Brian D’Arcy reflects on the recent ACP survey
There was consensus on at least one point when the Association of Catholic Priests published the survey they commissioned on the religious views held by practicing Catholics in Ireland. The findings merely confirmed what most people already knew. If there was a surprise, it was that 35% of Catholics on the island of Ireland still attend Mass at least once a week and 50% once a month – surely one of the highest percentages in Europe. The survey shows that 87% believe priests should be allowed to marry; 77% believe women should be ordained; and 72% believe that married men should be accepted for ordination. Another 78% support allowing divorced and separated Catholics, now in second relationships, to receive Communion. Anyone with an ear to the ground appreciates that these figures accurately reflect what practicing Catholics in Ireland believe could happen.
These views have become acceptable to many over the last fifteen to twenty years. The majority of the people who have thought about their religion have come to these conclusions as a result of their lived experience. They neither see themselves as lapsed nor liberal. Neither is it the result of predatory priests abusing innocent children nor is it a result of the cover-ups which followed. Rather life itself has enabled many committed Catholics to have an adult relationship with God. The figures would, of course, be different if the large number of former believers, who now view Catholicism with apathy or, worse still, hostility, were taken into account. In other words the facts are not our problem but rather what should we do now.
Some, though not many, argue that the Catholic Church should change its rules because the people have spoken. It is is vital that we deal with the facts and don’t ignore them. This survey should help us to focus our dialogue.
Others are convinced that ‘ la cart Catholics’ are the real problem. They argue that because so many believers favour changes to structures and regulations, the Church must instead stick to its guns and dump those misguided ‘dissidents’ out of the Catholic Church altogether, Rome should then fight a rearguard action using the might of the ‘Real Catholics’. For these ‘Real Catholics’ the church is a club with its own rules and regulations. If you don’t like the rules, get our of the club. Priests like me, for example, should have ‘the party whip withdrawn from them’ as one prominent Catholic woman so smugly put it on a radio programme recently.
But we know that our beautiful church is not a club or a political party. Our church is the life of the Trinity on earth. Our church, Christ showed us, can never be limited by human small-mindedness but instead reaches out to the marginalized with the Good News of salvation. Our church is always in need of renewal. Christ’s true church cherishes the people of God and thrives on respectful dialogue. It is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship. Our church is above all a listening church because we believe the Holy Spirit is alive in all its members.
Sadly, in our church now, it has become impossible to be open and honest about what good people are convinced of. It’s as if merely stating unpalatable facts is in itself disloyal. For years I’ve tried to point out the perils of the growing disconnect between church leaders and the ordinary people. It’s not as if the Association survey figures apply only to the Irish church- surveys of believers in many countries in the developed world have come up with similar results.
Whether or not we agree with the survey’s figures it would be sinful not to welcome the genuine dialogue being offered to us. As mature believers we should use this graced opportunity to renew our church and to take heart from the experiences of genuine believers searching for truth in this changing world.