Brendan Hoban on responses to the ACP survey
One of the interesting features of the response to the recent Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) survey on contemporary Irish Catholic attitudes was the defensiveness of some Catholic groups. They seemed distinctly uncomfortable that suddenly it was clear that Irish Catholics had minds of their own and were happy to use them. And now that Irish Catholics are making their views known the ACP – of which I’m a member – are being blamed for the message. And in danger of being shot (or whatever) as the messenger!
Take, for example, the reaction of the Iona Institute. Iona promotes the place of marriage, family and religion in society as well as holding a flame for ‘freedom of conscienc’¹. A number of key Iona people took to the airwaves criticising the survey with some of them suggesting that Catholics who didn’t agree with their take on it should get lost. It was an unusual approach to freedom of conscience, to say the least of it, especially when some of the boxes they wanted ticked weren’t part of the fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church. And it seems a surprising strategy that, for an institute that prides itself on supporting the family, its members could so easily suggest that members of a faith-family who had the temerity to point out a few elephants in the living room should be shown the door.
If groups like Iona had been in existence in the 1950s would they would have been telling theological giants – like Rahner, Congar, Schillebeeckx and others who were at the heart of the subsequent Council – to get off the stage? David Quinn’s article in the Irish Independent the day after the survey results were announced is along the same, predictable lines. He makes great play of the point that Catholic teaching can’t be changed by the results of an opinion poll. Is anyone saying it can? And his suggestion that someone might be saying that belief in the resurrection or in the Eucharist could be changed by a popular vote may make good copy but it is simply mischief-making. What he didn’t say was that some Catholic teaching and attitudes can change and have changed. Like the teaching on usury. Like the attitude to other Christian churches. Remember when it was seriously sinful to enter a Protestant church for the funeral of a Protestant neighbour? Inevitably too Quinn rehearses again a point he makes ad nauseam in support of the Catholic Church not engaging with the culture or deferring to the changing expectations of its members – despite the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Quinn takes us on another trip to Scandinavia where the Lutheran Churches ‘have changed teaching after teaching in line with liberal opinion’ and, as a result, he implies, ‘hardly anyone ever attends church services now’. Why, he asks, for the umpteenth time, have churches which have deferred to the expectations of their members ‘shrivelled up even faster than churches that have not altered their teachings?’ And, he proclaims, he has never heard a satisfactory answer to this question from liberal Catholics.
Well I don’t know if he will deem my answer ‘satisfactory’ or not but let me attempt a response. Part of the answer is contained in the ACP survey where 35% of Catholics (1.6 million of them) say they go to Mass every weekend (and if you include those who attend once a month, the figure rises to 2 million). Look at all that has happened in the last two decades to the Catholic Church in Ireland – the child abuse scandals; the way they were dealt with; the Murphy, Ryan, Ferns, Dublin, and Cloyne reports; the incessant media criticism; the huge decline in vocations and church attendance; the oft and effective categorising of priests as paedophiles, Catholics as off-the-wall and the Church as ‘dying,’ not to speak of the self-inflicted wounds on Catholic confidence. Put all of that together and the expectation might be that hardly anyone would claim the title ‘Catholic’ anymore or admit that they had anything to do with such a discredited institution. Yet in the recent census 84% decribed themselves as ‘Catholic’ and, in the ACP survey, 35% stated they attended weekly Mass. My point is that Ireland is not Scandinavia, the two are not comparable. The truth is that Irish Catholics in the face of an extraordinary assault on their Church have displayed a compelling courage and an extraordinary resilience in making clear that they are not going to deny their religious heritage. The Scandanavian experience couldn’t be more different from ours.
The other predictable Iona canard is that the reason Catholics have questions about particular issues is that the Church hasn’t explained them properly! ‘What is really needed,’ Quinn ends with a flourish, ‘is more and better explanation’. Q.E.D.! The arrogance behind this opinion and the dismissive attitude implicit in it is breath-taking. Could anyone possibly find a crevice in this definitively disrespectful attitude that would allow those who peddle it to maybe consider that other people have minds, know their theology, want to stay in their Church and resent others showing them the door? What the survey reveals (and what the census 2012 figures demonstrate) is that Catholics are, after the nightmare of the last twenty years, still happy to be part of their Church but they also want it to engage with the lives they lead.
Another important point is this. Categorising those who oppose them as ‘dissidents’ and seeking to suggest that anyone opposing them are at variance with ‘the magisterium of the Church’ is unfair and untrue. The theologian, Gabriel Daly, drew an important distinction recently between what the teaching of the Church is and what some people are saying it is! And attempting to beat people over the heads with the ‘magisterium’ is no contribution to the present debate or indeed to the Catholic Church. A compelling truth in Ireland is this: 815 priests who are members of the ACP want the reforms of Vatican Two brought back on to the agenda and from the latest survey it is clear that the vast percentage of Irish Catholics agree with them.