05May An open letter to the CDF from Des Wilson

Dear Friends in The  Congregation for the Doctrine of theFaith,

You may be aware that we  in Ireland have a special reverence for  our Saint Columbanus. He was one of our saints who disagreed with a Pope and said so. You may be more acquainted with Saint Catherine of Siena who did the same, although she had the disadvantage of having  to disagree with three possible popes at one time.

Some of us view with dismay then, but no great alarm, your decision to censor some of our fellow citizens and fellow members of the Catholic Church who have done nothing at all so serious.

We are puzzled – naturally and supernaturally –  by the fact that you and we preach the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit and then you tell us, so inspired, to stop talking –   as if we had nothing important to say. This is not a matter of doctrine, it is one of logic and we in Ireland are inclined to judge these things by logic as well as doctrine  and not too often  by emotion. We remember  the Gamaliel principle – you remember it too, when forced to make a decision, he told his colleagues, If this be of God it’s useless to oppose it,  if it be of human planning it will fade away in any case, so we should not take extraordinary measures for ordinary happenings.

You may be aware that in recent years we in Ireland lost to the priesthood some of our best intellects because priests were disciplined sometimes for trivialities, sometimes for making people aware that the churchis a seeking church not  a triumphant one. When  the issues involved were trivial – like that of shirts and collars or just discussing what we believe – we rightly feared that some important people in our church were trying to drag us with them on a road which might  well lead from mediocrity to obscurity. We Catholics in Ireland have a strong intellectual tradition, we founded the ancient equivalent of a university in Clonmacnois centuries before our colleagues in Britain founded Oxford and Cambridge, and we took our part in intellectual leadership in Europe even when the empire  centred in Rome was collapsing, indeed especially when it was. So you can see we have some experience in intellectual and spiritual leadership. It would be sad and quite unworthy if you were to insist at this time that  we be  reduced to tearing pages out of monthly religious magazines and asking permission not just to change laws but even to write about them.

As well as this we in Ireland are wary of anonymous messages to anonymous receivers , we believe  Our Lord was serious when He said  people sometimes worked in secret because their works were evil. That is disquieting anywhere but especially in the community of the People of God. And most especially to the priests  and others whom you have told to be quiet. I am presuming that this title, The People of God ,  still officially applies to us, although I understand that even at the time of the Second Vatican Council there was a desire among some of you to avoid  it. Most of us accept the title with pride and gratitude but find it impossible to accept that we have to be a Silent People of God any more than we would accept being a silenced people ofIreland.

So for reasons of logic, theology, scripture , history and reason we know it is damaging to us all to try to solve problems by silencing speakers rather than fostering  and freshening  ideas. You may possibly agree that this is so, but  in any case , censors tend to disappear into irrelevance while ideas tend to remain if they are interesting ones – all the more if they are good ones , which is highly likely given that those who have them rely on the Holy Spirit for their spiritual and intellectual vigour.

So I do ask you to join us in our decision not to be afraidof each other but  to talk to each other  with courtesy ,  remembering that  when you silence good people that is a shame for you – but  if we allow it to happen that is a shame for us.

Looking back on more than sixty years as a Catholic priest in Ireland I think I know the value of those who choose their own silence, but also the emptiness of those who enforce silence  on others.

With great hopes for blessing for you and for a church which enlightens the world,

Desmond Wilson, 6 Springhill Close, Belfast BT 12 7SE.


25 Responses

  1. Cyril North

    Wonderful letter. I doubt, however, that the receivers will receive it in the spirit in which it is written.

  2. Gerard Flynn

    Bravo, Des!

  3. Fintan Sheerin

    Wonderfully insightful and, indeed, inspiring. Many thanks.

  4. Joe O'Leary

    The Church of God that is in Ireland has an innate dignity, which Des Wilson reminds us (we had forgotten it), is inviolate to the pawing of petty-minded Roman careerist bureaucrats. Not a single voice has been raised in our Church in support of the Roman behavior. Let Frs Brian, Owen, Tony, Gerry, Sean, Iggy and others unnamed take up the spirit of Columbanus and speak out unimpeded, and let the Irish Church rally round them if any action is taken against them by their cowed superiors.

  5. pat cahill

    Excellent letter
    Pat Cahill

  6. John Healy

    Irish Catholicism has been based on fidelity to the Holy See and teachings which have been defined, as well as an awareness that the Church, even popes, are unable to exceed the deposit of Faith bequeathed to her by Christ. Contrary to the somewhat predictable views of many on here, such definitive teaching includes the male character of the priesthood (which is definitive and will only be altered further if an infallible statement becomes necessary), and the normative character of marriage and sexual ethics. It is not a question of a particular pope or particular popes being unwilling to change on these issues; it is a question of them being unable to do so. (The analogy of slavery is a false one, or the notion that Christ was simply a product of his culture on such issues. Women divines were the norm among religions surrounding Judaism in apostolic times, so there were no end of contemporary precedents, had He chosen to follow these. These questions can readily be investigated online by anyone so inclined.

    There is a readily available “model of Church”, based on private judgement, a “protest” against Rome and “Vatican pronouncements”, as well as a plurality of interpretations of essential doctrines; it is called the Church of Ireland. Indeed the Anglican Communion accepts, in its First World parts, most if not all of the doctrines advocated by many contributors on here, including women priests, acceptance of homosexual practice, nationally-based churches with the chief prelate of the Communion acting as only a focus of unity and without any authority over it. If our ancestors had prized such principles, voiced by so many on here, they would have joined the Church of Ireland, thus saving the country a great deal of turmoil – no need for plantations in Ulster etc – indeed our whole idea of a separate nationality would have been fundamentally different and we might well have integrated very successfully with the Proestant parts of the larger island immediately to the east of us. The doctrinal crisis in Ireland, insofar as the ACP’s survey has validity, is an inevitable consequence of two generations of largely uncatechised clergy, leading to an uncatechised laity, as well a as desacralised liturgy.

    The recent scandals of the Church are also a consequence of a loss of a sense of what is right and wrong and certainly not a result of celibacy. No amount of celibacy creates a perverted interest in children, which evil is most prevalent, not among clergy, but in families and married parents. Neither,unfortunately, are these scandals confined to the Catholic Church, but – adjusted to scale – widespread in other churhes as well. Peter Hollingworth, Anglican (and, incidentally married, Archbishop of Brisbane, was forced to resign as Governor-General of Australia in 2003 when it was discovered that he had covered up child abuse in his archdiocese. In December 2011, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury initiated an investigation into child abuse in the diocese of Chichester, in response to several cases in which clergy accused of sexually molesting children, so married clergy has provided no guarantee of such scandals.

    The Church has survived many threats, both external and internal in her long history. Serious as the current threats appear to be, whether in Ireland or Austria or elsewhere, she will survive these too. It would take a great deal of avoidance of the history of the Church to believe otherwise.

  7. Clare McGoldrick

    I would like to express my dissent from some of the positions expressed by this writer here.

    I think that in order to foster dialogue, it is better to express one’s personal opinion as that, and not try to claim it represents people who have not asked you to speak on their behalf, as the writer does by the use of the phrase ‘we in Ireland’.

    We in Ireland have a variety of opinions and positions. It is not a sign of a desire for genuine dialogue to neglect that.

    I would also note that the writer neglects another important part of discernmwnt of the Holy Spirit, which is to ‘test the spirits’ as not everything comes from God. The writer has clearly felt that the actions of the Vatican are not from God, and hence expresses this. However he is only doing the same thing as the Vatican has done, that is tried to exercise discernment and acting accordingly.

  8. Bro Jude

    Thank you Des for this letter of integrity. It has the potential to restore our faith in what is best in our irish Church, hope born from our faith-inheritance and strengthens our love for the “faith of our fathers and mothers”. As you mention Catherine of Siena, makes one recall that other Dominicans who shared similiar experiences at the hands of Church officials of their own day. One thinks of Albert the Great, Thomas of Aquin, Bartolome de las Casas, and in our own day, Gustavo Gutierez. We are in good company! Lift up our hearts!

  9. mary casey

    AMEN. You capture the history of the Irish and their innate capability, Des. May fresh enabling come to every willing heart, to rise up, stand up, speak forth what is the word of the Lord in their depths. Jesus Christ founded the church on Himself as the foundation, yielded to Him as Head, giving every member their place. All are needed , all are gifted.

  10. mary casey


  11. padraig feehan

    Desmond Wilson’s resilience/perseverance, intellectual vigour and vision continues to inspire through the decades. It reminds me of a Cork priest, James Good, who was “restricted” by Bishop Lucey in 1968 for his critique of Humanae Vitae. The popular UCC lecturer appealed to students not to go ahead with a planned protest march on the bishop’s palace. My abiding and, I hope, reliable memory is of him distributing communion at the student retreat mass in St. Augustine’s – something that was “permitted.” His later service to the people of Turcana and the Church. I hope the latest inspirational clerics can access similar sources of grace-filled stamina

  12. Paddy Ferry

    What a great letter. Well done and many thanks Fr. Des.

  13. Fergal

    Thanks for the fresh taste of honesty. How comforting to know that you and those you support can identify with the words revealed in the Old Testament: ” I have not spoken secretly in some dark corner of the earth”(Isaiah 45)

  14. Tom Morally

    What a wonderful, insightful and dare I say entertaining letter.
    And yes the Irish have always used humor well too.
    Oh let’s hope it’s read, even if not by those in the CDF by every priest, bishop and layperson in the country.
    It fills me with pride to see what spiritual leaders did in the past and the courage they displayed.
    We are called to be followers of Christ “I came that you may have life and have it to the full’.
    That life must include the right to respectful dialogue.
    it gives me hope that those caught in the slip stream of this present silencing approach will know they are not alone.
    We need to reclaim our pride in being Irish catholics, firmly rooted and connected with our sense of all that means for us here on this island in this new century.

  15. John Collins

    Thank you Des for such inspiring words. They help to remind us of how valuable we are to the wider Church… We Irish … We People of God… Forever united in the Spirit of Columbanus … As John O’Donohue reminds us … “May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder”

  16. Kathleen Faley

    Fr. Des, Your letter is so very encouraging to all the silenced priests and theologians and to every other Catholic in Ireland and elsewhere who as the People of God should feel free to voice their thoughts and concerns about what is damaging to so many of its members who have suffered deeply without feeling fearful because they are challenging automatically expected subservient obedience to do so.

  17. Maurice Rennie

    All very good. Providing that our Catholic priests in Ireland remember that they are Catholic and subject to the rules and regulations of the organisation that they belong to, the Roman Catholic church if they are unwilling to accept the authority of Rome then they should leave the church. As Our Lord promised Peter, His first Pope, the Church will continue long after all of us have faded into obscurity.

  18. Kieran Coleman

    Des is right – our church should have the confidence to allow open discussion on issues rather than silencing good people. Who at senior level in the church in Ireland has come up with ways to get members to come back to weekly Mass? Kieran Coleman

  19. Jackie (Downpatrick)

    And so today the schismatic process continues. Some of Saint Patrick’s ‘People of God’ are being led into the darkness of individualism outside the Church’s Magisterium. Many of you good shepherds within the ACP espouse personal opinions that I believe are not representative of the priests of Ireland. You know well your vows. You know well your popularity with the secular media and polititians. You know well this dissent from Rome and this diversion from the theology of Vatican II which did not endorse our priests marrying or our sisters being ordained. Surely the ACP does not have a tacit philosophy (ney plan)to destroy what remains our Church and create a new Irish church founded on its proposed reforms. Would it not be a more responsible course to employ the collective intellect of the ACP in the long-forgotten task of catechising the ill-informed ‘People of God’ about logical and authoritive truths of Church teaching. Perhaps the Holy Father is again right in that our Church will reduce in western Europe. “But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church” (‘Faith and the future’ Joseph Ratzinger). I believe in quality rather than quantity, obedience as opposed to militant secular popularity, that God’s Will will vanquish diabolical influence and that the Immaculate Heart of Mary will triumph!

  20. Chris Power

    I am a lapsed catholic of Irish parentage who has just emailed Tony Flannery…as i was moved following stuff I bumped into on the BBC web site what a mess Rome is and has been for years disconnected from reality… Your letter both moved me and made me sad I have not taken bread for nearly 45 years I take mine in spirit my faith is strong in God we talk all the time he helps me he guides me…
    42 years of happy marriage 2 children 5 grandchildren and happy to die any day anytime The Catholic Church is a mess Jesus would never accept the pomp and ceremony the lack of connection the lack of simplicity…you folk are fighting back and I wish you the very best your letter almost brought me to tears for the loss of what used to be our CHURCH!

  21. Bengt Hermanrud

    Our Lord Jesus was always open to a listening dialogue with others. At times He remained quiet. At times He stongly disagreed. He never silenced anybody.
    Is CDF so certain that all of God’s mysteries are already fully understood?
    Certainty allows so little room for faith.
    Give us our faith back! Allow a dialogue!

  22. Seán Mac Nialluis

    Typically brave (and clear-sighted) of Des Wilson. What is happening to the church is heart-breaking. Remember Matthew Fox’s description of the Vatican as a dysfunctional family? Remember Joe Dunn’s ‘No Lions in the Heirarchy’? That priests are silenced, and women denied their opportunity to minister, means that many of those in authority have no real sense of the mission of the Man from Nazareth. May the Holy Spirit be with the church in these crucial hours.

  23. Sean (Derry)

    If Saint Columbanus is going to be used as a possible supporter of the ACP aims then it should be pointed out that his Monastic Rules included ‘obedience, humility, and chastity’ (don’t think you’ll find these in the ACP aims). By the way, he also excluded women from the precincts of his monasteries.

    Columbanus, in his writings, declares the Pope to be: “his Lord and Father in Christ”, “The Chosen Watchman”, “The Prelate most dear to all the Faithful”, “The most beautiful Head of all the Churches of the whole of Europe”, “Pastor of Pastors”, “The Highest”, “The First”, “The First Pastor, set higher than all mortals”, “Raised near into all the Celestial Beings”, “Prince of the Leaders”, “His Father”, “His immediate Patron”, “The Steersman”, “The Pilot of the Spiritual Ship” (Allnatt, “Cathedra Petri”, 106).
    Doesn’t sound as if Columbanus would be paying his 20 euros for ACP membership if he was still alive.

  24. Betty Twomey Groven

    Thank you, Des, for your measured, thoughtful letter to those who may or may not listen. However, the world is listening.

    Many of us in the USA–brokenhearted at the actions of the church of our childhood and how they have turned a gilded, deaf ear to the wants and needs of the people of God–are listening and cheering. We support your good work and pray for your success…

  25. Joe O'Leary

    ” if they are unwilling to accept the authority of Rome then they should leave the church” — accepting the authority of Rome is not the same as drop-dead ultramontanism. People who are so touchy about any show of independence from papal judgments would surely have told St Columbanus to leave the Church. Columbanus denounced Pope Vigilius to his successor in no uncertain terms — “Vigilius non bene vigilavit.”

    “In the middle of the sixth century three eminent fathers—Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and Ibas of Odessa—were condemned as heterodox by a council at Constantinople (A.D. 553), now called the fifth Ecumenical council. The fourth general council, that of Chalcedon, had approved the writings of these Fathers as orthodox. The influence of the Emperor Justinian, however, procured the condemnation of their writings as execrable and blasphemous, and pursuing his victory over the three bishops, Justinian, by imprisonment and exile, compelled Vigilius, Bishop of Rome, to concur in the condemnatory sentence of the council of Constantinople. The Celtic Church gave her verdict on the side of the three Fathers, and in condemnation of Rome. Cardinal Baronius wrote: “By the malice of the evil spirit it happened that the Irish Church, which up to this time had been well cultured, was overcast with dense gloom, having suffered shipwreck by her not following in the wake of the bark of Peter, which sails at the head of all, pointing the way into the harbour of salvation…. For all the bishops which were in Ireland rose up unanimously, with most ardent zeal, in defense of the Three Chapters. And when (afterwards) they heard that the Church of Rome had adopted the condemnation of the Three Chapters, and strengthened the fifth synod by her concurrence, they added also this further impiety, that they separated themselves from the same. And in this state they continued a very long time, pitying those who followed the fifth synod as wanderers from the straight path of the faith.”

    The old Catholic Encyclopedia says:

    “He acquaints the pope with the imputations brought against him, and he is particularly severe with the memory of Pope Vigilius. He entreats the pontiff to prove his orthodoxy and assemble a council. He says that his freedom of speech accords with the usage of his country. “Doubtless”, Montalembert remarks, “some of the expressions which he employs should be now regarded as disrespectful and justly rejected But in those young and vigorous times, faith and austerity could be more indulgent”. On the other hand, the letter expresses the most affectionate and impassioned devotion to the Holy See. “We Irish, though dwelling at the far ends of the earth, are all disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul . . . Neither heretic, nor Jew, nor schismatic has ever been among us; but the Catholic Faith, Just as it was first delivered to us by yourselves, the successors of the Apostles, is held by us unchanged . . . we are bound [devincti] to the Chair of Peter, and although Rome is great and renowned, through that Chair alone is she looked on as great and illustrious among us . . .On account of the two Apostles of Christ, you [the pope] are almost celestial, and Rome is the head of the whole world, and of the Churches”. If zeal for orthodoxy caused him to overstep the limits of discretion, his real attitude towards Rome is sufficiently clear. He declares the pope to be: “his Lord and Father in Christ”, “The Chosen Watchman”, “The Prelate most dear to all the Faithful”, “The most beautiful Head of all the Churches of the whole of Europe”, “Pastor of Pastors”, “The Highest”, “The First”, “The First Pastor, set higher than all mortals”, “Raised near into all the Celestial Beings”, “Prince of the Leaders”, “His Father”, “His immediate Patron”, “The Steersman”, “The Pilot of the Spiritual Ship”.