19Apr 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.

14 Responses

  1. David Quinn

    Quick response to Fr Hoban’s article. When I write in The Irish Independent it is not as director of The Iona Institute. The Iona Institute didn’t comment on the survey at all nor did we take to the airwaves about the survey.
    I’m aware Dr John Murray was quoted in The Daily Mail as ‘Iona Institute’, but he wasn’t supposed to be.
    The Iona Institute doesn’t comment on internal Church disputes (although I do obviously). The only time we have stuck a toe in the water in relation to a specifically Catholic issue was the poll we commissioned re the public overestimation of the number of priests guilty of child abuse.

  2. Margaret Lee

    I acknowledge David Quinn’s assertion that, when he writes for the Irish Independent, he is not writing as a member of the Iona Institute. However, I have heard Dr. Patricia Casey speaking on radio twice since Holy Thursday. On both occasions, she compared the censuring of catholics who want change in church rules (as distinct from teaching) to a politician losing the party whip. I am almost sure that, each time, she was introduced as a member of the Iona Institute. Which or whether, I now ask the prominent members of Iona Institute, namely, David Quinn, Breda O’Brien, Senator Ronan Mullen and John Murray to state clearly whether they believe that someone who wants change on Catholic Church ruling on clerical celibacy or the barring of divorced people who are in second marriages from the Eucharist, should just go to another church that can accomodate their views. I also ask them to state their position on the primacy of individual conscience.

  3. Jim Stack

    I would love to be as optimistic as Fr Hoban about the future of the Irish Church, but the emergence of the ACP with this large number of members, and the results of the ACP survey (which I see no reason to reject)both fill me with dread. A lot of the 1.6m survey respondents who attend Mass at least once a week would likely have the same reaction as me. Not a single ACP priest seems to have anything to say to those of us who think that loyalty to the Pope is a big part of being a Catholic.

    A staunch Catholic of my acquaintance told me recently that a priest told her she was “brainwashed” after her (very mild and reasonable) letter was published in a national newspaper. Making due allowance for hurt felt by your side, and some less than sensitive contributions from my side, the feeling persists that most ACP priests just do not want us on board at all. You take our money and our efforts, yet do not spare us a thought when you “engage” with what you consider to be more enlightened parishioners.

    That said, I do not understand what the ACP does want. Are we to discuss each item on their agenda, then vote, and the majority result becomes Church teaching? Are there other items on the agenda, not yet revealed? Is “Thou art Peter..” to be ignored in favour of a more democratic approach? Is every utterance of Jesus to be ignored except the ones the majority like? Are we going to have regular elections and change the teachings each time? Why are the “reforms” of Vatican II so important but the teachings (e.g. on contraception) not?

    I am not being sarcastic in putting these questions – I genuinely want answers.

    When I do get answers, my fear is that what is being proposed will be so far removed from traditional Catholicism as to make a schism inevitable.

  4. joannes sacredotus

    Well said Jim Stack!!! Veritas Libera Vos.

  5. Elaine O'Neill

    I am baffled by David’s response here and don’t think he makes a credible argument.

    As a reader or listener when I hear or read his thoughts on issues, I do so, seeing them, as coming from him in all his roles– as a director of Iona and a reporter with the Independent.
    I have no problem with that- it’s more honest and it helps me understand his thinking on issues.

    If David’s argument was to apply, surely we would find ourselves asking were the comments Fr Tony Flannery made on celibacy, made in his role as a Redemptorist Priest, or as a fan of Galway hurling, or as a supporter of Fine Gael ?

    People in the media and in priesthood know that’s not a credible position and it’s why I’m not convinced of the argument.

    Iona, I suspect, is not a fan of the ACP but may not want that stated too clearly.

  6. David Quinn

    Elaine. when an FG TD is on a show discussing three or four issues on only one or two of them might he or she be commenting in an FG capacity but on the others in a personal capacity.
    Check out the Iona website. You won’t find anything on whether there should be married priests, women priests etc.
    Iona has no opinion corporately about the ACP. Obviously I do and have expressed it. But the ACP and Iona worked in a complementary manner at the time of the Fr Reynolds libel action.

  7. Margaret Lee

    Sorry, David. I don’t recall Iona Institute doing anything about the Kevin Reynolds libel action until the apology was made by RTE–or maybe, perhaps, when the settlement was made. I am aware that you then praised the ACP for its work on this case and you may have used the opportunity (which you were perfectly entitled to do and which was logical) to link RTE’s libel of Kevin Reynolds with the findings of the survey which Iona Insititue had carried out which indicated that people had a totally inflated view of the percentage of priests who sexually abuse minors.

  8. Jim Stack

    It is clear from Fr Hoban’s article that he realises how unfair the media have been to the Irish Church,yet he does not attack the media – instead, he attacks the Iona Institute, which (not to put too fine apoint on it) he accuses of spreading lies.

    The ACP chose to give prominence to an Irish Times article last week by Patsy McGarry, but totally ignored another article in the same newpaper by John Waters, from which I now quote:

    “Were it not such a serious matter, it might become increasingly comical to observe the illogicality of Irish media positions towards the Catholic Church. Although there are no more than three or four print journalists working in our media who are other than relentlessly hostile to the very idea of Catholicism (I can think only of one radio presenter and no one on television), the only content of media coverage is an incessant clamouring for “reform””.

    This is a professional journalist, with a history of independent thinking, talking about his own colleagues. He is saying that, almost exclusively, what appears in the Irish media is a constant barrage of propaganda from enemies of the Church, in order to counteract and undermine the teachings of the Church on a whole range of issues. These journalists are not interested in being fair. They publish only what suits their position.

    Is Fr Hoban seriously suggesting that this relentless propaganda has not affected the attitudes of Catholics as revealed in the ACP poll? And is David Quinn in any way unreasonable in suggesting that priests have not done much of a job in counteracting this propaganda in their weekly homilies?

    I think what alarms me most about the ACP is that, in both tone and content, your website is eerily reminiscent of what is on offer in the Irish media.

    However, one difference (and it is to your credit) is that the ACP does not censor contributions from traditional Catholics. From my own experience, and from letters I have received from other traditional Catholics on the rare occasions when I am published in the Letters section of the Irish Times, the odds against publication in that supposedly pluralist newspaper are about 10 to 1 against, if one writes in defending the Catholic Church.

  9. Association of Catholic Priests

    In response to Jim Stack. Jim, of all the things the ACP can be criticised about, our lack of critique of the media is the one that certainly does not stand up. It was we who put together the legal team that defended Kevin Reynolds, and that is presently pursuing another case against the media. (David Quinn, in another part of this site, seems to claim that the Iona Institute worked with us on the Reynolds case. There is no truth in that at all.) Also, very much against the prevailing view, we went public on our belief that the Irish media is biased against the Church. Two bishops immediately came on air to contradict us, and say that they saw no media bias at all. In other words they tried to cut the groud from under us. I wonder what was their motive? We are currently working on the case of a bishop whom we think has been seriously maligned, and we hope to be able to move that case forward shortly. We think we have shown a lot of courage in an area where the Church leaders have been totally silent.

  10. Mary O Vallely

    I don’t think it at all helpful, Jim, in using language like “enemies of the Church.” You and I would differ on our views of the way forward but we both of us love our Church and only want it to be more Christ-like. Reading Acts these days it is wonderful to see that spirit of sharing and consulting, of men and women working together. The passion,enthusiasm and courage is infectious. Isn’t it a case of “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” Criticism can only make us improve. Journalists wouldn’t have anything to report if we were modelling the Church the Nazarene founded but we’ve gone wrong a bit and we need to talk about how we can get back to basics.
    Perhaps your point about homilies being made more relevant to our lives nowadays is something to think on. I can understand the fear in a priest as he composes his Sunday homily in not wanting to antagonise people but maybe it’s worth the risk? A feedback session after mass would soon let him know! (and why couldn’t there be such a session – a great way of listening to each other, young and old sharing concerns) We have to try to get away from this polarisation of “enemies” and “defenders.” I’m a northerner and it distresses me to hear such terms after what we’ve all been through. Good to hear from you, Jim. Keep writing. Dia leat.

  11. Elaine O'Neill

    David Quinn’s response to my questions leaves me more confused.
    If politicians on a show discussing three or four issues are doing so out of a number of different roles – party and personal, I find myself wondering why don’t they, or those interviewing them, indicate when they change from one role to the other ?
    Who is to know, except themselves, which one they are in and when they opt to change ?
    And if this is the case then, why do those same people, when they use Twitter, feel the need to state that all the comments they make on it, are ‘personal’ ?

    I also have doubts about the ACP and Iona working in a complimentary fashion for Fr Kevin Reynolds.
    Nothing I’ve read from either side would lead me to believe there is much common ground between you.

    I look forward to RTE being able to speak openly about this case very soon and then we, the viewers, will be able to judge for ourselves, who really helped Kevin Reynolds and who jumped on the bandwagon when the case was settled.
    I’ve no doubt his religious order and Robert Dore would like a little bit of the credit.!

  12. Jim Stack

    Thanks to the ACP for this prompt reply.

    I knew you had represented Fr Reynolds – and heartiest congratulations on this. I did not know that you had criticised media bias, or that two bishops had publicly disagreed with you for doing that. That last piece of information is quite astounding.

    In general, it is never my intention to misrepresent the ACP. I am delighted to hear that you have been standing up against unfair media treatment, and if the Hierarchy does not back you up on this, then (on this matter)I am on your side rather than the Hierarchy’s.

    Nevertheless, there is an alarming amount of overlap between the ACP’s agenda and the media agenda. You are getting very positive media coverage for your organisation. You did feature Patsy McGarry’s article on your website. I am sorry for (in my ignorance of the facts) not giving you credit for speaking out against the media in the past, but I have to stand by my observation that the ACP and the media are currently on the same side.

  13. Jim Stack

    In reply to Mary O Vallely: I too have wondered about posting too often, but for the most part I am just replying to comments others have made about my comments!

    When I referred to “enemies of the Church”, I was referring to the media, not to members of the ACP. It will be clear, from my earlier contributions on this site, that I am not in agreement with the agenda of the ACP, and that I am fearful we are heading towards a schism, but I have always tried to acknowledge the commitment of these priests to the Church – a commitment which has certainly been far greater than mine. The reason no one knows me on this site, Mary, is probably because I have not been doing enough for the Church.

    I was, however, trying to draw the attention of the ACP to the similarity between their agenda and the media agenda, in the hope that the ACP would reconsider.

    God bless, and thank you for all your contributions to this discussion.

  14. David Quinn

    No, Iona didn’t work with the ACP on the Fr Reynolds case. What I referred to was the fact that the ACP made excellent use of the poll carried out on our behalf by Amarach showing that many members of the public grossly overestimate the number of priests guilty of child abuse.