BRENDAN HOBAN: Fr Sheehy is on the wrong side of history  

Western People, 15.11.2022

I will never forget it as long as I live. It was July 1, 2018. I was sitting in the conference room of the Twin Trees Hotel in Ballina, in the company of 300-plus representative delegates – women and men, old and young – from the 22 parishes of Killala diocese, including the priests of the diocese and our bishop, John Fleming.

Let me set the scene. The occasion was a diocesan assembly gathered to decide on a long list of proposals/recommendations that had emerged from a confidential survey that asked seven open-ended questions about the future of the diocese. They could be summed up in two of the seven questions about the future of the Catholic church: What do we need to do now? What do we need to stop doing now?

In many ways it was a memorable, even historic occasion. Nothing quite like it ever happened before in our diocese – certainly not since the Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1111AD. The backdrop was the reform agenda sponsored by Pope Francis with, at its core, a ’synodal pathway’ moving us from a Church dominated and controlled by the ordained to a People’s Church, where baptism (not ordination) was the key qualification for rank and esteem.

The gathering in the Twin Trees represented a new and different model of Church and the work of the assembly on that July day was to vote on prioritizing proposals for the future of the diocese – with each person present having one vote each. The technology provided – private voting via handsets with the votes automatically computed and appearing on a screen – allowed the voting to proceed accurately and swiftly.

As the survey was open-ended, nothing was excluded, including global issues that were beyond the ambit of an individual diocese. What are regarded as hot button issues in the Catholic Church received huge support: should priests be allowed to marry? (85% for); should priests who have married be returned to active ministry? (81% for); should women be ordained as deacons? (80% for); should women be ordained as priests? (69% for).

It could be argued that those results were surprising but predictable – for different reasons. But it was the support of the final answer to the final question that stunned the gathering: should the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and those excluded from the Church be changed to reflect the inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, marital status or family status? (86% for).

A stunned silence followed as the assembly seemed to pause as if struggling to process what had just happened. For me, what that final figure represented was that in the process of dealing with change – a central feature of so many aspects of our lives in the world today – the ‘lay’ members of the Catholic Church in Ireland were out in front of everyone else.

There was already plenty of evidence to support this thesis, not least that the Marriage Equality referendum was carried in 2015, effectively because Catholics voted overwhelmingly for it. But our small gathering in the Twin Trees Hotel on that day provided stunning evidence that if the Catholic Church was prepared to change in order to respond to the many obvious challenges we faced, ‘lay’ Catholics were up for it.

The people in the pews – whatever about anyone else, bishops, priests or a tiny minority of traditionalists – had for long given the impression that ‘whatever Father said’ was fine by them. But behind it all, they had their own ideas and when they were given the anonymity of a confidential vote, their truth starkly stood its ground. The loyal, obedient, complying Irish Catholics rarely went so far as to walk out of or away from the Church in protest at the bullying of a priest – though progressively some are claiming their right to do that now – but no one can any longer presume that silence or bowed heads are evidence of acceptance or agreement. That ship has sailed.

The infantilism that contrived to mind-control Irish Catholics is breaking down. The weapons of fear and threat no longer have the same purchase. Adult Catholics are now taking responsibility for their own decision-making, including their own moral choices. The landscape has changed utterly.

During last week a letter to the Irish Times summed up the sea-change that has taken place in the Catholic Church. Garry O’Sullivan argued that the Church is trying to have it both ways regarding sexual morality – talking about a God of love but hanging on to traditional teaching – but, he continued, ’the game is up and the time has come for courage and a change in official teaching’. He argues that the choice is simple: change LGBTQ+ teaching or alienate remaining Catholics.

What’s surprising about that call for a change in church teaching is that Garry O’Sullivan, is the editor-in-chief of the Irish Catholic newspaper, so it’s an indication of how widespread now the expectation and acceptance of change in terms of church teaching is. Or, to paraphrase, Luke 23:31, in terms of the Irish Catholic perspective, ‘if it like this in the green, what will happen when it is dry’.

In a strange way, Fr Seán Sheehy’s recent exposition of Catholic teaching on LGBTQ+, has pointed up the present ambivalence in the position of the Catholic Church in having its teaching embedded in the Catechism while inferring that the teaching is problematic – ‘who am I to judge’, as Pope Francis says.

Fr Sheehy can be said to have hastened the day when the Catholic Church has to set its house in order. Once banging on about sin and hell closed down conversations. Now it’s a counter-productive exercise, convincing every sensible person that those who have to employ such histrionics are on the wrong side of history.

Similar Posts


  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Newman’s mild article on Consulting the Faithful drew shrieks from 19th century Catholics, who only wanted a papal monopoly. The laity remained a sleeping giant because the idea of consulting them, even in the passive sense in which the movement of leaves on a stream is consulted to know the direction it is flowing in, was neurotically rejected. After Vatican II when the laity were allowed to speak they were instantly shut up if they trod on non-negotiables. John Paul II restored papal monopoly, except for the cultic groups he encouraged. Of course the laity have been thinking and talking among themselves all this time, including especially our aged aunts and uncles, numbered now among the Holy Souls. It is unsurprising that they come out at a very different place from those who spent all those years playing clerical games, for instance fulminating against contraception and female ordination to improve their ‘species’ as potential bishops, or diluting their theological proposals out of fear of the CDF. Rightly or wrongly clerics are now viewed with mistrust and suspicion, so promotion of the laity to the front rank is the best hope for restoring a good image of the church. Remembering the heady slogans after Vatican II and how little came of them (e.g. ), and seeing the intense resistance of a new breed of extreme clerical reactionaries, as well as the militant clericalism of the US bishops, I doubt if there can be any smooth transition to a ‘synodal’ church.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Just reflecting that when Brendan’s and my class entered Maynooth in mid-September 1966, Vatican II had ended only 9 months previously. A seminarian entering Maynooth today would look back on Vatican II as an event that ended 56 years ago, as remote for him as the events of 1910 were for us (May 20 Funeral of Edward VII has large assemblage of European royalty; May 29 Pope Pius X’s encyclical Editae Saepe, against church reformers; Jun 2 First roundtrip flight over English Channel; Nov 4 Tsar Nicholas II visits Emperor Wilhelm II at Potsdam, agreeing on spheres of influence in the Middle East). The vielles barbes who could not get over the failure of the revolutions of 1848 (in the empty time chronicled in Flaubert’s 1869 novel, L’Éducation sentimentale) were matched by the vieilles barbes of Vatican II, and if they invoke it now that sound like crazed Ancient Mariners clutching at a fantasy.

    Meanwhile a new generation arises, sounding more like Editae Saepe than Vatican II. On St Charles Borromeo, the encyclical goes like this: ‘These moderns, forever prattling about culture and civilization, are undermining the Church’s doctrine, laws, and practices. They are not concerned very much about culture and civilization. By using such high-sounding words they think they can conceal the wickedness of their schemes. All of you know their purpose, subterfuges, and methods. On Our part We have denounced and condemned their scheming. They are proposing a universal apostasy even worse than the one that threatened the age of Charles. It is worse, We say, because it stealthily creeps into the very veins of the Church, hides there, and cunningly pushes erroneous principles to their ultimate conclusions. Both these heresies are fathered by the “enemy” who “sowed weeds among the wheat” in order to bring about the downfall of mankind. Both revolts go about in the hidden ways of darkness, develop along the same line, and come to an end in the same fatal way. In the past the first apostasy turned where fortune seemed to smile. It set rulers against people or people against rulers only to lead both classes to destruction. Today this modern apostasy stirs up hatred between the poor and the rich until, dissatisfied with their station, they gradually fall into such wretched ways that they must pay the fine imposed on those who, absorbed in worldly, temporal things, forget “the kingdom of God and His justice.” As a matter of fact, this present conflict is even more serious than the others. Although the wild innovators of former times generally preserved some fragments of the treasury of revealed doctrine, these moderns act as if they will not rest until they completely destroy it. When the foundations of religion are overthrown, the restraints of civil society are also necessarily shattered. Behold the sad spectacle of our times! Behold the impending danger of the future! However, it is no danger to the Church, for the divine promise leaves no room for doubt. Rather, this revolution threatens the family and nations, especially those who actively stir up or indifferently tolerate this unhealthy atmosphere of irreligion. This impious and foolish war is waged and sometimes supported by those who should be the first to come to Our aid. The errors appear in many forms and the enticements of vice wear different dresses. Both cause many even among our own ranks to be ensnared, seducing them by the appearance of novelty and doctrine, or the illusion that the Church will accept the maxims of the age. Venerable Brethren, you are well aware that we must vigorously resist and repel the enemy’s attacks with the very weapons Borromeo used in his day.’

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Soline, I am sure you are aware that James Alison found, through his research, that you will find the most vitriolic homophobes in the priesthood among those priests who are themselves homosexuals.
    Fr. James had two excellent articles in the Tablet a number of years ago on this subject.
    I remember being able to convince Bernard, who was standing in for Mattie as moderator of this site, to share the first article but I failed to get the second posted.

  4. Soline Humbert says:

    Yes Paddy, I am aware of the sad, tragic reality of this internalised homophobia and the extensive damage it causes to so many in the church, and in society.
    Was this article by James Alison the one you mention as being rejected for posting?
    All of James Alison’s articles& interviews are available on his website.

  5. Paddy Ferry says:

    Soline, that is an excellent piece by James Alison but it is not one of the two Tablet articles I have referred to.
    I think the Tablet articles were in August 2018.
    I am having problems accessing the Tablet archive but I will send the links when, and if, I get in.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.