Positive engagement of rank and file priests cannot be dismissed as negative

Readers will be familiar with the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). ‘Familiar’, I hear a chorus of voices responding, ‘do you ever stop going on about it?’ Okay, okay, but please indulge me this week because we have been set upon by a Dublin friar and I feel compelled to set the record straight.
We’ve been called ‘a bunch of ageing, disillusioned priests who seem to be always whingeing about what they see as the failings of the church’. What seems to have exercised our critic is our proposal that married men should be ordained to off-set the effective disappearance of priests in Ireland over the next two decades.
Why such a gratuitous attack on the membership of ACP? Well, many believe, when someone has no argument to counter a proposition, personal attack indicates that the debate is conceded. So, in a sense, it could be deemed a compliment of sorts. At the same time insulting and denouncing over 1000 fellow-priests in such sweeping, personal terms, many of them men who have given lifetimes of service to the Catholic Church in Ireland, is hard to take.
Inaccurate too are his claims that public statements from the ACP are the result of the obsessions of the leadership rather than the opinion of the members. Not true. Every year we have an AGM, where the leaders report on the previous year’s activities, where policy is agreed and where leaders are confirmed in their positions. No member of the ACP, if memory serves me right, has objected to any ACP statements, though there are priests who are not members who peddle this false accusation.
Another predictable criticism, made by our Dublin friar and often those who oppose us, is that the ACP is ‘negative’. That’s a word that’s ritually used to dismiss opinions and arguments without actually confronting them. It’s used by those who want our proposals to be dismissed without people considering them. Effectively, it’s a form of censorship. And it’s a form of denial or even fantasy too for those unable to defend credibly the positions they have adopted.
If you can call something or someone ‘negative’ you don’t have to worry about constructing an alternative argument and you don’t have to produce any data to support your position. Even though using the term ‘negative’ is effectively conceding defeat in the argument, interestingly it’s often used when the cupboard of argument is conspicuously empty.
Bishops use the word ‘negative’ to dismiss criticism that’s close to the bone, especially when the criticism can’t be disputed or there are no compelling arguments to refute it. I notice that the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, used the ‘N’ word too in Knock recently when he dismissed as ‘negative’ those whose opinions differ from his about the Church and the priesthood.
But is it not offensive to priests who have worked 20 or 40 or 50 years in parishes in Ireland to dismiss what they’re saying as ‘negative’ when it’s based on empirical data and those who dismiss it have no alternative workable ideas to offer? Is Peter McVerry ‘negative’? Is theologian Gerry O’Hanlon ‘negative’? Is the respected scripture scholar, the Dominican, Wilfrid Harrington, ‘negative’? Are the hundreds of missionaries, who have given lifetimes of committed work on the missions, ‘negative’ if they point out a series of obvious truths about the Irish Church? Or indeed are those of us working day in day out in parishes all over the country ‘negative’ because we point out a series of obvious truths about the Irish Church? Have we not a moral responsibility to speak our truth and break the cycle of silence and fear that has the potential to destroy the Church we have dedicated our lives to serve?
It’s mesmerising that, after all the mistakes the Catholic Church in Ireland has made in the last 30 years, that a sustained effort is now being made to silence those who, with the good of the Church at heart, are asking principled and conscientious questions and proposing workable solutions that will help to sustain the provision of Mass and the sacraments in Ireland.
Is it not reasonable for the ACP to point out, consistently and respectfully, that there are only two diocesan priests under 40 in the 199 parishes of Dublin diocese with a population of over a million Catholics? Is it being disloyal to suggest that the ritual anti-dote for a decline in vocations – prayer and requesting male, celibate men to come forward – is demonstrably not working?
Is it not acceptable to point out that if Church authority keeps dismissing opinions that most people share, then no one should be surprised if that authority loses whatever authority it has left? Ask former Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan. Ask Pope Emeritus Benedict. Experience tells us that an institution that wants to remain real should unambiguously cherish the critical voices from within.
Change, especially significant change, is difficult and often painful. But the simple and unvarnished truth is that change will have to come if the Irish Catholic Church is not going to melt away.
Five years ago the ACP nailed its colours to the reforming mast of the Second Vatican Council and we will not be deflected from it. There’s no Plan B to offset the decline and we have worked for the last five years at jump-starting a realistic and pragmatic conversation about the future of the Irish Church. Attacks from high up or low down won’t stop us from debating issues that are central to the future life and work of the Church. If we’ve learned anything in the Irish Church over the last few decades, surely it is that shooting the messenger is a failed policy.
The Irish bishops may tell us that our proposals are ‘not feasible’. The papal nuncio may refuse to meet us. Some of the Catholic press, aligned with conservative Catholics fearful of change, may oppose us. But our members, over 1,000 of them, know what’s being said on the ground in parishes and we’re confident that the people, in the main, are with us.
Most importantly, we’re encouraged by Pope Francis, who wants issues of importance to be debated in our Church. He, like us, is committed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He, like us, is saying that proposals to look at compulsory celibacy should be brought to his desk. And, the obvious truth is that those who are uncomfortable with his policies are uncomfortable with the ACP’s.
Francis is 78, of course – and might be dismissed by our Dublin friar as ‘an ageing, disillusioned priest’ – but he knows the score. I would argue that Francis and the ACP are singing out of the same hymn-sheet, even if others seem determined to drown out our voices.
Note: My latest book, Who will break the bread for us, which deals with the reality and the implications of the vocations’ crisis is now available to download on Kindle from Amazon.com

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  1. Here are two links that I found interesting, they’re from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate based at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The first link shows that the number of Graduate-level seminarians in the USA is the highest it has been since 1990.
    The second link is an interesting comparison of women religious and their “Influences on decision to enter and evaluation of religious institute”. There are significant differences between the generations. It seems that for the Millennial generation the biggest influences were “Institute’s Fidelity to the Church”, “Its Practice Regarding a Habit” and “Fidelity to Church Teachings”

  2. Bert Casey says:

    The” Dublin friar” referred to above , belongs to an Order which gave us Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Martin de Porres, Catherine of Siena, Bartolome de Las Casas, Friar Montesino, Fergal O’Connor, Austin Flannery, Micheal O’Regan, Paddy McGrath, Margaret McCurtin, Wilfrid Harrington, Albert Nolan, Gustavo Guttierez and Bishop Jose Raul Vera Lopez of Mexico…men and women who were all called ‘whingers’ in their day.and in the last five, in our day. The “Dublin friar” belongs to an Order who, in Ireland, has given us open debate and reflective writings through its journals, Doctrine and Life, Review for Religious and Spirituality plus Dominican Publications. One would almost be proud to be called a “whinger’ in their company! No pun intended, but one would feel ‘Alive’ to be their fellow traveller!

  3. Well said. It’s interesting that the criticism referred to in this article comes from a Dublin priest. Many of the Dublin churches are very large buildings where you will see individuals in prayer but who seem unconnected to one another. One might say that in many Dublin churches there is no real community of believers who know one another and care for one another and are praying for one another. Also I know of at least on Dublin church where ther “friars” appear to have no real contact with the congregation. They seem to vanish from sight after Mass or other services, like rock stars after a concert.

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Yes, people in the main are certainly with you. We don’t get clouded over by the “change” that may set things differently for some. Yours is now a small church swimming against the tide which is the status quo. You know you have the support of the Pope in your conquests so what are you waiting for? Can you not organize a world wide synod to explore the issue of priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. The Bishops will continue to remain inactive because that is what they are supposed to do.

  5. Rose O'Neill says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article Brendan. You have surely been blessed, not just as a dedicated pastor but also as an excellent writer. In this piece you express so well what I have felt of late every time I hear church people trying to control debate and discussion, using the ‘N’ factor, when it concerns issues of faith, parish, church or priesthood.
    I was in Knock with our local pioneer group on pilgrimage the day Archbishop Brown spoke about the ‘negative forces’ in our church that you referred too. And I was annoyed he used the Mass and the pulpit at Our Lady’s Shrine to try and score points and create division between priests and people.
    Of course nobody disagreed with him but how could they ?
    There’s wasn’t and isn’t, on any of these occasions, an opportunity to express a different viewpoint. Maybe it’s time there should. But to date it’s always a bishop speaking, pilgrims listening and then we all go home and assume we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. How unreal is that.
    This approach may well help to keep bishops secure in their views that all agree with them but in the long run, as we’ve learned to our cost, denial is a poor foundation for building confidence in our church. We know the truth will set us free. So thank you for naming the truth and for continuing to show courage and leadership at this time in our church.
    We owe you, and all in your leadership team, a great debt of gratitude.

  6. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Brendan writes: “I would argue that Francis and the ACP are singing out of the same hymn-sheet, even if others seem determined to drown out our voices.”
    Yes. And the hymn sheet Francis uses seems to include the rubric: “All God’s creatures got a place in the choir!” As it is important that the ACP voices be heard, it is also important that the other voices not be drowned out. Even when there are voices which seem impossible to reconcile, it is important that we seek to maintain and strengthen communion in the mission of the church. Our common aim is “thy kingdom come”; “that they may have life in all its fullness.” Anyone who is not against us is for us.
    Jesus deals with the challenge of living in communion in the accounts in Matthew 18. The final hard saying (coming on Sunday 7 Sept) is in Mt 18:17: “treat that person like a gentile or a tax-collector.” Harsh? But remember how Jesus dealt with gentiles and tax-collectors. We had the Canaanite woman last Sunday, disturbing the peace of the disciples. Jesus was known (and criticised) for being a friend of tax-collectors and sinners.
    When “Alive” comes (free) through my letter box, it is rarely without some items to make the spirit bristle, if a spirit can do that. But the Dublin friar, and the team working with him, are my sisters and brothers, albeit with a different vision. My prayer is that we can know we are in communion, and let the peace of Christ guide what we and they do and say, however divergent our perspectives. They and we share in the one Bread of Life, the Body of Christ.
    As the Didache (9:3-4) said long ago:
    And concerning the broken bread: “We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you belongs the glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains, and was brought together to become one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom, for the glory and the power are yours through Jesus Christ forever.”

  7. Could you give a link to Archbishop Brown’s comments. I can’t find them in the two Knock addresses that come up in Google?

  8. Ben Francis says:

    It seems to me as an observer that there are three groups in Irish Catholicism.
    1. Those who no longer feel themselves at home in the church
    in which they find themselves (ACP, ACI, CCRI, IMWAC)
    2. Those who do feel at home in it
    3. The bulk who are not particularly worried

  9. Brendan Cafferty says:

    @Rose O Neill. I agree Fr. Brendan is a great thinker and excellent writer- I often wish he tried his hand at a book not connected to the many to do with the church he serves so well,but which are of course necessary. In future I think his predictions will come to be seen as very prophetic, I have in mind Change or Decay,Who will Break Bread etc. The things Brendan wrote about years ago are now there to be seen-an ageing priesthood spread more thinly and having to cope with more and more work.The ACP is a necessary organisation, and lets hope Pope Francis will bring some change, but he said yesterday that his years left are limited,so he will have to hurry.There is so much to be lost by priestless church. There is so much richness and goodwill there. Lets just imagine if it was taken steps at a time -first invite back those priests who left to get married (if they want to return)then allow for an optional married priesthood,women possible, further down the line – I say that on the basis only that one cant bite off more than can be chewed too soon. I think it would transform the situation big time. One thing is certain things cant and wont stay as they are at present.It is there for all to see,is it not ?

  10. Cornelius Martin says:

    “And, the obvious truth is that those who are uncomfortable with his policies are uncomfortable with the ACP’s.”
    I’m afraid it’s neither a “truth” nor is it obvious. I find that Pope Francis takes me out of my comfort zone. I find his way of doing things has improved. But I had/have no problem with his policies. I see a clear divide between his policies in relation to doctrine and the totality of those of the ACP. The one area that may be common to both is the issue of mandatory celibacy. But that is still not clear.
    This article is too defensive. It contains too many non-sequiturs. One takes the concerns expressed in good faith but there are better ways of addressing them in the context of Catholicism
    There is/will be a significant reduction in the number of priests in Ireland, or so it seems. Priests should not have to work themselves to early graves, although many have done so in the past. They are entitled to dignified living. There is no substituting for a priest.
    God knows the concerns expressed. Shared prayer in this context should be the first step. If the laity if properly lead and taught, they will be in better shape to “hold the line” as in other countries in the past, in the short term and to foster vocations in the mid to longer term.

  11. Anthony Murphy says:

    The reason given by the ACP for married clergy is that this would stem the vocations crisis but where are the facts. What research is this call based on and where are the examples of where it has worked. If this information cannot be provided then the suggestion is worthless. I imagine the ACP are aware that the Church of England is riven with division, on the brink of collapse and since 1970 has had to close over 1500 churches due to clerical shortages – hardly a good advert for married or female clerics! I suspect the root cause of the call by the ACP is to bring back to the clerical state some of their friends and colleagues who left to become married. This is understandable and could be discussed but to dress it up as a solution for the vocations crisis is misplaced. In my view the vocations crisis in Ireland is man made, the vocations are there but very few diocese appear to be interested in finding them. In USA there are vocations in abundance with seminaries turning candidates away because they are full. Why do the ACP not look at some of the successful american models. One final question for Father Brendan – can he list five positive things his bishop has done in the past year to promote vocations? I can find none but I am happy to be corrected. However it seems to me that in many of our diocese there is little or no interest in vocations contrast this to the experience of some religious orders who are serious about finding vocations and are getting them. Seek and ye shall find.

  12. The forecast demise of the COE hasn’t happened yet. I was at Holy Trinity Brompton’s summer camp at Camber Sands in Kent last month and what I saw suggests otherwise. Holy Trinity Brompton you may recall originated and promotes the Alpha course and its vicar Nicky Gumbel is widely respected and indeed was invited to speak at the Eucharistic Congress at the RDS, which he did to a packed room. It was remarkable the number of people who queued to have a personal word with him after his talk. The pope’s chaplain Raniero Cantalamessa was one of the main speakers at this event last year, as he has been at other events organised by HTB. Mention of Raniero Cantalamessa’s name and of |Pope Francis brough loud applause last month. Other Catholic bishops too have spoken at HTB events. This year the week-long summer event was attended by over six thousand people and was outstanding in the strength of the prayer and worship. HTB’s (and sister churches) congregation continues to grow. At last month’s event Bishop of London Richard Chartres was able to announce over a dozen church plants as committed members of HTB’s congregation pledged to bring to life churches in London and further afield that had been all but abandoned. A new theological college (St Mellitus) that has been set up to teach the pastoral style that has been so successful on HTB has over one hundred students preparing for ordination and over five hundred more taking other theological courses. The vigour and freshness of the prayer and worship and quality of preaching seen at HTB has impressed many Catholics, lay and ordained and can be expected, by God’s providence to continue to influence many in the Catholic church and to be a force in the COE.

  13. Yes agreed Anthony. Also, I would say the bishops are tired. The people are, in so many case, tired, uninspired, and lukewarm. The punishment of lukewarmness is, among other things, lack of vocations. Tiredness. Lukewarmness. There are green shoots of hope here and there in Ireland, but so much tiredness among the priests and people. Their love has grown cold, and it is the bishops who hold the ultimate responsibility for this, trickling down to priests, and people. There is no fire of love.

  14. ” Negative – That’s a word that’s ritually used to dismiss opinions and arguments without actually confronting them. It’s used by those who want our proposals to be dismissed without people considering them. Effectively, it’s a form of censorship.” Well said. To have an opinion and the freedom to express it is not being negative. Don’t be silenced.
    Comment No. 5 above by Rose is a very important one and one which I can’t fully identify when she says, “There’s wasn’t and isn’t, on any of these occasions, an opportunity to express a different viewpoint. Maybe it’s time there should. But to date it’s always a bishop speaking, pilgrims listening and then we all go home and assume we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. How unreal is that.”

  15. Joe Reilly says:

    It always strikes me that the two groups least able to communicate with each other in a civilized way in Ireland today are;
    (i) Pro life and Pro Choice groups.
    (ii) Traditional and Liberal Catholic Groups.
    It says much about religion to those of us who belong to the third group described by Ben Francis at point 8 above.

  16. I would dearly love for Pope Francis to write a thorough examination of his claim, that “clericalism is a problem”, so that we, as a Universal Church, have something to reflect upon and guide us, if we really are intent on perpetuating a clerical system, by ordaining married men, and ordaining women to the diaconate. Yes, Joe above, what we have in the Universal Church today is a major clash between pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II theology and spirituality. It affects every aspect of Church life, and it is a mess, to say the least. If Pope Francis had truly transformed the Church, to date, not much of the mess would be left. However, there miles to go before we sleep!

  17. “The bulk who are not particularly worried” about abortion or a woman’s right to choose are probably mostly men. It is not a position of higher wisdom but sounds more like a cynical detachment. If you mean that you ahhor destructive polarization and want a moderate debate weighing the various issues at stake, fine.

  18. Pat Dacey says:

    Please see the bigger picture. The Catholic church is what it is because of celibate priests. Before married priests, rather open the door for celibate women clergy. Why not? Mary Magdalena has been conveniently shepherded into obscurity. She occupied a huge niche in the era of Jesus. We need to follow in the footsteps of the Anglicans.

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