The ACP is at the heart of the Church: Brendan Hoban
I was given the task of inviting church leaders to the recent ‘Assembly’ day in the Regency Hotel in Dublin. Two responses I received declining the invitation from two senior church figures both mentioned the word ‘communio’ as part of their reservation about the Dublin event. What struck me about the two responses was how the two letters echoed one another.
Both letters worried about the implications for ‘Communio’ (or Communion with one another or, more simply, unity in the Church). The implication, or rather more than that, even the insinuation, was that by organising such an event we were in danger of damaging the Church!
Nothing could be further from the truth. When the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) was founded less than two years ago it arose out of a belief that, in the ever-developing situation of crisis for our Church, a priests’ voice was needed to help point a way out of the enveloping darkness.
Finding that light, we believed, fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, was about renewing our commitment as a Church to the reforms of that Council and the direction God’s Spirit, through the pope and the world’s bishops, had pointed us. Looking around us at the devastated landscape that makes up the Irish Catholic Church now is reminder enough of the price we’ve paid for betraying that Council.
We thought we would attract a few hundred priests to become members. Now we’re edging up to 1,000. We were presented as anti-Rome, anti-bishop, anti-whatever-you’re-having-yourself. And, of course, we refuse to subscribe to all of those labels. For instance, the Irish Catholic newspaper, from the outset, contrived to present us as a radical rump with the mantra that we represented less than 10% of Irish priests. And other media sought, for their own commercial reasons, to exaggerate (and sometimes invent) elements of our platform.
We had a hard time of it. It was galling to have to justify our position (after years of service to the Church) at the heart of the Church. It was humiliating to be presented as theological illiterates somehow urging on an organised defection from Rome when we understood and accepted the centrality of the primacy of the ‘successor of St. Peter’. It was dispiriting to find bishops, who should know better, taking their cue from bizarre elements of the media and the rantings of even more bizarre ultra-religious groups, and effectively questioning our credentials with an unapologetic hands-off approach to us.
Now, almost two years on, the ACP is in a different place. We are at the heart of the inevitable discussion that’s going to take place about the future of our Church. A body of almost 1000 priests represents a voice that needs to (and insists on) being heard. The Regency experience of over 1000 people, organised by the ACP, indicates that there is a groundswell of opinion supporting our platform of reform. And the findings of the recent ACP survey of 1006 Irish Catholics indicates that huge numbers of Catholics want significant change in our Church.
In that context, while bishops naturally worry about great energy forces being released in our Church, somehow or another the present hands-off approach to the ACP and the issues we surface is not fit for purpose. Where else in the Irish Church today is there more light and energy and gospel commitment?
Here are some questions tumbling around in my mind. What else do we need to do to have our credentials, not to speak of our rights in canon law, respected as loyal members of our Church? How much longer have we to wait (and how much more damage needs to be done to the Church) before our leaders will engage with us in a respectful and realistic debate?
Let me cut to the chase and clarify a few points:
- The ACP does not seek to overturn the defined teaching of the Catholic Church. Full stop.
- The ACP is not a threat to the unity of the Church. We cherish and we value and we wish to further the unity of all our people, with our fellow clergy, with Religious, with our bishops and with the Successor of Peter. Full stop.
- Our platform is firmly rooted in the Gospel, respectful of all God’s faithful and grounded in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, teachings that were promulgated by the pope and the bishops of the world nearly fifty years ago. Where’s the threat there?
- We want a conversation about the realities of Irish Church life today and about issues we believe the Irish Church urgently needs to discuss.
- We believe closing down debate and dialogue (and ‘silencing’ our members) is a recipe for disaster at both public and pastoral levels.
So I say to all Catholics, including our bishops: Don’t say to us that we are against church teaching when we cherish it. Don’t tell us that we’re damaging Communion when we’re working for it. Don’t tell us that we can only reflect on our experience if we keep silent. Don’t tell us that we can’t discuss the problems of our Church (because we have a right and duty to do just that.) Don’t silence us because that won’t make the issues go away. Don’t talk down to us as if we don’t matter.
Don’t pretend that freedom of conscience and the dignity of every baptised person are strange concepts that we can pull conveniently out of the air to suit ourselves.
Above all, don’t ask us to walk away. It’s our Church too. We are not dissidents (and it is insulting to depict us in that light). We are at the heart of our Church. We want to remain at the heart of our Church. We know that our Church is in deep crisis. We need to talk. We need to listen. That’s not just our right as baptised Catholics. It is our duty and in present circumstances, it is our supreme responsibility.