One of the ACP’s members has written to the Leadership Team to suggest we could have a better understanding and acceptance of the bishops’ situation when they expressed an unwillingness to meet us. Because the author wishes his submission to stand or fall on its accuracy and intrinsic values, he expressed the desire to remain anonymous – at least for the present. Of course we have his name. — ACP Leadership Team
The Irish Episcopal Conference, Columba Centre, Maynooth, Co. Kildare
To the Association of Catholic Priests
We, the Catholic hierarchy thank you for your second invitation to meet you with a view to discussing the serious questions you bring up.
You will recall that we responded to your first invitation to discuss the new translations of the Eucharistic Prayers, when our two representatives met with yours. They reported your concerns to us and although we could not change the already printed texts, we noted your observations and passed them on to Rome. To say that we did nothing except pay for our meal together is not correct.
Although you are not an officially recognised body in the Church, we acknowledge that you are approximately 1,000 dedicated priests concerned about the welfare and growth of the Church in Ireland. We also acknowledge that you have no desire to harm the Church and that unlike a similar group of priests in Austria you have not called for disobedience. The changes you speak about are not about essential church teaching; they concern structural change and matters of morality.
May we ask you to try to understand the totality of our experience at this time and the immense stress which so many issues bring. We acknowledge and share your concern about the breakdown of marriage and of family life, the severe shortage of priestly vocations, the lessening of people attending Sunday Mass, the near universal non-acceptance of church teaching on contraception and the obvious contradiction of inviting people in second marriages to a sacred meal but telling them that they may not eat. These are issues that weigh us down also.
We ask you to remember that we still carry the burden of child sex abuse and our failure to act comprehensively. Add to this the lack of clarity in how best to respond when a priest is first accused of abusing a child. We also carry the stress of how to respond to the First Holy Communion and Confirmation situations. Recently we bear the burden of how best to deal with Catholic education and of constantly responding to the current abortion debate.
Responding to these urgent matters in a united way when we bishops are clearly not united on many deeper matters is a great burden. Then, having lost credibility due to our failure to deal well with the sexual abuse of children adds still more stress to the ordinary governance of our dioceses. It is very difficult – many of us think impossible – to govern, to pastor, to teach, to visit, to dialogue and to respond well to requests like yours especially when we already know that our meeting would have implications beyond our control.
The purpose of this letter so far is to ask and to enable your association to understand us and the great challenges which are ours, as we say regretfully that we cannot accept your invitation to meet.
There is an deeper and perhaps obvious reason why we cannot meet you. Before accepting episcopal consecration we were obliged to take an oath of obedience to the Pope. We solemnly promised to obey the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium in everything. Thus when we took our oath we accepted to be controlled in great detail in our thinking, in our teaching and in our actions. In addition, our thoughts and communications must always be funnelled through the Roman Curia, a group which no doubt the Holy Father consults in most of his decisions. Many attempts to reform this centralised power-group have failed. In many ways they have taken the place of episcopal synods and of episcopal conferences as they are allowed to intervene powerfully between the Pope and bishops everywhere. Our latest message from Rome is a warning about trends it fears in Parish Councils.
We already know the matters about which you wish to dialogue. We could listen openly to your sincere convictions about helping the Church in Ireland, but no matter what we think individually we are helpless to bring about any change in the matters you bring up. We live in a Vatican vice which refuses to give us individually or as an episcopal conferences any power. It is well beyond the respect and normal obedience we owe to the See of Peter. You will say that we are too hesitant to question any directive coming from Rome, and even that we were chosen because we are not creative men. However true that may be, we know that to push the issues you espouse would result in forced resignations as has happened three of our colleagues in Australia and others elsewhere. A few resignations of those among us who agree with your suggestions would help nothing. The problem is much deeper; it is systemic or a ‘culture’ as one of our members said.
You may rightly think that some of us privately agree with your suggestions. And you may accuse us of lacking courage in our failure to press for necessary changes. Yet we did publicly challenge as erroneous the Vatican ‘findings’ about the Irish College in Rome. Beyond correcting errors of fact we are – as we are often called – little more than ‘middle managers’ carefully monitored by the Papal Nuncio.
Many of the letters which arrive on our desks come from people you would consider conservative and they generally have a footnote saying that a copy has gone to the Nuncio who of course puts them into the diplomatic mail for Rome. Thus, the Curia gets mostly a one-sided picture of the Irish Church and this makes them happy. Anything which ‘disturbs the simple faithful’ becomes curial anathema. These letters – many of which complain about what priests have said – quote official church teaching. In this again we are helpless.
Painfully for us, Dame Nuala O’Loan put our situation clearly in the Irish Catholic Nov. 15th of this year. When writing about the low level of communication in the Irish Church. she asks, ‘Is it that the issues which might be raised are very controversial and that therefore the hierarchy are fearful of engaging in conversations on matters on which they can make no change such as married clergy and women priests, precisely because they can do nothing other than report back to Rome ? Is it that our Church leaders were not formed to run a church in which there is dialogue, and because they do not know what to do, they do nothing ?
We ask your cooperation to further the success of the year of faith despite the lack of enthusiasm for it around the country. Like other movements such as the Eucharistic Congress and the new Mass translations, it was thrust upon us by the Roman Curia without consultation. We ask you – and we mean it sincerely – to pray for us.
The Irish Episcopal Conference