faith altogether. And when this conclusion is considered alongside the findings of the survey above, such a move would be truly radical, and heart-breaking indeed.
The short of it is that much of what is being debated has little to do with the core teachings of Christ and more to do with long and largely out-dated tradition within the Church.
It is time for a truly Irish Catholic Church that meets the needs of its congregation.
Image from: http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2011/04/06/clergy-sex-ireland
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